TRUTH, LIES, AND PRESS JUNKETS
Michael Fassbender: At some point everybody—well, not everybody, but a vast majority—has felt displaced for one reason or another. Going to high school, some people have glasses, other people have certain religious beliefs or sexual orientation. For whatever reason, they feel ostracized. I think the great thing about the X-Men series is that people everywhere can relate to it.
Fassbender sips from his pint of Sussex Bitter Ale as his close friend and costar James McAvoy takes over the job of explaining the appeal of their new $200 million–plus film, X-Men: Days of Future Past—both for audiences and for these two accomplished actors. It's early still at the Lord Stanley in North London, but in true pub-sermonizing fashion, McAvoy becomes instantly animated.
James McAvoy: People have been asking me a lot, "Why have superhero movies become so popular recently?" And they go, "Is it because they've become really serious and blah, blah?" I'm like, "No, it's not." For thousands and thousands and thousands of years, we've been telling stories about superheroes. Norse gods, mythical fuckin' Greek gods, Roman gods—Hercules? It sounds like fuckin' Wolverine, you know what I mean? We have been telling stories about superheroes and super-villains forever. This isn't some new thing that we now do and sell out for.
MF: That was good. [Claps] I'm in admiration.
JM: I just spent yesterday junketing.
MF: I missed out.
JM: By the end of junketing, you've got some really good bullet points.
MF: It sharpens the spear.
JM: It really does.
DETAILS: Mind giving us another bullet point?
JM: I've been watching X-Men cartoons since I was 14. I'm a huge fan. And that is true, but it's also something I said about 4 million fucking times yesterday.
MF: I get pissed off at myself because you're like, "God, I've said that so many times now," and you start to feel like you're insincere. But actually, you're just looking for a truthful answer. There's nothing devious or preconceived—for me, anyway.
JM: The only time that I am dishonest . . . when I make shit up or when I deflect . . . is when I'm being asked something that is—
MF: About somebody you don't like?
JM: Totally. Then I'm a lying bastard. I'm like, "Michael, he's one of the finest."
MF: He's like, "He's such a good guy."
If life were as poetic as they would like it to be, McAvoy and Fassbender would have bonded while making Band of Brothers back in 2000, playing fresh-faced G.I.'s in the Tom Hanks–Steven Spielberg HBO series, but they didn't shoot any scenes together. Instead, their bromance blossomed a decade later, in the walk-up to 2011's X-Men: First Class, by which time they had developed lengthy résumés and mutual respect. "Before Michael and I even met, I was already willing to go with him and be open to him, because I was like, 'This guy's fuckin' brilliant,'" McAvoy says. "Not to be too fuckin' up your ass or anything like that, but the thing that elevated First Class for me was working with you."
"I had had admiration from a distance," Fassbender says, adding that the connection crystallized during the audition process. McAvoy, who was director Matthew Vaughn's first choice to play Charles Xavier, tested with all the actors up for the part of Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto, in an effort to find the perfect chemistry. "James came in to do the screen test with me," Fassbender says, "and from there, there was a respect and a friendliness between us. But then as it developed, there was more trust, and you realize that the other person's got your back. Then the trust becomes deeper and it goes somewhere else, for sure."
It progressed from giving each other notes to writing and rewriting lines for each other to what McAvoy calls "a relationship that was comfortable, honest, and allowed us to be able to be vulnerable in front of each other as friends and ask, 'What the fuck do you think about this?'" Not surprisingly, it's the fraternal relationship between McAvoy and Fassbender—Charles and Erik—that helped make the film a sleeper blockbuster, taking in more than $350 million worldwide.
As deep and abiding as it is, the friendship is defined by the differences in their lives in a way familiar to many men in their thirties. One is settled down, with a wife and a child, ensconced in a quiet neighborhood (sleepy Crouch End, where McAvoy lives with his wife of eight years, Anne-Marie Duff, and their son, who turns 4 in June). The other is still in the messy bachelor pad he's had for years (Fassbender's been meaning to spruce up his apartment in an edgy corner of Hackney ever since he moved there in his twenties). Both have demanding jobs. So they text, send each other videos, and are thick as thieves when working, as they were while filming X-Men: Days of Future Past in Montreal. And off set—let's just say that their outings still feel like something of an occasion.
Hence the pints, hence the pub—the Lord Stanley. Tucked away in the boho borough of Camden, the airy gastropub splits the distance, geographically and otherwise, between the two friends.
There's another thing that makes this afternoon drink-up special: It's Fassbender's birthday, his 37th. While he is going out to dinner later this evening, he plans to take it easy. He doesn't always, as suggested by the tabloid reports of him carousing with a supermodel at a club the night before. He alternates sips of Vita Coco with his first round, which comes courtesy of his good mate.
