James McAvoy, the new X-Men star, exits a black Town Car and sallies toward the entrance of the Standard hotel. Maybe it’s the misting rain, but he has a look of moody heroism. He’s confident and handsome and absolutely credible as a defender of humanity. And then: “Fuck! Ow! Fuck!” McAvoy, erstwhile leader of mutantkind, has stubbed his toe. “Oh! I think I might have broken it! Owwww!I really think I broke my fucking foot.”
Okay, so nix saving the world. How about keeping a franchise alive? The four X-Men films have grossed more than $1.5 billion, inspiring untold millions in sales of related merchandise. Naturally, 20th Century Fox and Marvel Comics, which co-produce the films, want to keep those millions coming. And in the current Hollywood, that is increasingly translating to a prequel reboot with a brand-new, cheaper cast. X-Men: First Class (opening June 3) resets Jennifer Lawrence as shape-shifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), January Jones as Emma Frost, and Nicholas Hoult as Beast. In the lead roles, Michael Fassbender, as the militant Magneto, faces off with McAvoy as the noble, nonviolent mutant guru Professor X, previously played (or later played?) by Patrick Stewart. The action takes place in the early sixties of James Bond, Mad Men, and the Cold War—not that politics will get in the way of the international box office. “Yeah, we’re basically suggesting that the Cuban Missile Crisis was all the fault of mutants,” says McAvoy in his thick Scottish brogue. “Fucking brilliant! I love it. Weighty.”
McAvoy has settled down with a restorative cup of tea, gingerly massaging his foot. He describes the younger X as “like the president who suddenly you find out smoked a lot of pot in college. The first thing you see—I hope they keep this shit in, I’m paranoid—is that I played him as a bit of a sex pest, quite happy to abuse his powers. You know: What’s her favorite drink? Favorite song?” So kind of a Don Draper who can manipulate the secretary pool’s brain waves? “It’s not that he would ever mind-fuck anyone into having sex with him, but he definitely mind-tickles somebody into having sex with him,” he says.
McAvoy says he admires his predecessor both artistically and physically: “I don’t know what Patrick is, 65, 70? You don’t realize it, but he’s a fit dude, man. He’s got guns!” Like Stewart, McAvoy has also juggled blockbusters (The Chronicles of Narnia, Wanted), tonier fare (Atonement, The Last King of Scotland), and television shows (State of Play and Shameless in Britain). Unlike Stewart, he played one of Professor X’s scenes in full drag, at the request of mischievous director Matthew Vaughn, whose last credit was the hyperviolent comic bloodbath Kick-Ass. “[Vaughn] goes, ‘Eh … let’s have you dress as a prostitute.’ And I’m like, ‘I play Professor X,’ ” McAvoy says, affecting a haughty tone. “Weird, weird shit. It’s not like dangerous filmmaking or anything, but it’s fun, it’s irreverent, and it’s not what you’d expect.” He says the more out-there the role—and what could be more out-there than a guy who feels the thoughts and pain of every being on the planet?—the more “you have to commit, to try and believe it even more, maybe because it’s so ridiculous.” McAvoy stops himself. “You know, it sounds really walleyed talking like this about a film like X-Men … I do this, really.” He leans over his cup of tea and furrows his brow, placing two fingers to his temple, miming Stewart’s patently simplistic mind-reading technique. “That’s how I get into character,” he says. “I put two fingers to my temple. And squint.”
Ack! Don’t let X-Men fans read that! For actors who step into iconic superhero roles, there is no in-between: You are either loved (Hugh Jackman as Wolverine) or reviled (Ben Affleck as Daredevil). It’s a crapshoot as movie roles go, with an audience as cynical and pitiless as Sondheim fans. But the actor makes no attempt to suck up to the geeks, noting that the filmmakers “don’t really care for the comic books, I don’t think.” He also doesn’t claim to have always dreamed of playing a bald telepath, back when he was a working-class kid studying acting at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. He is explicit about the appeal of the part.“I do a film like this because it fits in nicely with my structure. I won’t do another one like this for a while, but hopefully that ticks the box and keeps the career moving along. For lack of a better word, you don’t want to spunk it all early, so you try different genres and hopefully you can keep doing this when you’re 80.”