Scottish actor James McAvoy is best known for starring in such serious, award-wining movies as The Last King of Scotland and Atonement — which is precisely why the role of pantywaist turned assassin Wesley Gibson in Wanted appealed to him.
But that there was more going on in Wanted than high-concept action set pieces made the project even more interesting. “One of the things that attracted me to the film was it was a big, silly piece of entertainment — an action film,” says McAvoy. “But that basis of the journey, the basis from which we play this action hero, or anti-hero, is he’s really a depressed person full of self-anxiety. It’s a sad place to begin.”
Based on the Top Cow comic book series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, Wesley is a powerless cubicle-dweller who learns he is heir to membership in the Fraternity of Assassins. Mentored by Fraternity leader Sloan, played by Morgan Freeman, and sexy fellow assassin The Fox, portrayed by Angelina Jolie, Wesley learns to unleash the killer within to serve the orders of fate.
McAvoy says that transformation makes Wesley radically different and far more interesting than the vast majority of gold-hearted action-movie heroes. “He starts in a very interesting, depressed place and he ends in a very interesting psychopathic place,” he says.
The first act of the film sticks closely to Millar and Jones’ comic book, before going in its own direction. McAvoy says he first read the comic book after he had read the script but before he did his screen test and found the experience a little unnerving.
“I was a little bit freaked out because the character is so clearly visually based on Eminem and Angelina’s character is so clearly visually based on Halle Berry,” he says. “I really liked it, but it’s totally different though (from the film).”
Portraying that transformation engaged McAvoy on both a mental and physical level. “He’s so disempowered at the beginning, it’s difficult for him to mobilize his face, and he gets more expressive as the film moves on,” the actor says. “It hopefully signifies more self-worth and willingness to communicate.”
On the physical side were extensive stunts, which McAvoy says were at times quite frightening. “The scariest stunt I had to do was when I jump over a bridge,” he says. “A lot of it is CGI, but the bridge was real and the train was real and they were actually moving the bridge towards us, as well as the train towards the bridge, to get some extra speed, and I had to jump through a fence. It was (made of) balsa wood and it had been sawn through to break easily, but it was painful.”
Another stunt called for McAvoy to jump onto a moving car, a stunt he began practicing at a low speed that increased a tiny bit with each attempt until it was up to 30 mph.
Getting comfortable with a character who constantly uses firearms was another challenge. “They just freak me out,” McAvoy says of guns. “I’m not sure that I ever became totally comfortable with them. Hopefully, it’s not too evident in the film.”
Working with director Timur Bekmambetov — who McAvoy describes as an “evil genius” — was another aspect of the project that appealed to the actor. So it was a bonus when Academy Award winners Freeman and Jolie joined the film.
“When Morgan got cast I was beside myself and quite nervous as well,” McAvoy says. Freeman’s work “just leaps out at you, so getting to work with him is incredible, such a privilege.”
And despite the tabloid hype, McAvoy says Jolie was very cool and very normal. “She was totally capable of having a good laugh at her own expense, everyone else’s expense, at the job, at the script, at the director,” he says.
Finishing the film was a relief for McAvoy, who says the experience, though satisfying, left him spent. But should Wanted warrant a sequel, he’d be interested in returning to the role, even if only to see what happens next to Wesley.
“I have no idea where he goes, no idea what happens to him,” McAvoy says. “I don’t think he walks off going into the sunset going, ‘I can get on with my life now.’ I think he’s probably really screwed up and possibly quite a bad person at the end of the film.”