James McAvoy Interview, Last King of Scotland

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

Trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, rising young Scottish star James McAvoy is well-known in America for playing the role of Mr. Tumnus, the Faun, in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe." Prior to Narnia, he gained attention when he tackled the complex role of Leto II in the Sci-Fi Channel series "Children of Dune," based on the books by Frank Herbert. In his native Britain, he garnered critical acclaim for his work on the BBC-1 political thriller, "State of Play" and the BBC-2 presentation of "Early Doors." He was also recently seen in "Shameless" and played the leading role in Stephen Fry’s film, "Bright Young Things" with Peter O’Toole and Stockard Channing. His television credits include HBO’s award-winning miniseries "Band of Brothers," produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.

McAvoy is a talented gymnast/acrobat and a highly skilled boxer, class 4 fencer, and rugby player. He is also a fire eater which may have helped him prepare for his latest role in "The Last King of Scotland" in which he co-stars opposite Forest Whitaker.

Directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald from a screenplay by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, "The Last King of Scotland" is a powerful thriller that deftly mixes fact and fiction to recreate on screen the world of Uganda under the mad dictatorship of Idi Amin.

McAvoy delivers an impressive performance as Nicholas Garrigan, who arrives in Uganda fresh out of medical school looking for adventure and to help a country that truly needed his medical skills. But he gets more than he bargained for when Idi Amin (Whitaker) offers him an appointment as his personal physician. Garrigan embarks on a bizarre odyssey into the inner circle of one of Africa’s most horrific reigns of terror.

Based on Giles Foden’s award-winning novel of the same name, the film offers two unforgettable portraits: one of a charismatic but psychopathic ruler who ravaged his country and the other of a witness to history who finally finds the courage to make a stand. The unconventional biopic examines a fascinating historical figure through the eyes of a fictional character by exploring the emotionally complex relationship that develops between the two men.

James McAvoy recently sat down with Movies Online to discuss what it was like to star in "The Last King of Scotland." Here’s what he had to tell us about his experiences, the process of being an actor, and the challenges he faced making this film:

Q: So how did the part come to you?

JM: It was a long, drawn out process of a year. When Kevin offered me the part and then I was kind of dubious and then I accepted it, and even though I wasn’t sure about it, but Kevin managed to convince me that it was going to be OK. I was a bit worried that it was just another story of the white man in Africa being the hero and all that kind of thing. However, he convinced me that I would have freedom to play it much more truthfully and that it would be a vane representation, an egotistical representation, and a selfish one, and somebody who was really quite arrogant and out for themselves. Not an evil person but somebody who was a little bit more like the British presence in Africa which is selfish and vane and self-serving. So that was important and then I just thought the job was mine and then about six months later they told me to come in and audition for it and I’m saying, ‘What! What! I thought the gig was mine!’ But apparently there was pressure to cast someone with a big name and all that kind of thing. But I don’t think anybody was cheap enough and I don’t think anybody could do the acting so I got the job. (laughter)

Q: How do you prepare yourself for a role that’s a combination of three different characters from three completely different situations?

JM: I don’t know if it’s that different from playing any character really. I mean is it any different from playing a character who is completely fictional? Not really. It’s always your job to make them very truthful and to find the reasons why your character does everything that they do and to make it believable. So to play a character made up of three different people is not that difficult. Characters are usually made up of writers’ imagination and their experience of different people anyway so I don’t find it that difficult. I think a lot has been made of it because it juxtaposes the kind of actor’s experience that Forest and Kerry had when they were playing real people and it was all about research of truthful, real people and trying to play those people as real as possible.
 
Whereas for me, it was the same as always. Taking a character that’s completely fictional, not completely fictional, he’s based on real people. But I just approached him like he was completely fictional and I have to make him truthful. I did research the people that he was based on quite closely. But there’s a time where if you’re not playing a real person that actually existed, you’ve got to put that research aside and concentrate on the story that you’re telling. And I think the story is far more important than the relentless pursuit of truth. I think sometimes in the pursuit of truth you can forget that the whole thing is a storytelling process. You can be very truthful and very dull. And that’s something that Forest, I’m sure… I have admiration of him completely because he’s so truthful in this film and yet he’s never dull for a moment. And I think that sometimes actors who do the method and all that kind of thing can become very dull because it’s all about truth and reality and boring as shit, but Forest is anything but. He’s so truthful and really real and yet electrifying.

