My deep admiration for actor James McAvoy goes up a notch when he arrives on our Zoom call using the screen name “Mr Awesome.” He seems to be in a hotel room. “No, I’m home. We just painted our ceiling to look like a hotel,” says the 43-year-old in his still thick Glaswegian accent.
After we talk, McAvoy will fly to Rome for a four-day stint playing Pontius Pilate in Jeymes Samuels’ The Book of Clarence. This commitment meant that he had to skip 66 on Sundayth Evening Standard Theater Awards in association with Garrard at the Ivy where he was nominated for Best Actor for his outstanding lead performance in Jamie Lloyd’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac. “I’m gutted I’m not there,” he says.
That night, host Sheridan Smith read a message she had sent to attendees of the event: “Drink something toxic and dance.”
McAvoy has already won the award once, in 2015, for his explosive portrayal of the Earl of Gurney in Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class, also directed by Lloyd. He is overjoyed and somewhat surprised to win again for Cyrano. “I’ve been living with this show since 2019, before the pandemic: a different version of myself, a different decade,” he says, “and I didn’t think we’d be eligible.”
Cyrano initially opened to five star reviews at the Playhouse Theater in 2019. “We had a young cast, a lot of people making their debuts and we were all going to cross the Atlantic and bring it to New York, woo woo!” recalls McAvoy. “Then that got taken away, like so many other things, by the pandemic. But we decided we would if theater came back again, and for a long time that was a big ‘if.'”
Cyrano arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this year, after a second London run at the Pinter Theater and a week in McAvoy’s native Glasgow (as the 2020 and 2021 Standard Awards have been cancelled, this year’s judging panel has decided that one such an extraordinary spectacle deserved payment for the Pinter race).
“Jamie felt a responsibility, like many theater producers, to come back with a bang,” adds McAvoy. “A proven hit that had a bit of a movie kid in it maybe helped people get back into the theater a bit…” he says it with noticeable coyness.
Radically reworked by Martin Crimp to blend Edmond Rostand’s 17th chivalrous verse of the century with contemporary rap, Cyrano was staged by Lloyd with a physically, ethnically and neurologically diverse cast in everyday clothes on an almost bare stage. McAvoy eschewed the usual proboscis proboscis: “I said to Jamie, um, isn’t this about a guy with a big nose? He said, maybe in the first act, but the rest is just a guy who hates himself.
The decision proved to be as liberating as the minimalistic staging. McAvoy says he has seldom felt such a close and direct connection with an audience, and tells me that his cousin, who was unfamiliar with the play and saw it in Glasgow, was deeply disturbed by the insults heaped upon Cyrano by himself and others. .
The son of a Catholic psychiatric nurse and a bricklayer father, from whom he became estranged, McAvoy considered entering the priesthood as a boy. “I really wanted to travel the world and thought maybe becoming a missionary would be a good way to do that,” he says. “I don’t wear the poverty label and I don’t talk about it all the time, but it probably speaks to my lack of opportunity that I’ve gone to such extremes as thinking about becoming a fucking priest, so I could travel.”
Instead, as a teenager, he took up acting, appearing in The Bill and a small film, but had he not entered the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s drama school (then known as the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama) he would have gone into in the Navy.
Although his early résumé is littered with stage roles, he enjoyed his first real TV success in Paul Abbott’s Shameless (where he and Duff met) and then in a series of increasingly notable film roles including The Last One. King of Scots, Atonement, Becoming Jane and as Professor Xavier in the rebooted X Men movies. He was previously married to fellow actress Anne-Marie Duff, with whom he has one son, and is now married to Lisa Liberati. Though he’s very private about his family life, in the course of our conversation he refers to his “his kids” and confirms that there’s a new McAvoy in town.
Lloyd appears to be the only director McAvoy cares to work with on stage now — their partnership began the year before he joined the Marvel universe. “It’s partly how things play out between the film jobs, but it also continues to bring me the most interesting stuff,” says McAvoy.
“I’ve known Jamie since 2010, when we did Three Days of Rain [by Richard Greenberg, at the Apollo]and he is constantly pursuing something more theatrical, something purer, something clearer.
They edited a nice Macbeth together in 2013 with Clare Foy as Lady Macbeth, then The Ruling Class. But Cyrano was a different order of experience, with Lloyd and Crimp rigorously stripping away everything but the words and the performance, even the gestures and movements. It’s great to receive this award, but it really depends on them and the bravery of their production.
Lloyd himself describes McAvoy as “quite simply the greatest actor of our generation and an amazing collaborator. When you work with someone on a series of projects, something of a shortcut develops. If you ask him to do something, he just does it. And he gets very excited about investigating different ways of seeing things. You can really fly and explore new ideas.”
McAvoy speaks passionately of the satisfaction he gets from theater over film roles, but his stage appearances will remain an occasional pleasure. “It’s hard to do theater back-to-back because you can’t get your kids to bed for about a year, so I’m not going to ramp up the amount I do,” he says.
“It will only be every two years, unfortunately.” At 43, though, and a father of two who’s already been through several major stages in his career—juvenile protagonist, romantic lead, action hero, classic star—he’s picky about all of his jobs. “I look for the opportunity to tell the story, the opportunity to drive the narrative, to do it in a surprising way,” he says. “I’m looking for conflict.”
He doesn’t talk about it, but he also nearly died in 2017, after contracting sarcoidosis, where patches of swollen tissue develop in the body. “The condition has now disappeared as it does in some cases,” he says, “but they botched the biopsy to verify it wasn’t cancer and my lungs collapsed. He hit me. There have been a few years where I have felt a bit like the wind has been taken out of my sails.”
He laughs softly, realizing what he has said. “My vitality has been somewhat dulled and that has been quite difficult because I am quite an energetic and forward person.” With rest, exercise, and (he admits) an unconscious awareness of his mortality, he’s now he’s come to his senses.
Although still a proud Scot, he has lived in London for 20 years. “That’s where I became an adult, you know,” he says. “It is a difficult city. It has everything you could want, but you have to fight for it, and I kind of like it. If you’ve done well here and managed to live here for 20 years, I really feel like you have your place in the city.
That brings us back to the Evening Standard Theater Awards, which this year honored the most diverse group of winners – in terms of gender, ethnicity and class – ever.
“It feels like the industry is taking responsibility,” he says. “It hasn’t changed but it is changing for the better, and then we will have stories told for and by and about the society we actually live in. I am proud to be part of it.
“Is there still work to be done?” He continues: “Absolutely. Are we all responsible for it? Yes. But I think he’s getting better.” And with that, Mr Awesome is leaving Zoom.
The 66th Evening Standard Theater Awards were held in association with Garrard on Sunday 10 December; the winners were transported there in sustainable style through the snow by Polestar