Interview: James McAvoy Talks Gnomeo & Juliet (2011)

Romeo from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is one of the roles that is almost necessary for every male actor to play at some point in their careers. Fortunately for them, the original work has been adapted into many forms, giving actors a wide variety of Romeo’s to choose from. Now Romeo takes the form of a garden gnome in Gnomeo & Juliet and James McAvoy lends his voice to the film to bring Gnomeo to life. McAvoy spoke with Working Author regarding his experience with gardening, performing for animation and thoughts on Shakespeare.

James McAvoy was in a playful mood for the interview, introducing himself with the tag “I am Gnomeo in my heart.”

Garden gnomes seem to be more ubiquitous in certain parts of the world than in others. While McAvoy’s childhood garden wasn’t as elaborate as those featured in the film, he did have a few ornamental figurines. “I had a frog,” he says, “much like the one that Ashley Jensen plays in this film – brilliantly, I have to say. And I had two garden gnomes in my grandparents’ garden. One of them was bearing its backside, and the other one was looking kind of like that. I think they came as a pair. But they were really grimey and covered in moss, and I always thought they looked a bit seedy, unlike the child friendly ones in this film.”

While McAvoy admits that he doesn’t currently have much of a garden, he does maintain an herb garden that he’s proud of. “I’ve got some good rosemary if you’re looking for rosemary, and some nice lavender oil.”

In addition to his lengthy film credits, McAvoy also has extensive experience on the stage, performing in several Shakespearean plays, including Romeo & Juliet as Romeo. He’s also played Riff in West Side Story. As such, McAvoy had plenty of insight into Gnomeo that he was eager to share. “I always see Romeo as being a bit of a pain in the backside and very in love with himself. Got a lot of time for himself, and some time for the ladies as long as they’ve got time for him. Then something massive happens to him, so that was important to make him a little bit coggly wog.” In Gnomeo & Juliet some of the characters from the source material had to be absorbed into other characters. McAvoy addressed this with, “But also, Gnomeo in this is a little bit of amalgamation between Gnomeo and Mercutio. I’ve got Benvolio in this kind of – with Benny – but we don’t have that Mercutio character. We don’t have that leader of the pack, which Romeo isn’t, but Gnomeo is a little bit. So it was handy to have an appreciation of who Mercutio was as well in that way of expectation, not only to conform to what your family wants, but also to show off for your blue pals.”

While Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy that not many parents are ready to share with their children, McAvoy feels that this adaptation presents a wonderful opportunity for younger audiences. “…The story of Gnomeo and Juliet’s got a lot of nice morals. It’s got don’t pay attention to preconception and to prejudice. Forgiveness is really important, and all that really good stuff to tell kids. You can’t tell them with Romeo and Juliet because everybody dies or commits suicide or takes drugs or kills someone or has sex with someone they shouldn’t be having sex with. So stick it with garden gnomes and you can give them all those good little morals and tidbits without the suicide, sex, death, drugs.”

McAvoy also discussed the stresses of voice work. “I don’t know about you, but I think with animated movies, I get paid to hyperventilate and to lose my voice.” McAvoy demonstrated with a series of grunts and heavy breathing. “I’m like, ‘Oh, no, here we go,’…and by the end of that, I can hardly speak. I’m tripping; I’m like having a psychedelic experience. So being able to kind of know how to do a proper vocal warm-up was quite handy.”

Before the interview ended, McAvoy explained what it was that attracted him to the project. He lamented that not many people – presumably filmmakers – are excited about film and live action. The filmmakers behind Gnomeo & Juliet, however, were overflowing with enthusiasm, which has kept the film moving forward for 11 years. “I found it so infectious that it made me want to be a part of it,” McAvoy says. “I liked the script; I was really excited about working with Elton John. However, that excitement and that enthusiasm is rare, which makes you think, ‘This has got to be good.’”

Gnomeo & Juliet opens in theaters on February 11.