Heart of Darkness: James McAvoy and the Last King Of Scotland

“How's things?” says James McAvoy, stretching a hand in greeting and widening his eyes in a charming gesture of polite inquiry. Fine, I say, how are things going for you? “Relentlessly”, he says, and lets out an enormous sigh, a surprising displacement of breath from such a slight man. “Reee-lent-less-ly”, he repeats, collapsing sideways into the over-stuffed Dorchester couch, stretching out his syllables with another deep exhalation. For a moment, I thought he was going to sleep, but instead the actor launches unasked into a précis of the last five weeks of his life, time spent touring the world to talk to people like me about his new film, The Last King of Scotland, the latest in a lengthening line of ‘breakthroughs’, taking in film festivals in Toronto, LA and New York, a month and more of talking, shaking hands and more talking. It sounds exhausting.

The increasingly important Toronto festival, seen as a gateway to distribution in the US, was McAvoy’s first time at the kerbside of the busy intersection between cinema and commerce and he found himself surprised by it. He had three films being screened, including the one we’re here to discuss today, but he doesn’t know quite how to feel about that singular success. “I couldn’t really get involved in anything except my own stuff. There are just so many people running around chasing their own arses and chasing their own success – everyone is rather focused on their own thing, so you wonder what it is that they are doing. A festival is supposed to be a celebration, isn’t it? And yet its not a celebration, it’s just an extension of marketing. Great for the people of Toronto who get to see lots of great movies, but if you go there as an actor, you have no ‘festival’ which is a shame – my impression is that it’s a lot of work”.

He looks across the room at something for a moment or two and then returns with a blink to the conversation. It’s fair to say he looks a little distracted. The 27 year old, small-framed like most actors, is dressed in a black v-neck jumper and artfully distressed jeans, with a mop of floppy hair and dark circles around his eyes. McAvoy picks up a silver pencil from the table and starts twisting it in his fingers; drops it, picks it up, drops it again, and says something as his head is turned away from my microphone. Later, I decipher it as something about eventually running out of things to say. We’ve been talking for less than two minutes. I attempt to kick start the conversation again by asking him if he’s tired of being constantly called ‘an actor on the rise’. “Well”, he replies, visibly brightening, “I dunno really. I suppose I’ve always been a young actor, I’m a young man, but people can say things like that about you at any point in your career. I’ve been doing this for nearly eight years now and the fact that people are taking notice of me, now as opposed to when I was starting out, doesn’t really make me feel any different and doesn’t change the way I do my job. I’m honestly not bothered about what people say. If I’d been around for a week and then was called an actor on the rise, that might make a difference, but by now I’m quite used to people judging me, every night in a play, every time I’m on the telly”.

I look down at the few scribbled notes I’ve taken as he was talking. ‘Dark circles’. ‘Big sighs’. The word ‘fidgety’ is underlined twice. Now McAvoy is looking at what I’m looking at and I’m hoping he can’t read upside down. This all happens in a moment, and he politely breaks the silence with a line that probably sums up his last couple of months, expressed with the greatest weariness imaginable, “I think people think too much about actors”. Oh yeah? But if the right people are talking about you as a talent they want to work with, doesn’t that lead to better scripts, famous directors and new opportunities? “Honestly”, he replies, “up until very recently, I’ve just taken whatever it is I've been offered. People say to me, ‘oh, you've chosen such interesting projects’, and I say to myself, ‘take what you can get’. I've been lucky that most of those have been good choices, but that was never a conscious thing. I've gotten a little more choice, but it’s not that much choice, and with having a choice comes a certain amount of fear- you’re responsible for whatever it is that you are doing, so you have to be bloody good”.

Luckily for me, he kept talking and luckily for everybody else, he is bloody good in Kevin McDonald’s dramatic debut. The Last King of Scotland is the story of Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator who ruled his country with a bloodstained fist throughout the 1970s. Based on Giles Foden’s award-winning novel of the same name, the film offers two indelible portraits: one of charming, psychopathic dictator who ravaged his country and the other of a self-serving pleasure-seeker who eventually finds enough courage to take a stand. The unconventional biopic examines a fascinating historical figure through the eyes of a fictional character by exploring the emotionally complex relationship that develops between the two men. Forrest Whittaker plays Amin with brute force and a childlike bluntness. McAvoy plays Nicholas Garrigan, a feckless Scottish missionary doctor who arrived in the country in 1971 on a whim, and quickly ingratiated himself into Amin’s inner circle, becoming his personal physician and as a result, living high on the hog. His character is a fictionalised amalgam of a couple of ex-patriot playboys that flitted from country to country around that time, making money and connections on the back of unimaginable oppression. How did McAvoy get the role? “I simply don’t know how they decided on me. Possibly, because I was the only Scotsman of the right age and experience to do it, and still cheap enough – I’m not being funny now – but a lot of the other Scottish actors mid-twenties to early thirties were all a bit too expensive. That was that”.

