James McAvoy Used A Simple Prop To Set His X-Men Performance Apart

Glaswegian actor James McAvoy has played the role of Prof. Charles Xavier four times to date, starting with Matthew Vaughn's "X-Men: First Class" in 2011 (five times if you count a cameo in 2018's "Deadpool 2"). The role had previously been played by Patrick Stewart, but because of the X-Men universe's proclivities toward chronological disarray, McAvoy played the younger and/or alternate universe version of the character. As Deadpool himself once said, it's hard to keep track of all the continuities. 

A brief rundown: Prof. Xavier, introduced in 1963, was the leader of the X-Men, a superhero group consisting of mutants — that is, people who grew their superpowers organically thanks to a quirk of their DNA. In the universe of the X-Men, mutants are the victims of prejudice and bigotry, and the X-Men fight evil villains without the acknowledgement and/or approval of the general populace. Prof. Xavier is a powerful psychic who uses an enhanced computerized helmet to locate mutants and bring them to his posh New York boarding school to teach them, but also how to control their superpowers. 

In "First Class," McAvoy played a young, brown-haired Xavier, prior to the founding of the school or the loss of the use of his legs. In subsequent sequels, Xavier would be seen without his hair and making use of a wheelchair. In the comics — as well as with Xavier's recent appearance in "Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — he typically made use of an outsize yellow high-tech hover chair. The hoverchair, it turns out, was something McAvoy objected to, and he wanted to ensure that an actual, non-sci-fi device was on screen. In a 2021 interview with BBC Radio 1, McAvoy explained that an actual wheelchair was going to be more human.

Power suit?

James McAvoy was sensitive to the class politics of the X-Men universe, acknowledging that Prof. Xavier is, in fact, a very rich man who own an enormous estate in upstate New York. He also seems to have enough money — presumably from private school tuition — to fund the high-tech gadgets the X-Men regularly employ in their villain-fighting quests. It seemed important to McAvoy that Prof. Xavier not be seen by the audience as a man flaunting his wealth. As such, the hover chair was out. Indeed, in using a real wheelchair McAvoy would operate himself, it lent the character an important note of physical realism:

"I'm always looking to physicalize things. And it's why I love — I want to, if we go forward and do more, it's why I wanted to make sure he had a manual wheelchair at times as well. Because I didn't want him to just be this, like, entitled rich dude that was flying about in a hover chair."

Although McAvoy was quick to point out, somewhat jokingly, that a wild sci-fi device might also be cool. This is a comic book universe, after all, and high-flying chairs and/or robot suits are not beyond the pale of imagination (even if they were to conflict with extant X-Men canon). 

"... That would be awesome, Fox, [producer] Simon Kinberg, [or] anybody that's writing it: A flying chair would be awesome. Power suit, that'd be cool too."

Professor X does not wear a power suit. 

'We explore it a tiny bit'

James McAvoy was also sensitive to how Prof. Xavier was a disabled character, a rarity in the world of superheroes, where lost limbs can be easily replaced by high-powered prosthetics. He wanted to make sure audiences could see that openly. Xavier's disability was not going to be hidden in a large yellow limousine-like craft that could easily be read as a "ride in style" device for an able-bodied superhero: 

"I wanted him to have a manual wheelchair because a part of, you know, one of the things I love about playing Charles as well is that you're playing somebody who is significantly physically disabled, and he's a superhero. And we need to own that and explore that a little bit. So we explore it a tiny bit."

In using a wheelchair for real, McAvoy seems to have been more comfortable slipping into character and bringing out the whole of Prof. Xavier. 

There is currently no announced plan for additional X-Men feature films, and at least one alternate version of Prof. Xavier was slaughtered in his last appearance, so the future of the character is largely unknown. Given that Disney bought the X-Men films when they purchased the Fox library in 2017, speculation has been swirling as to when X-Men characters will begin interacting with Marvel Cinematic Universe characters in earnest. Until then, well, there are about 40 films between the X-Men series and the MCU for us to enjoy.