James McAvoy

Victor in Versatility 

Academy Award-nominated actor James McAvoy may be one of the most successful stars to rise out of Glasgow, Scotland, starring in fruitful films such as Filth, X-Men, Split, Atonement, and countless others.

James McAvoy was born on April 21, 1979 in Glasgow, Scotland to Elizabeth, a nurse, and James McAvoy senior, a bus driver. He was raised in a scrappy housing project in Drumchapel, Glasgow by his maternal grandparents after his parents divorced when he was 11. He has not been in touch with his father since. Life in Drumchapel wasn’t a life of glamor—it’s a working-class area with high levels of unemployment, and a life expectancy four to five years shorter than the rest of Glasgow. Not a lot of celebrities emerge from the area of Drumchapel but McAvoy was able to get lucky when he had a chance encounter in high school.

McAvoy attended the Catholic St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School and considered becoming a priest. He was raised Catholic and was surrounded by religious family members. However, that all changed when his high school received a visit from Scottish actor and director David Hayman. McAvoy boldly asked the director for work and proceeded to show him his acting skills. Hayman was impressed and offered him a small role in his film The Near Room (1995). This opportunity opened doors for young McAvoy, who was 15 years old at the time of the movie’s filming. It was through this film that he discovered his hidden passion for acting and decided to pursue it further.

He enrolled at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD), a prominent acting school, and continued to take roles in small TV movies and shows such as The Bill (1997), An Angel Passes By (1997), and Lorna Doone (2000). He graduated from the prestigious acting school in 2000 and immediately began to seek out more for himself. The following year he portrayed a gay hustler in the play Out in the Open and then went on to appear in more visible films such as Bollywood Queen (2002), rom-com Wimbledon (2004) with Kristen Dunst, mythic fantasy film Strings (2004), and Rory O’Shea Was Here (2004).

It wasn’t until the end of 2004 that he was awarded his first truly recognizable role in the popular British TV series Shameless. He played car thief Steve McBride for two full seasons, and the show went on to receive numerous BAFTA nominations and one win in 2005 for Best Drama Series. This show helped him to become recognized and desired in the U.K., and it also inspired a life change for the young actor. He began dating his co-star and love interest in the show, Anne-Marie Duff, and they married on November 11th, 2006. The two were together for many years, even having a son together named Brendan in 2010, but on May 13th, 2016, the couple eventually divorced.

The next year in 2005, he landed a part that would make him recognized in the U.S. and the rest of the world as well. In Disney’s adaptation of C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he played Mr. Tumnus, a loveable faun who befriends one of the main characters. Then in 2006, he starred in the Academy Award-winning movie The Last King of Scotland, alongside Forest Whitaker. He was named Best Actor of the Year by Scotland’s own BAFTA Awards, where the film swept the major categories—he even received a nomination for the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role!

McAvoy’s impressive career breakthrough occurred with his role in Atonement (2007), Joe Wright’s adaption of Ian McEwan’s novel. A romantic war film, it follows lovers Cecilia and Robbie’s (Keira Knightley and McAvoy) lives being torn apart after her jealous younger sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan) falsely accuses him of rape. Screenings of the film were held at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was one of the most acclaimed films present, and at Venice Film Festival. Atonement was a big awards contender as well, as it was nominated for 14 BAFTAs and seven Academy Awards. McAvoy earned his first and only Academy Award nomination as well, in the category of Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture-Drama.

In 2008, James decided to try a new genre of film by auditioning for the action film Wanted, which also starred Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman. At first, he didn’t win the part because the studio was looking for someone with “conventional Hollywood leading man looks.” But after some time, they reconsidered and McAvoy was cast. Wanted went on to do extremely well at the box office, reaping in $341 million against a $75 million production budget.

After, McAvoy decided to return to the stage by appearing in a play. In 2009 at Apollo Theater he starred in Three Days of Rain. His love for theater persisted throughout his career, with him most notably being cast as the main role in Shakespeare’s Macbeth in 2013. This launched the first Trafalgar Transformed season in London’s West End and earned him an Olivier award nomination for Best Actor. In 2015, he returned to the Trafalgar Studios stage to play Jack Gurney, the delusional 14th Earl of Gurney who believes he is Jesus, in the first revival of Peter Barnes’s satire The Ruling Class, a role for which he was awarded the London Evening Standard Theatre Award’s Best Actor.

His love of theater has not outshined his love for the silver screen though, as McAvoy went on to land his most notable role yet in 2011’s X-Men: First Class. He played telepathic superhero Professor X, leader and founder of the X-Men, and reprised the role in 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, and 2019’s X-Men: Dark Phoenix. His entrance into the Marvel Cinematic Universe secured paycheck after paycheck, and soon he was financially comfortable enough to take on more daring roles.

“Even though I’m established, even though I’ve got X-Men behind me and it’s helped me buy my house, I always feels like I need to take a challenge,” McAvoy shared. “Sometimes you throw yourself in at the deep end and it just doesn’t work, but the great thing about being an actor is that even if it’s terrible it’s over in two or three months and you move on to the next thing. So what’s the harm in throwing yourself in there?”

In 2013 he starred in Filth, a comedy crime-drama that saw him portraying Bruce, a corrupt junkie cop with bipolar disorder who attempts to manipulate his way through a promotion in order to win back his wife and daughter—while also fighting his own inner demons. He won a BAFTA Award in Scotland for Best Actor and the film itself was nominated for two other BAFTAs. He also collected a British Independent Film Award for Best Actor, a London Critics Circle Film Award for British Actor of the Year, and an Empire Award for Best Actor.

Clearly, the risk paid off and McAvoy continued to seek out challenging and daring roles. In 2016, came his most perplexing one yet: Kevin Wendell Crumb in the psychological thriller Split. The movie, directed by famed director M. Night Shyamalan, follows a man dealing with dissociative identity disorder (DID), who has 23 unique alternate personalities that he can’t control. There’s Barry, his grounded dominant identity; Patricia, a cold cross-dressing woman; Hedwig, a sensitive nine-year-old who is desperate to grow up; Dennis, a violent man who kidnaps three teenage girls; and The Beast, a terrifying, monster-like being, among others. McAvoy did a ton of research on the realities of living with DID to understand his character deeply. “YouTube’s an amazing tool because so many people who live with DID are into keeping diaries, because they can talk to each other and fully express their presence within the world. That was really helpful,” he said.

The movie required a lot of concentration and dedication from McAvoy, who even buffed up for the role. He worked alongside a personal trainer named Magnus Lygdback, who watched him powerlift weights five or six days a week, and encouraged him to eat five or six meals a day. The results were extraordinary—and were necessary for McAvoy to portray The Beast, Kevin’s most ferocious personality, accurately. The film was very well-received, with some even dubbing it James’ most impressive performance yet.

“Getting to play one of the characters would have been a fun and interesting thing for me to do as an actor, but to get to do that nine times, with nine different, interesting and dynamic characters, was a really great opportunity,” McAvoy said.

James went on to revisit his role in Shyamalan’s sequel Glass in 2019, which was equally well-received, earning nearly $247 million worldwide at the box office. That same year he also starred in horror film It: Chapter Two as a grown-up Bill Denbrough, one of the children who was subjected to Pennywise the clown’s traumatic presence 27 years prior. His latest gig has been as Lord Asriel in the popular HBO TV show His Dark Materials, which will air its second season sometime this fall.

By Selene Rivera