Next up in our series of interviews from the London junket of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is Michael Fassbender, the Irish actor who has been making huge waves in Hollywood both with smaller artier films like Steve McQueen’s Shame and big blockbusters like last year’s X-Men: First Class.
In Prometheus, Fassbender plays one of the more interesting characters, the cyborg David, placed onboard the Prometheus by Weyland Corporation President Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) to help the crew fulfill its mission on another planet. David is inquisitive about everything, but his curiosity tends to get the better of his human colleagues, making him the instigator for some of the worst things that happen to the Prometheus’ crew in trying to get Weyland the results he expects.
You can read our earlier interview with Charlize Theron here.
Q: Are you enjoying that you can at least talk about the film a little bit?
Michael Fassbender: No, I much prefer it when I don’t have to say anything. (Laughs) It makes my job much easier. Yeah, I haven’t seen it yet. You guys have seen it and I haven’t seen it. I see it tomorrow with them at the premiere, so you can tell me. (Laughs)
Q: You’re pretty good in it.
Fassbender: Thanks, man. It was fun. It was a lot of fun. What do you want to know?
Q: Regarding your character “David,” he’s an earlier android than Ash in “Alien” and Bishop in “Aliens,” so di you reference their performance at all?
Fassbender: No, I don’t know why, but sometimes you do, like when I was doing “Jane Eyre,” I watched as many of the Rochesters as I could get my hands on, but for this I made a decision not to watch the “Alien” movies. I watched “Blade Runner” and I looked at the replicants—well, I looked at Sean Young. There was something in her character, a quality there that I kind of liked for David, this longing for something or some sort of a soul at play there, a sort of vacant element. I don’t know exactly what, I just knew there was a quality there that I liked and then Hal from “2001” and then I sort of walked in with “The Servant” and Dirk Bogarde and that and then Peter O’Toole’s character from “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Man Who Fell To Earth,” David Bowie. So those were the kind of ingredients and then Greg Louganis, the diver, so that was sort of the mixture.
Q: There was also some contempt in David for the person who made him. He has that line about how “Everyone wants to see their parents die…” Were you laying David as if he had emotions?
Fassbender: I played him exactly like you said with the idea of an earlier model and what it was with the earlier versions were that they were very human and “Oh my God, they are robots,” whereas this one the reveal is very early, so I wanted to make him very robotic and then yes, inside have human traits and personality trait, so you’re like “Wait a second, is he being sarcastic there?” or “Is he being for real?” So you are always asking that question with the character. It’s like as the character develops as well physically, I don’t know if it shows, but like at the beginning he has a very neutral physicality; by the end I was leaning on my hip when we are leaving the spaceship to go down on that last mission. It’s little things like that. So that’s an attitude. If I sit there and look at you like that (tilts head to one side), it’s something very different from that or this. Little things like that I was trying to bleed through, so even then you’re thinking as the audience or the people on board “Wait a second. Is something happening here? Was he pretending to be more robotic than he was?” So he’s a big question mark.
Q: How early on were you preparing for this role? Were you breaking down the script really early on or are you the type of person that likes to wait until much closer to filming to really just dive head first into it?
Fassbender: No, I didn’t have time, mate. I mean I was still in New York doing “Shame,” so I knew I was going to be coming off “Shame” and then flew back here and I had three weeks I think, maybe four, before we were on set and we were going. I went straight into it and then its like catch-up and try to make the most that you can in that time. I just went from one after the other.
Q: For those three or four weeks, were you working on it all day?
Fassbender: Well you’ve got to go in and do makeup tests. You’ve got to try all the costume tests, so you go on out to do that and then yeah, sure any free time you’ve got I’m at home working on the script reading and rereading. Then at the same time I’m thinking about the look, thinking about the physicality, and putting the pieces back together. That’s not a lot of time, three or four weeks, for me. I like to have the whole thing ready on Day One, so then I take it piece by piece after that. So yeah, the prep is important for me, yeah.
Q: David’s demeanor and delivery are so very specific and very different from your own personality. The other actors were saying that you joked around on set between takes rather than staying in character. Was it that easy to just get in and out of David?
Fassbender: I kind of like to do that with other characters as well. I have a tendency to have that energy on set. There’s something about that where I think if you keep it relaxed or go into it relaxed then things will happen as opposed to trying to preempt them. I don’t try to go “This is what I’m going to try to do with the character in this scene.” I allow things to appear as opposed to place them and doing that I find helps going in and out like that. Sometimes if I stick in a character too much I feel like I might start to get blinkered, because I’m making my decisions too definite. I don’t know what David is going to do next. “How do I know?” There’s a thousand ways to do something.
