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James McAvoy

Lead Actor: 'Atonement'

Fans of Ian McEwan’s bestseller “Atonement” might recognize a departure from the book in the casting of strapping young gardener Robbie Turner.

“Obviously, I’m not 6-foot-5, olive-skinned and built like a brick shithouse, and whilst not being ugly, I don’t think I’m a matinee idol,” jokes James McAvoy, the 5-foot-7-inch actor who held his own opposite Forest Whitaker in “The Last King of Scotland.”

But onscreen chemistry was crucial, since McAvoy and co-star Keira Knightley only have three scenes together in which to sell a seismic love affair. The couple clicked during screen tests.

“(Director) Joe (Wright) was really specific about what he wanted as far as physical type goes, and it definitely wasn’t James,” Knightley remembers. “And the man literally grew to 6-foot-5 in front of our eyes. It was amazing.”

Besides, cookie-cutter matinee idols are overrated, McAvoy insists.

“My only difficulty here was the fact that all my other roles had been character leads,” he says. “They’ve all been slightly strange and edgy, so I kept trying to find the edge, kept trying to find what was bubbling under the surface to create conflict.”

According to McAvoy, that search for inner turmoil is the basis for all his characterizations. The trouble with true-hearted Robbie Turner?

“There’s none in this character, and because I kept trying to put it in, it kept getting worse and worse. I wasn’t really performing properly,” he says. “I felt he was a little too goody-goody, and I didn’t believe people like that could actually exist. That probably says more about me than it does about the character, I suppose.”

The more pure Robbie is, the more effective the twist becomes.

“Everybody else in the film is so flawed, we have to have one beacon of goodness to destroy. Otherwise, it’s not a tragedy,” he says.

Halfway through the film, Robbie’s flaws emerge, which made the character more interesting to play. “He becomes very selfish and suicidal, much more representative of the human race.”

FAST FACTS

Favorite film: “‘The Goonies’ really captures what it is to be a young boy and have an adventure. ‘My Name Is Joe’ because Peter Mullan gives one of the best performances of the last 10 years.”

Young actor you admire: “Benedict Cumberbatch. He played Paul Marshall in ‘Atonement’ and a guy called Patrick in ‘Starter for 10.’ His career is only going to get more interesting.”

What you want in a director: “Certainty and a capacity for understanding.”

Vice: “I gave up smoking about three months ago, so it’s soccer. I’m mad about Glasgow Celtic.”

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