Location filming in and around Kampala took the actor to Africa for three months of 2004, an experience he has found difficult to shake off. “I had never been there before. My first impression was that this is poverty on a level I could have never prepared myself for. The media and news coverage of Africa is a great thing, but it supposes that we understand the world, and we don’t, really. We have an encyclopaedic, academic viewpoint, but we don’t actually know it. I knew I would encounter these things, but until you actually do, you just aren’t ready – physically, you know. I learned that pity is a completely redundant, cheap emotion. Saying to yourself, ‘oh that’s a wee shame’, means you can walk away and not actually connect with anything that’s happening in front of you, but walk away thinking you’re a good person. That means nothing”. To illustrate this point he tells me a couple of stories about the time he spent in Ireland preparing for his role in Damien O’Donnell’s Inside I’m Dancing, detailing the reactions he felt while working with differently-abled people that boiled down to the same cheap sentiment, something he didn’t like himself for feeling, and something he struggled to get over. “That’s not all that different from the first reactions I had to Africa. I couldn’t actually do anything until I got over this sense of pity. That was the first thing I went through. After that, the rest was all work for me. I literally worked in every single scene in the movie – fourteen hour days, six day weeks, for three months. I never got a day off. So, my only cultural experience was downtime spent eating and talking with the crew and a single night spent camping beside the Nile”. Later, McAvoy tells me he will return to Uganda to work with a group of actors and musicians led by David Oyewolo (who plays Dr Junju in the film) for a couple of weeks in the early part of 2007, detailing the work that they do and how it helps the local community. It is one of the very few times that he smiles.

When I ask him about Whittaker, his more experienced co-star, McAvoy is full of praise for the heavyweight actor. Between them they divide the lion’s share of the storytelling and the friendship that developed between the two men is palpable. “It’s an odd relationship – firstly because it’s between two men. They have a lot of love for one another and that always seems to make people uncomfortable, even if it’s not a sexual thing. The other thing is that the relationship between me and Amin represents very closely the relationship the British government and Foreign Office had with him. The ups and downs are the same; the key points in ours are the same as the historical key points in theirs. Amin wasn’t just a murderer; he was a sensation, a media-manufactured figure. Instead of telling the truth, that this guy was a demon, instead we heard that he liked to wear blue Stetsons and wearing kilts and, you know, what fun! All just to make the white man laugh”. He found himself wary of intruding on the older actor while filming, with Whittaker buried deep inside a complicated character. “Forrest isn’t exactly what you’d call a method actor, but he is when it’s necessary and appropriate and this was one of those times. It’s difficult to learn anything from watching him, because you just don’t want to mess him up. He’s living it; he’s trying to become someone, so he doesn’t need someone like me asking ‘er, sorry pal, how are you doing that’?”

McAvoy had a similar learning curve to negotiate with McDonald, the director behind the award-winning documentaries One Day In September and Touching The Void, slowly building a rapport and establishing the right approach to the material. “I thought his documentaries were really cool, but I had no reason to trust him. The only thing that gave me heart before we started was the fact that I wanted to portray the character differently to the way that the script portrayed him. I didn’t want Nicholas to be an innocent caught in the middle without realising where he is. That’s the way it was originally written and, for me that had to change. So we sat down and discussed those issues and made the changes and McDonald was great with that. He re-mastered the script and that process continued when we were in Uganda. But the simple fact that there was some agreement there meant we could go off together and do it. I had to trust him and, you know, he had to trust me. We could have gone out there and it could have been a disaster”.

We’ve been talking for a while now, and the actor’s breathable intensity has hardly dipped for a moment. He seems angry about the dark history raised in the film, and passionate about telling the truth as he discovered it for himself. Raised in a working class family in a tough part of Glasgow, I wonder if he is more politically charged now as a result of his experiences. “No, politically is the wrong word, but socially charged, definitely. I have an understanding now that what we have in the West is unbelievably privileged. The working-class chip on my shoulder is gone, and I have an entirely different perspective on what real hardship is. You have to be incredibly unfortunate in this country to be born with less of a chance than anybody in Africa”. We talk for another couple of minutes about the stark statistics that end the film, estimates of the dead, a roll call of devastation. McAvoy looks genuinely pained as I rattle out the numbers. The twirling pencil falls again from his grasp and he slides off the couch to pick it up. All he says is “yeah, yeah”.


Tom said...

**Potential Spoilers**

Excellent film. Really enjoyed it and I can see why Forest got the nod for the oscar nomination. I thought the descent into awareness for garrigan was really well handled, as was the scene when Amin told him to stay.

That, and the first time Amin lost it with him at the airport, were all pretty chilling stuff.

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Unknown said...

I agree Tom! I watched the movie, and I must say that Forest Whitaker gave an exceptional performance in this film. And although James McAvoy’s character is a fictional character, we were able to see the authoritarian life in the point of view of an impartial observer. I give this movie two thumbs up! [Wally Howe]