TIME movies

James McAvoy: X-Men‘s Professor X Is “Mental”

Professor X
James McAvoy, left, as Professor X, with Patrick Stewart, right, as Professor X Alan Markfield—Twentieth Century Fox

The actor discusses his recent shift toward less likeable roles

Many moviegoers first got to know James McAvoy as the romantic lead in 2007’s Atonement, but his more recent roles haven’t exactly been the type to inspire swooning. Case in point: this month, McAvoy appears as two very different but not-quite-friendly characters: the younger Professor Charles Xavier in X-Men: Days of Future Past, out May 23 — a major good guy in the superhero world, but in a dark place when the movie finds him — and a corrupt junkie cop at the center of Filth, out May 30.

McAvoy recently spoke to TIME about what guys like Professor X and Filth‘s antihero have in common. The answer: in his own way, each is suffering from some major mental-health issues.

TIME: Do you prefer to play bad guys?

James McAvoy: It’s not something I’ve had a lot of experience of until the last year or two, really. I think it’s interesting and fun because if you’ve got a nice guy and the purpose of the character is to kind of get the audience on his side and make the audience like them, that’s kind of simple. Whereas if you’re playing somebody who’s kind of despicable or unlikeable, and yet you still need to make the audience kind of like spending two hours with you, that’s fun. That’s complex and conflicted. It’s already got drama. It’s like Brecht always said, if you want the audience to be laughing you should be crying.

Do you feel any pressure to pick a “type,” to be a romantic guy or an action hero or a dramatic actor?

No I don’t really feel any pressure. There’s only the the pressure you put on yourself, that whatever job you take, you make it as good as you bloody can. I don’t really go out chasing roles, I don’t really do that as an actor; these are the ones that have come my way and they all happen to be, in the last year or two, slightly less pleasant people who are kind of mental in the head — like Charles Xavier, Macbeth onstage that I did last year, even Trance with Danny Boyle, these are all mentally damaged, traumatized, screwed-up people. And I just did Frankenstein, and you’re playing the original mad scientist. He’s off his f-cking nut as well. It’s just something that seems to have come my way in the last couple years, but I’m really, really enjoying it.

That said, McAvoy adds that he’d be happy to only play one type of role for the rest of his life, as long as he gets to work…with one exception. On Filth, he got his first producer credit, and he says that while he loved working on the project — and has even more respect for producers than he did before — having the extra title ended up being a huge amount of work.

“I got my first taste of what it’s like to be a producer, and it’s a pain in the ass,” he says. “I don’t think I’d do it again. Producers do everything. They make sure the lights are on in the building when you go in at 6:00 a.m. They make sure that the teamsters are getting paid. From the mundane trivialities to the biggest decisions, they are there, and they lose sleep over everything. I wouldn’t want to be a producer. No way.”

But that’s not to say that he only wants to stay in front of the camera from now on. “I’d direct,” he says, “but I’d make sure I had a rock-solid producer beside me.”

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