Story time: When I was 15, I took my younger sister to see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which I thoroughly enjoyed, as did my sister. The defining moment of that screening, however, came when the character of Mr. Tumnus appeared, played by James McAvoy. Never mind that the character was a faun, and the beacon of C.S. Lewis style innocence; when he came on screen, a woman behind my loudly whispered, ‘Fuck, I’d drop my knickers for him.’
This moment stuck out in my mind for many reasons, as you can imagine, but one memory it evoked was of an article I’d read the previous year in Empire Magazine, reporting on the Joel Schumacher directed adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-musical The Phantom of the Opera. Amidst the several pages long spread of glossy on-set photographs, there was a shot from the masquerade scene showcasing the new Red Death outfit worn by the Phantom, as played by Gerard Butler. Accompanying it was a paragraph of text informing the reader that a set dresser had appeared on set that day, and the quaint old woman, upon seeing Butler in the outfit, immediately said she would drop her knickers for him.
I’m reasonably sure I’m the only person to remember these two moments, bound by nothing other than coincidence and my penchant for moments of spontaneously confessed passion. Whatever the case, as I grew up and delved deeper into the world of film, the entertainment industry and the ecosystem of celebrity, I have always kept an eye on Butler and McAvoy, as well as any Scot with the tenacity and luck to make it big across the border and the pond. These two actors, in particular, have presented a fascinating contrast on the ways Hollywood consumes maleness through the intersections of Scottishness, class, talent, and beauty. Both men can act, look good in a suit (or out of it), are fetishized to various degrees based on their Scottish identities, but both find themselves to the side of how America prefers its Brits. By birth, they possess many of the privileges that allow for a smoother journey to stardom, but it’s clear that, compared to many of their contemporaries, they’re not playing with a full deck.
Both McAvoy and Butler grew up on the West coast of Scotland - McAvoy in Glasgow and Butler in Paisley. McAvoy’s upbringing was decidedly working class, defined by his parents’ divorce, his mother’s ill health, and growing up raised by his grandparents. Butler’s parents also divorced, and he didn’t see his father again until he was 18 (McAvoy does not see his dad either). Both attended Catholic High Schools and attended youth theatres as teens. McAvoy moved onto higher education in the arts, attending Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (whose graduates include David Tennant, Robert Carlyle, Alan Cumming and Billy Boyd), but Butler took a more traditional route and went to law school.
He attended Glasgow University and even got elected to President of its law society, although he says now that he ‘kind of blagged my way into’ it. For a man defined in his current career by a certain assumption of being a rock-headed action man, Butler’s actually got one hell of an education behind him. Getting there, however, was tough. After his dad died when he turned 22, he took time off before his final year of studies and lived in Venice Beach, working various jobs and drinking too much. That would carry over once he graduated and began work as a trainee solicitor in Edinburgh, and he was fired one week before he could fully qualify due to missed work and general revelry. With nothing left to lose, he packed up his things and went to London, where all the acting work is.
McAvoy headed to London too, doing the usual bit-parts in TV and performing on stage to critical acclaim. He caught the eye of both Sam Mendes and Joe Wright, performed on the West End, appeared in Band of Brothers and the TV adaptation of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. McAvoy’s career was a slow-burn: There was no instant success, there was no glorious leading performance that dazzled the world, and his ‘breakout’ came after several years of work across film, TV and stage, where he’d already made a name for himself to those who paid attention. After all, he was a classically trained actor, but the education provided by the Scottish arts scene carries less weight and prestige than that of the London-based drama schools like RADA.
Butler didn’t go to drama school. The law career didn’t pay off and now, like every other actor-in-waiting, he found himself doing odd jobs and auditioning in the big city, a city so immense and a world away from anything in Scotland. There are more people in London than our entire country. It doesn’t carry the dream-like glitz of potential Los Angeles does, but any Scottish actor worth their salt knows the city is their only hope for making it to the next step. For Butler, that included striving in auditions and missed opportunities until he landed his first professional acting job in the ensemble of Coriolanus at the age of 27. By that age, McAvoy had done over 10 films. Stardom is seen as the privilege of the young, but that narrative doesn’t always stick, or at least it has more leeway if you’re a white dude.
