James McAvoy’s latest, the semi-biopic The Last Station, drops him into the eye of an ensemble hurricane featuring Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer and Paul Giamatti. The 30-year-old-Scotman plays Valentin Bulgakov, an idealistic young Russian recruited to work as the secretary of the celebrated novelist Leo Tolstoy (Plummer). But what begins as an act of moral conscience soon deteriorates into a hot political mess as Tolstoy’s inheritance-obsessed wife Sofya (Mirren) and estate overseer Chertkov (Giamatii) vie for Valentin’s loyalty. Which is to say nothing of the young man’s Tolstoyan vow of celibacy, which is awfully hard to uphold with the beautiful Masha (Kerry Condon) slinking into his bed in the middle of the night.
How did this role come to you?
[A producer] was fond of me and just sent me the script. I read it and liked it. I told him I loved it – dearly – and he said, “OK, do you want to attach yourself, then?” I said, “Er, sure!” Even though I’m not supposed to do it like that; I’m supposed to do it through my agent. And then… nothing happened. For like three years. The film just sort of disappeared and went into hibernation. Then all of the sudden, out of the blue, it was back on, and we made it really quickly. In Germany of all places. I guess it’s kind of a weird place to film Russia. The German heat of summer – pretending to be in the Russian winter – gets very hot. It was f**ing boiling. We were wearing like four layers of wool.
But it’s that simple, really: I liked the script. I thought it was really funny, which is something I feel is pretty unique. I don’t feel like most costume dramas or period historical biopics about great artists of recent history are especially humorous. I mean, it’s not a comedy. Don’t get me wrong. And also [I wanted] the opportunity to do a great ensemble piece as well. I’ve done a few things where I was “the lead,” and I was in every single scene. It was about two or three characters at the most. This was about a little community, which was quite nice.
Considering how much your career changed in that three-year gap, how did that complicate coming back to this kind of small, somewhat out-of-the-mainstream project?
It didn’t really. You just make room for it. They came back to me and said, “Do you want to do it?” I said, “Yeah, I’ve got nothing planned! Let’s do it.”
Were you a Tolstoy reader at all?
So how much did you immerse yourself – or even want to immerse yourself – in Tolstoy and Russian history for your character?
I immersed myself more in Tolstoy’s writings that were coming out around the time that my character would have read them. He writes in his diary that he read War and Peace twice – nearly. This was a guy who was in love with Tolstoy, and he only read it twice! Nearly. And I loved that about him. But the thing that was more vital to me than anything else was that we had Valentin’s diaries: the one he kept for Chertkov, the one he kept for Sofya, the one he kept for himself. And the one he kept for himself is the most precious piece of source material I’ve ever had for any character. I’ve never had such a direct link to what the character was thinking. And many of the scenes in the script – as far-fetched as it seems – are based on events that actually happened in that house. That was a basic fact: Everybody in that house kept a diary, so there were maybe six different diaries corroborating that an exceptional event happened. Not only do we have that, but we have Valentin going away and maybe a half-hour later – or an hour later, or a day or two or 10 later – writing down how he felt about that exact thing. It was an amazing link to this guy.
What kind of balance do you strike, then, between loyalty to that truth and more creative interpretation as an actor?
You do interpret it as an actor, but it felt like the story itself as written was so strong that you didn’t have to f** with stuff too much. Enh, we did, actually. We changed a lot. You always change the language and get more out of the scene. You always come up with your own ideas. But it felt like it was so full and rich anyway. It felt so… high-pitched. It means that Helen Mirren can go crazy and smash plates. It’s still big and can still blow the roof off the house, but it’s not like, “F**in’ hell!” Even my character, as much as he’s shy and retiring, cries his eyes out at the drop of a hat. It felt so charged that we didn’t need to mess with it too much, I don’t think.
Valentin begins as this this intensely earnest young utopian, but you can see these seeds of cynicism sprouting as the story progresses. Did that really start this quickly in his life?
He did become more cynical. But as much as he grew to fall out of love with Tolstoyism, it seems, and become more questioning – more emotionally and intellectually complex, really – he did still remain a proper Tolstoyan. He ran a Tolstoyan community in the Czech Republic for the rest of his life. But I think he learned to believe that the man and the myth can be two different things. But because Tolstoy is potentially a hypocrite – or at least contradictory in terms of the way he lives his life versus the great thoughts that come out of his head – it doesn’t make that design for living any less special or incredible. His job was as a thinker.
