Whether you know James McAvoy from the X-Men movies or have been a fan since his early gigs on British television, there’s no denying that 2019 has already been a very good year for the Scottish actor. In addition to his starring role in M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass, McAvoy is set to star in June’s Dark Phoenix, will be taking on the role of an adult Bill Denbrough in It: Chapter 2 in October, and will appear in the upcoming TV version of His Dark Materials later this year. And to top it all off, he’s turning 40 on April 21.
In celebration of McAvoy’s big day—and even bigger year—here are some things you might not know about the Golden Globe-nominated actor.
1. He was raised by his grandparents.
James McAvoy was born in Glasgow, Scotland, to a psychiatric nurse and a builder. However, his parents split when he was seven, and because his mother was in poor health, McAvoy and his sister went to live with their maternal grandparents. While his mother lived with them on and off throughout his childhood, McAvoy hasn’t spoken to his father since he was a kid.
2. He considered becoming a priest.
McAvoy was brought up in the Roman Catholic church, but that wasn’t the reason he considered becoming a priest. Long before he decided to go the drama school route, he considered entering the priesthood because he thought it would give him an excuse to travel the world.
“I wanted to be a missionary, but it was only because I wanted a free ticket to go and explore the world,” McAvoy told The Telegraph in 2006. “I realized I was using God and religion to get my kicks so I knocked that on the head.”
3. He married his on-screen love interest.
While working on the UK version of Shameless in the early 2000s, McAvoy met his on-screen love interest and future wife, Anne-Marie Duff. The pair started a relationship that they kept very private, and married in 2006. They went on to also star in 2009’s The Last Station together, but McAvoy later announced he would no longer be working with his then-wife.
“You have to weigh it up against how much of a headache it would be. It exposes you to a lot of questions,” he told USA Today in 2011. “I’m very big in saying that I don’t agree that if you put yourself in the spotlight, you have to accept it. I do think that if you work together as husband and wife, you’re kind of asking for it.” Ultimately, the couple split in 2016.
4. Acting was never his plan.
In addition to the priesthood, McAvoy considered a few others careers before he settled on acting. In fact, acting kind of happened by accident. While speaking to The Guardian in 2006, McAvoy explained that it wasn’t until director David Hayman came to his school to speak about the entertainment business that he knew he wanted to give it a go. He was so sure, in fact, that he reportedly approached Hayman after the talk and asked him for some work. (McAvoy’s first credited role was in 1995’s The Near Room, which Hayman directed.)
“I always believed that I never wanted to be an actor; I only did it because I was allowed to do it and I had to do something,” McAvoy explained. “I felt as if my career just happened to me. I hadn’t actually engaged in it. I suppose I felt totally disempowered, just by this fate thing.”
5. Band of Brothers was his big break.
McAvoy’s big break came in HBO’s 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers, produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. The actor played character James W. Miller in just one episode, but that’s all it took for his phone to start ringing; shortly thereafter, McAvoy scored notable roles on BBC’s Shameless (2004), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), and The Last King of Scotland (2006). He wasn’t the only up-and-comer who made a name for himself with Band of Brothers: Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy, and Dominic Cooper were among his co-stars.
6. He’s a Golden Globe nominee.
In 2007, McAvoy played Keira Knightley’s love interest in Joe Wright’s period drama Atonement, based on the Ian McEwan novel. The role was one of the actor’s most moving performances to date, and scored him a Golden Globe nomination. Although he has wowed audiences in numerous parts since, such as the man with 23 different personalities in 2016’s Split (and 2019’s Glass), his role in Atonement has earned him the most critical acclaim. McAvoy, too, is a fan.
“[T]o find a film that was so epic, sweeping and romantic, yet be intelligent, was nice to me,” McAvoy said. “Also the fact that it’s a very classic story, but it’s told in a very contemporary and modern way.”
7. He was slightly tipsy the first time he met M. Night Shyamalan.
Speaking of Split and Glass: McAvoy was definitely in the right place at the right time—and in the right frame of mind—when he first met director M. Night Shyamalan. In a 2017 interview with The Guardian, McAvoy shared how he and Shyamalan just happened to cross paths at San Diego Comic-Con in 2015. “There was a big party, you couldn’t turn around without bumping into somebody off the telly,” he said. “My mate Jesse was playing miniature golf in the middle of it. We were getting particularly drunk, and then I saw M. Night Shyamalan. He goes: ‘You’re James McAvoy!’ And I said: ‘You’re M Night Shyamalan! What do I call you?’ I was very drunk.”
Inebriated or not, Shyamalan saw something he liked. One month later, he was on the set of Split (in a role that Joaquin Phoenix was originally set to play, but dropped out of at the last minute).
8. He admires Samuel L. Jackson’s no-nonsense attitude.
While promoting Glass, McAvoy participated in a lot of press events with Samuel L. Jackson, and was impressed by what he saw. “I saw examples of what I might be able to do when I got the balls he’s got,” McAvoy said. “That guy does not suffer fools, which is a positive quality. If he gets any kind of question that is in any way not thought out properly, he just drops the F-bomb and is like, ‘What are you talking about? What? What?’ He calls out [the journalist] so hard, and it’s the funniest thing.”
9. He credits his success to a lot of luck.
When asked about the secret to his success, McAvoy doesn’t mince words: “I got lucky,” he told The Talks. “I got so f***ing lucky that I fell into the lap of a director when I was 16 and he gave me a part in a film and my horizons immediately exploded wide with all the weird people in it and all these crazy f***ing actors and directors and artistic people who were from all over the world. Through that one job I met people from England, I met people from America, and I met people from all over the place with challenging points of view and sympathetic points of view to mine. And then I went to a youth theater for six months as well, and that expanded my mind massively. It gave me so much more confidence to find out who I was and not be afraid of who I was simply because I’m in a scenario that I don’t understand … I got really lucky. I got really, really lucky. It’s been a good ride for me.”