‘I need to slow down’: James McAvoy on family, faith – and painful truths

James McAvoy is waiting for a coffee (black and “posh”) and is talking about religious faith and his lack of it. In his childhood and early teens, the actor was a regular church-goer. He didn’t believe. “I think I just did it. And whenever I was in a pickle or a bind, suddenly faith came into it: ‘Please, God, I promise I’ll make my bed if you make this teeth-pulling thing not hurt!’”

McAvoy was born in Glasgow and raised by working-class, Catholic grandparents in the wake of his parents’ split, when he was seven. (He has a sister, Joy, who is also an actor.) I ask if his grandparents were devout. “No,” McAvoy says. “In fact, my granda’ was a Protestant and my granny was a Catholic. But my granda’ went to Catholic church. They were a weird mix – very good, church-going Catholics. And then, round about when I turned 16, they just stopped making me go.”

We’re talking about faith and devotion because, right now, McAvoy’s work involves killing God. Or, to be specific, God’s earthly representatives. It’s November 2021 when we first meet, on day 122 on the Cardiff set of the final series of His Dark Materials, the BBC/HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s groundbreaking fantasy trilogy. The cast, led by McAvoy and Ruth Wilson, are filming scenes from the penultimate episode. In the multi-world sprawl of this third season, McAvoy’s machine-gun-toting and notably hench Lord Asriel faces off against the quasi-fascistic Magisterium, the Catholic church-on-steroids, in a climactic battle.

McAvoy, 43, has a CV that bristles with roles domestic and Hollywood, big and small and bonkers: the X-Men franchise, the Irvine Welsh adaptation Filth, the bravura multiple personalities in the M Night Shyamalan horrors Split and Glass. He has played Macbeth and Cyrano de Bergerac on London’s West End, and voiced characters in Watership Down and Gnomeo & Juliet, to name but loads. Last summer, he even bossed it on The Great Celebrity Bake Off, the chirpy demeanour (and cheese’n’chive scones) of this one-time teenage bakery worker winning over Paul Hollywood and the viewing public.

Talk about range, not to mention work ethic. McAvoy is one of our most brilliant actors. But while in his 20s and 30s he was busy-busy, his workload has slowed recently. He has been on His Dark Materials for four years, on and off. “I think this is the longest I’ve ever been involved with a character,” he says, when we talk between takes. “Oh, no,” he remembers, “Charles Xavier.” Between 2010 and 2019 McAvoy played the younger version of Patrick Stewart’s X-Men character in four superhero prequel blockbusters. What about his only other recurring TV job, the knockabout Channel 4 drama that helped kickstart his career in 2004, and which introduced him to his future and now ex-wife Anne-Marie Duff?

Shameless?” he says. “Nah, only did a season and a half.”

As we talk in Cardiff, McAvoy admits to feeling under-employed in the 18 months since the first lockdown. “That’s partly because I limited my choices to staying at home in London as much as possible,” he says. “Because I wanted to be with the family. I want that normally, but I wanted it even more during the pandemic, when travel restrictions were so prevalent. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to get back at the drop of a hat. At one point I was working in Scotland,” he goes on, a reference to the film My Son, an improvised thriller he shot in the autumn of 2020 with Claire Foy. “And it was great. But I was staying in my flat in Glasgow, and I wasn’t even allowed to go and visit my gran and granda’. It was crazy, man. It just got more about being at home.”

Becoming a missionary meant I’d get to travel. But I’d have to be ordained

Speak to anyone on the His Dark Materials set and they’ll tell you what the show means to McAvoy, and how hard he has worked on the adaptation. In the words of executive producer Joel Collins: “James is this dynamic, breathless actor who doesn’t stay still for a second, and brings a kinetic energy.” The actor Martin Compston, who co-starred in 2013’s Filth, in which McAvoy played a depraved Edinburgh copper, agrees. “I quite like holding a wee bit back in rehearsals,” he says. “But I remember going in and James was already up to 11. I was like: ‘Fuck me, man, I’d better up my game!’ It was terrifying. But he’s a lovely guy as well – very encouraging.”

I ask McAvoy where his passion for Pullman’s books comes from. Is His Dark Materials meaningful because, say, McAvoy read it at bedtime with his and Duff’s son, now 12? No, he didn’t, he says. (Nor is his son even into the show – “Not really!”) What then? McAvoy loves stories, he says, and storytelling and the power of both. And he gets fired up by Pullman’s central message. “The fight against oppressive moralistic institutions,” he says, meaningfully, “is something I found quite fascinating.”