"It's not a contrivance at all. I love the guy," McAvoy says, turning to Fassbender. "I do mourn your absence sometimes when I'm working with lesser dudes."
NOMINATION, FRUSTRATION, URINATION
MF: My God, man. I'm nervous.
JM: You'll be fine.
MF: You'll be like, "Oh, you fucked it!"
JM: I'll phone you up: "Remember I told you I was really excited? Aww, dude . . ."
The two friends wait for me to ferry over the next round of pints. And as the bitter begins to flow, so does talk of Fassbender's recently wrapped big-screen adaptation of Macbeth. He and McAvoy compare notes on the interpretation of several lines, the delivery of Shakespeare's verse, and the demands of the Bard's darkest play. McAvoy played the lead in a grueling stage production of Macbeth on London's West End last year and was nominated for an Olivier Award, Britain's equivalent of a Tony.
JM: Yeah, didn't fuckin' win it, though.
MF: Shoulda won it, shouldn't you?
JM: Didn't fuckin' win it, did I? Lost it.
MF: Yeah, yeah. Easy, easy.
JM: I'm not bitter, I'm not bitter—
MF: Just angry.
JM: I'm drinking bitter. It's just really fuckin' annoying. No, I'm only joking.
MF: Oh, no you weren't.
JM: No, listen. It's not about winning awards, and I really don't give a fuck about awards when I do a job. But if you're sitting in the room, I'd much rather they called my name out than the next guy. Of course I would. It's not like you're Mother Teresa and you're like, "No, I really want everyone else to win."
MF: We're all winners, we're all winners. Goddamn it, we are!
McAvoy pats his friend on the back as he gets up and makes for the bathroom. After a six-month-long Oscar campaign for his role as a troubled sex addict in Shame, Fassbender showed a candor rarely seen in the For Your Consideration crowd, saying he was disappointed about not getting a nomination and suggesting he was done campaigning—comments that were interpreted, by some, as a dig at those who did lobby the academy.
MF: It takes five to six months to go and do a campaign, and that's fine, but I would prefer to make the movie and tell another story. And that's all I meant by that. It's not like, "Oh God, this is a drag and I can't be bothered with this." It's not that at all, and I don't want to take away from anybody who does it, because that's not what I meant. Basically, what I'm saying is, I think we live in such a politically correct time at the moment. It almost feels like the fifties again. People are so quick to judge and pick on something that you say. The fact of the matter is, of course it affects you—because of course everybody likes approval, that's just human nature—so you'd be lying to say it doesn't. Like James said, it's nice to hear your name called out.
DETAILS: So was it validating to be up there this year, alongside director Steve McQueen, for 12 Years a Slave?
MF: Absolutely. Like I said, it's always nice to get approval from your peers. I think everybody wants that in life, to be sort of . . . acknowledged is not the right word—celebrated, if that's what it is. You try and tell a story and it touches people.
DETAILS: In that moment, as the envelope was opened for Best Supporting Actor, did you feel anxious or nervous?
MF: I didn't feel that at the Oscars. I just felt it was a very cool, chill, relaxed atmosphere. I knew what the result was gonna be, so maybe that was why.
DETAILS: So you predicted Jared Leto would win, but what about 12 Years? And Lupita Nyong'o getting Best Supporting Actress?
MF: I actually had predicted the way it went. I thought it would get best film. And I did sort of call the Lupita thing. I was pretty sure she'd get it, and I was so happy she did.
DETAILS: She gave you an amazing shout-out in her speech—she called you her rock.
MF: And I wasn't there!
DETAILS: What were you doing?
MF: I went outside to go to the toilet.
DETAILS: So you were taking a piss?
MF: Yes. I was taking a piss. And I did have a sneaky vodka tonic. But I got totally caught out, because I was thinking that category was going to be way down the line. And then, of course, you can't get back in until it's a commercial break, so I watched it backstage. I felt pretty embarrassed about that.
With perfect timing, at this moment McAvoy returns from taking a piss.
JM: Where was this?
MF: The Oscars—I missed Lupita winning. So there's a stand-in beside my mom. [Laughs] And Brad Pitt said he could hear them going, "Michael Fassbender? Where's Michael Fassbender?" Bad timing on my part.
MF: It was really bad. It was close here and frizzy up here. And then, because I tied it back, whenever I took the band off, it just went like this—poof—mullet. Really bad. Lucky enough, I managed to have a girlfriend. I don't know how—'cause I was really pimply as well.
