James McAvoy is no stranger to playing a romantic lead. He's been cast as a tragically star-crossed lover with impossibly beautiful and tormented leading ladies in films such as Atonement, Becoming Jane and, of course, Wanted (I kid, I kid! Anne Hathaway's Jane Austen was often quite cheerful, and not at all tormented).
The actor has also familiarized himself with the children's film terrain in his portrayal of Mr. Tumnus (the culinary adept, yet morally ambiguous Faun) in The Chronicles Of Narnia. With Disney's animated re-imaging of Shakespeare's beloved tale of woe (that of fair Juliet and her, now ceramic, Gnomeo) McAvoy is able to wrap the classic tropes of the forbidden love story in a lighthearted, kid friendly package.
As we said in our interview with director Kelly Asbury, Gnomeo & Juliet takes Shakespeare's story of the dangerously cloistered and naive Juliet and her (equal parts fickle, timing-challenged, and hyperbolic) Romeo and turns it upside down on its English head. The central characters are recast as garden gnomes caught in the middle of a long standing rivalry between the neighboring “red” and “blue” gardens, which belong to some rather grumpy humans.
McAvoy plays the title role of Gnomeo, a rambunctious, rebellious, free-spirited “blue” gnome against Emily Blunt's Juliet. Juliet hails from the oppositional “red” garden, and is a young woman desperate to leave her confining pedestal (literally), and find the kind of adventure that Gnomeo enjoys.
We had the chance to sit down with McAvoy to discuss the appeal of working in animated films, what drives us to return again and again to familiar stories, and a possible follow up film for the gnomes.
Screen Rant: You've got two animated features coming out this year, Gnomeo & Juliet and Arthur Christmas, is there something particularly appealing about animated films right now?
James McAvoy: "Yeah actually, I think just the enthusiasm that the producers and the directors have for their projects. I'm not saying that people on the live-action side of things don't, because they really do, but the relationship and the connection that the animated people have to their material is born from being attached to it for what feels like twenty years. It is a long, long time that they're with it. Before I even came on board with it, they'd been working on it for a couple of years. They've been living with it, and breathing it, and sleeping it, and eating it – and so therefore they are so passionate about it, it's actually really infectious to be around, so you want to be a part of it. I was also just lucky that two really good scripts came in as well, so I was really keen to be a part of it."
SR: Do you prepare differently as an actor for an animated film?
JM: "Maybe, sometimes, I do a good vocal warm up simply because I do a lot of shouting and screaming. In animated films for some reason I'm constantly in do-or-die situations where your hyperventilating [McAvoy demonstrates said panting, breathing and shouting, to the surprise and delight of the surrounding ladies in attendance] and so you end up with a very sore throat at the end of the day if you don't do a vocal warm-up, which I don't generally do on film, I do for theater actually. So, that's the only difference. Preparation... it's kind of hard to prepare for these things because you go into the booth and you kind of roll with it. It's not the same as working on a live-action piece, or working in the theater. Preparation is about being relaxed. It's kind of like in 'Toy Story 3' when he says 'we do a lot of improv around here, just stay loose, go with it, enjoy it.' That's kind of what making an animated film feels like."
SR: So you said this was trailblazing in the sense that...
JM: "I did?..."
SR: You did, it's in the press notes.
SR: It's okay, I think you were kidding a bit, but making the point that people are nearly always looking to take a new spin on Shakespeare, so putting it in the “secret world of” gnomes is blazing a ceramic trail, in a sense. In that vein, it seems like right now we continually hearkening back to previous tales, or pre-existing properties. Of course, that's not entirely new in the world of storytelling, and certainly with Shakespeare, that's not a new trend, I mean he just keeps going...
JM: (Laughing) "Keeps going..."
SR: And going... like the energizer bunny. Clearly Romeo and Juliet has been re-imagined many times over, from traditional productions, to West Side Story, to Baz Lurhman's version and so on... Yet there has been a general trend, over the last several years to rework, remake, reboot and otherwise re-do films, fairytales, books, comic-books, and so on. You're working on a few films which are based on previously existing properties now. Why do you think our appetite for revisiting known tales is so voracious right now?
JM: "Yeah, you know, I think the industry is kind of desperate to make money at the moment. I mean they always are, but for some reason right now, they are even more desperate, so they are going almost entirely toward tried and tested commodities. But the 'Gnomeo and Juliet' thing, I don't know, I think the reason that they hearken back to that is because any story that involves two people that are not allowed to be together, and who fall in love, is going to be a fantastic story. Also the morals of the story of 'Romeo and Juliet' – of acceptance, and not falling prey to pre-conception or misconception, or prejudice, and forgiveness and of love conquering all... Those are really good stories that can be told to kids, but in the form of 'Romeo and Juliet' you can't because there is too much suicide, sex, and death and fighting and stabbing, and taking drugs and all that stuff. So, in this one, you get to tell all those great morals, it gets to pass all those themes, without the violence."
SR: So it gives the audience the ending they really want?
JM: "I hope so, I hope no kids want them to die. I think I wouldn't want to be beside that kid who's going 'oh, I want them to kill themselves, and commit suicide, I want them to drink poison shit!' That little kid would get a quick kick in the face (laughing) not from me of course..."
SR: Oh no of course, from someone else entirely, just some obliging stranger.
At this point in our exchange, we turned to the topic of McAvoy's role as Professor X in the upcoming origins story X-Men: First Class, you can read that portion of our interview HERE. At the onset of our chat, however, we seemed to go down a path that lead to a flash of inspiration for McAvoy, the depiction of (what is often referred to as) the greatest story ever told – as experienced by garden gnomes.
SR: So are the rumors true that...
JM: "That I am playing Jesus?"
SR: Er, Jesus is it?
JM: "Yeah! In an animated feature...yes...the story of Jesus as portrayed by garden gnomes. That's a great F***ing idea!"
SR: Huh, interesting. So, as to Pride, Prejudice and Zombies...
JM: (Lost to us for the moment) "Ah! I'd just love to see the satanic gnome... in the garden of Gethsemane... Yes!... the garden of f***ing Gethsemane Gnome!"
Some part of us feels oddly certain that we will be seeing Gethsemane Gnome: 3D in theaters by November, 2012.
Also, McAvoy told us there is no truth to the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies casting rumors.
Gnomeo & Juliet is in theaters now.