Thinking again of his own backstory, he acknowledges a fleeting teenage inkling to become a priest, “and a missionary”, but only for the earthly perks of the job. “It was an avenue to travel, I thought. But then it seemed like it was an absolute ball-ache to get ordained. And that there were easier ways to get out and about. Then, of course, I ended up going to drama school – and didn’t leave Glasgow for three years!” He studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), where he funds a 10-year annual bursary. “Drama school has been the single most all-encompassing experience of my life, probably, to this point,” he says.

Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, James McAvoy, Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson attend the “Glass” NY Premiere at SVA Theater on January 15, 2019 in New York City
Starry night: with Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Bruce Willis and Samuel L Jackson. Photograph: Dia Dipasupil/WireImage

McAvoy is a His Dark Materials mega-fan, but, he tells me, “I’ve never spoken to Philip Pullman,” because he worried Pullman would turn round and say, “‘Hmmm, you’re not really my Asriel!’ I’ve had that with a writer, and it’s just not nice. I’ve had that with two writers, actually.”

We’re meeting again a year later, in a pub in West Hampstead, north London. When I ask him who those authors were, he demurs. Welsh for Filth? “Nah, Irvine loved that,” he says. McAvoy also starred in the 2017 horror It Chapter Two, based on the Stephen King book. Was it him? “No, actually. Stephen was really nice and I didn’t know what to expect from him. I love his books and I think he’s fucking amazing.”

What about Ian McEwan, for Joe Wright’s masterful 2007 adaptation of Atonement? McAvoy grimaces. “He wasn’t disparaging,” he recalls. “He just gave me… nothing. And I was a bit devastated. Then he said I was a bit small – because my character, Robbie, was meant to be this 6ft tanned Adonis, and I was a 25-year-old pasty Glaswegian who’s 5ft-nothing [5ft 7in, actually]. And the other one, weirdly,” he continues, “she didn’t say I was bad at playing the part. She told me I was the wrong casting, because I was too little – the character should have been more overweight. And that was Zadie Smith for White Teeth.”

In the foothills of his career, McAvoy appeared in Channel 4’s 2002 dramatisation of Smith’s sensational debut. “I was like: ‘Oh, you could have said: ‘Nice job, thought you did great, I never saw him as a skinnier guy.’ It was just: ‘You’re not overweight enough.’ Ah, great, OK, no worries…” He shrugs and resumes forking pub grub into his mouth.

The boozer we’re in is near the north London home he shares with his American wife, Lisa Liberati. They met in Philadelphia while McAvoy filmed 2016’s Split; she was Shyamalan’s assistant. Their street recently had a Halloween party and McAvoy – who’s not much of a lager man any more, preferring cocktails – cranked out servings of his signature Cosmopolitan. Cue neighbours finding themselves unexpectedly, but happily, merry.

James McAvoy in X-Men
Prequel superhero: in X-Men. Photograph: Maximum Film/Alamy

The couple also have a home in Philadelphia, where McAvoy attends Philly Union football games. The actor is staunchly private, only (belatedly) confirming earlier this year that the couple had married. But he will today confirm that rumours of James McAvoy’s half-the-year, transatlantic residency are very much exaggerated.

“No, no,” he says through a mouthful of late-afternoon steak’n’chips, half a Guinness on the go. “I’m co-parent to my first boy and I’m here as much as I can be for that.”

When McAvoy and Duff announced their separation after nine years’ marriage, they reportedly continued living together in their north London home to minimise disruption to their son. I’ve previously interviewed McAvoy in that home, but only because he was in the midst of appearing in Macbeth and was strapped for time. It was a rare literal glimpse of his private life. As we sat in the front room and Duff made us tea, he sucked on a Locket to ease a throat already raw from the stage.

But today he won’t be discussing co-parenting arrangements. He’s an easy conversationalist on broader topics, like football. (He’s a Celtic mega-fan and a reformed “plastic Gooner”, on account having once lived near Arsenal’s old Highbury stadium, but now attends Tottenham Hotspur matches in solidarity with his son’s club allegiance.) And he’s wholeheartedly up for a detailed discussion of The Work. But he won’t talk about his relationships.

James McAvoy with a bald head in Split.
Wide range: one of multiple characters McAvoy played in Split. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

“Every now and again I’ll be away for work,” he goes on, “and that takes me elsewhere. But this is our primary home. We’re in America for family, basically, and we do get back as much as we can, within reason. My wife goes back a wee bit more. I love it over there. It reminds me in some ways of Glasgow – both post-industrial cities that are actually reinventing themselves in lots of ways.”