The Last King of Scotland

Q: We’ve heard that you weren’t necessarily a method actor. Did you do research into the 70s? What kind of research did you do?

JM: I studied Amin at high school quite closely. I specialized in Amin weirdly, and so I knew a lot about him anyway, and a lot about the 70s, and I’ve been acting for a long time now and done a lot of thing set in the 70s and all of that. I think you can over research things with some characters. I think Forest is a method actor. He’s done this very method but he’ll tell you he certainly didn’t method "Battlefield Earth." He certainly didn’t method every part he’s done. And some parts that demand it and some parts that don’t. My life experience is so similar to Nicholas Garrigan’s. We’re the same age, from the same part of Scotland, and same kind of experience of higher education and university life. I come from a working class background. He comes from a middle class one. He’s Protestant. I’m Catholic. They’re minor differences. Do you know what I mean? I certainly know what it’s like to live middle class now anyway. And you know our human experience is pretty similar. And I think that’s what’s important about Nicholas.
 
He has to be really normal. He has to be really like all of us, you know. He’s not that different. And you might go, ‘My god! He’s doing terrible things. He’s being so selfish.’ But he’s like everybody. He’s really like everybody who lives in the West. He’s a really normal dude. And he’s selfish and vane and egotistical and arrogant but that’s actually…those are four normal attributes for people from where we live. And especially when you go somewhere like Uganda and you fall prey to that thing where you patronize people and you do as Amin says. Maybe you don’t think you’re doing it, but you do play the white man with the natives. Doyou know what I mean? And you do patronize people. The things that he does. The way he shoots that cow. I don’t think Nicholas would have done that in Scotland, but I think he’s going, ‘I’m the only white guy here. Nobody’s shooting the fucking cow. Ahhhh!’ You know, it’s really patronizing. And yeah, I mean he likes that but that kind of attitude ultimately leads to Nicholas’ and a few other people’s downfall. I don’t know where I started with that question. I’m sorry.

Q: Were the other actors on the set jealous because you had the only two love scenes in the movie? As powerful as Forest was…

JM: Yeah, Forest was always complaining about that one. I tell you. (laughter) He kept trying to get the scenes rewritten and stuff so it could be him. No, it was fine. I remember telling people that I was doing all these sex scenes and all that kind of stuff and they were just like, ‘Oh, my god! Do you like doing these sex scenes?’ ‘No, I really don’t.’ They’re very difficult. I don’t know. I always find them very uncomfortable. My only consolation was that Kevin was probably more uncomfortable than anybody else on set because he’d never done a sex scene before in his life, and I’ve done like 20 by now. You know what I mean? But they never get any easier and they’re always very… My personal paranoia is that the girl I’m doing the sex scene with will think that I’m getting off on her or something like that. And that’s just like my nightmare. I have nightmares about that the night before the sex scene. Let me tell you there’s no chance of getting any kind of stimulus because you’re so nervous and there’s all these people watching you and you’re like getting your spot [inaudible]. You know what I mean?

Q: What was it like playing off the mood swings of Forest’s character, especially that scene where the press is coming and he’s yelling at you, ‘You’re my number one advisor. You tell me what to do.’ And then as soon as you tell him what to do, and then he turns sweet again, (imitating Forest Whitaker’s delivery) ‘My Nicholas. What would I do without my Nicholas?’

