X-Men: First Class - James McAvoy
Powerful telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation 2011


X-Men: First Class, a prequel in the popular franchise, unveils the beginning of the X-Men saga, with a world at the brink of nuclear Armageddon. Set in the 60s at the height of the Cold War, it is also when the world first discovers the existence of mutants.

This is when Charles Xavier met Erik Lehnsherr. Not familiar with those names? In the future they will be mortal enemies, respectively known as Professor X and Magneto. Played in the original series of movies by Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen, in the prequel they are embodied by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.

At the press day for the movie in New York City, James McAvoy spoke about taking on the iconic role of ‘Professor X’.

How did you feel when you first found out you were going to be doing this?

I was a little bit surprised, because I didn’t see myself as the archetypal Sir Patrick Stewart, Jean-Luc Picard, professor of the Star Trek Enterprise. And that was quite a difficult one to get my head around.

I read the script, or the first 40 pages that existed at the time, and I realized that actually we could take the character in a whole different direction and have a lot more fun with him, make him a little bit more silly and a little bit more drunk and a little bit more randy, and that was good fun, so I decided to go for it for that.

What did the new cast take from the previous versions of the characters?

X-Men: First Class - Caleb Landry Jones,Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Lucas Till, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy
(back row) Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence), Dr Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till), (front row) Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation 2011

We talked for a brief couple of minutes in rehearsal about mimicking the voices, and we had a good laugh at that. But it didn’t stay an option for too long. I looked truly closely at Sir Patrick’s performance, which I really enjoyed, but I felt just to validate making these movies you have to make the characters different, otherwise they’re just the same performances. So I tried to take the key points of his character and just flip them, not extremely, he’s a good guy, I couldn’t make him a bad guy, but where he’s wise, I was unwise and where he’s chaste, I was randy.

How else is your younger Charles different from the Charles that we know?

He’s less responsible, he’s more drunk, he has more sex, he just does, and yet he has no mission. He’s a good person, he believes in Humanity, but he has no burning desire to serve the world yet and to be this force for ‘Mutanity’ and Humanity integrated.

As much as Charles thinks he’s the one who is going to teach people things and the one that can really help people, it’s through meeting Erik that he is defined as this leader and this visionary.

What is it about the X-Men franchise that people love it so much and make it endure?

X-Men: First Class - James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender and Nicholas Hoult
An unexpected Outsider on the inside! - Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence), Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) get a first look at some of Hank McCoy's (Nicholas Hoult) abilities © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation 2011

I think that one of the major themes that carry through all the X- Men saga, whether it’s the comic books, cartoons or the movies, is that it’s about outsiders. It’s about people who are uncomfortable in their own skin, who have been ostracized or kept out of the normal, whatever that is, and who are scared of what they are and what they might be capable of. Ninety-nine percent of the characters in these films go through that. I think that is an incredibly human point, and I think it’s very easy to identify with.

How popular were the X-Men comics in England? Is it something you knew as a kid?

I was aware of the cartoon. I was about 10, 11 years old. My friend and I used to watch the cartoon all the time, so I was aware of that, but never the comics. The comics weren’t really a big deal where I grew up.

The cast seems to have a great rapport on screen, was it an instant connection?

We did get on very well, which is good because, one of the things about the X-Men movies is there’s always 5,000 characters that you have to get through in two hours, and it can be a real task.

I think Matthew [Vaughn, the movie’s director] did a great job of telling everybody’s stories well, but I think part of that was the fact that there’s a rapport amongst everyone, and that connection and that chemistry somehow translated on screen as well.

A lot happens between the shooting of a film and the final cut. What was reaction the first time you saw it?

X-Men: First Class - James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender
A growing friendship - Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation 2011

I phoned Michael within about a half an hour, just to go, ‘Dude, you’ve got to see it quick, because you’re going to be relieved!’

We were worried, because these things sometimes are a nightmare to make and it’s well documented that this was, there’s no point in hiding it. But it’s turned out really good. I think we always thought it could either be really different and really brilliant, or different and really bad!

>Originally this seemed like a one-time only prequel, but as audiences are loving it, are you signed up to come back again?

Yeah, they never want to pass up a chance to make money, so if we make money on this one, I’m sure we’ll be back next summer!


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.