James McAvoy Brings Science And Raw Physicality To 'Victor Frankenstein' [On Set Interview]

James McAvoy is stepping away from the science of mutant behavior to explore a more experimental form of early research in Victor Frankenstein. He plays the title character in the film, a new take on Mary Shelley's original novel and a pastiche of elements, in a way, inspired by other interpretations of the story, with the hopes of synthesizing a new whole. Appropriate, really.

McAvoy is a physical actor, one who literally likes to throw some weight around in scenes, and in Victor Frankenstein his prime partner in mad science is Daniel Radcliffe. The former Harry Potter plays Igor, if not exactly a version of Igor that looks like the one you probably have in mind, and the two sought to create a version of Frankenstein that has its own soul and personality.

A few editors and I spoke to McAvoy on the film's set back in March 2014; our conversation, about Victor and mad science and the art of pushing around other actors, is below.

Tell us about your Victor Frankenstein.

He's trying to improve the human condition. He's trying to improve this fragile state that we all find ourselves in. He's trying to prolong life, he's trying to banish death. But at the end of the day he's just got a massive fucking ego and he's a bit of a megalomaniac as well — no, he's not a megalomaniac, he is an egomaniac. That gets in his way a bit. He's also got a myriad of personality disorders... there's certain things when you do Frankenstein that audiences expect and want to see, and it's a balance between giving them just that, or giving them none of that, or giving them a bit of that, and then taking them in other directions as well. The things you expect and want to see are the original archetypal mad doctor, and you want to see mad scientist, I think, you want to see crazy, and that's there in bucketloads.

He's got a deep-seated emotional trauma form of motivation as well, which the book doesn't really have, and is one of the things that I think [director] Paul [McGuigan] injected into the script, which was really clever of him, because I think audiences need to have a some of that. These days, you can't just have a crazy scientist who's crazy because he just is, who's driven just because he just is, he's obsessed just because he just is — we need to know a little bit more about why. You can go too far with the backstory, all of a sudden the backstory is more important than the real story, but we're giving the backstory some weight, and that's really important for me.

He can't really connect with anybody because he sees the world, all he sees is what he wants and what he wants to get out of it until he meets Dan, who plays Igor, and he suddenly finds somebody who is exceptional and on a par with him, in some ways, and somebody who's as fascinated with human anatomy as he is.

We've been told by Paul and by [producer] Derek Dauchy that the film sort of takes the best bits of different Frankenstein incarnations throughout the history of the exploitation of the property. So is that a case with you, that you're picking out your favorite performances and trying to pay homage to them?

I watched half of Young Frankenstein once. [Laughter.] And the only bit I can remember is "Fronken-shteen, not Frankenstein." It was very funny and I enjoyed it, but no, I've not looked at anybody else's films. I'm always like that, though. I often think if it's not there on the page, if it's not a whole creation to begin with, then it shouldn't be done.

I read the book, but I think we've got something that is definitely harnessing all the great stuff about the book, and padding out parts of the book as well. It's not a film about the existential crisis that a newly formed monster goes through. It's just not that film. If there's any existential crisis it's Victor's existential crisis, and for Igor, because he is kind of growing from being this abused animal in the circus to being a man and a scientist and a friend and a lover. And for me it's about a journey from amorality and self-obsession into responsibility and maybe a slightly less mental place.

So is Igor a project for him?

Yeah. He's his real patient. But he also sees him as a means to an end. Igor has something that he needs, so he harnesses him. He's a user, Frankenstein is very selfish and personally driven, so he's always using, but something of Igor gets through to him and they do form a loving relationship.

Is he attracted to him because his ego is so big and Igor is a bit pathetic?

I think that helps. But it's actually Igor has a skill, a particular talent, that is useful and in fact necessary for... Frankenstein's a doctor and he's a physician and all that, but he's really an engineer, an engineer of the human body... [McAvoy loses his train of thought after an interruption.] But it's set in the Victorian era as well, and it's very much about industry, it's about the forefront of science, and science being very much concerned with not Higgs boson and not protons and electrons, but gears and manpower and rust and sweat and blood and tears and big levers that make whole cities go.

Mad science!

Monster science! And that's really what his science is like, and what the look of the film is like as well. It's very much born of the Industrial Revolution. And at the forefront of science, where invariably you're always questioning and being questioned about whether what you're doing is right or wrong, regardless of its use to humanity. It's the same thing with stem cell research, which only two or three years ago was a massive thing, a big taboo subject, and now it's like "yeah, stem cell research is helping bunches of people." We're at that point, still, in this film, where they're crossing moral boundaries.

Director Paul McGuigan mentioned that you and Daniel could easily swap roles.

Really? I don't give good clown, so... I didn't know that. But playing Igor? I feel like it's a younger man's role, I might still pass for a little bit younger than I am, but I think it is a more youthful thing, there's an innocence to him that I've played quite a lot in my career, and that I might enjoy playing again, but I'm enjoying playing a different mental space. I haven't played this type role, and it requires a certain level of immersion, and a presence. Not just like "presence!" but you have to be present, you have to be there.

Can you talk about work about working opposite Dan, in terms of his approach to the role or even the theme?

I'm not a cage fighter or anything like that, but it's quite often physical, in this. I'm quite often physical in a lot of films I do, but oftentimes you'll come up against some people [who aren't into it]. So it's not always a two-way street. Some of the physical ideas you have will frighten the director or the other actors. Dan and Paul are all up for that. Even the big huge dialogue scenes have turned into massive setpieces.

Dan has met me at that and come further than me at that, is comfortable with me throwing him around all the time. There was one setup where it was just like a wrestling match, it was four pages of dialogue and that was very exciting. It's really nice to have someone who's physically comfortable and capable and can take a few knocks.

We were told that you and Dan rehearsed in New York beforehand. Was this the first time you'd met each other, and did you have an instant rapport?

Yeah, we got on well. I met Dan, he came to see Macbeth, that I did, so I met him backstage there. He was friends with one of the cast members. We got on well then. And then rehearsals, yeah, we just hit it quite hard. It's not the kind of film where there's any place to hide, you have to come in quite hard and fast, a large approach.

"Large" doesn't mean large acting or big acting but it means big choices, and not being afraid of doing something unexpected or strange. I mean, you look at the source material, it was pretty incendiary at the time, and arguably it's a more important book than it was a big book, because it moved things forward so much, and it asked really controversial questions, it was a really controversial book at the time. Even still, reading it now, it's not horror in any way, it's a controversy, and it's a moral quandary and an interesting insight into the repercussions of scientific advancement. So you're looking to kind of capture that same kind of controversy at the time, even if it isn't an inherently controversial scene. You're trying to find those moments that are surprising to other characters and actors, and the audience.


Victor Frankenstein opens on November 25.