James McAvoy may be garnering raves for his performance in “The Last King of Scotland,” but all he really wanted to be was an elf.

McAvoy is a fan of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but was still a student at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama when the trilogy was being made, so he wasn’t able to get a part. “It was my dream, but I hadn’t finished school yet. Now there are no good stories to tell,” jokes the 27-year-old actor, sitting in a lounge at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where three of his movies were screened.

Kevin Macdonald, director of “The Last King of Scotland,” would demur. He calls McAvoy the best actor under 30 working in Britain today.

“I had no idea he said that,” says McAvoy, his cornflower blue eyes turning downward and his face reddening with appreciation at the compliment.

McAvoy’s performance in two festival entries — “Penelope,” the Reese Witherspoon-produced comedy about a girl (Christina Ricci) living with a curse, and “Starter for Ten,” the tale of a working-class first-year student at Bristol University — would have been enough to impress any audience. But it is his role in “The Last King of Scotland” that has critics raving.

In the film, he plays Dr. Nicholas Garrigan, a fictional young physician who leaves Scotland to become an aid worker in Uganda, where he develops a cloying personal relationship with Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). The Ugandan dictator lavishes Garrigan with gifts, summons him at any moment to care for himself and his family and eventually lures the aid worker away from his humble commitments with the offer of a prestigious hospital job. But, despite this generosity, Garrigan begins an affair with one of Amin’s wives, launching a series of horrific events.

“Nicholas is such a bastard,” McAvoy smiles. “He goes to Uganda not because he wants to change the world or help this country’s people. He’s in it for the free ride.

“Nicholas isn’t evil, but he’s completely duped by Amin,” adds McAvoy. “He really believes he’s the next best thing since Jesus. That’s why Amin was so successful — he made people feel special. It’s what made people flock to him.”

This story first appeared in the October 3, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Ultimately, he says, “Nicholas isn’t responsible for Amin. The people he represents are. But he isn’t sorry for anything that happens because of his conscience. It’s just because he gets caught.”

Once primarily a television actor, McAvoy is soon to begin work on “Wanted,” “Becoming Jane,” and “Atonement,” opposite Keira Knightley. But wherever those movies take him, Uganda has given McAvoy some perspective about the fame game.

“Shaking Nicholas Garrigan wasn’t hard for me, but the experience of working in Uganda was,” says McAvoy. “I still can’t get it out of my head. I’ve never been anywhere so impoverished, anywhere where I wasn’t working class. You could be the poorest guy in Scotland, but you’re a king next to these people. They have nothing.”

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