In M. Night Shyamalan‘s new psychological thriller ‘Split‘, James McAvoy plays Kevin, an OCD-suffering psychopath who kidnaps three teenage girls in the middle of the day and keeps them locked up, for purposes unknown.
Except that it’s not Kevin who does the kidnapping; it’s Dennis, Kevin’s sinister split personality. Kevin suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder) and has 23 fully realised personalities in total, each with their own mannerisms, histories, and agendas.
Luckily, the multi-award winning McAvoy was more than up to the task, and navigates the characters with a technical skill that shows his high-level training (McAvoy graduated from the prestigious Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama).
“Whether he was playing a child or a severe woman, he approaches each character with great comfort in his physicality,” said Shyamalan. “He’d finish a scene and the crew would break into applause because we knew we were watching something extraordinary.”
PEDESTRIAN.TV spoke to the McAvoy via phone from New York ahead of Split’s release, and as is absolutely due course for an actor with three BAFTAs to his name, a Golden Globe nomination, and a place in blockbuster royalty franchise ‘X-Men‘, we asked him if he’d ever shit himself while training.
P.TV: So did you really wear a nappy (à la Arnold Schwarzenegger) while bulking up for the role? [Laughs] No, I didn’t wear a nappy, and I wasn’t inspired by Arnie. I just remember reading an article about when he was deadlifting and squatting at his peak of his Mr Universe career, he used to wear a nappy, because he was scared he would shit himself.
I contemplated it once but I didn’t do it.
Were you ever scared you would?
Yeah, quite a few times! I was a bit scared, I was ‘touching tiger, crouching cloth’.
So how much did you put on?
Night said he wanted me to get a bit bulkier, so I said, look, I can either get all skinny and muscly and I can do that real quick by losing some weight and doing reps and all that shit, or I can gain muscle but it’ll be more bulky than it’ll be ripped.
I didn’t have long. I came onto this show quite late in the day, I think Joaquin Phoenix was going to do it, but then I stepped in at the last minute because Joaquin pulled out.
So yeah, I didn’t have long, but I had 4 or 5 weeks [before filming]. I put on a fairly decent amount a weight in that short amount of time. I’d eat about 5000 or 6000 calories a day [that’s between about 21,000 and 25,000kj per day, holy hell], actually more than that if I could get it down my neck. And I was powerlifting with a really good powerlifter, a guy in Philly, and he had me squatting and bench pressing and deadlifting, but it was great. For the first time in my life, I really truly enjoyed it.
How did it feel to suddenly be so much stronger than normal? Did you start walking around going ‘Yeah I could lift that, I could pick that up’? Yeah totally! But you also become a bit obsessed with it. And the minute you stop doing it, give it a couple months, and suddenly it’s like you were never that person at all.
That would do your head in a little bit.
No no it’s good! It’s like I was a weightlifter for a while – and I was like, a dedicated, training 5–6 times a week like a fucking crazy person, for like, four months, five months of my life. It was great! I got to have that hobby for a while. I might go back to that at some point, but even if I don’t, I got to experience that for a little bit. That’s the beauty of acting, you get to experience bits and bobs of other people’s lives every time you go to work.
Okay, so how did you manage nine different characters?
I don’t know – when I was trying to create them I just went with the ones that came naturally. Barry and Dennis came quite easily, Hedwig and Patricia were a little harder, and [REDACTED FOR SPOILERS]. Kevin was quite easy. I got them out the way and then started to hit the few harder ones.
We didn’t film them in sequence, we did try and keep each day to one character, but that wasn’t always successful, we had to make it up. You know, it wasn’t that bad, most films feel like that anyway, even if you’re only playing one character.
And what about when you were jumping between characters in a single take?
That was pretty fun actually. I really enjoyed getting to see them all come out at one time, that was one of the fun things for me. Cause you do all this work on the characters, and really, the thing you’re dangling in front of the audience is getting to see the changes. Playing a different person is one thing, but the audience want to see the changes, and giving them that extra opportunity is fun and I really loved doing that scene, it comes quite naturally.
What was it like going from a massive blockbuster like ‘X-Men’ [McAvoy plays Professor X] to a self-financed indie flick with a tiny cast? There’s no real difference to me, to be honest with you. You’ve maybe got less food and craft services, or you don’t have as nice a car driving you to work, but that’s kind of it. The rest of it… one film set is much like the other, even if there’s no money involved. You’re all standing around in the cold, or the heat, and you’re all looking at each other just having a conversation in between takes and messing around.
The only difference is that with ‘X-Men’ there’s so many of us, all the expectation and all the hard working doesn’t just go on one set of shoulders. Whereas on a film like ‘Split’ there’s more pressure on each individual actor, because there’s less of us to shoulder that burden individually.
How do you deal with that pressure? Well, I’m 37 and I’ve been doing it for 21 years, so I kind of respond to that pressure quite positively now. And if I don’t have that pressure I sometimes get a little bit, ‘I want to have that pressure, I want to be in a position where if this job works it’s because I’m making it work, and if it doesn’t it’s because I’ve fucking failed’. I want to be in that position of responsibility.
‘Split’ opens in Australia on January 26.
Photos: Universal Pictures Australia.