James McAvoy takes on his first lead action role as assassin Wesley Gibson in the thriller Wanted. The Scottish actor explains to Kate Whiting why he chose the part and reveals what it was like to kiss Angelina Jolie.

W hen you meet an actor who has been elevated to the ranks of Hollywood's next big thing almost overnight, like James McAvoy, you don't expect his first words to be an apology.

But this was what happened when we were introduced at London's swish Dorchester Hotel.

"When we were in the elevator, you let me go first and I felt terrible, because usually, in a daft way, I let the lady go first. It was the most awkward moment in my life!" he says, laughing.

He genuinely seems very concerned by this momentary lapse in his usual chivalry, somewhere between the hotel's ground and first floors.

Slightly flushed, since it is James McAvoy, I reassure him all is well before we get down to the important business of discussing his new film Wanted.

At 29, the diminutive Scottish actor has a string of critically-acclaimed films to his name and even a Bafta nomination earlier this year for Atonement.

But none of it seems to have rubbed off on him. He remains as modest and down-to-earth as the young man. It's been well documented he lives in a modest London flat with actress wife Anne-Marie Duff, drives a 10-year-old Nissan Micra and doesn't really like "flashy" awards ceremonies.

He even admits he was astounded when the studio cast "somebody like me" as the lead - an action hero - in Wanted.

"It was before Last King Of Scotland had even really hit and Atonement hadn't come out," he explains.

"Nobody really knew who I was over there (in Hollywood) and I just thought that they were being really brave casting somebody who isn't usual action hero fodder and thought, 'Well, they're trying to do something different'."

James plays Wesley Gibson, an average American office worker who is totally disillusioned with life. He hates his job and doesn't even care that his best mate is sleeping with his girlfriend.

But his life changes forever when feisty Fox (Angelina Jolie) reveals his long-lost father has been killed while working as an assassin for her secret organisation the Fraternity - and recruits him to avenge his father's death.

Cue a Matrix-style montage as Wes trains to be a fearless killer.

James is the first to admit that action films are "not really my thing", but he says it was Russian director Timur Bekmambetov's previous work - vampire films Nightwatch and Daywatch - that drew him to the role.

"His tone and character and directorial instincts really elevated the films and made them something I hadn't seen before.

"I also responded to the fact that Wanted was incredibly violent - I've not seen an action movie or a superhero movie in a long time which is just for adults - and that was exciting".

He adds: "It's an incredible change of pace and style and everything for me.

"When I look for something to do I ask myself, 'Does it challenge me? Does it require a new acting style? Is it a new genre? And this satisfied all those things."

Once on board, the actor, who played the scrawny bare-chested fawn Mr Tumnus in the first Narnia film, had to hit the gym to be fit enough for his fight scenes.

"I'd rather eat dog pooh than go to the gym so the training was a big change for me," he admits.

"By the fifth week into filming I was doing stunts for 12 hours a day and then going to the gym for 90 minutes. I just thought, 'There's no way I can stick this', but my trainer really forced me for the next three months and I'm glad he did because I wouldn't have been able to get through this film if I hadn't been fit."

Then came the tricky business of performing the stunts. One of the first things Wesley is taught by Fox is how to jump onto a moving train and then leap over a bridge.

"That was my favourite stunt," says James. "I had a stunt double of course, who did the dangerous things and makes me look incredibly good... but jumping over the bridge was all me and it was incredibly cool to do."

Wes also has to endure some pretty graphic beatings from the other members of the Fraternity to whip him into shape - but James says he loved the fight scenes.

"The best part is selling someone else's hit and trying to make their punch look good. And the person who does it better than anybody else is Harrison Ford.

"In Indiana Jones, he always gets punched really well. And it's not the person throwing the punch that makes it look good, it's him that makes it look good."

So had James been watching the old Indy film to prepare for Wanted?

"Totally! For my entire life I've been in preparation for getting punched!"

Throughout filming in Chicago, Prague and Romania, James had to work very closely with Mrs Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie - and she had plenty of advice for her co-star.

"The thing that I appreciated about Angelina more than anything was when she said, 'Don't take yourself too seriously. If you can't have fun making an action movie then you shouldn't be doing an action movie'."

And then there was the scene where they kiss, as part of Wesley's revenge on his two-timing girlfriend, which everyone wants to know about.

"Ach, it's the same as always, you know what I mean" says James, looking embarrassed. "You're worried and you're nervous and tense and there's loads of people looking and you kind of regret having that cigarette before the last take and the coffee and the tuna sandwich that you've just eaten."

So he's sticking to his story that kissing, 'is never easy, never nice' - even when it's kissing Angelina Jolie.

James was born in Glasgow and lived with his grandparents after his parents divorced. He got into acting almost by accident, when a director who spoke at his school asked him to audition.

He studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and landed small roles in shows like The Bill and Band Of Brothers. Shameless would change his life - he won awards for his portrayal of Steve and fell for his co-star Ann-Marie Duff, who he married in 2006.

The pair have just finished shooting a film about the life of Russian author Leo Tolstoy, called The Last Station.

So how was it working together again?

"It's good! We finished it about a week ago in Germany and it comes out in a year," he says.

"It was a fantastic job and just an amazing script. I've never seen anything like it in a film, something so Chekhovian. It's kind of high melodrama, but really high comedy - and really base comedy sometimes, people falling over and sneezing when they get nervous in squeaky shoes!

"But at the same time there's this high literary dialogue. So I'm excited about it, it should be good!"

Rumours abound that he's due to play hobbit Bilbo Baggins in a prequel to The Lord Of The Rings, but he denies them as exactly that.

"I've been very lucky," he says. "Not every actor gets the chance to show his versatility and I've been very lucky that I've been allowed to be versatile. I don't see any reason why this shouldn't continue. Hopefully it will."

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