This portrait of an artist as a young metalhead both is and is not a passing snapshot. Fassbender will still psych himself up on set with AC/DC, Slayer, or Megadeth on occasion, and growing up in Killarney, Ireland, he harbored rock-star aspirations. "I've gotta say, I wasn't very good. It was just two of us, both on lead guitar, and both of us singing—nobody wanted to back down," he recalls. "We couldn't get a bass player, and we couldn't get a drummer. It was a small town." The shift happened when he and a friend produced a stage version of Reservoir Dogs, in which Fassbender played Mr. Pink. (When Fassbender told Quentin Tarantino, who directed him in Inglourious Basterds, Fassbender says, "he got a kick out of it. I stressed to him it was for charity—we weren't profiting off his work!") As a teen, Fassbender waited tables at a restaurant run by his mother, who was born in Northern Ireland, and his German father, who was the chef—though he preferred tending bar. "I'm a little bit too proud," he says. "You're at the mercy of the floor when you're a waiter, whereas behind the bar, it's your domain. You've gotta wait for the bartender to come and serve you."
When he applied to drama school, he sought out programs that taught Method acting. And that training was pivotal in his breakthrough role, playing the late IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger, his first collaboration with the director Steve McQueen. Living on just 600 calories a day for more than 10 weeks, the already slim actor dropped 35 pounds and learned an important lesson from McQueen. "I've been hearing it since Hunger," he says. "'We're gonna be gone one day, so why not just let it all hang out? Don't worry about falling on your face, because that's inevitably gonna happen if you're really searching. Because sometimes you don't know what you're trying to discover.' To put yourself in jeopardy, I think, is important for an actor." After filming one scene in 12 Years a Slave, in which Fassbender's character, plantation owner Edwin Epps, forces himself on Patsy, played by Lupita Nyong'o, McQueen found Fassbender slumped over, passed out. "I hyperventilated. I just blacked out—it was just a matter of seconds," Fassbender says. "It was the rape scene—not a pleasant place—and there was a lot going on within Epps, a lot of conflicting emotions. It was one of those things. For the most part, I don't . . . get so intense. I wish Steve wouldn't say anything about that."
Not surprisingly, Fassbender jumped at the chance to show his lighter side, playing a quirky, enigmatic pop singer in Frank, an indie comedy costarring Maggie Gyllenhaal that's due in theaters in August. "I would like to do more comedy," he says, a bit wistfully. "And I probably should!"
TENDER IS THE KNIGHT
JM: We had Ian, we had Patrick. We had the guy who carried all the other X-Men movies, which is Wolverine. Hugh Jackman, man.
As the title suggests, Days of Future Past involves multiple time periods, and the ensemble cast features Jackman as Wolverine, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, and two sets of Charleses and Eriks—McAvoy and Fassbender, of course, and those other famously close friends, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.
MF: Yeah, Ian and I literally passed like ships in the night. I got a nice little note in my trailer—obviously it was Ian's trailer before I got there—and it was, "Oh, they're determined for us not to meet." He was like, "So sorry we still haven't gotten to connect." But we did at Comic-Con, and it was great.
JM: I passed his trailer when . . . I had just had 17 hours, I think, of hair extensions.
MF: To get those suckers in?
JM: Yeah. It was down to here.
McAvoy points way down his back, just above his waist. In the film, however, his mop is merely shoulder-length.
MF: They hadn't chopped it yet?
JM: So I was walking past his trailer with really long hair, and Ian went, "James, James, do come in. James! Mr. McAvoy?" And I came and I sat—
MF: [Imitating McKellen] Jaaaaames?
JM: And then Patrick was inside and Ian was sitting. And I sat on the steps just there, and they said, "Would you like some fish cakes, James?" And I said, "No, I'm all good for fish cakes, thanks." Anyway, so I sat there and I had a chat with them. And they were lovely—they've always been really lovely to me. But Ian just put his hands on my face . . . and kept them there . . . for a loonnnng time. And just stroked my face for about two and a half minutes. [Fassbender laughs] And I let him. I was just like—
MF: He's a knight!
JM: He's a knight, man, and he's Gandalf, and he's fuckin' Magneto, and he's amazing! And I could smell the fish cakes sizzling, it was all going on as he's stroking my face. And Patrick was just being quiet. It was weird.
MF: They punked you. [Laughs] They totally did. You left the trailer, and they cracked up.
JM: For the first five, six, seven years of my career, nobody even knew I was Scottish. Everybody thought I was posh English. Even Scottish people. Because it's all I did on TV, it's all I did in movies. State of Play, costume dramas, Becoming Jane, Atonement. And I was doing all right for myself—I got a real kick out of the fact that what was getting me somewhere was that I was able to pretend to be these cunts that had annoyed me so much earlier in my life.