JM: He’s special. There’s so much energy coming off the guy. So much power coming off the guy. Bold, bold energy. And like I say, it felt really truthful. And because it was all so truthful, those mood changes were so truthful, it affects you really well if you’re open to it, if you’re vulnerable and you’re naked as an actor as I was playing Nicholas, because you know there wasn’t much research to do. It was about being me. It was about being as close to a normal Scottish guy as you could be. If you’re naked to that energy, it just hits you, you know? And every turn takes you on a different ‘vroom, vroom, vroom’ and so every time he turns, you’re getting slapped and turned. It’s just about being really receptive to it all, you know? And if it wasn’t such an amazing performance, then I would have had to do more.
 
I would had to have put more energy and be more proactive in the scene. But the fact that it was such a strong performance from Forest, I was aware of my job and the scenes with Forest. My job in the scenes with Forest is to be the audience and to let it hit me and to let him take me. I’m the surfer and he’s the massive tsunami. You know what I mean? And in the scenes where Forest wasn’t, it was a different job. It was more kind of power the story on and plot development and all that kind of stuff and trying to control it a bit more. But when Forest was on, it was about letting him hit you. It was great.

Q: You said that you studied Idi Amin in school. In doing this role, were there any major differences in the person or did you think that he pretty much captured the essence of what you studied in school?

JM: Yeah, I think so but I do think this is more of a personal study of Amin at a particular time. It’s also a study of Amin’s relationship with the British government which I know rather well and I think that as much as this film is about the relationship between two people, actually my character represents really clearly the relationship that Amin had with the government and the characteristics of this personal relationship mirror the characteristics of that political relationship really, really tight. And honeymoon period, everything going great. I mean he was good for a few years. I mean he really was doing good stuff. A lot of stuff in the constitution of Uganda is still there that he put there because it was good. And through the kind of… the worry that things might be breaking up, through the disillusionment, through breaking up and through actually physically attacking each other, it really mirrors that relationship with the British government. But do I think it confirms what I learned? Different. Very different. I learned a lot.
 
I learned it history-wise and political history-wise. But I learned a lot about the guy when I was there from people who worked on our crew who knew him or had fathers taken away from them or had been awarded positions of authority by him or were given money by him or where he took their car. Different stories. Different personal stories. But the thing that I learned probably more than anything personally about the guy was the fact that he seemed to have this ability to empower not only a nation at a post colonial era where Uganda was feeling bad about itself. Britain, like I said, tried to rob it of its culture so that we could pacify them and make them a colony. We quickly learned after a couple hundred years in Africa that the place was too big to pacify them and we had to get out.
 
And so they were kind of half robbed of their culture. How do you feel good about yourself when you’ve been told for the last hundred years that your language is horrible, that you have to learn English and that you need to be able to learn to write and all that kind of stuff, and your tribal customs are ridiculous. He managed to instill confidence in them again and make them feel good about their own culture which is great. Not everybody can do that. But he managed to do that personally, one on one as well. The man was an amazing person at making people feel important and special. I think that’s something that a lot of great leaders have been attributed with – this power to empower. And that’s what he does with Nicholas anyway. He actually empowers him literally, not just socially in discussions, but he gives him jobs, he gives him power, and he did that a lot as well. He elevated people.

The Last King of Scotland

Q: You said initially you didn’t want to take the role of this white guy coming in to save the Africans. Where does that come from?

JM: It’s just my interest in being a storyteller.

Q: You’ve seen it too much?

JM: Yeah, I’ve seen it far too much. If that person ever existed, I’m sure absolutely, of course, there’s saintly white people in Africa and they’ve been nothing but good, but we’ve told that story a million times, and also it’s not representative of the vast majority of Westerners in Africa, I don’t believe. And somebody may argue with me about that but that’s my personal opinion. Just from my own experiences. And I think that we’ve seen that story a million times now and if we are going to keep telling stories about Africa, which I think we need to do, and if we are going to have any Westerners in them at all, because there is an argument for why shouldn’t the doctor be an Ugandan doctor and if we are going to have Westerners in it at all then it’s only to show what we have done. There is still an argument, I used to think, to keep Westerners and films about Africa…It shouldn’t all…We should have African films about African people by African people and only about African people, but there is still a lot of room to tell stories about what we’ve done there. This film isn’t just about Amin. It’s about what Britain and the West do in Africa and that’s as important a story to tell as about a social story of what another country is like.
 
