James McAvoy knows not to trust the British tabloids. While flogging his grotty drama Filth, based on the Irvine Welsh novel about a coke-addicted, double-crossing cop, they breathlessly reported that the Scottish actor had dived so deep into method acting that he’d convinced a German hooker to punch him in the face.
“That’s not true!” insists McAvoy with a laugh. The German was an actress, though she did pack a wallop. While director Jon S. Baird kept the cameras rolling, McAvoy tilted his mouth away from the lens and secretly begged her to hit him in the face. Finally, she obliged. Her punch was “rather good,” compliments McAvoy, who despite his innocent looks has experience getting clobbered (and not just while playing Professor X in X-Men: Days of Future Past). “I’ve been in fights, I’ve been knocked out before,” he shrugs.
Filth’s boozing, brawling McAvoy initially comes as a shock. Didn’t this guy score a Golden Globe nomination for Atonement? As Bruce Robertson, an Edinburgh policeman snorting and shagging everything he can grab while also backstabbing his co-workers in the chase for a fancy promotion, McAvoy transforms himself into a lout. He talks fast, sweats profusely, and furrows his brows until you can barely see the big baby blues that made him a period-piece heartthrob. He’s the most dangerous kind of villain: a prankster who does damage simply because he can, like a hyperactive child pulling books off a shelf.
Bruce also damages himself with his tremendous appetite for alcohol and junk food. Instead of plumping up the healthy Hollywood way by hiring a dietician (“trying to figure out how to gain a certain amount of weight per week and all that shit,” McAvoy groans), he wanted to enjoy packing on the bloat. He didn’t quite drink a bottle of whiskey every night — another tabloid rumor — not that he would have minded. But he did drink much more whiskey than normal, “and I do like a glass of whiskey,” he jokes. “I can’t have a bottle of Laphroaig in the house. It’s like candy; I can’t stop drinking it.”
“I don’t know if I should be hesitant to say that I really enjoyed doing it,” admits McAvoy of playing a sociopath. Shooting the scene where Bruce gets humped by a dog while directing bestiality porn “was a joy, an absolute joy!” (Alas, it was dropped from the final cut because it slowed down the pace, “not because we were worried about offending anybody,” he clarifies.) As for the bit where Bruce masturbates while crying, McAvoy beams, “It was amazing! It was an ambition realized!”
If he’s kidding, McAvoy won’t cop to it. The only moment he claims was difficult was when Bruce blackmails a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl into giving him a blow job.
“Creating that make-believe scenario was just fucking horrible,” he sighs. It was his first day on the set, and the young-looking actress was, he swears, in her twenties. “But after that, there really isn’t any scene in the film that I had any trouble with.”
Oddly, Bruce isn’t too far away from McAvoy’s return as Professor X. After being paralyzed at the end of the last film, First Class, the professor starts the sequel as a drug addict full of hate and self-loathing; think Filth crossed with Born on the Fourth of July. But nicer, cautions McAvoy. “It’s a mainstream superhero movie, so there’s not going to be the same level of controversial blackmailing-people-into-fellatio kind of scenarios.”
Though the adaptation of Trainspotting was a massive hit, Welsh never imagined any filmmaker would dare film Filth, with or without its secondary narrator, a tapeworm who refers to Bruce as “The Host.” The author vowed that if any producer proved brave enough to take it on, he’d get a tattoo of the book’s cover, a pig dressed like a cop. It took fifteen years to get Filth made, and halfway through filming, Welsh proved true to his word and tattooed the pig on his arm.
“He turned up to visit set one day and he was like, ‘Guys, check this out — it’s totally amazing, eh?’ and it was all raw and weeping and still blood on it and stuff,” says McAvoy. “We were like, ‘Holy fucking shit, man!’ He is mental. But he is mental in all the best, most beautiful ways.”
Filth isn’t flattering to Scotland. It opens with a montage of modern failures: weary men wearing kilts for tourists, pregnant women sullenly inhaling cigarettes, pasty fatsos chowing on deep-fried junk. (“I’ve not had a fried Mars Bar since I was about 21, but they’re good, man,” says McAvoy.) Yet Welsh has still managed to be a local hero to Scots like McAvoy, who was a teenager when Trainspotting opened and was thrilled to see a bold film spoken in his accent.
“You’ve got to be fairly confident in your culture to be able to take the piss out of it,” says McAvoy. Besides, Welsh is just the latest in a long line of storytellers spinning over-the-top tales about his cold country. Last year, McAvoy did a stage run as Macbeth.
“Maybe there is lightness in Scottish characters, but I’m not interested in finding it,” says McAvoy. “I’m really happy with what I’ve portrayed of Scotland so far, even if it is dark and demonic.”