You won’t find all that much Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in Victor Frankenstein, the latest big-screen spin on Shelley’s seminal 1818 novel of a mad scientist who likes to play with dead things and the creature he sews together out of spare body parts. This version stars James McAvoy as the ambitious doctor and Daniel Radcliffe as Igor, an abused circus escapee who becomes the doctor’s lab assistant. This action-drama with horror overtones plays more like a high-spirited buddy action movie — think Doctor Who and Sherlock — thanks to a cheeky script by Max Landis (Chronicle) and mile-a-minute direction by Paul McGuigan (Push). There’s also a love story featuring the gorgeous Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey) as a circus trapeze artist who comes between the men. As for the monster, he doesn’t even begin to wreak havoc until very, very late in the movie, and then … well, I’ll let McAvoy tell you all about it.
Over the decades, your mad scientist role has been played by everyone from Colin Clive in those highly atmospheric ’30s Universal classics and Peter Cushing in the ’50s and ’60s to Sting, Kenneth Branagh, and, in Danny Boyle’s knockout stage production, both Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Were you nervous about comparisons?
I’ve never seen a Frankenstein movie. The only sort of Frankenstein depiction I’ve seen is in on TV in Penny Dreadful, and he’s a very young version in that one. I had no archetype to liken it to, except the Weird Science one of a man pulling switches in a thunderstorm and shouting, “It’s alive!” That was just a broad cliché version in my head but I wanted to make the character as dynamic as possible. I wanted to make him a real scientist, really fucking mad but also having a reason to fuel that dynamic intellectual and emotional movement within him — even in the action sequences.
So what’s eating your Victor Frankenstein?
He’s pure thought fueled by what seems like madness. But really, the madness is actual trauma from when he was a child. He’s obsessed with creating life because he’s terrified of death. His being fueled by fear throughout the story makes him a very active character and fuels all the scenes, which makes them very fast-paced and kinetic. This Victor Frankenstein is almost like a modern man.
How do you mean?
He’s like a contemporary man who is intent on curing cancer and thinks he has the stem cell research in hand to do that. Just think about it: only a few years ago, people the world over were condemning stem cell research. It almost seemed as if there would have had to have been a revolution of people rising up in the streets demanding stem cell research as a viable option. Now we have stem cell research happening all over the world. We’re always going to have people pushing the boundaries of science and technology.
How else does the movie freshen up the Frankenstein mythology for modern audiences?
For the many people who’ve never read Mary Shelley’s ethical, existential novel nor seen the other versions of Frankenstein movies, except, maybe, Penny Dreadful and I, Frankenstein, we’re introducing and emphasizing the whole story of man trying to supplant god — a man trying to deal with his own mad obsession and pushing scientific advancement to the ultimate.
Why do you think every generation creates new Frankenstein movies?
Fear. As for us today, we live in an age where things are happening so quickly, especially new technologies, without our being aware of them. We’re fascinated and terrified by that at the same time. We have insatiable need and desire for technological advancement but that inspires the fear.
In the movie, you and Daniel Radcliffe appear to be having a high old time together, whether you’re carousing with beautiful women, debating science, insulting each other or running and jumping as things explode around you. Was it anywhere near as much fun as it looks?
We took our cues from the screenplay, where there was some great stuff, and we also added to it. We improvised and played. You always try to get it the first time by reaching up high and just going for it. Nine times out of ten, you hit the floor. But maybe one time, you get something good and it stays in the movie. For that one good thing that gets kept in the movie, it’s worthwhile getting through all the rubbish stuff that doesn’t. As I’m talking to you, though, I’ve only seen a very early cut of the movie about 10 or 12 months ago with a small audience of friends and trusted colleagues. I ran out the minute the credits started.
Is that your way of telling us you don’t think the movie’s good?
No, it’s just that the director wanted notes and comments. I didn’t want anybody not being honest simply because I was there. So, I thought, “I’ll run away,” and I did.
What’s the best audience reaction you can hope for with Victor Frankenstein? I hope they have a really fun time with a proper piece of entertainment — a bit of a romp and an adventure between two men. I also hope they’re touched by the deeper things that lie in the story as well because, if you want the other stuff, there’s a lot there.