Standing in the urban equivalent of a clearing in the woods, surrounded by squat stone buildings and haloed by an enormous Kmart sign, James McAvoy looks like an extra from a production of Oliver in need of a Grande latte. It doesn't help that he's wearing a newsboy cap pulled down over his ears. Or that it's one of those Dickensian days in New York when smoke-colored clouds spray a steady shower of cold rain over the city and a layer of wet leaves clings to the back of your legs. Out in this, McAvoy is a cliché of a Scotsman. "I love this weather!" he says happily.
It's been almost six months since the 29-year-old actor's cinematic debutante ball, Atonement, was in theaters. In the Best Picture-nominated adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel, McAvoy plays Robbie Turner, a housekeeper's son with a Cambridge education who falls in love with the daughter of an upper-class family. The embryonic affair is extinguished by a false accusation of sexual assault against Robbie, who ends up dying on the beaches of Dunkirk in World War II.
American audiences had seen McAvoy before, most notably as Mr. Tumnus the Faun in The Chronicles of Narnia and as the unscrupulous doctor who becomes Ugandan dictator Idi Amin's physician in 2006's The Last King of Scotland a performance lauded by critics, despite the fact that McAvoy was laboring in the almost comically large shadow of Forest Whitaker. But delivering McAvoy to multiplexes as the soulful-eyed young lover in Atonement was like taking the plastic wrap off a piece of Kobe. In New York doing reshoots for Wanted, the comic-book-based action movie out this month in which he costars with Angelina Jolie, the actor has gotten unprecedented attention.
"It was surprising coming here, because I've been recognized more than ever," he says, sitting down at a Ukrainian diner. That shift isn't immediately apparent in this setting, where the weekday crowd consists mainly of a few elderly people and a woman cradling a drowsy baby, whom McAvoy entertains with some clown faces. By the time his lentil soup gets to the table, no one's looked up from their blintzes. Then the waitress drops a black leather check holder on the table, explaining that it's been sent from the other side of the room. McAvoy opens it, takes out a napkin, and reads the note written on it. He turns around and cranes his neck to look for the sender. In the back, by a row of windows, a middle-aged woman waves enthusiastically.
McAvoy in the trailer for The Last King of Scotland