Earlier this year, McAvoy was back in Scotland, working on an interpretation of Cyrano de Bergerac. The production had already appeared in London and would subsequently move to New York. In Glasgow, cast and crew had to battle through Covid’s long tail – in the production’s first week, three main role understudies were called up. But according to its director, Jamie Lloyd, McAvoy led from the front.

“We had 18 people in the Cyrano cast and they adored him – they’d follow him anywhere,” Lloyd tells me. “And he doesn’t just give anything a go, he does it with 100% commitment, or 150 or 200%. He’s all in.” That generosity is there in other ways, too. In March 2020, McAvoy donated £275,000 to an NHS crowdfunder. But, Lloyd says, “there are so many other examples that people don’t know about – real kindness where he’s helped out others in the company and in the cast”.

Do I keep chasing? Or take my foot off the pedal, and enjoy the acting?

Cyrano played for nine performances at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, a rare professional homecoming. “My family all came,” says McAvoy, “and it was brilliant. We had 24 of us there at one point. They all stuck around afterwards and we got to hang out in the auditorium together. That was a lot of fun.”

His granda’ has died recently, he reveals, “so he never got to see it, unfortunately. Well, he did see it, he just never got to see it live in Glasgow,” he clarifies, presumably a reference to the livestreams the company performed during its initial, pre-Covid run. What about his parents (McAvoy was reportedly long estranged from his dad), were they there?

“My parents are both dead,” he says, and then, to spare my blushes, “that’s all right, don’t worry about it.” Yes, he’ll have another half Guinness, though he’ll have to be quick and he just needs to text his childcare, “because the wee man will be on his way home.”

Since His Dark Materials, and since Cyrano finished its Brooklyn run in May, McAvoy hasn’t filmed anything. There are a few things in the pipeline, details of which he has to be careful about: “A smaller part in something in Italy… Working on a film with Phil Barantini, who made Boiling Point with Stephen Graham, and was in Band of Brothers with me a million years ago… A thing in Scotland, about a part of our Scottish history that needs to be told.” But generally, after a nonstop first two decades in the business, he’s notably slowed down. Why?

“Because I’m old!” he answers, grinning. He continues: “I put in the work quite a lot and I love it. But I don’t want to live to work. The industry is great and it’s given me an amazing life. But it survives on the sacrificial nature of performance. The film industry or the TV industry, they’re just using you up.” The industry’s attitude, he says, is: “You’re not here in two months, so do another 18-hour day. Do a 24-hour day.” The latter is something he’s done “four or five times – on one job. And you’re like: how is this fucking legal, man? How is that guy allowed to drive home at the end of the night? And people die! I’m not saying that’s the whole reason I’ve got a problem with it, but it’s part of it.

“I don’t want to just be that guy who was Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation, where he’s basically not got a life because he did the movies – and he can’t remember any of the movies. And yet he’s estranged from his wife and kids.”

There came a point relatively recently when he had to make a choice, he admits. “Do I keep chasing, do I keep progressing, do I keep trying to climb the ladder, the mountain, all that kind of stuff? Or do I just continue to enjoy the act of acting – but taking the foot off the pedal? And not feel like I’m never gonna work again. Or that I’m gonna lose momentum, which arguably I have, if I just don’t take every great job that comes my way.”

James McAvoy with Keira Knightley in Atonement
Into battle: with Keira Knightley in Atonement. Photograph: AJ Pics/Alamy

In sum, he exhales, “You need to slow down a wee bit.”

I later learn that McAvoy is now reportedly a father to an infant boy. New fatherhood could certainly explain why James McAvoy is taking that foot off the pedal.

“It’s just not possible to be a present family member if you are a filmmaker every week of the year, every month of the year,” he notes. “Theatre’s different – if you do tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of theatre, you’re out six nights of the week, invariably. But you’re there more during the day. It’s really film and telly – it just fucking drains you. It’s also a joy and I love it,” he goes on. “But I can’t spend all my days on set.”

And then, second half of Guinness swiftly necked, James McAvoy bolts for the door with a brisk goodbye. It’s late afternoon, and it’s family time.

His Dark Materials is on BBC One from 18 December, with all three seasons available to stream on BBC iPlayer

Stylist Hope Lawrie; grooming Tara Hickman using Armani Beauty; shot using Lordship Park Locations