Scottishness wasn’t a massive part of McAvoy’s career in the early days as most of his more substantive roles were English or neutrally accented. Butler was more evidently Scottish in his early roles, getting to keep his accent throughout the beginning of his career. He made his big screen debut in a Scottish role as Billy Connolly’s brother in Mrs Brown, and did local projects, including One More Kiss. He also did the sequel to Tomb Raider and appeared in the deceptively marketed dragon action film Reign of Fire, both of which allowed him to play Scottish. These weren’t Scottish films though. The Scottish film and TV industry is not a flourishing field, unless you’re a big-budget American project scouring the glens for historical accuracy or one of the rare films made here by local talents like Lynne Ramsay and David MacKenzie. The funding and provisions needed for a structurally sound industry aren’t in place, and similarly picturesque locations like Ireland offered better tax breaks. There were exceptions, like Trainspotting, which revolutionised British independent film, but there’s still a preconception that you can’t make a major career for yourself through this route.
Both men ‘broke out’ around the same time, although their routes were very different, the perceptions of each of them sharply contrasting, and the roles presenting different routes into Hollywood stardom. It’s interesting that Butler’s build-up was more invested in that notion of Scottishness. The roles allowed for it, mainly because by and large they were action focused. A Scottish accent, especially one as strong and rumbly as a Glasgow-adjacent one, is great for being romantic and heroic. It’s tough but warm, intriguing and familiar but alien to so many. It inspires excited sighs for countless women before they work up the nerve to ask what you just said. You can get away with that accent more when you’re a gruff action dude because people expect that kind of accent for such occasions. As we talked about before with the tropes of Highlander romance novels, the aura of Scottishness to non-Scots is placed firmly in the context of fantasy, albeit one more accessible than swords and sorcery. Butler’s a good fit for that: He’s tall, handsome, level with Sean Connery in terms of an inability to hide the accent, and it’s easy to imagine him toting a machine gun while wearing a vest.
All that makes the reality of his career breakthrough all the weirder, even more so given that playing the Phantom of the Opera would require at least basic musical talent, of which Butler is sadly lacking. He may have performed in a rock band during his student days, but his strengths do not lie in the vocal theatrics of the West End and Broadway. Director Joel Schumacher, a man never know to align himself with competence, decided that he wanted the central pair to be youthful and fresh, hence the casting of Butler and Emmy Rossum. The film itself, which was a long time in the making since the musical premiered to instant success in the ’80s, is a strange failure. Everything about it is off, and it’s fascinating to watch a film wherein almost every decision made is the wrong one: The basic blocking of shots is skewed, the cinematography is drab and barely conceals how small many of the sets are, Schumacher can’t decide if he wants to stylistically evoke gothic melodrama or drab realism, none of the actors have the necessary pipes for the songs (aside from Patrick Wilson and his terrible wig), and one of the masquerade dancers is Voguing. Putting Butler in all that and making him play this deceptively difficult part of an emotionally stunted stalker who happens to be millions of women’s sexual fantasy wouldn’t be the worst idea if he didn’t have to sing.
Bless Butler for trying as hard as he does in The Phantom of the Opera, because everyone is certainly trying but that doesn’t stop the inevitable failure. He just didn’t have the range. Still, as much as the film under-performed and his work in it was less than beloved, the film did give Butler a solid launching pad onto bigger things.
Meanwhile, McAvoy’s profile also grew. He starred in the first two seasons of the British comedy Shameless, where he met his future wife (now ex-wife), Anne Marie-Duff, and then reached his biggest audiences with Narnia. McAvoy’s appeal lay in a different kind of masculinity to Butler. He’s shorter, sweeter, and more likely to be called cute than handsome. The character actor mould is a better fit for him. Already by this point in his career, McAvoy had stretched himself in an array of roles, from a punk rocker with muscular dystrophy (Inside I’m Dancing) to high society gossip columnist (Bright Young Things) to son of Paul Atreides himself (Children of Dune). He had the physicality to remould his body as necessary, be it to play a well-muscled tennis player or a severely disabled man; he could shift accents easily, including English ones of various dialects; he had warmth and approachability, even making the CGI legs of a faun seem authentic. McAvoy is definitely a better actor than Butler, but he was also less easy to box into a type than Butler, who seemed tailor made to be sold as an action star from the beginning. If Butler was a movie-star, McAvoy was an actor.
