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Fear of Fame

"Talent, really," Wright says. "It's that simple. There's a lot of hard work; he's incredibly dedicated and committed to doing that hard work. But at the end of the day, there's an acting gene in him, a talent, that most other actors don't have. There's also this everyman sense about him, and he has an incredible openness as well. He doesn't hide behind a character and use it as a shield between himself and an audience. That's one of the reasons he's a leading man."

Is he directable? Wright laughs.

"I thought you asked how delectable he is. He's very delectable! And very directable, as well. This was the closest collaboration I've ever had with a male actor. He never let his ego get in the way; he was always open."

The Working-Class Roots

This, it seems, was critical as "Atonement" was taking shape. McAvoy says Robbie Turner was an "incredibly difficult" role, because, he says, "I've probably based every character I've ever played on conflict, and I couldn't with him." Because the character isn't conflicted, he's the moral core of the story. "He's so idealized," explains McAvoy.

In some ways, there's a bit of James McAvoy in Robbie Turner. They're both working-class, and they're both interlopers whose standing in their new world isn't quite clear. Or, in McAvoy's case, wasn't: He says he used to feel like a fraud in the acting community, "that people would suddenly recognize that I didn't really have talent."

But when McAvoy read for "Atonement," he says it was pretty clear that Wright was intrigued by the similarities between him and Robbie Turner.

"It was something Joe talked to me about in my first audition," McAvoy says. "He said: 'How does it feel to be the great white hope of British acting?' I thought: Are you trying to [expletive] with me? But what he was getting at was: Do you feel out of place? Do you feel like a man out o' water? Do you feel like a sailor on dry land because you're from something so different? Do you feel like you're in danger, like everybody around you knows something you don't? That's very much the situation that Robbie's in, but Robbie's kind of not aware of it. He was using that to wind me up."

Wright says he doesn't remember the exchange, but, he says: "While I don't think it's a requirement that actors be like the parts they play, the story is about a working-class boy being destroyed by this upper-class family, and the ease with which the upper classes are able to do that. . . . And I think there's something inherently working-class about James."

McAvoy grew up on the outskirts of Glasgow, in the Drumchapel housing projects. His childhood was filled with drama: He was just 7 when his parents divorced and his father abandoned him. His mother, a nurse, took him to live with her parents, who ran a strict household -- McAvoy generally wasn't allowed to be outside at night until he turned 15. Too dangerous in the Drum.

Still, nothing about his childhood seemed particularly difficult or traumatic, he says. "There were lots of kids around me that were in the exact same environment and situation, so it felt really normal."

And when his father walked out? McAvoy says that in some respects, his career path was set (though he did consider the priesthood, journalism and the navy). "I think it made me right to be an actor. Having been around that emotional [stuff] sensitized me and made me aware of adult issues early on -- much younger than most kids. . . . I think you stop just going: Me, me, me, me, me. You start to look at the universe where all this interesting and scary [stuff] happens. That's definitely something that's helped me as an actor.

"But, you know, I wouldn't thank him for it. But I wouldn't change anything either. It is what it is, and I'm fine with it. My life's turned out really well."

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