- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

James McAvoy is on the verge of becoming the biggest Scottish leading man since Sean Connery. Whereas Mr. Connery is notorious for keeping his accent in his films, whatever the nationality of the character he’s playing, Mr. McAvoy has proven to be a chameleon who can handle any role — and any accent.

In “Atonement,” the best-picture Oscar nominee that has brought the young actor his greatest fame, he’s the English working-class striver Robbie Turner. In “Becoming Jane,” he’s the Irish rebel who captures the heart of a young Jane Austen. In “Penelope,” opening in theaters today, he’s a down-and-out American who sounds just like Tom Cruise.

So it’s something of a shock to talk to Mr. McAvoy by phone and hear a Glaswegian brogue even more pronounced than that of the character he plays in “The Last King of Scotland,” one of the few Scotsmen he’s actually portrayed.

In fact, though this reporter’s own grandfather also hails from Glasgow, she had a bit of trouble understanding Mr. McAvoy when he apparently started talking and eating at the same time.

What does come through loud and clear, though, is that Mr. McAvoy is one of the most laid-back and grounded of leading men to come around in quite some time. In just a few years, the 28-year-old has gone from being an almost complete unknown in America to the guy who’s on-screen kissing Hollywood’s most beautiful women — Keira Knightley, Anne Hathaway and, in the upcoming film “Wanted,” Angelina Jolie.

He says he’s just happy to be employed.

“For the last seven years, not just the last few years, it’s been an absolute dream,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d work much when I left drama school. The amount of work, and for the work to be of such consistently — for me — decent quality, I’ve been so lucky. I always feel like I’ve been challenged as well.”

It’s a theme to which he keeps returning. When asked what he liked about “Penelope,” he responds, “The main thing that drew me to it is the character, of course, and the offer of employment, which is always nice.”

His Prince Charming in this modern-day fairy tale turns out to be a good guy, but he’s also a gambling addict — Mr. McAvoy may have the piercing blue eyes of a leading man, but he’s got the sensibility of a character actor. He concedes wistfully that he’ll probably be typecast at some point, but that right now he’s “playing lots of different things and getting a kick out of that.”

He started his career on the stage and on TV, and he hopes to return to the theater. “I definitely think it’s something I’ve been neglecting,” he confesses.

For now, he’s sticking to the movies. He just signed on to his next project, another literary adaptation. “The Last Station” is based on Jay Parini’s novel about Leo Tolstoy’s last year. Christopher Plummer will play the Russian novelist. Mr. McAvoy’s wife, Anne-Marie Duff, also stars.

With a rising career and an actress wife — Miss Duff starred in “The Magdalene Sisters” and played Elizabeth I in the miniseries “The Virgin Queen” — Mr. McAvoy’s share of paparazzi notice is increasing. It’s clear he doesn’t relish that kind of attention.

“I do want to remain private, yet the nature of what I do is very public,” he says. “It’s a very strange kind of thing.”

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