But that’s why I think it was important to be truthful about it. I find nothing more repugnant than the ex-patriate way of life in a developing country or a third world country or an ex-colony. I could not stand it. These people are elevated and special because they’re in a country that’s economically less powerful than the one that they come from. I mean they’ve got maids and they’ve got three cars and they’re a part of the elite section of society and you’re like, ‘You’re a plumber, man. Back home you’d be like a plumber. You’d be doing fine, but just ‘cause you’re here, you’re special and it’s really disgusting. I couldn’t really handle that. So that’s why I think that … that’s why I was saying that Nicholas would not have shot that cow in Scotland. I don’t think he’d have felt so important. But he feels important enough, he feels special, he patronizes the people around him by going, ‘I’m special because I’ve got an education and I’m from a country where we have good news and free press and I know more of the world than you guys and I’ve got an education.’ Again, I think that leads to a real kind of patronization which is actually really silly and really leads to his own downfall.

Q: What was your experience of working with Gillian Anderson like?

JM: Good. She was really cool. She was very focused and very professional. I think she has got a lot of contact with Africa. She works in Africa quite a lot, not as an actress, but her ex-husband used to work in Africa quite a lot and I think she does a lot of aid in Africa. So it was very important for her to do something, I think, working there and increasing her experience there. So no, she was good fun.

Q: Did you establish any friendships over there that you’re going to continue to, in other words, stay in touch or whatever?

JM: Yeah. There’s a guy that I’m still in contact with called Stephen Rwangyezi who played Jonah Wasswa in the film who’s one of the most amazing men I’ve ever met. He’s a wonderful man. He’s not an actor but he came from a small tribe and then came to the big city. It was all very clear to him very quickly that there wasn’t much room for the tribal way of life and for the old customs and the culture, you know, so he took it upon himself to start taking kids off the street and getting them somewhere to sleep and training them as dancers and singers and practitioners of traditional forms of entertainment and storytelling and cultural handover because it’s not a literary culture.
 
They don’t write things down. It’s all about ‘you’ve got to keep telling the stories otherwise our culture will disappear’ so he made sure that happened and now he’s got the Ndere Dance Troupe and he now has this huge center with hundreds of kids that he’s trained and these kids are now in their 50s, some of them, and they’re off around the world being playwrights or actors or speakers or politicians and all this as well. He really gave me an insight into what was happening, not just in Africa but in Uganda as well. He’s a really special guy. He’s on a special committee for the U.N. about how they treat African [inaudible]

Q: Was this your first time in Africa?

JM: Yeah, it’s my first time in Africa. I’ve been in a lot of incredible places with my job but I’ve never been anywhere quite like Africa. I’ve never been anywhere quite like Uganda. It’s not what you expect from Africa as well. I mean a lot of people are going, ‘Oh, my god, it was so green. Did you film that in Africa?’ And you’re like, ‘Yeah, lots of Africa is really lush. It’s not just desert in the north and dusky savannah in the south. It’s a very lush, fertile country. You don’t get that many people on a continent unless there’s a lot of food going around. Not everybody is starving in Africa. That’s one of the good things about Uganda: no matter how badly messed up it ever gets, people won’t starve. That’s one of the really good things Uganda has got going for it because it’s just so lush.

Q: What did you guys do for recreation? Did you go out and party, tear up with the locals?

JM: I think the other guys did. I think Kerry did a lot of that. I don’t know about Forest. I don’t know if Forest did much of that. And I certainly couldn’t. I’m in every scene in that film and we didn’t have any money. We didn’t have any time. We had 6 day-a-week shooting.

Q: Were there any clubs available for you to go to? Any entertainment?

JM: Yeah, but when? Fourteen hour days. So I literally worked, ate and slept, and then my one day off would be a Sunday so it’s not like there was too much kicking about on a Sunday in a very Catholic country. And so, yeah, there wasn’t too much recreation for me. This is totally off topic, but it was a very male oriented environment. There wasn’t many women on that crew for some reason.

