In ‘Split,’ James McAvoy plays the ‘most complex character’ M. Night Shyamalan has ever written

James McAvoy plays Kevin, a man with 24 personalities in M. Night Shyamalan's 'Split.'

James McAvoy plays Kevin, a man with 24 personalities in M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Split.’

Writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan returns with Split, an original film that delves into the mysterious recesses of one man’s fractured, gifted mind. Following last year’s breakout hit The Visit, Shyamalan reunites with producer Jason Blum (The Purge and Insidious series, The Gift) for the thriller being hailed as “Shyamalan’s most terrifying film to date.”

Though Kevin (James McAvoy, X-Men series, Wanted) has shown 23 personalities—each with unique physical attributes—to his trusted psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Tony Award winner Betty Buckley, The Happening, TV’s Oz), there remains one still hidden who is set to emerge and dominate all the others.

Compelled to abduct three teenage girls led by the willful, observant Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch), Kevin reaches a war for survival among all of those contained within him—as well as everyone around him—as the walls between his compartments shatter apart.

For the film The Guardian calls “a masterful blend of Hitchcock and horror,” Shyamalan and Blum reassemble their core team from The Visit, their successful 2015 collaboration.

Shyamalan felt there were only a handful of actors who could play the demanding role of a man with 23 personalities in Split. It was paramount for the writer/director that Kevin’s personalities not be viewed as caricatures but as fleshed out personas that audiences would embrace with sympathy. To that end, Shyamalan sought out James McAvoy—a dynamic actor who handles blockbuster roles and small, intimate parts with equal aplomb—to play the lead character’s many roles.

Shyamalan saw McAvoy as absolutely up for the challenge. “This is the most complex character I’ve ever written. I was thinking, ‘Does he understand what I’m asking him to do in this piece?’ And he did; I’ve never worked with an actor so fearless.”

Shyamalan intentionally sent the actor the script with little context, hoping to draw from his performer ideas about Kevin he could never have imagined. The filmmaker recalls, “James asked, ‘what’s the name of the character I’m playing so I know, just so I don’t get confused.” And I said, ‘I can’t tell you, just read the script.’”

McAvoy was immediately intrigued with the story’s many twists and turns. “I read the first 10 pages and thought, ‘wow, what is this?’ Then I read the next 10 pages and thought, ‘what is that?’ It felt like I was being continually confronted with something completely different. That’s the joy of what Night does so well. He keeps an audience on their toes trying to figure out what the film is. Are we watching a thriller, a psychological drama, horror, sci-fi or something supernatural? And this film is all of those genres.”

Shyamalan’s commitment to creating and funding his project was an inspiration for McAvoy. “He’s brave and bold for bucking the trend that says, in order to tell a good story, you must spend $200 million,” he says. “Instead, he’s clearing away all the interference so he can tell a really quality story. It’s a privilege to work with a director who has that attitude and approach when it comes to storytelling.

Shyamalan and McAvoy worked closely to ensure the actor’s performance remained incredibly singular as he transformed into each role with authenticity.

“Night’s demanding and almost forensic in what he wants you to do,” McAvoy says. “He has a very specific idea of what he wants in his mind, yet he’s extremely collaborative and giving.”

Changing colors and characters—sometimes within the same shot—was particularly demanding. “You hope the audience will buy you as one character,” McAvoy explains. “Then you need them to buy you as this next persona and make that transition interesting without alienating viewers.”

Still, the role presented the seasoned stage and screen actor with an extraordinary opportunity. “To be honest, I quite enjoy playing each character, because as an actor you rarely get the chance at this type of performance,” he says. “It’s quite exciting to radically change what you’re thinking, who you are and what makes you in a moment.”

The duo worked diligently to ensure each personality had a distinct voice and presence. “James is Scottish, but most of his career he has performed with an American or British accent,” says Shyamalan. “I rifled through his encyclopedia of accents and would throw out an idea like, ‘how about Hedwig has a lisp?’ And James was just brilliant at adapting.”

When embodying young Hedwig, McAvoy walked a fine line between playing a child versus a simplistic version of an adult. “That’s how most people play a child,” says Shyamalan. “Hedwig’s very smart—he just happens to be 10 years old. I would tell James, ‘you’re not playing a dumb adult; that’s not what we’re doing. Use your eyes; you’re very smart. But you’re 10, so you don’t know what that gesture means.’”

McAvoy and Shyamalan continued to delve into the flavors and motives of each of the alters. “James would ask why a character responded a certain way, and since I was so close to the story, I was able to walk him through my logic,” offers Shyamalan. “It was essential to discuss each character until this persona was real for both of us.”

While Shyamalan strictly sticks to his script, he encourages actors to add their own color between the lines. “One of the ways to achieve this authenticity is by ad-libbing, and that comes out, in a way,” he says. “But I treat the script like a play—that’s always how I refer to it—and I don’t alter lines.”

For Shyamalan, there are millions of ways to perform a scene without altering words. “I want actors to realize they’re much more pliable than they think they are,” he says.

McAvoy performed between the lines with incredible artistry and expertise. “He said the exact words in the script but ad-libbed with this face and physicality,” says Shyamalan. “James would bring these incredible new aspects to the table. We got into that wonderful rhythm where things that were sacred to me weren’t touched but only heightened.”

The performer’s athleticism also proved a huge asset. “He was doing very physical feats like jumping fences and climbing,” says Shyamalan. “We would have the stunt person there just in case, but James is so agile and his physicality was a definite strength.”

Beyond performing stunts, the actor seems to shrink three inches when playing Hedwig and stiffens as strong Dennis. “Whether he was playing a child or a severe woman, he approaches each character with great comfort in his physicality,” states Shyamalan. “He’d finish a scene and the crew would break into applause because we knew we were watching something extraordinary.”

Split opens in theaters January 20th.

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