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James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe & Paul McGuigan Reveal Their Inner Monsters In Victor Frankenstei

Updated: Apr 4, 2020

James McAvoy, Paul McGuigan and Daniel Radcliffe at the NY press day for VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN. Photo copyright 2015 Brad Balfour.

James McAvoy, Paul McGuigan and Daniel Radcliffe at the NY press day for VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN. Photo copyright 2015 Brad Balfour.

James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe & Paul McGuigan 

Reveal Their Inner Monsters In Victor Frankenstein

by Brad Balfour

In an attempt to reboot another franchise, 20th Century Fox has pulled a genre bender on the Frankenstein tale – that of a creature created not by God, but by a man’s use of science and insane passion. Thanks to the late British actor Boris Karloff’s classic portrayal of the creature, we have an image of a tragic person cocooned within a monstrous body.

Still, what do we really know about his creator, Victor Frankenstein? As directed by vet actioneer Paul McGuigan, a new feature, Victor Frankenstein, tries to answer that question while alternating between being a bromance, a detective story and a tragedy.

Title character/protagonist of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, the human Frankenstein was a scientist who crossed the study of chemistry with that of decaying beings. He gains insight into creation and gives life to a creature which is often referred to as Frankenstein’s monster, and incorrectly, as “Frankenstein.”

While many subsequent film adaptations (notably the 1931 Frankenstein movie, its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, and Hammer’s productions starring Peter Cushing) Frankenstein has been portrayed as the prototypical “mad scientist.” In the original novel he’s a tragic figure, not unlike the character played by British film star James McAvoy in this about to be released reboot.

Told from the perspective of troubled assistant Igor (played by Daniel Radcliffe), the helper’s dark origins as a hunchbacked circus clown and virtual slave to its ringmaster are first explained in Victor Frankenstein, though not by Victor Frankenstein. In order to manage his ordeal, he teaches himself the medical knowledge of the day and provides the circus with a crude paramedic. When young medical student Frankenstein comes to the circus searching for animal parts, the two establish a quick rapport. This results in Igor’s escape to the medical experimenter’s clandestine quarters. Their friendship transforms Igor from hunchback to protégé.

Daniel Radcliffe at the NY press day for VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN. Photo copyright 2015 Brad Balfour.

Daniel Radcliffe at the NY press day for VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN. Photo copyright 2015 Brad Balfour.

Through Igor’s eyes, the audience witnesses Frankenstein’s emergence as the man introduced in Mary Shelley’s classic novel – one obsessed with creating life – who further develops into the demonic cinematic icon fixed in the collective pop consciousness.

Eventually, their experiments draw attention from wrathful authorities and a deceitful benefactor; Dr. Frankenstein and Igor become fugitives as they achieve their goal to use science to create life from death. Intoxicated by his obsession, Frankenstein strives at all cost in a remote castle laboratory to bring his creation to life. By this point, Igor has realized his mentor’s folly and seeks to prevent this being from happening.

Both Radcliffe and McAvoy have been genre audience favorites for years now, giving life to other historical icons from the printed page – the 26 year old Brit Radcliffe became Harry Potter and the 36 year-old Scotsman McAvoy developed The X-Men’s lead mutant Charles Xavier as a young man. Both draw on substantial acting chops, not just by defining these iconic figures but in handling substantial thespian chores in such films as The Last King of Scotland and Atonement (for McAvoy), and tough Broadway roles such as The Cripple of Inishmaan (for Radcliffe).

Director/producer McGuigan is also no stranger to transforming genre films with twists upon twists; just review his catalogue which includes such films as Lucky Number Slevin (2006), Push (2009) and Wicker Park (2004). Add to the creative team quirky writer Max Landis, who lends his own unique take, previously purveyed in the 2012 sci-fi thriller Chronicle and 2015 slacker spy caper American Ultra.

