James McAvoy is a marvel when it comes to his new role

The Crouch End star talks about his role as Professor Charles Xavier in the new X Men film

�James McAvoy is one of Britain’s most unpredictable actors. A reticent Hollywood star, he flips seamlessly between blockbusting studio films like Wanted, estimated $65million budget and with Angelina Jolie and lots of guns, to intellectually-moving independent dramas like The Last Station, about the Leo Tolstoy’s final year in which he plays the Russian writer’s idealistic aide. Now, his latest role is in the Marvel Comics’ X-Men series.

In this new episode, First Class, McAvoy plays the lead Charles Xavier, a gifted young Oxford graduate in genetics who is the world’s most powerful telepath – the role Patrick Stewart made his own in the previous films.

“As this is a prequel, there was no point in playing the same character in a different suit,” he says, in his soft Scottish accent. “The film is set in the 1960s, in the Cold War, when there is a looming war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Peaceful revolutionary

“Charles is a mutant and his mission and purpose in life is to find other mutants and help them. He’s a peaceful revolutionary, leading a worldwide movement of mutants.

This time round, he’s a bit more fun and less Zen-like. He hasn’t grown into the wise old man Sir Patrick portrayed.

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We wanted to go the opposite way with him but we couldn’t make him a bad guy. So we’ve made him sort of amoral.

“I’ve been aware of the Marvel comic book story since I was about 12 because I used to watch it on Live And Kicking, the TV show for kids – and I’ve seen the two X-Men films,” McAvoy tells me. “For this film, being a prequel, the most important thing for me was to tell a good story and be true to the spirit.”

Which, with his power to control magnetism by pressing his fingers to his temples and concentrating hard, Charles does.

“This temple inspiration came after I’d seen what everybody else was doing to physicalise their power,” he jokes. “I can’t say I did three months of intense Ninja training like some of them did to get their power movements. I’m afraid mine is more Carphone Warehouse, less Ninja!” he laughs, putting his fingers to his forehead. (Michael Fassbender who plays Charles Charles’s friend and fellow mutant says he got his depiction of manifesting his power not via the Ninja route but by imagining he was dreadfully constipated.)

Like many people, I first became aware of the refreshingly level-headed McAvoy in 2004 in Channel 4’s Shameless. He co-starred as lovers with his (now) wife, one our leading actress Anne-Marie Duff, 40, who is currently on stage at the Old Vic in Terence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre.

Clutch of awards

Now 32, McAvoy went on to star in the most diverse of productions including Atonement, The Last King Of Scotland and Chronicles Of Narnia as the faun, Mr Tumnus.

His mantelpiece at their home in Crouch End must be groaning from all the awards he’s won here and abroad.

Notoriously media-shy and apparently unaffected by fame, he somehow seems to have escaped the clutches of celebrity culture. He and his wife never talk about their private life although he briefly forgets, saying that since they had their baby boy, he is rethinking his working life a bit.

“We are very private people and luckily ‘fame’ has never actually really worried me,” he says. “Since I got ‘put on the map’, I’ve been recognised in the street about 10 times only! I don’t think, frankly, I’ll get to the point where people run across freeways to take a picture of me, as they have done for some of my female co-stars.” He means Angelina Jolie from Wanted and Keira Knightley from Atonement.

Blue-eyed and boyishly good-looking, he was born north of the border in Port Glasgow in 1979, the son of a psychiatric nurse and a builder.

His parents split when he was seven and he and his sister Joy, a singer and actress, went to live with their grandparents.

The acting started as part of youth theatre and then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and the first big break was in 2000 in the Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries Band Of Brothers.

His career has spanned film, television and theatre, most recently in Three Days Of Rain in 2009 at the Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue playing a father and son double role .

McAvoy says he was attracted to being cast as an X-Man because it was a role about a man finding his purpose in a world full of prejudice – will the mutants be accepted by humanity?

“A key element of the film is about people (mutants) who feel like outsiders and want to be normal.’

Directed by Briton Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake/ Stardust/Kick-Ass), the script was co-written by American producer Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two X-Men films, Vaughn and his screenwriting partner Jane Goldman, McAvoy’s Hampstead Garden Suburb neighbour. She admits that, although she couldn’t stick her oar in for McAvoy, she certainly was in on conversations about the casting.

“James came up with some wonderful ideas about his character because he had such a good handle on Charles,” she comments with a knowing smile.

X-Men : First Class also stars Kevin Bacon, Mad Men’s January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), Oliver Platt (Frost/Nixon) and Rose Bryne (Knowing).

n X-Men : First Class (12A) is in cinemas now. For the Ham&High’s review by Michael Joyce, turn to page 7.