McAvoy’s stature as an actor grew over the next couple of years, bouncing from comedy (Starter for 10) to drama (The Last King of Scotland) to romance (Becoming Jane), with 2007 seeing him receive the crowning achievement of becoming the first actor to win the BAFTA Rising Star Award, the only award of the ceremony voted on by the British public. His public visibility remained strong over the next few years, bolstered by a career best performance in Joe Wright’s Atonement, which went on to garner seven Oscar nominations, fourteen BAFTA nominations, and seven Golden Globe nominations, with McAvoy being nominated in the latter two for lead actor. Atonement isn’t necessarily discussed as rapturously these days as it was in 2007, and even then it was overshadowed by the one-two critical punch of No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, but it remains a real peak for everyone involved, including McAvoy. It’s a role he fought for, and he knew how special that part was, treading the lines of class, duty and gender to devastating effect. It was also a leading role, something he’d experienced less of in earlier years, working his way through supporting parts in crowded ensembles. He’d proven to Hollywood that he could command the screen front and centre.
For Butler, 2007 offered him the ultimate leading man role too, albeit one with a more striking physicality than McAvoy’s tenderness in Atonement. Zack Snyder’s 300 is arguably the ultimate Snyder film: Purely stylistic, visually striking, more self-knowing than it’s ever given credit for, and wildly fun to watch. It’s completely ludicrous but everyone involved is so balls-to-the-wall committed to the premise that you can’t even mock it because it’s mocking itself. Butler, as Leonidas, is so muscled that it looks like it hurts to be him. It’s a caricature of masculinity, where thundering thighs bump together and the light achingly captures the shadows of the 8-pack. He screams and growls and puts every inch of his focus into those scowls, all while remaining resolutely Scottish. If you must have a 6 ft tall actor with biceps that can crack walnuts bellowing ‘This is SPARTA!’ in your face, make sure he’s from Scotland, you won’t regret it. Let’s not overlook how good Butler is in it too. It’s a full-on commanding performance of alpha leadership, the kind of action hero roles that died out many decades ago, if they ever truly existed. It opened many doors for Butler. The sad thing is he ended up picking a ton of really shit doors to walk through.
As Butler did terrible action film after terrible rom-com, McAvoy found his own foothold into the action genre, through the burgeoning universe of superhero franchises and the revival of the X-Men series. The Avengers was a year away but Fox had the foresight to see where Marvel wanted to take that franchise following the success of Iron Man, so what better way to breathe life into an existing IP than giving it a prequel? As the iconic Charles Xavier, the soon-to-be Professor X, McAvoy had major shoes to fill, given the way Sir Patrick Stewart utterly dominated the role in the earlier films. The younger Charles is less worldly and not the kindly force of unflinching goodness he would become; This Xavier fucks. By the time the three films wrapped up, McAvoy had made the role his own as much as the movies were willing to allow. He was never going to be a Captain America type - his part in Wanted is probably the closest he would get to that but even then, that’s a Mark Millar adaptation where such tropes are filtered through exhausting nihilism. Attempts to fit a more traditional action mould as perfected by the British film industry, like 2013’s middling thriller Welcome to the Punch and Danny Boyle’s post-Oscar art heist drama Trance, fizzled on arrival. Xavier works for McAvoy because it gives him range for dramatic chops in an action-focused genre, but does not require him to embody that kind of masculinity. He’s cute but he can’t pull that off.
Even Butler, who fits that mould to a tee, really only excels in that styling when it’s done so with tongue firmly in cheek. Trying to find a Butler film after 300 that’s legitimately worth your time is not easy. The How To Train Your Dragon films are wonderful and his gruff voice work lends itself well to that world, and he’s legitimately great in Ralph Fiennes’ alternate world modern-day take on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a film that moves Rome to an Eastern European style warzone and has the ensemble clad in bulletproof vests while toting machine guns. Watching it is almost aggravating because Butler finally has an opportunity to do great work and you wonder why nobody else lets him to this. Is the money from inept and jingoistic nonsense like London Has Fallen and Gods of Egypt so enticing that Butler can’t say no to evidently terrible material? Or is he just not getting the scripts McAvoy is having sent his way?
