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James McAvoy on playing darker roles in 'Filth' and 'X-Men: Days of Future Past'

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TORONTO - James McAvoy first made his mark as a boyish, forlorn lover in "Atonement," but his latest roles have taken a darker turn.

In "X-Men: Days of Future Past," his Prof. Charles Xavier is unkempt and tortured, addicted to a serum that enables him to walk but suppresses his telepathic powers. And in "Filth," opening Friday, he plays hard-drinking homicide cop Bruce Robertson, who is tormented by surreal hallucinations.

"I felt a little bit of Bruce in Professor X this time, within the confines of a summer Hollywood movie," said McAvoy. "He's somebody whose brain is struggling. He's been traumatized by an event. He's resorted to drugs and drink. Also, he's got terrible hair. So there are a lot of parallels."

The 35-year-old Scottish actor helped fight for "Filth," based on the 1998 Irvine Welsh novel, to get made. Director and screenwriter Jon S. Baird reportedly had to scrape together financing from all over, including Sweden and Belgium, and McAvoy wound up taking a pay cut in return for a producing role.

"It was the best script I think I've ever read," McAvoy said. "I felt like it was going to give the audience a really rough, entertaining, shocking, slap-around-the-face experience and that's not something you get a lot of. So many films are trying to walk a very middle, safe road, and this is anything but that."

His character, Robertson, is a scheming detective in Edinburgh with a taste for sex, drugs, booze and masochism. But as he tries to win a promotion by humiliating his colleagues and attempting to solve a recent murder, he slowly loses his grip on reality.

"It's about somebody who is shocking, despicable and all those kinds of things, but actually, it's about someone who is sick. He's got massive mental health issues," said McAvoy.

"That was interesting to me because I felt quite often movies that are about mentally ill people, or very sick people, they can be quite dour ... I felt this is a movie that is dealing with mental health in quite a mentally unhealthy way — rather than a kind of worldly film about the state of mental health care issues in Great Britain."

The film also stars Jamie Bell, known for "Billy Elliot" and "Tintin," as his coke-addled sidekick, Imogen Poots as the lone female officer on the force and Jim Broadbent as Robertson's psychiatrist and a recurring character in his intense hallucinations.

McAvoy's sister, Joy, also plays a role — as a gang member that McAvoy sexually threatens in one scene. The siblings were raised by their grandparents on a housing estate, and "Filth" marks the first time they've acted together.

"It was a fun day at work," he said with a laugh. "My granny actually phoned us a couple hours after we filmed that scene, asking, 'How ya been doin'? What ya been up to?' and I said, 'Oh, you know, just playing with Joy.' It was kind of weird. But she's an amazing actress, and when you're working with good people, that makes it easier to do your job.

"And also, my character is incredibly perverse. The more perverse the situation, the easier it is to get your head into it, if you know what I mean."

McAvoy said the original novel is likely his favourite by Welsh, the darkly comic Scottish author best known for "Trainspotting." Welsh, meanwhile, has praised McAvoy's performance in the film, comparing it to Robert De Niro in "Taxi Driver."

"Irvine Welsh is one of the great writers, certainly one of the great Scottish writers, and just being a part of a team that was trying to bring his voice to film was his privilege," said McAvoy. "Everyone called it an unfilmable book. I just thought Jon, our director and writer, had done an incredible job."

"Filth" is filled with scenes that are sure to shock: McAvoy's character convincing his fellow officers to Xerox their genitalia, or having rough sex with a colleague's wife while she strangles him with a belt.

But asked what he considers the "filthiest" scene in the entire movie, McAvoy paused to think.

"I suppose the scene for me that is sort of like ... the whole movie, summed up in one scene, and I think an amazing sort of, like, tequila shot of Irvine Welsh, is the scene where I'm sitting, watching videos of my estranged daughter and wife, crying my eyes out because I miss them so much," he said.

"But then I pick up the telephone and start to prank call and have phone sex with the wife of my best friend, whilst pretending to be Frank Sidebottom, the 1980s TV chat show host, whilst masturbating, and still watching my wife and child on the television, crying my eyes out."

McAvoy said everything producers were trying to do with "Filth" is crammed into that one scene.

"We were trying to make people feel sad. We were trying to shock people. We were trying to make people feel revolted. We were trying to make them laugh. It's funny, it's sad, it's repellent, it's shocking, it's incredibly tragic, all at the same time."

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