James McAvoy leads the way to the past in “X-Men: First Class,” which opens June 3 and presents him as a younger Charles Xavier, the mutant master who sees the world in very different ways than his frenemy, Erik, who is destined to become Magneto. Our Geoff Boucher caught up with McAvoy a few weeks ago while the 31-year-old Scottish actor was shooting the Fox film in L.A.
GB: It sounds like you had your hands full with the water-tank work here in L.A.?
JM: It was me saving Michael Fassbender’s … which is always fun. We worked together before, we met on “Band of Brothers,” which was my first TV job and probably his first or second. We both ride motorbikes, you know, scooters, around London, and every now and again, we’d pass each other and stop and give an old pump of the hand and slap on the back. He’s a lovely fellow.
GB: You and he each have a challenge — Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are towering figures in the sci-fi and fantasy sector, and I imagine stepping into their roles must give you pause. Do you think a lot about Stewart’s work in this role, either as a place to begin or a place to avoid?
JM: I don’t think about it too much. This isn’t a reboot, so I’m not replacing anyone, in which case you might want to try to be as different as possible and stay away from what has been done before. This is a prequel, so I’m the same character, just younger, but the challenge for me — and for Michael — is to show the same person in a different place in their life, to show someone before they’re this bad guy, before they’re this saint. Charles wasn’t always a … monk, this selfless, sexless monk that he becomes.
GB: [Producer] Bryan Singer said many months ago that in his mind the story of the Charles and Erik friendship demanded to be the center of any prequel. Can you talk a bit about the physics of that friendship in this film?
JM: It’s kind of a love story, like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” which, really, was a love story between two men. This is the first time in their lives they’ve met someone who is an equal of sorts, someone who understands them and can connect and push them too. Especially Charles, he’s fascinated with Erik and his potential. For Erik, Charles is the first person he’s trusted to really tell about his past and the first person to understand the horrible things he’s been through.
GB: Tell us about your non-monk Charles.
JM: Charles is caught up in himself. He enjoys success and is proud, and he’s not the selfless person that he becomes. You look at the relationship with Raven — who becomes Mystique – and you examine that relationship and the way he treats her like a living experiment. She’s an assistant to him and he cares for her, but there’s his ego and condescending big-brother attitude as well. You see it in the way he treats the others. In the “later” movies, he’s exorcised that from his personality. For me, trying to keep that ego as an underpinning of the character is important.
GB: Matthew Vaughn is quite the firebrand. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who was more candid.
JM: He’s a really good fun, he’s a character. He’s definitely not like anybody else. But that’s the same with all these directors, isn’t it? It’s a strange breed of person, these director types, a bit dodgy aren’t they? But he really is a lot of fun to be around and there’s a lot of energy and he has a very specific thing he’s looking for and when you come in to it he’s got great people around him. It’s just an actor’s coven [on the set] if you know what I mean, there’s a community that he creates that is quite cool.
GB: At the beginning of this project, Vaughn said Hollywood was wringing all the life out the superhero genre. Thoughts?
JM: All fashions go around. At some point, the audience taste and stamina might be less, and then you see the cycle of fashion and it goes away for a while. I look at the Christian Bale movies, the Batman films, and that shows you that superhero movies don’t just have to be about men in tights. I think ‘The Dark Knight’ was really quite interesting, and if you can make movies that are that interesting, it sort of goes beyond fashion. You just try to be as good as you can and try not to get fired. Seriously, that’s a real threat with these superhero movies. People get fired all the time, and I don’t want to lose my job.
— Geoff Boucher
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