It must be hard for a young actor to take on a role created by Sir Ian McKellen, but Michael Fassbender has done it in X-Men: First Class, portraying a younger version of Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto.
The movie is set in the 1960s, when Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who will go on to become Professor X, and Erik are two men with very different backgrounds discovering their mutant powers, the closest of friends, who one day will be the deadliest of enemies.
How did you feel when you first found out you were going to be doing this?
I don’t know if it has something to do with my self-esteem, but the first thing I thought when they said, ‘They’re offering you X-Men,’ was, ‘Who fell out?’
You had some big shoes to step into, taking on a role created by Ian McKellen?
Sir Ian McKellen had done such a great job and I was aware of the fans of the X-Men comic books were very pleased with what he did, so initially I thought to myself, ‘Okay, should I study a young Ian McKellen, study his voice and his physicality?’ So I spoke with Matthew [Vaughn, the director of the film] about it and he wasn’t so keen on the idea. He wanted me to use my own voice and take it from there. So we just wiped the slate clean of that idea.
I just really delved into the comic books. There was so much material there that I was spoilt in terms of biography and putting together a really complicated, well-rounded character.
What is Charles and Erik’s relationship in the film?
There is a very strong bond between Charles and Erik, and a deep respect. But from the beginning, their ideologies are at odds. Erik is very wary of new elements in his life and of getting close to someone again. He does so with Charles as much as he can with anyone. We wanted to have a believable journey to the point where their devastating rift begins. When Erik and Charles have their parting of the ways, audiences will realize that great things could have happened if they had joined forces forever.
How popular were the X-Men comics in England for you? Were they something you knew as a kid?
I certainly didn’t, but since having gotten the job and speaking to various people, [fans of them are] everywhere. The waiter’s like, ‘I’m an X-Men fan, you’d better not mess it up.’ I think the themes involved are so universal that there are mutants everywhere amongst us. That I found really surprising, to realize just how wide spread that audience was.
There’s a grey area in this between Good and Bad. How does that grey area play with your character?
I think personally as an audience member and as an actor I much prefer to find ambiguity in that grey area. Nowadays, especially with big, commercial films, it’s much too easy for the audience and they tend to get spoon-fed. So it’s much more interesting for me if people leave the theatre and they start asking themselves questions and they have their own moral compass about what these characters have been doing.
In terms of the justification for what he does, there was a motivation. I could see where the motivation was and where it came from. I’ve always said that Magneto for me, or Erik, is a Machiavellian character, where the end justifies the means. And that really kind of sums him up best in one line.
This is the first film in the franchise where at the end of it I thought, ‘Magneto really has a point here.’ He’s saying that as mutants they’re never going to be accepted.
His philosophy stands true. Everything he says comes to fruition. This idea that the Human race, as history teaches us, is an incredibly destructive race, and the fact that whenever a fear element comes into something that is unknown or different, we tend to destroy it. So all those discussions Charles and Erik have in the end, the Human Beings prove Erik right.
How was the shooting of the movie?
It was tough, we were under pressure, there wasn’t a lot of time to prepare things and we did have to dive into things immediately. I’ve got to say I was really impressed by the younger cast that were coming into something that is so high profile, with a real openness and lack of attitude or insecurity that can lead to bad behavior. There was superb talent at the base of it, but just a real openness and I was very impressed by that.
Why do you feel the franchise has been so successful?
The whole concept of The X-Men is a very mature idea in terms of super hero comics in general. The idea of alienation is a universal thing, and whether it be for religious beliefs, ethnicity, sexual orientation, everybody experiences it somewhat, even in a smaller scale, when you’re going to secondary school and you want to be accepted, so I think that obviously touches on a nerve that people can relate to. >
This one has a Sixties Bond feel, you’ve been compared with Sean Connery playing Bond, was that a conscious decision of yours?
It wasn’t a conscious decision of mine, but Matthew had mentioned it in the early meetings that that’s how he envisioned a lot of it. I did sort of think I was Sean Connery. I just basically looked at all the material in the comics and of course then they dressed me up in suits and really nice cool clothing and so I guess that is where maybe this idea comes from.
So would you be interested in taking over for Daniel Craig after his tenure as Bond is over?
I don’t know, I really don’t like to plan anything ever because it never really seems to work. Let’s just get this film out and see how this one does. Daniel’s doing a great job. We’ll see what happens. I’m very flattered that people made that link, but we’ll see.