'X-Men's' Michael Fassbender On His Magnetic Role

About to hit theaters, X-Men: First Class is a prequel to previous X-Men blockbusters, based on characters from Marvel Comics born with an X-factor gene mutation that gives them special powers. Host Scott Simon speaks to actor Michael Fassbender, who plays Magneto in the new movie.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

"X-Men: First Class" is about to hit the theaters. It's a prequel to the previous X-Men blockbusters, based on characters from Marvel Comics who were born with an X-factor gene mutation who have extra powers. Sure, they save the world every now and then, but will humanity ever truly accept superheroes with mutant genes?

Much of the action in "X-Men: First Class" goes back to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when the X-Men heroes and heroines try to defuse the standoff between Soviet and U.S. gunboats. But a character named Magneto tells the professor who's trained them that in the end, the Soviets and Americans are their true adversaries.

(Soundbite of movie, "X-Men: First Class")

Mr. MICHAEL FASSBENDER (Actor): (as Magneto) The real enemy is out there. I feel their guns moving in the water targeting us. Go ahead, Charles. Tell me I'm wrong.

SIMON: That's Michael Fassbender as Magneto, one of the original X-Men mutants. He's also played a valiant British spy in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands. Joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. FASSBENDER: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Was it hard to get you to sign on for a major role in a major movie enterprise like this?

Mr. FASSBENDER: No. You know, I was looking to do a studio film. What really intrigued me about this particular one was that you're dealing with the villain, if you like, in the piece as somebody that's very ambivalent and there's a lot of complexity to him. And there is cause for his feelings and his actions. Whether or not you agree with them is another thing.

That's much more entertaining me for an actor and much more entertaining for me an audience member.

SIMON: The film actually begins very sympathetically. This one opens in a concentration camp and the young man who becomes Magneto, a young man named Erik Lensherr, sees his mother being dragged away in a concentration camp and he discovers then he has these extraordinary magnetic powers that pop open the gate. And this informs the rest of his life, doesn't it?

Mr. FASSBENDER: It does, yeah. And, you know, I like that idea of when we meet him he's very much that sort of lone wolf.

SIMON: Mr. Fassbender, how much do you feel you need to know about a character's back story to be able to utter lines in the present?

Mr. FASSBENDER: Well, for me, it's always something that I will do. If there isn't a biography available that's my job to go away and write it. And what as great about this is there was just such a wealth of information. I mean, I was really spoiled.

SIMON: What is it like to be an actor in a film like this that has such extraordinary special effects? You stop nuclear missiles in mid-flight:

(Soundbite of missile flying)

SIMON: Forgive me, your character does.

Mr. FASSBENDER: Piece of cake, dude.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. FASSBENDER: Yeah, you know, you just have to really kind of throw yourself into it and I say, you know, sort of unleash the sort of nine-year-old within and just enjoy it. You know, and if you don't fully commit to these things then you really are going to have egg on your face, I think.

SIMON: As far as you're concerned, there's a message in "X-Men."

Mr. FASSBENDER: Yeah. It's not really about mutants; it's about humanity. You know, and I think it's about, I mean, the human race. We're an absolutely destructive race. It seems that we can't seem to get beyond this level of tribalism that has been around for thousands of years. Anything we fear we tend to destroy.

SIMON: You've got a big film scheduled later this year, "A Dangerous Method" -Viggo Mortensen and Sigmund Freud - and you portray Carl Jung. If you're going to play Carl Jung, you have to know what he said and what he did. You just can't know what's in the script?

Mr. FASSBENDER: Definitely. You try and get as much information as you can. If the character exists, just sort of like, you know, these comic books, whatever material's available you eat it up. It's interesting with the Jung beliefs. I don't know if I believe. There's elements in both sort of the Freud camp and Jung's that I can see the worth of.

But I think, you know, nowadays especially this idea of this sort of individual, I think, has got totally blown out of proportion. We've kind of become very obsessed about that and I don't think it's very healthy. I think we need to be thinking more along the sort of collective.

SIMON: I've read a lot of publicity about you which dotes on the fact that you haven't gone Hollywood. That you still live in, while I'm sure it's not modest as we might think of it, but you're a London guy.

Mr. FASSBENDER: You'd be surprised, yeah.

SIMON: You're a neighborhood London guy.

Mr. FASSBENDER: Yeah, you know, I am. I'm very happy there. It took me a while to really get to love London and actually took me a while just to get to like it, to be honest. I was at drama school, I had no money. It's a super expensive place and, you know, a lonely place as well. You know, everybody's sort of in their routine and going about their business. But, you know, I've come to love it.

And there's nothing against Hollywood or Los Angeles but for me I just don't find that I feel very creative there or get inspired. A lot of the time is spent in the car and I like to walk, you know, in the streets among people. And also the idea of any town, you know, revolving around one industry, I'm not so sure. It's like going to a dinner party every night where everybody's, like, a lawyer or everybody's an accountant or everybody's an actor. After a while, you know, you kind of get sick of talking about the same stuff.

SIMON: Let me get you to speak for a moment, if we can, about the 2008 film "Hunger," in which you played Bobby Sands of the IRA who died in a hunger strike in prison in 1981. We've got here a clip in which Bobby Sands explains to the prison priest why he's on a hunger strike.

(Soundbite of movie, "Hunger")

Mr. FASSBENDER: (as Bobby Sands) You want me to argue about the morality of what I'm about to do and whether it's really suicide or not? For one, you're calling it suicide; I call it murder and that's just another wee difference between us two. We're both Catholic men, both Republicans. While you were poaching salmon and (unintelligible) Killrae, we were being burned out of our house in Rothko. Similar in many ways, no, but life and experience is focused up at least differently. Do you understand me?

Mr. RORY MULLEN (Actor): (as Priest) I understand.

Mr. FASSBENDER: (as Bobby Sands) I have my belief, and in all its simplicity, that is the most powerful thing.

SIMON: Now, I don't want for a moment in any real way to compare a fictional character like Magneto with an actual man, Bobby Sands, but in a sense it's also inescapable that both characters raise this question about the line between what some people would call heroism and what some people would terrorism.

Mr. FASSBENDER: Absolutely. And, you know, what I think is interesting and certainly not my job to sort of make that decision. I think what's interesting is that if I'm doing my job correctly it'll make the audience ask those questions and make them sort of find their own sort of moral compass.

SIMON: Mr. Fassbender, it's been a pleasure. Good luck with this and everything.

Mr. FASSBENDER: Thank you so much.

SIMON: Michael Fassbender. He's stars in "X-Men: First Class," which opens June 3rd.

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