In applying all their talents, they’ve made a film together that will either win ardent fans or parse them away because it toys so much with the clichés that audiences have been familiar with. To tell us all about this, the trio of McGuigan, Radcliffe and McAvoy joined a gaggle of journalists at the Crosby Street Hotel – transforming us all into mad scientists.

James McAvoy at the NY press day for VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN. Photo copyright 2015 Brad Balfour.

James McAvoy at the NY press day for VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN. Photo copyright 2015 Brad Balfour.

How different were your roles from the preconceptions we have about Victor and Igor?

James McAvoy: I think Victor has always been maniacally obsessed, way back to Mary Shelley’s original [onward]. What I felt we really went for is that in a true sense and we tried to investigate that in a real Post-Freudian world and not just go, “Well he’s a bit energetic and a bit obsessed.” Halfway through the book he goes on vacation and comes back completely healthy and sane and goes, “Oh what, the monster’s alive? Thank goodness, I’m really healthy. I can go kill it.”

Whereas we tried to stay in a post-Freudian world, which is why he’s so maniacal, so hyper and bi-polar. It’s not just because it is who he is. It’s not just because he’s a mad scientist. Find the reason for that and then run with it for the whole movie. Don’t let him off the hook halfway through the movie, so that that when he has to go off and do the bad thing at the end – which is kill his own creation. We’re suddenly on his side because he’s now a good guy. We try and keep him discomfiting; we try and keep him that quixotic, mercurial character all the way through.

Daniel Radcliffe: The thing that I liked so much about the script was that it took a lot of different preconceptions about Frankenstein, ideas people have about the story – or think they know – and twisted them and played around with them and had real fun with that. Part of that was obviously giving Igor a back story and some real depth – more than we’ve seen in terms of that character before – and finding out why he would have this incredible loyalty to Victor. Despite how bad he’s treated a lot of the time, why that never waivers at all.

It was to have him be this little creature living an abject, horrible life at the beginning of the film. Then he’s saved from that, and brought into this world where he’s empowered in terms of he’s got a say and a purpose in life. For me, that was very key into how you can suddenly understand his insane devotion to this man even when it’s being tested.

And he’s lost his hunchback.

Daniel Radcliffe: That was one of the things I liked in the script. James touched on this earlier, you have to find ways of honoring all those clichés at the beginning of the film like we do. Then you can have some real fun subverting the other ideas that people have about them.

Paul McGuigan at the NY press day for VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN. Photo copyright 2015 Brad Balfour.

Paul McGuigan at the NY press day for VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN. Photo copyright 2015 Brad Balfour.

Paul McGuigan: Max’s script starts off in a very interesting place because we don’t actually get to the point that people are familiar with until to very late on in the film. It was interesting to give Victor Frankenstein back his name a little bit, because when you’re told of Frankenstein, you think of the monster. It was nice to actually play with that a bit. Of course at some point in the film, he does become a monster, so there was an interesting throughline. In the beginning of reading the script, you go, “That’s interesting, I never thought about that.”

But it’s not just a monster movie, it’s a relationship film, about two men who have a commonality in their passion for science and anatomy. That was interesting to visualize at the beginning of the film, so people understand we’re at the commonality that is between them and then it just became about this relationship.

James McAvoy: It’s a book of two halves. The first half is about a scientist’s obsession. The second half is much more a Pinocchio story. An existential development of a monster going, “I want to be a real boy.” We still get that Pinocchio story, but we get it through Daniel’s character. The film is about people, human beings, people that actually exist and about scientists.

Max has said the reason he was inspired to write this was [because of] the advent of Facebook. People at the forefront of technological capability [are] using that to implement a massive change in the way we live our lives. That’s why he was inspired to write [this] Frankenstein. It’s about two guys with the keys to the kingdom or the fire of the Gods in their hands, doing stuff that could be terrible or could change the world for the better – you never know – and how they’re always vilified. Then in five years, we’re doing stem cell research anyway. It’s about those people rather than just the monster – but it’s still got cool monster shit in this one.

