Into the Mind of James McAvoy

Published April 4, 2013

ABOVE: JAMES MCAVOY IN TRANCE.

James McAvoy often seems to find himself in the middle of high-stakes situations. Whether it’s at the violent hands of Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin in his 2006 breakout role in The Last King of Scotland, or enduring the violent, torturous wrath of Vincent Cassel’s mobster in Trance, the Scottish actor goes for the jugular.

In Danny Boyle’s Trance, McAvoy’s biggest goal was to open himself up to the element of surprise. McAvoy plays Simon, an amnesia-riddled art auctioneer, who desperately needs to secure a location of a missing painting for a violent group of mobsters led by Vincent Cassel. His last—or perhaps his very first—option lands him at the steps of hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson). Though much has happened in just a few minutes by the time Simon reaches Elizabeth’s office, the first moment McAvoy sits opposite from Dawson is the film’s real kick-off.

The narrative of Trance unconventionally discovers and rediscovers Simon’s broken subconscious, marring the line between truth and deceit. Nothing is as it seems, with allegiances unclear until the very end. Shifting through the splintered narrative is McAvoy, who proves to be a perfect, captivating match for Boyle’s surrealistic, frenetic look inside the human mind.

A very candid McAvoy was just as generous in our interview as he is on screen, speaking to Interview about hypnotherapy and the power of subconscious.

NIKI CRUZ: Like all of Danny Boyle’s films, this narrative is unique. What made you sign up for the project?

JAMES MCAVOY: Danny Boyle, really. He called and asked if I would like to come in and read for him, and I was over the moon. It was a half hour with him working on the piece, and I just knew it was going to be good. I knew that he was fantastic. One of the things that doesn’t get talked a lot [about] Danny Boyle that along with his bold vision and aesthetic dynamic, is that he’s really good with actors. He’s a great actor’s director. It’s weird, because usually I don’t mind who the director is. With Danny, it was definitely an opportunity [to work with someone] like that with such a unique voice, who makes such a diverse range of work. They don’t look the same, they don’t sound the same, they’re not about the same things, but they are utterly Danny Boyle, and that’s so unique.

CRUZ: Danny’s known for taking risks with his actors. What new elements did he bring to the experience for you as an actor?

MCAVOY: He’s a massive energy. It’s his fearlessness. It’s how he embarks upon a project with not really having a fully conceived idea on what it will result in. It’s knowing, and trusting that the journey is going to reveal all. It’s not being afraid, and not feeling like you have all of the answers, which is what so many people in the film industry do. Nobody knows what the film is going to come out like. Nobody knows what any movie is going to come out like. You trust Danny in the end.

CRUZ: Trance really brought the subject matter of amnesia and made it a visceral experience for the audience. Did you have any idea how the script would translate on screen?

MCAVOY: No, not really. I knew it was about a sort of psychological violence, and also physical violence. You don’t really know if it’s going to translate on screen or if it’s going to be a slow-moving thriller, or a fast-paced thriller, or if it’s going to be a violent movie, or if it’s going to be a visceral movie. We shot so much footage that you just had no idea how it was all going to get jigsawed together. The only one that really had an idea was probably Danny, which is probably the best way for it to be.

CRUZ: Did you do any research on hypnotism prior to filming the movie?

MCAVOY: Yes, I saw a hypnotist that explained to me what hypnotism is, and how it works, and why it works. He tried to hypnotize me and it didn’t work, and I was like, “Oh fuck, the whole thing is a crock of shit,” which is not the truth, obviously. I was very keen to be hypnotized, but it didn’t work.

CRUZ: So did the film change your impressions of hypnotism or amnesia?

MCAVOY: No, not really. It was quite interesting playing a guy who couldn’t remember some parts of his life, but yet his body and his instincts were screaming at him to try and warn him, and he mistakes it for love at first sight. His heart and his skin were clawing and reacting to everything around him, and he didn’t know why. Our intellect, our awareness, and our consciousness is the most powerful form of life on this planet. It’s totally worthwhile. If our animal instincts stopped, we would die. We don’t think about it, but if your consciousness were responsible for all of your bodily functions, you would die. It’s much like posthypnotic suggestion—we breathe, we walk, we pee, we digest, we blink, we cry, we sweat, and that’s what that hypnosis is. It’s connecting with that part of the brain that controls us almost completely. That part of Simon’s mind never forgets. I loved that.

CRUZ: It was fantastic to see that unique way of delving into those subconscious areas. Do you ever think about what’s in your own subconscious?

MCAVOY: Oh! Sometimes, yeah, of course. It’s kind of hard, isn’t it? You don’t realize what’s in your subconscious until after it’s sort of become redundant. Trying to delve into it is impossible—but once you kind have gotten over something, like, fucking issues with your parents, or whatever it is, whatever is personal to you—you don’t really claim it or own it until after. You can never really notice it until it’s no longer a problem, I think.

CRUZ: There seems to be a trend in your films where you take a beating. How was it being tortured by Vincent Cassel? He doesn’t seem like he holds back.

MCAVOY: Yeah! I hated that day. It was horrible getting all that rough stuff done. It was absolutely fucking horrible. Fighting is fun, but sitting there having your fingernails ripped off—even though it’s fake, of course, it felt really horrible. I wasn’t too happy that day.

CRUZ: The structure of the script is unique in that the details are established about each character in the beginning, and what you think you know slowly unravels. Initially, when reading the script, did you have any idea what kind of rabbit hole you were going down?

MCAVOY: No! I was interested in the script, but I wasn’t so sure about the character. The character seemed like a nice enough guy, and slowly but surely I started to realize that was the whole point. You think he’s a different man, and then lots of fucking shit comes out. I got very, very, very excited because it was an opportunity for me to do something darker, while at the same time utilizing your place in the industry of playing that everyman kind of guy, or that guy that usually people like. That was really good fun.

CRUZ: As you were filming, did you find yourself surprised by your character?

MCAVOY: About Simon? He was a little bit of a daredevil, which wasn’t really in the script. I found myself thinking things like, “I think I should jump off this building now. I should probably kill myself now.” I felt like he was suicidal, even when he was happy. That was quite interesting to me. There’s one scene where I jump off of a wall that’s five stories up, and I said to Danny, “I think I’d like to do that.” And he said, “I don’t think we can. We don’t have any stunt people here.” But just before he said action, he looked to me and said, “Yeah. Go for it. Do it.” That was great fun.

CRUZ: Lastly, everyone is wondering about a sequel for Wanted. Will we see Wesley Gibson again?

MCAVOY: I have no idea. I don’t think they want to go ahead unless they have a solid story that they’re really excited by. I applaud them for that, too, because they shouldn’t really go ahead unless they have that. I had a good time doing it. I don’t know if they’ll ever do it again, to be honest with you. Maybe they will. If the story can happen again, whether I’m in it or not, the story behind taking someone who is disenfranchised, and building them up, and empowering them; that’s an unusual story. That structure could work again with anybody. If they want to make another movie, I’m up for it.

TRANCE OPENS IN THEATERS TOMORROW, APRIL 5.