Q: I feel like I could have watched an entire movie of David killing time while everyone else was hyper-sleeping. How did you approach those scenes and what David was actually doing in those moments?
Fassbender: Again like you say, he’s up there two and a half years and everyone is in cryostasis and there was that question like “What do we do?” and that idea of Ridley wanted him to have blonde hair. That was his look and so I said, “Wouldn’t it be kind of interesting if he was highlighting his hair once?” (Laughs) That’s how cool Ridley is. Ridley was like “Let’s do it.” I didn’t think it would end up in the movie, but apparently it’s in there. Things like that. I thought “Is there a vanity to this guy?” Again, it’s a very human trait and then I thought to myself “There’s a childlike element to him as well,” because he’s had to amuse himself, because nobody has been awake and even when they do wake up they don’t really… there’s a certain contempt towards him. It’s sort of like he is an outsider and he’s a robot and so I thought, “As a child as well, everything is fascinating. Everything is information for him,” so it’s like the childlike thing, so when he watches humans behave together it’s information. Then I had a yo-yo and I was playing around with that idea. We didn’t use it, but just the various things he would get up to on board the ship. So again, when everybody wakes up it’s his ship and everybody is roaming around and it’s like he keeps everything clean, so there’s the butler element to him as well house keeper and all of those things.
Q: But enjoyment is a human emotion, so is he able to enjoy those things he is doing?
Fassbender: Yeah, I think again he takes pride in what he does, but that’s a human thing, isn’t it? I thought it was always the idea of human beings have programmed him and they have designed him in a certain way that he will be able to react to certain human behavior. So it’s possible that that programming starts to bleed and form its own personality trait. So that was the thing, but never to make it an open ended “Yes, that’s what he is doing.” It’s kind of in and out.
Q: One of the interesting things about David is that he seems very inquisitive and curious, even though some of the things he does could be perceived as evil. What was your take on why he does some of the things he does later on?
Fassbender: The driving force is it’s the information that he’s got to gather and sometimes you need guinea pigs in the science laboratory and that’s the way he looks at it. It’s collateral damage and then maybe there’s other little elements to it that he can enjoy that go with it, but he definitely very focused on an objective, you know?
Q: It’s just very interesting to me to tell a robot “try harder.” You can’t tell your computer to “try harder.” You can’t tell a piece of machinery to “try harder.” They just do what they do. I just thought that was a really interesting directive.
Fassbender: Yeah, but she is human and he knows that that for a human being, that will get to her. “You’ve got to try harder.” “I’m trying my best.” “Best isn’t good enough.” So it’s like harder for him is achievable, it just means “I need to do something else in order to get the information from this,” where as we go “Shit, how do I do it? I’m working so hard on it.” He will just find another way to get there and so “harder” doesn’t even exist as you say. It just means “Do it another way.”
Q: There’s a really distinct physicality between you and Charlize and I’m wondering if you guys talked about it at all openly or is that something that just organically happened?
Fassbender: I just came on set doing the David walk on the first day and we didn’t discuss any of that. In fact there wasn’t much discussion other than a little bit at the beginning when we all met up and then once we were on set it was like people bringing their work to the floor and Ridley throwing in some ideas and mixing it about, but no that was never discussed.
Q: Charlize was saying you were showing her stuff from your computer to make her laugh. What were the sort of things you would show her?
Fassbender: Check out “Reporter goes ghetto in 30 seconds.” (laughter)
Q: There’s a lot that’s hinted about your relationship to Charlize’s character and your relationship to Weyland, but it’s never really said. I was wondering what you could tell us about those relationships.
Fassbender: Well it’s complicated. I think Weyland is obviously that high-achieving alpha male and what was cool about the Davids is that there are hundreds of Davids, thousands of Davids. They are mass-produced and he is obviously very proud of his creation, but I think that’s because he is proud of himself. It’s all about Weyland. He is the creator, you know? So when he goes “The son that I never had,” it’s not because he has affection for David, it’s that he has such affection for himself and self-affirmation that he created this. I think it’s the classic thing of perhaps a neglected daughter or a neglected child; she is desperately vying to get “daddy’s” attention.
Q: A lot of the other actors were talking about being fans of “Alien” and being excited to be able to work with Ridley on this movie for that reason. Did you have that same kind of feeling? Did you feel the legacy of that original movie and what he did?