You both have played and defined now iconic characters such as Harry Potter and Professor X. What did you learn in defining icons here?

James McAvoy: Trying to marry up what Max wrote. He’s writing something that is not just an adaptation of the book. It’s not just a remake of an adaptation of previous films, cartoons, comic books, Halloween costumes. It’s a combination of the entire zeitgeist-driven collective consciousness perception that we have of what the word “Frankenstein” means. That’s why there’s an Igor in it when he was never in the book. That’s why other stuff happens.

For me it was about trying to marry up the entertainment value – this has to be an entertainment in the same way that Mary Shelley’s book was – and it has to be slightly dicey at times and controversial [as well]. That’s harder to do these days. People are not as disturbed easily. They’re not. We’re not as disturbed by a movie that shows two guys trying to become God as much as when she wrote that book, when it would have been a massive public outcry and revolutionary. Apart from [that, there was] the fact it was a fucking woman writing the book, that was another level of “What?”

That was the stuff that was controversial back then. It’s going to be hard for us now to be controversial. But we still want to make people [are] a little bit shocked sometimes. A little bit grossed out. Make it a piece of entertainment, a solid piece of fun at the theater at the same time as making it about somebody who is so driven by… What? It doesn’t really allude to it in the book so we had to try and find what that was.

In our case what we found, and what Max wrote, was of loss and grief. He’s got this massive hole inside him that no matter how much he tries to fill it in, it doesn’t get any smaller. It just gets bigger and bigger. His ego compensates and he becomes a God in his own head. He’s very close to achieving the qualifying factor for becoming a God. The prime requisite for becoming a God is creating life. He’s nearly there, so he feels pretty massive and God-like. Those were some of the things that really formed it all in my head, trying to marry up the manic energy that was needed for the entertainment value of the film along with a lot of truth that fueled it more than just “Hey, we’re having fun!”

Paul McGuigan: If you take these two guys as actors and think about it as a filmmaker, you go, “What does James bring to this? What does Daniel bring?” If you look at it as the analogy of a person or a human, then you would say James is the heartbeat and Daniel is the soul of the film. That was interesting, a certain dynamic happened straight away from day one of filming where you have two very smart men who got that completely. For a filmmaker who is watching and observing as you do, you can see that energy and compassion. They both flip over at one point. You could swap them around because of the journey we go through in the movie itself.

Daniel Radcliffe at the NY press day for VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN. Photo copyright 2015 Brad Balfour.

Daniel Radcliffe at the NY press day for VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN. Photo copyright 2015 Brad Balfour.

Daniel Radcliffe: The thing I loved about the script when I read it was that it was this big, bold, unapologetically entertaining cinematic action-adventure movie [which] also had at the heart of it this great and really interesting relationship story between these two guys that’s quite a toxic relationship in some ways. They’re both essential to each other, but I get damaged by him at times. There was a sweetness to Igor as it was written. There is no side to him. There’s no edge. What you see is what you get. There’s an honesty to how grateful he is to have been taken into this world that I found very appealing. I was trying to make that as real as possible, I suppose.

Did your working relationship mirror in any way the dynamic between Victor and Igor?

Daniel Radcliffe: Thankfully it didn’t mirror the relationship between the characters at all, in the sense that it was quite an abusive relationship. I think we’re fairly similar in terms of our work ethic and the fact that we take the job seriously. We’re focused but also, we’re not saving lives – it is about having fun. We’re lucky that we get to work in an industry where we can have a lot of fun while doing our jobs. It was great but thankfully, I was not indebted to James forever and he was [not] abusing me and hitting me. No, it wasn’t like that.

James McAvoy: For me the roles were reversed in one big way. Daniel is the most professional actor I’ve ever worked with in my life. I’m quite a professional actor and I pride myself in being very professional but to be like, “Wow, I’m learning from him.” That was kind of nuts.

Daniel Radcliffe: That’s weird…

James McAvoy: Just because you’re ten years younger than me, if not more, but