LOS ANGELES – Director Danny Boyle has an unusually hard handshake for someone with such an affable demeanor.
Sure, even at 56 he’s cool enough to pull off a cardigan without looking avuncular. But he also admits to crying over desperately poor Indian children who knew the lyrics to the hit song “Jai Ho,” from his Academy Award-winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” but not the name of their own country. And he confesses that he’s still smarting from a long-ago test screening of “The Beach” in Boston, where a viewer left both sides of the questionnaire blank and instead scrawled, “How could you, Danny?”
Boyle laughs as he tells each story, the first in ongoing amazement, the second in after-the-fact amusement. He enjoys sharing a good story, in person and on-screen, and if there are twists and surprises to be had along with the action, even better. His latest, “Trance,” an art heist thriller set in London and opening April 12 in Boston, has all those elements plus an accomplished cast, which isn’t always the case with a Boyle film.
“It was nice for me to work with three really experienced actors, which I don’t normally do with the leads,” Boyle said between sips of orange juice in an otherwise empty Los Angeles hotel conference room. “But I knew it was right for this one.”
Still, even James McAvoy (“The Last King of Scotland,” “X-Men: First Class”) had to audition for his role as an art auctioneer who gets mixed up with a gang of thieves led by Vincent Cassel and has to visit a hypnotherapist, played by Rosario Dawson.
From his car in London, where he’s playing Macbeth on stage, McAvoy says he hasn’t had to read for a part in some time, but “did it joyfully and gladly.’’
“I’d be lying if I said the main attraction was anything other than Danny Boyle,” said the actor, who happily shed his clothes for Boyle in the film, as did Cassel and Dawson.
“The script was great, too, but to get to work with Danny Boyle . . .” McAvoy continued. “There’s not a lot of people like him. All of his films are very different, set in wildly different parts of the world, they never really touch on the same things and yet every single one you say, ‘[Expletive] me, there’s Danny Boyle all over it.’ ”
For his part, Boyle says he has mostly tried not to repeat himself in the years since his breakthrough with 1994’s “Shallow Grave,” about Scottish friends who find a suitcase of cash along with their flat mate dead and decide to dispose of the body. He says he enjoys coming into the story without too many preconceptions about the subject matter. The writer-director likes learning the background and skills necessary to make words on paper work on screen.
That would include the disaffected young heroin junkies in economically ravaged Edinburgh in 1996’s “Trainspotting,” a motley group that Boyle plans to revisit soon in a sequel. It would also include the Mumbai teen escaping poverty in “Slumdog Millionaire,” which earned Boyle a best director Oscar, and the based-on-a-true-story “127 Hours,” which earned a nomination for the screenplay he wrote with Simon Beaufoy, about a canyoneer cutting off his own arm after becoming trapped by a boulder.
Still, Boyle insists his movies aren’t as dissimilar as some people presume.
“It tends to look like you’re deliberately choosing a different genre each time, and I suppose there’s a bit of that,” Boyle said. “But there’s also the danger that you’re making the same movie every time. All of the movies are basically about facing insurmountable odds and he overcomes them. It’s the adventure genre, they’re all that.”
“Trance” is no exception. The movie was originally supposed to be set in Manhattan, with a British hypnotherapist and New York thieves. But Boyle moved it to London after he agreed to be artistic director for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics. Shot mostly at night, after he worked on the games, “Trance” is part caper, part thriller, part shoot-’em-up, and part psychological exploration. It moves back and forth in time, with what appears to be true and/or real inevitably not being so.
McAvoy stars as Simon, who is knocked unconscious and can’t remember where he hid a stolen painting or even why he hid it. Dawson plays Elizabeth, the hypnotherapist whose soothing American accent is the only thing that can unlock his secrets and keep him safe from Franck (Cassel) and his henchmen. Although “Trance” seems to be about Simon, Boyle says Elizabeth is the movie’s actual center, if not its main character.
“That I haven’t done before,” Boyle said of putting a woman front and center in one of his films. “I was ashamed that I had never done that. I made eight, nine films, and they’re boyish films and they tend to have a man at the center. And I’ve got two daughters in their 20s and they’re like, ‘You’ve never made a movie about us, have you?’ ”
So Boyle did, sort of, although it’s uncertain whether he’d want his daughters doing full-frontal nudity on 40-foot-high movie screens. At least the guys get naked, too. McAvoy says he didn’t mind that, either, as he’s undressed professionally a number of times before. (“I think, and this may be a bad way to put it, because if you blink you’ll miss it, but I think my [British slang for body part] is in ‘The Last King of Scotland.’ ’’) Again, anything for Danny Boyle, he says, plus the chance to play against audience expectation.
“I’m usually seen as a fairly nice, trustworthy guy who the audience can get behind,” McAvoy said. “It was nice to toy with that and play someone who doesn’t really know who they are. Massive chunks of his life are missing. He doesn’t know whether he likes to have rough sex or gentle sex, is he a good guy or a bad guy?”
The script for “Trance” was penned by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, who are part of the group that Boyle refers to when he uses “we” instead of “I” when chatting up his movies, past, present and future, which includes what he calls “a couple of proper period pieces — not like ‘Downton Abbey.’ ” Hodge is also involved in Boyle’s plans to update “Trainspotting,” which the team is trying to deliver in time for the original’s 20th anniversary in 2016.
“The idea is to mine that experience that they’ve had,” Boyle said. “The guys are 20 years older, they look 20 years older, the audience is 20 years older. That’s what we hope to do, not a cheap, cash-in sequel. It has to be allowed to set its own tone.”
That’s not to say Boyle’s hand won’t be present. He may be friendly, but he’s also got a fierce belief in his talent that he doesn’t falsely try to hide. One reason he makes films with relatively modest budgets is because “we make them in our own way with our own controls.” Still, while they may feel small or independent, he says he’s not looking to make art-house films, or private personal films. He says he wants to engage as large an audience as possible while hewing to his own vision.
“It’s true, it’s all a cliché, but you sort of make it for yourself,” Boyle said. “It’s ludicrously selfish. But you can always defend it then. . . . Why are we doing it this way? Because it turns me on. . . . You just cast the best people and try to make a film as delicious as possible for yourself.”