Fassbender: Sure. Absolutely yeah, you’re very much aware of that and that it is Ridley and that it is this world and there is that pressure, but that’s good. That gives you a healthy amount of fear and then like I said I try to get all of the preparation squared-away and then on-set really try to have fun. I knew that I wanted to have fun with this character, that I really wanted to enjoy it, and Ridley and I seemed to click immediately in terms of what was going on with the character and the freedom to try things out with him and to find the humor in there. I said to him, “This guy is funny, right?” He was like “Yes. Great. Let’s go for it.” So yeah, that was the main thing, to really enjoy him.
Q: David’s viral video has been a huge hit, so did they explain to you back when you were shooting what they were going to be used for?
Fassbender: Yeah, and you know I think it’s the future of advertising a movie. I think it’s brilliant to actually have other pieces of this trailer which could be in the movie or at least flesh out the movie, it’s part of the same philosophy of the movie, without showing any of the movie. I love that. I get to such an extent with trailers where I have to close my eyes, because I don’t want to see trailers, you know? I love to go into a movie and have no idea what’s going to happen in it. I remember when I went in to see City Of God and I had no idea what it was. I came to an audition a week early. I came in and was like “I’m here for the audition” and they were like “No, it’s next Wednesday” and it was raining outside and I went in to the Curzon and I went in and I just sat down. I was blown away. So to have that thing for me is when I experience a film at its best, you know?
Q: If you met David, what would you ask him?
Fassbender: “Does he like to dance?” (laughter)
Q: If this film is successful, they have talked about possibly making a trilogy, and having your character show up in different forms? Did you sign on for a multiple picture deal and how does it feel that you might be bouncing back and forth between this franchise and “X-Men”?
Fassbender: I don’t know what the contract says on this one. I think probably it is the case, because with these sort of things they usually will cover that anyway. Let’s see what happens. I’m pretty excited. It looks like with “X-Men” we are going to be starting up next year I think, so I’m excited by the prospect of that and the ideas that have been floating around on that court and to get back together with that team again. So you know it’s just about another job, really. It’s just another film isn’t it? Just a continuation of that last one. You go on to one and then when that’s done they have to make it available for you to be ready for the next one, so that’s the only thing. It just means going on to the next film when it’s ready to go.
Q: What’s it been like for you in the last year or two going from really cool gig to really cool gig? What’s this process been like for you? What’s the next year looking like in terms of what you are looking to do? What are you doing?
Fassbender: It’s been nuts, you know? The last year has been its own thing, because everything is coming out and I haven’t done any acting work since July. It’s just been press and promotion, but I knew the years before, like 2010 and 2011 I was like “I’m really lucky.” I was working with the top people, so that was the absolute pinnacle of the dream when I started. You just want to be a working actor to begin with, so to be working at that level you realize that you are extremely lucky and it’s a one-percentile thing. So you pinch yourself a lot and then you just try to make sure that I don’t get lazy and I don’t get comfortable and trying to keep the work levels at a certain standard, that’s it. So next year I’ve been doing a lot of work with writers and trying to set up my own production company, DMC. We already did a short film, Pitch Black Heist and now I’m working on features, so that’s the next challenge, to get that realized to its full potential.
Q: You have X-Men obviously in January or February, but are you filming anything before that?
Fassbender: I’m going on to “12 Years A Slave” with Steve (McQueen) in New Orleans right after here. Well I’ve got to go to Los Angeles and New York for more promotion and then out there with two weeks of prep and then I go into it.
Q: Did you say you haven’t done any actual acting since July?
Q: How antsy does that make you?
Fassbender: It felt good. I needed to stop. I needed to get some perspective. I had done six films back to back in 20 months, so it was like “Okay, take a break” and then the promotion thing kicked in and then I really wanted to make DMC, my production company, really work as opposed to just an idea and you’ve got to put a lot of time into that. So I really did focus energies in that, working with writers, finding the writers, and so now I go back to acting again, plus my friends are like “We are fucking sick of you and we see your face everywhere,” so I was like “Okay, I won’t do anything for a while.”
Prometheus opens nationally on Friday, June 8.
And here’s our more SPOILER-driven questions to Fassbender about a key moment towards the end of the movie…
Q: What was it like filming the scenes where your head was detached from your body? What were those days like for you?
Fassbender: Well, lying down a lot dressed up in a Kermit the Frog suit. I’m like in this green all in one piece. It’s fine. When I was reading at the beginning I was like “Okay, it’s got to be funny and there’s got to be a reality to the situation that he is in and again that’s the point where you realize that this guy wants to continue living. It’s like he doesn’t want to be just shut down, he wants to continue living, which is again “Is that a human trait?” I was hoping it was going to be funny and it was like obviously there was a lot of “Can’t do that, but my eyes can be moving all over the place.” Hopefully there were some elements of comedy there, but it just meant I was lying down really. (Laughs)