You were right, I was wrong: James McAvoy edition

A couple of years ago (WHERE DOES TIME GO?), I wrote a top-ten piece listing who I believed to be the best actors under 40. I stand by the list, but for one exclusion. Back then, a bunch of people yelled at me for not including James McAvoy, even though I mentioned him in the opening as a worthy candidate—he was a top twenty pick! It’s not like I graffitied “James McAvoy sux” on a railway car. I like the guy, I just didn’t think, at that time, that he was one of the absolute best actors under forty.

Well, you were right, and I was wrong.


McAvoy started growing on me when I caught some of his early television work in the UK (State of Play, Shameless), and then older movies like Starter for 10 and The Last Station, and then saw him earlier this year in Trance, in which he stole the show from very talented supporting players like Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson. I thought, McAvoy is better than I remember. I thought, Maybe I need to watch more of his stuff. So I went back. I watched things I hadn’t seen before, like The Conspirator (which is a boring fucking movie that I can’t recommend unless you are a die-hard McAvoy fan and a completist who must see everything he is in), and revisited the notable stuff like The Last King of Scotland and Atonement. And I reassessed my opinion. Because while McAvoy is an able ensemble player and does make a good straight man, he has a couple of talents I don’t see many others offering in the current market.

Point the first: If you want to show the destruction of innocence, hire James McAvoy.

It’s that baby face. He’s thirty-four now and while he is capable of a solid hang-dog expression, McAvoy’s bright blue eyes and boyish handsomeness make for a perfect, rosy-cheeked expression of youth and innocence. But the age shows, too, when he wants it to. McAvoy has an extraordinary physicality which combines with his baby face to make dissipation believable. Scotland, Atonement, The Conspirator, Trance and Welcome to the Punch all play on that ability, taking McAvoy’s characters from bright-eyed innocents to degraded, downtrodden, defeated individuals (Wanted plays the cycle in reverse).


I can only assume his take on Macbeth, which is said to be outstanding, used the same abilities, but since they refused to simulcast that production, I wouldn’t know for sure. (Sidebar: I know it’s not the same as being in the theater, but with the technology we have today, not sharing exceptional theatrical productions with a larger audience seems selfish. Why deprive people of good Shakespeare? Why deprive them of good theater?) The X-Men franchise got their perfect Charles Xavier in McAvoy, an actor capable of realistically portraying both the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, pre-injury Xavier and the post-injury, depressed and apathetic Xavier. Basically, if you need an actor to take that kind of emotional (and often physical) journey, McAvoy is your man.

Point the second: No one more believably expresses pain on film than James McAvoy.

And I mean no one. I kind of make fun of McAvoy for his often graphic depictions of physical pain, snotting and crying everywhere (Trance, in particular, is a snot-fest), but the result is that when McAvoy suffers, you wince along with him. Welcome to the Punch has one of the most graphic depictions of a gunshot wound I’ve seen and it’s not even that bloody. Ditto for Trance which features cringe-inducing torture sold more by McAvoy’s reaction shots than any blatant depiction of the act. And Punch takes it further—throughout the rest of the movie McAvoy moves with not only a convincing limp, but navigates the realities of his injury with practiced calm and efficiency—this guy’s life is forever different for having been shot, and he sells that difference in every frame.


Two years ago, I was wrong. James McAvoy is a stellar actor who deserves to be considered among the best of his generation. And his low-key approach to work and likeable, zero-maintenance celebrity persona ensure he’ll be around for a while. He isn’t flashy like Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender, but he gets the job done and he has a unique on-screen presence. Therefore, I’m officially removing James Franco from my list—if he isn’t going to take his acting career seriously, neither am I—and am adding McAvoy to my list of the best under 40. You were right. Sorry it took me so long to catch up.

10 thoughts on “You were right, I was wrong: James McAvoy edition

  1. norjunma1

    YAAAAAAASSSS! (Runs through house, arms flailing in triumph.) I’m dying to see Filth, in which I hear he takes a block of C4 to the screen. (Did you review or did I miss it?)

    Also, are you sure you want to swap out Franco? His work with Rogan in the Kanye spoof was spectacular.

    1. I haven’t seen Filth yet. It isn’t due out in the US until spring 2014. As for Franco, I’m okay taking him off the list. 1) I didn’t think that spoof was so spectacular (they were funnier/better in This Is The End), and 2) he’s capable of great performances but his focus is so divided and you never know which Franco will show up, the focused one or the sleep-walker (see also: Oz, Great and Powerful).

  2. Abby

    Awesome! I had not seen your top ten actors under 40 entry but after this, I checked it out and thought that the list was great except that it definitely missed James McAvoy. With this fix the list is spectacular.

  3. Suzy

    No one will fault you for admitting your error and coming to your senses!!!! I think that James has extraordinary range, that was the reason why Robert Redford stated he hired him. I also think that as a male actor, no one is as sensitive as McAvoy. If you haven’t seen Inside I’m Dancing (Rory O’Shea Was Here) I highly recommend it.

  4. It takes a wise person to admit their mistake and even smarter when improving your own list. Apology accepted.

    Couldn’t agree with you more about the refusal to record his wonderful performance in Macbeth and broadcast in theaters or release on DVD. It would have been a wonderful resource for English Lit teachers for years to come. A great opportunity wasted.

    The film ‘Filth’ should solidify your respect for his talent portraying dark and damaged characters. Even the author, Irvine Welsh, says his performance is better than even he imagined “Robbo” and that the film is as good as ‘Trainspotting’.

    Thanks again for adding James McAvoy to your list. Looking forward to him living up to it in the coming years.

  5. nikki


    I am so glad you are on our team!!! I remember that terrific piece you wrote and how I agreed with you on all your choices- except for lack of James.

    I laughed my butt off about you kicking Franco off the list. Franco is absolutely electric in Spring breakers and I liked him in Howl but aside from that he really hasn’t been living up to his talent of late. I really think his focus has become so scattered that it is impacting his acting.

    Now back to James, he continues to be the best. You can the BBC’s modern re-telling shakespeare series from ten years ago on dvd- that contains a Macbeth starring James. It is very good but probably not as good as seeing him on stage.

    But to my mind, James’s best film work is in the still to be released Eleanor Rigby. I saw it workshopped at TIFF this past September and I really think it is his best work. He really is sensational in that film. All the qualities that make him special: the everyman face, his earnestness, his ability to to convey heartbreak are there to see. It was totally WOW. Have you seen it yet? If not, you are totally in for a treat!

  6. goalie

    How about Joaquin Phoenix? he is a great actor under 40 n not on your list too,,

    he was excellent in Gladiator, Walk the Line, n in 2012 The Master
    i remember before oscar award when everybody said no one has chance to beat legend Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln, except maybe Phoenix (although at the end of the day DDL still win, it showed how great Phoenix is)

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