One of McAvoy’s best performances sees him return to Scotland, but this is no manicured tourist fantasy. Filth, based on the novel by Irvine Welsh of Trainspotting fame, is as gross as the title suggests. Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson is a sexist, racist, homophobic drug addicted misanthrope who manipulates everyone around him for cheap thrills and delights in the power his occupation gives him to revel in corruption. It’s a deliberately tough watch and McAvoy is purposefully tough to look at; bloated and pale and on the verge of either vomiting or collapsing at any given moment. McAvoy hasn’t been defined in bad terms through his roles. He’s not a stock British villain like many contemporaries; he’s an ally and hero and nice guy. With Filth, he clearly loved being free of those restraints, and the performance won him a Scottish BAFTA. It didn’t go over so well in America, where the critics took a much less favourable stance to the material, but that almost feels like the point. Finally, McAvoy did something for us Scots. The filthier, the better.
The British film industry, like basically everything else here, is defined harshly by class. It remains the preferred fetish of our nation, and the primary marker of power. The sad truth of the arts in Britain - and I imagine everywhere else - is that money talks, and having the ‘right’ education will give you the step up you need. Did you go to Oxbridge? Was your primary education privately funded? Did you attend drama school in London, particularly RADA? Can you afford to live in London and either have work flexible enough to allow you to attend auditions regularly or live without paying bills? Congratulations, you’re halfway there. Now imagine getting your foot in the door as a working class Scottish kid and being told you’re not ‘right’ for the role, whereas the poshest person in the room is always the ‘right’ one. Arts funding for state schools is being slashed to pieces, and it’s helping to exacerbate the class gap in those industries today. Hollywood has a way it likes to imagine Britishness, and it just so happens to be the narrowest definition of such - very upper-class London-based Englishness, whiter than the flesh of an apple, classically trained with Shakespeare on the brain, and preferably wearing a cravat. It’s a stereotype the British industry is happy to perpetuate. So you can’t afford to go to the super expensive drama school, even though you’re immensely talented? That’s fine, there are twenty people behind you whose parents have bottomless pockets, and they’re happy to take your place because they’re already halfway there.
British actors don’t talk about this. We all like to pretend that everyone got where they were based solely on merit and not because they embody how the world prefers to consume Britishness. That’s what’s so rare about James McAvoy - he doesn’t just call it out; he names it. On Stephen Colbert’s show, he candidly discussed the ‘class ceiling’ that holds back kids with backgrounds similar to his. As a Scot, he has that luxury because the world will seldom code him as British unless he explicitly demands it. He’s not just doing the talk on this: He’s also committed £125,000 of his own money for aspiring young Scottish actors to get help to attend his old drama school. He’s keeping the money in Scotland and creating the opportunities where there weren’t any before. I cannot undersell the magnitude of this. Poshness dominates the arts, and it’s the working-class Glaswegian kid who’s going to help re-balance the scales.
That hunger for poshness may be what has kept Butler boxed into such a limiting stereotype of maleness and Scottishness. If he spoke like Benedict Cumberbatch, I don’t think he would be languishing in such shoddy work. Hell, if Benedict Cumberbatch was called Ben Cowan and came from Paisley, I highly doubt he’d be the star he is today, regardless of talent. You hear an accent like Butler’s and you immediately jump to certain conclusions about what kind of man speaks like that. How educated is he? Has he ever gotten violent? Am I safe around him? Hell, I’m born and bred here and we still harbour those stereotypes. Butler is by no means the best actor out there, but he does have talent and has demonstrated such in the right roles, so why not give him a chance to do so where his physicality and nationality aren’t the defining factors? He may not get his own McConaissance, but surely there’s a chance for Butler to have fun with a Jason Statham style mockery of his own image in Spy?
Neither actors are in danger of running out of work any time soon. McAvoy’s back on the X-Men bandwagon, and his performance in Split brought him rave reviews, while Butler has four films in the pipeline that inspire varying degrees or curiosity and wincing. There will always be room in Hollywood for cute straight white dudes, and Scotland will always welcome this pair back to our shores for the rare movies we make ourselves. I think a lot about how people see me and my country through the lens of pop culture, mostly because I spend so much of my own time consuming it, so watching our lot succeed worldwide always inspires much debate. You probably have opinions on this pair too, along with others from our shores, so the next time you see them in a film or doing the talk-show circuit, perhaps take the time to question what kind of Scotland it is that you see through their lens. What you do with your knickers is fine either way. We won’t judge.