James McAvoy is Brian Jackson in Starter For Ten

Familiar from his role in the BAFTA winning tv series Shameless, and in movies such as Bright Young Things, Inside I’m Dancing and The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, James McAvoy is one of Britain’s busiest young actors.

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In Starter For Ten he plays Brian Jackson, a young man embarking on a university career determined to experience life – and fulfil his boyhood ambition to appear on University Challenge. But all does not go according to plan.

Starter For Ten is firmly set in the 1980s, but you were only a year old when the decade began. Did it seem odd to recreate that period for the film?

Well weirdly all my film references are 80s-centric. Not music, necessarily, for some reason we didn’t have a lot of music in the house when I was growing up, so my music starts when I was 18. But film wise all my references are 1980s, which my mates quite often take the Mickey out of me for. So to get to do an 80s movie is something quite special for me.

What particular films appealed to you then?

Ones that John Hughes directed, The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink. Also some of the British ones like The Rachel Papers with Dexter Fletcher, which I loved. Things like the Back To The Future movies and St Elmo’s Fire. And The Sure Thing is one of my favourites. Things like that. Also for some reason when an 80s movie comes on at 9 o’clock at night I would be drawn to that more than I would be to something more modern. Even in the 90s I still had a great love and affection for them, the kind of movies that get played at 11 o’clock at night, when your parents thought you were asleep in bed but you could watch on the wee telly that you got for Christmas.

Did a love of cinema forged way back then sow the seeds of your subsequent career?

I didn’t really think about that until I was actually given a job when I was 15. I’d never really considered it as a possible career path. But quite often those movies were about the nerd turning into the hero, or if not being the hero being happy at the end of it anyway, a lot were about that. That’s quite empowering for a kid who’s neither cool nor uncool.

These ideas are certainly echoed in Starter For Ten?

It takes on the structure and the aims of an 80s movie, it really does fit into that mould quite on purpose, which I love. It was real wish fulfilment getting to play this role.

But you didn’t go to university, as Brian does, did you?

I got accepted to Glasgow and Strathclyde. Strathclyde was for English and politics, and Glasgow I got accepted to the faculty of social sciences. I suppose I could have been on University Challenge representing either of those.

Of course anyone who watched University Challenge through the years would have been familiar with screen format, of one team pictured above the other. Some people think it really is a double decker arrangement on set don’t they?

I thought that until we did the bloody film. I wondered what was going on. I thought they were messing around with a nation’s favourite. The director had to take me to one side and show me they did it. It’s quite something, they had a special little machine on set that created that effect. I don’t know what it was called, but it was cool. We were tempted to start playing with that idea pouring a glass of water over the edge and having it not reach the team below. But in the studio you refrained from doing that.

Your character, Brian, is torn between two women in the film played by newcomers Alice Eve and Rebecca Hall. Did it seem odd to you to suddenly find yourself the senior cast member on the film?

It did a bit, I’ve been doing this for seven years now so I’m not the new kid on the block any more. It’s odd, really strange. Working with Alice and Rebecca, being so bright and shiny and new and brilliant, I did feel like the old man of the set.

Did they ever seek your advice in the more awkward, romantic scenes?

They would but I answered every single time that they just needed to continue what they were doing. They were amazing. I think the only thing they suffered from in their lack of experience is that they doubted themselves sometimes. And yet what they were doing was so brilliant and so right for what we needed, that they had nothing to worry about.

Two of your co-stars, Dominic Cooper and James Corden, presumably have an existing friendship from working on The History Boys together. Did that make for easy chemistry between the three of you playing old pals?

They’re a really good double act. James is possibly the funniest man I’ve met in this industry, such a funny guy. He has a small part and yet you remember him at the end of the film. He’s so good, he improvised a lot of that stuff and really made it strong. He’s a fantastic actor. We just laughed for two weeks. It’s quite funny because James has got a lot of jokes, and he and Dominic are very close friends, so Dominic has heard it all before. But I hadn’t heard any of it and I was laughing at his schtick. I was in uproar for all the time we were together. I couldn’t wait to get on set and hear what he had to say, but Dominic was much more like ‘oh God, here he goes’. They were like an old husband and wife. That made for a very true relationship I think, the relationship between these three characters.

Did you experience anything similar, when you first left home for drama school and left your schooldfriends behind?

I actually went to drama school at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama in Glasgow, so I stayed in my home town the whole time. However, I see more of my friends now than I did then. It’s strange. I’ve never worked as hard as when I was at drama school. You were there until 9 or 10 at night, at least that’s the way it was there. So it was a little bit to do with that, and also to do with me moving in different circles with different friends, and them moving in different circles too.

It’s a major change in your life, isn’t it?

Your world changes, and the people that you meet change as you try and express yourself and try to be a different person. That’s fine in hindsight, but it’s hard at the time to live with the fact that you’re not seeing your friends, the people you said you’d always be friends with and that you love. For about three years I hardly saw some of my best friends from school. It was moving to London that made me think we needed to try harder to stay in contact. I see lots of them now, it’s fine. Distance is a bad excuse for not having a good relationship with somebody. It’s the determination to keep it going or let it fall by the wayside, that’s the real reason that the relationships continue.

Your director Tom Vaughan has plenty of experience in television but this is first film. How did he adapt to the change?

He was great, really brave in his decisions, which is the hardest thing to be I think when you’re inexperienced at anything. And of course tv is different, but not so different that you don’t know what you’re doing when you go from one to the other. I think what he did was be brave enough to be bold and to cast people who maybe weren’t really well known, who weren’t always experienced. None of us was particularly well known. I’ve got a little bit more well known now, but I’m still not that well known really to play the lead in a movie. I think it was really good of Tom to just go with the film he wanted to tell rather than modifying it to get someone well known in it, and make it fit them. That kind of mindset and that kind of principle went through the whole film. We did what worked for the film, instead of just bending to what we wanted to do. It was constantly about trying to make this script work. This script was nearly perfect, you could tell when you read it.