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“I love the smell of sweat.”

It’s a strange pick-up line, but it works for Dani (Alicia Vikander) when she meets James (James McAvoy) at a French seaside hotel and they begin an intense romance in the new Wim Wenders drama Submergence (in theaters today). Dani is a deep-diving marine scientist, and James is a spy who goes to Somalia and is captured by jihadist fighters, and as the two risk their lives for their work, they must hold on to their memories of each other.

In the exclusive clip above, we witness the couple’s first meeting, before their lives begin to unravel. With the character of James, McAvoy adds another soldier/spy to his docket (Atomic Blonde, Atonement), and EW called him up to get the low-down on what keeps calling him back to these roles, how the similarities and differences between them inform his work, and the challenges of playing a character who faces repeated psychological abuse.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What led you to Submergence and made you want to sign on?
JAMES MCAVOY: The idea of working with Wim [Wenders] was a big one. Directors are really important, but I’ve always been wooed and swung by the quality of the writing and the character more than anything else. If the character’s interesting, I even forgive a lot of bad writing. This time the thing that really drew me to it was working with Wim — him being such a singular filmmaker and bravely off-beat filmmaker. Someone who’s managed to continue being like that through decades. He’s never really gone to director jail. He’s just a really interesting man, more than an interesting director.

Then I read the script, and I thought it was a pretty audaciously cerebral and metaphysical and geopolitical love story. I thought that was all really weird and interesting and complicated stuff to try and get right, and I was up for it. I’m always up for an adventure — going to all the places we would have to go to make this film, which were many. I’m not religious myself, but I really was attracted to my character’s faith, which struck a very non-cynical chord with me. The thing we seem to be seeing a lot at the moment with spies, which is great, is a kind of cynicism, a knowing, looking at it askew, very self-aware and self-critical kind of way, almost a self-defeatist way. Whereas James, who I play, was full of faith in his God and in his country, in his fellow man, and in the idea of love and the idea of social justice. At the same time, he was trying to fight jihadism and fundamentalism. Yet, at his core, he was sort of an open fundamentalist himself: He had a fundamental belief in the goodness of his fellow man, and then the goodness of the greater power he chose to believe in. Which was interesting, even though I’m completely non-religious myself and I’m kind of anti-religious a lot of the time — but I found it really interesting playing him.

It’s definitely a stark departure from a spy like David in Atomic Blonde.
Yeah. James and David are polar opposites, really. Nuclear opposites.

You’ve played a soldier and a spy at various junctures over the years, but was there anything you revisited, or more specific research you did for this role in particular?
Everything I researched on playing spies in Atomic Blonde led very brilliantly and conveniently into playing that guy in Atomic Blonde. Quite a lot of intelligence agencies would recruit people who were disposal or dispensable or just wouldn’t last very long, so a lot of alcoholics and a lot of drug addicts, things like that. High-functioning alcoholics and drug addicts, but people who might not make it past 50. Whereas when I came to James, all that was not very useful. The interesting thing about James is he is more of a soldier than a spy. He sees himself as a soldier, and he was, in fact, a solider. Although he describes it as a mistake of youth, I think he is still at heart a soldier. He’s a true believer, and he is a product of his institutionalization and his indoctrination a little bit more than somebody like [Atomic Blonde’s] David, who is more of a casualty of his institution and his indoctrination.

2017 Toronto Film FestivalCourtesy of TIFF
Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Submergence has quite a harsh dichotomy between your more romantic scenes with Alicia and the war/torture scenes in Africa. How did you balance those?
What was difficult was actually trying not to separate. The important thing was to try and feel the agony of the torture in those moments in France — not trying to mold them or bring them into the choices we were making, but just to know the choices we were going to be making as storytellers were going to be influenced by choices we had yet to make. It was a bit more of a jigsaw than usual, and trying to feel all of those elements at once, that was a challenge more than trying to keep them separate.

Did it bring you back at all to Atonement, which has a similar sort of juxtaposition?
James, to me, felt a bit like a Robbie character in that he’s kind of an ideal goody guy. He’s maybe got a bit more of a sense of humor than Robbie, but I think Robbie had a sense of humor until it got ripped out of him by Briony Tallis. They’re both sort of slightly idealized. I’d say Robbie was even more idealized than James. James is a little bit privileged right from the beginning, and had probably more of a sense of entitlement than I think Robbie would have ever grown up to have if he’d been allowed to grow up properly past the age of 22. There is a little bit of the naïve, northern European about him, or the naïve Westerner about him, as much as he should know better. That’s because of his faith and his belief, not just in his God, but his country and all that kind of stuff. He believes in sacrifice. That was the great thing that united him and Dani, was not so much just romance or their minds. They were both people who were willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believed in, and therefore that put them in a very small percentage [of people] who are willing to give up their lives for something other than their children. That’s a pretty on-edge, extreme type of person, and I don’t know if that’s the sort of person you want going into Somalia and trying to fix things.

You really get put through the wringer quite often on screen, and this was no exception. What was it like filming the more brutal scenes here? Why do you keep signing up to be quite literally tortured?
I don’t know. I don’t mind the physical stuff. This film I had to lose quite a lot of weight quite quickly in the middle of the shoot, and that wasn’t too hard. That was quite fun, actually. I still was able to eat quite a lot. It was a very interesting diet. That was fine. But it’s more the psychological aspect of playing somebody who is repeatedly victimized and disempowered and abused. That is horrible, psychologically. I am really not somebody who takes their work home with them. I’m really not somebody who lives the character. I don’t say I become the character. I never do. But at the end of the day, it’s just you there. There’s no character there taking all the abuse. It’s just you taking it, whether it’s physical or psychological.

I’ve had it on one other occasion, playing the guy in Trance. For a large portion of that film I was bullied and victimized and abused, belittled and all that. I hated that job because of it. I didn’t hate the job, I just did not enjoy it. It was a real drag, and it really brought me down. It felt the same [here]. So much so that maybe three or four times during the shoot I had to get absolutely wrecked and partied way too hard, just to combat the weightiness I was experiencing from all the nastiness. They were nice guys — don’t get me wrong. I got on really well with all the guys playing my torturers and my captors, and I had the same experience on Trance. I still play football with one of the guys that was torturing me. It’s not so much the physical side of things. I’ve broken my hand on jobs. I’ve broken my thumb on a different job. I broke my hand on another job. I got my eye split open on a job, and I’ve had a great time. I certainly wouldn’t do anything differently, but the psychological act of not just being physically tortured, but disempowered as a storyteller — that might be it more. You’re not able to do anything active in the story because you’re being a victim. You’re just being a reactionary victim, and that is not the part of acting that I really enjoy. Maybe that’s the reason I hated parts of its so much on both those films, was that you are hiding as an actor as a little bit, or just being there as a reactor, not an actor.

You would think something like playing Macbeth on stage would be just as psychologically taxing, but you’re the one instigating it, so is it different?
Yeah, you’re in charge of the story you’re telling. You don’t have to be big old brash lead, title character to do that. You can be a supporting character as long as you have the opportunity to tell your story and be actively in charge of telling your story. If the choices you make massively guide what happens to the audience and understanding of what your story’s meant to be about, then that’s okay, that’s good. My bug, my itch is not to act. My bug and my itch is to tell stories.

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