Q: You had every woman.

JM: (laughs) And I had every woman in the film. There really weren’t that many on the crew and it made for very serious environment. There wasn’t that much fun. It was quite serious. It was a good job but it was all about getting the work done. You’d think all men together it would get like, ‘Woohoo!’ But not even that, it was all kind of like … I think because we had no money and we had no time and it was, ‘Get it done. Get it done. Get it done.’ And it was relentless.
 
It was absolutely relentless. My one diversion was that I managed… I was allowed to go meet with my driver’s family a lot and culturally that was the most special thing that I was able to do because everything else from Uganda that I experienced was through the job on the day and I got to see some amazing things in Uganda but it was all through the eyes of ‘I’m working.’ So the only kind of real release I got was when I would go meet with Harvey’s family and then I went up north to the border at one point very briefly for like 24 hours. We just flew. We were going to get a plane, charter a plane, we were going to fly a little 5-seater and went up to the border.

Q: How did you enjoy the food?

JM: That was good actually. A lot better than some of the mid-budget range movies that I’ve done in Britain. Sometimes it wasn’t good, but most of the time it was brilliant. And quite often they’d go down to Lake Victoria, get a huge tilapia, come back and just barbecue it. So it was like really fresh, really good food. And then everybody would go, "Oh my god. Did you get sick? Did you get diarrhea? Did you get malaria?’ I never got sick on the food there. Never once. It was really, really good food and also you can get amazing Indian food there because of the Asian community that was thrown out but are now back. One of the first things that Museveni who is the President now did… Museveni has been in now for about 19 years… One of the first things he did was to invite the Asian community back because the economy was faltering hugely and they needed that to happen. However, what I mean by throwing out the Asian community, which was an aggressive move but I think completely understandable, was that he gave the Ugandan population a foothold in their economy. You know they owned nothing.
 
They owned literally nothing. And so now when the Asian community came back and they established their power base, it was in a much more free trade, equal opportunities kind of town. It wasn’t quite… Before it was something ridiculous like one family called the Metas (?) owned 50% of the country’s economy. I mean that is ridiculous and the minority population. It was weird. So as much as Amin made a mistake in doing that and it really backfired and the economy actually went through a bad time, when Museveni brought back that community and started to rebuild their economy, the Ugandan people had a foothold and they’ve actually got some ownership of their own country now which is interesting because he’s vilified, Amin, but he’s done some good things. He’s done a lot of good things.

The Last King of Scotland

Q: You have a history with TV and film and I know you did "Shameless" which aired briefly here on BBC America. Would you go back to TV or because you’re having a lot of success with film right now?

JM: Yeah, I’d definitely go back to TV and I think TV does some amazing things that film can’t do and it’s done well and vice versa. And I like TV’s ability to tell a story over a long period of time. Maybe sometimes be more sophisticated in telling that story because you don’t have to tell only two hours. And sure I’d like that but I don’t think TV always takes advantage of that capability. Make something as dumb as hell but it does have the capability to do that.
 
And some of the television I’ve been involved in I’ve been very lucky. "State of Players" was one of the most sophisticated adult things that I’ve ever been involved in and very adult thriller. It was demanding of your audience. It was intelligent and demanded you to be intelligent otherwise you’d fall away from it, you know. And watch them make a movie of that actually. So, yeah, I’d definitely do TV again. I did TV just before this. I played "Macbeth" on BBC-1 and that’s what TV does well. You can expand a bit more. You can be a little bit more risky when it’s not just being dumb.

Q: Thanks.

JM: Thanks very much.

James McAvoy is very busy these days. He will be seen next in the romantic comedy "Starter for Ten"; in the modern day fable "Penelope"; the Jane Austen biopic, "Becoming Jane"; and "Atonement" co-starring Keira Knightley. He is set to begin filming "Wanted" directed by Timur Bekmamabetov in 2007.

"The Last King of Scotland" opens in New York and Los Angeles on September 27th and will expand to additional cities through October 27th. I invite you to read my review of this sensational film and my interview with Forest Whitaker.

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