You could even argue he was more of a hypocrite than this film says and still be truthful. He had illegitimate children running all around that house, even in front of Sofya. Yet he said that celibacy was the only way to truly be a productive member of society. But you’ve got 13 of your own kids – 13! – and f** knows how many illegitimate children running around. We had a man named Maxim on the set, one of Tolstoy’s descendants. He said there are more than 50,000 descendants of Tolstoy today, just because he had so many f**ing children. And he forced Sofya to deal with it.
Valentin’s first encounter with Tolstoy is staged almost like a ballet. Can you walk me through nailing that with Christopher Plummer?
I tried to stay away from him as much as possible until that scene. That was the first scene we shot together; nothing else was shot in order, so it was just luck, really. I tried to not really talk to him, because I wanted to build up that myth that Christopher Plummer – Baron Von Tolstoy! – was coming into the room at any minute. I was really getting excited about it for a week through rehearsals. I tried to ignore him as much as possible. I think he got annoyed with me, like, ‘What the f** is this kid doing?” I just wanted to keep it fresh. Which is silly, because I’m not a Method actor. I just wanted it to be vital and new. So I was so excited when I finally got to talk to him. It made all that love for him easy to access. I’d been manufacturing it for a week.
But I do that in everything I do: I try to love the actor I’m working with. Even if, in hindsight, I thought, “I don’t know if they were very good,” I don’t ever consider that when I’m working with them. I try to love everything they do and become fascinated with them. They’re everything I have; I have nothing else. Everything you need is in the other actor or in the room. I don’t know. I shouldn’t be talking sh*.
Sure, but let’s take Helen Mirren, who essentially devours that room in many of her scenes here. What do you with an actor and a character like that?
You absorb it. Also, you tell the story. If the story’s about her, then you hand it over to her. If the story is about me, then I take it over. You just let the story fall out the way it should and not get in the way. I think. [Pause] But I don’t really think of it in terms of, “How do I deal with this energy?” Hopefully you just never stop that flow of energy. That’s the big thing. You must give energy to other actors. Some actors don’t do it, and it’s really f**ing annoying because you don’t even see it on camera.
How do you mean?
On-screen, people are looking at each other. But quite often actors will look away instead of looking at you. That connection is uncomfortable to them, I guess. It’s like, “Perhaps you reacting to me will put me off my plan to get everything the way I wanted to get it. Maybe I was looking at you and you reacted really truthfully, and that puts me off, and I forgot to do that thing that I really wanted to get in the f**ing take.” I don’t know why they do that! But I feel it’s important to give energy to each other. Most actors do.
I’d love to run down this list of casting rumors you’ve spent the last week refuting, but I’d rather know your reaction to them. Does all this speculation ever frustrate you?
Well, it’s nice to think your name carries enough weight to benefit them if they use it while fabricating stuff. You know what I mean? But they’re all nonsense. None of it’s true. I’m With Cancer – I am doing that one. That one’s true. But the Ian Fleming thing? I read it, I really liked it, never spoke to a producer about it, never attached myself to it. Then somebody said I did, which is a little bit naughty, I think. Then the Hobbit thing? Not true. It’s weird to be perceived as something other than that which you are. The weird thing is that if you read something that says, “James McAvoy likes coffee instead of tea” it’s not a big deal. It doesn’t really matter. But it’s not bloody true. It’s weird that not only do people have an image of you that’s not what you are, they put it out there as though what they say is true, without any way to prove it.
And it only gets worse as the news cycle accelerates. Does it make you cynical, or turn you off to the process?
I got absolutely battered by a newspaper back home about a week ago, and it was completely made up. Just a little bit in the newspaper saying that I’d behaved really badly and acted with little grace in a situation where I was just fairly f**ing easy-come-easy-go. But that’s the only time I’ve really been upset. And it’s such a tiny thing. But it’s really bad; you shouldn’t be able to do that. But again – not a big deal. It’s tomorrow’s chip paper. You’ve gotta let it go, but there is a little part of you that says, “Don’t misrepresent people.” We don’t have enough news (of course we do have enough news) of mind-numbing interest to fill our pages with, so we have to make up sh* about somebody?
But I shouldn’t complain, and I’m not complaining. Some people get it in the f**ing neck. It’s just weird, because I should know better. I read something in a horrible magazine and think, “Oh, so and so’s doing that… all right…” I should know, but there’s a part of you on some very basic, fundamental level that goes, “It’s in print, though!” Even though a part of me goes, “Bollocks,” there’s a part of me that remembers it because it’s in print. It’s kind of powerful.