Michael Fassbender on playing one of the world's most dangerous mutants
"X-Men: First Class" stars James McAvoy ("Wanted") as powerful telepath Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender ("Inglourious Basterds") as master of magnetism Erik Lehnsherr, two young mutants who join forces in the 1960s to make the world safer for their kind before they eventually split apart and become, as Professor X and Magneto, bitter enemies. Of course, we've seen these characters before: McAvoy and Fassbender are playing younger versions of the characters first established onscreen by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the first three "X-Men" movies.
But in "First Class," as portrayed excellently by Fassbender, Erik's worldview has not yet hardened completely into the extremist stance that Magneto takes in the years to come. For sure, he's embittered by his experiences as a boy in the Nazi death camps: As the movie opens, he's hunting down escaped Nazis 20 years later, unaware that anyone else in the world has his powers. He meets Charles Xavier and is ostensibly recruited to help the U.S. government foil a nefarious plot hatched by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his Hellfire Club -- but all the while, Erik is convinced that there is a darker future awaiting mutantkind no matter who they help.
Erik's conflicting loyalties, sharp intelligence, awesome powers and occasional flashes of compassion make him an enduring and fascinating character -- and Fassbender captures the man's complexity perfectly. We spoke with Fassbender via phone as the film was nearing completion to talk about taking on the role of one of the genre's greatest anti-heroes.
MSN: What drew you to play this character and take on the challenge of assuming a role established by Ian McKellen?
Michael Fassbender: Hopefully I won't disappoint the fan base out there, because I know that what Ian McKellen did sort of latched onto a lot of imaginations and was very successful. But what drew me were the script and Matthew Vaughn and the fact that James McAvoy was going to be playing young Xavier. I thought it was a fresh take on the whole story. I've never been a big comic book enthusiast, but I thought it was an interesting concept to go back to when they were both friends and initially came together.
After you signed on for the role, did a box come in the mail packed with hundreds of "X-Men" comics for you to peruse?
Yes, it did, and I got knee-deep into them once I got involved. That was all my source material, because it's all there in the comic books in terms of a backstory and formulating the character. I did also watch the other films and took notes from those, but took most of my references from the comic books.
As someone coming to this from a sort of open perspective and not really being a fan, what did you learn about this character?
He's such a complex character, really, and the idea of him being a villain is interesting, considering his history. He's a very solitary individual, and the pain and grief that's gone on even before we meet him in this film is an interesting pool of information to draw from, in coming up with this Machiavellian character for whom the ends justified the means. You can see where he's coming from. Human beings don't have the greatest track record in what they've done throughout history, so his point of view is, "Well, we are the next stage of evolution -- (humans) are to us what Neanderthals were to Homo sapiens."
He's always been a fascinating character because he's not completely wrong, but thinks that everything he does is right, no matter what the cost.
He's an extremist, and that's always a dangerous place to be. By the time we leave him at the end of this movie, he's become very clear about what he wants and his decisions and his game plan.
One of the criticisms of "X-Men: The Last Stand" (2006) was that a lot of mutant characters were jammed into the film, introduced and then never developed. There are a lot of mutants in this film as well, but, from your perspective, are they handled better here?
The cool thing about this movie is that I think it does deal with each individual mutant, and the ones they've chosen are all very much individuals and unique personalities with unique gifts. What's interesting is that we've gone back to a period where the mutants don't know that there are other people out there like them. They just think they're freaks and outcasts from society. ... All of these new characters are fearful of their gifts and uncomfortable and misplaced in society, so hopefully when they all sort of come together and realize they're not alone and feel more comfortable in their own skin, that's a discovery for all the characters that you experience.
The film is set in the '60s and Vaughn has said he wanted to capture a certain look -- specifically referencing the James Bond films of that era. Did that come across for you?
There's a scene where they just sort of transformed this hall in London into Buenos Aires Airport, and I just looked around this mock airport and said to myself, 'My God, I've just had a feeling of being in the '60s.' From the colors to the costume designs to the production design itself, there's a sort of nostalgia in the air when you look around the room. It's just from my own perception of the '60s, and all that came with it in terms of the music and the fashions and so forth, but all of that comes across in the visual references that we all have. All of that is there to encapsulate the feeling of that era, for sure.
Fans of the "X-Men" franchise were not completely happy with the way that the third film, "X-Men: The Last Stand," was handled, even though it was financially successful, and there were grumblings about the "Wolverine" film as well. Is there a sense that you've set out to earn back the fans' trust with this one?
I certainly hope so. My face is going to be up there and my name is going to be attached to it. I've got a lot of faith in Matthew, and everyone is very passionate and working very hard to earn back any trust that's waned a little bit from the last film.
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Don Kaye covers film, TV and entertainment for MSN.com