After his parents' acrimonious split, McAvoy was raised by his grandparents in the hardscrabble Drumchapel section of Glasgow in council estates, the equivalent of housing projects. "We used to call people NEDS—it means non-educated delinquents," he says. "At times I was a NED, a borderline NED." In high school, he became fascinated with his art and music teachers. "And I very quickly stopped being NED-ish and very quickly started being pretentious and started wearing woolen waistcoats and glasses that don't have a prescription lens in them." A chance casting at age 15 diverted McAvoy from a course that might have taken him to the Royal Navy. And nine years later, playing a posh Englishman on Shameless, the original BBC version, he met his future wife, Anne-Marie Duff, who played his girlfriend. While we speak, a photo from her pops up on his iPhone. "Niiiiice," he says. "Sorry, I'm very excited. I've just had some carpet put down in my house. And I have not had carpet in a long time. We've had a drafty house for three years. I'm very, very, very excited. Check that shit out." At 35, McAvoy is unabashed in his domestic bliss. "I've been nesting since I was about 24, mate." He and Duff take turns caring for their son while the other is working and assiduously avoid celebrity trappings, refusing to make their lives and relationship a public matter. "You just choose the things you want to keep private and keep them precious. And if you sell them cheaply, then they become cheap to you also."
And yet McAvoy is not as earnest as he can sometimes project. He races cars and motorcycles when time allows, ties one on now and again, and relishes playing the occasional psychotic scoundrel. This month, American audiences can see that twisted side in theaters, as he portrays a depraved Scottish cop descending into madness in Filth, the critically lauded adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel. And for all his BAFTA wins and nominations and highbrow roles, McAvoy still relishes his lead role in the 2008 hit action flick Wanted.
JM: It is amazing, seriously, and I am thrilled about it. [Laughs] I kissed fucking Angelina Jolie. Yes, we had a bit of a snog.
MF: [Laughs] Back again, James! Back again! Oooooh!
DETAILS: And how do you think Brad Pitt feels about this snogging?
JM: I am sure he's deeply unthreatened, deeply unmoved, and probably reassured in his masculinity. Probably.
JM: I felt the second movie was much more chilled-out than the first.
MF: Yeah, you're right, it was. Totally.
JM: The first one was quite fraught. In a good, positive way, but we were all still relatively new to the blockbuster kind of thing. So we stressed a lot over First Class.
MF: Yeah, we did, we did, we did.
JM: Whereas this one, we were all a bit like, "You know what, it's going to be all right. We'll still work really hard to make it good, we'll still sweat for it, but we won't cry for it." Do you know what I mean?
MF: Yeah. I'm going to take a pee, but . . . the BB guns.
JM: Well, Michael and I decided that we were going to go and buy BB guns. So we bought about 12 BB guns, and me and Jen—
DETAILS: Jennifer Lawrence and you?
JM: Jen's a demon, man.
DETAILS: Just generally or with a BB gun?
JM: She's a demon, period. She can throw a punch, she's got a good shot, she can drink. She's proper. I like that girl.
DETAILS: So was she the third amigo with you and Michael?
JM: Yeah, man. Well, her and Nick—Hoult—they're amazing. And with them and a few others, there was an ongoing BB war for about two months. Every time you stepped out of your trailer, you were pretty much guaranteed that if you weren't careful, you were going to get hit in the face. And probably get your skin broken as well. But there was a time where Michael was in his trailer and me and Jen were trying to kick the door in, trying to get in through the skylight. So . . . yeah . . . this second movie was a lot more chilled-out than the first one. Big-time. Massively.
THE SMOKE CLEARS
MF: I think I'm a little crazy, but he's full-on fucking crazy.
JM: No, I think it's because I have all my crazy suppressed, and when it comes out, it just goes like that.
MF: I remember the first time we got in the golf buggy to get between the studio and base camp on the first film. James was cutting through the car park and missing parked cars by millimeters and inches, and I was hanging off the back thinking, "Jeez, this guy can drive!" Then I realized that he's just crazy, because he crashed right into the back of a parked Lexus. Smashed it up and got himself thrown off the golf cart.
JM: And when I looked up, I was about 10 foot away, and from there I saw Michael in the driver's seat.
MF: I was thrown over the back seat, banged my head off the steering wheel, and ended up in the driver's seat. I was like, "If I'm here, where's James?" Next thing, he was on the ground going, "Are you all right, mate?"
JM: Well, you've got the scar to show for it.
Fassbender sets down his glass, slaps his arm on the table, rolls up his sleeve, and shows me a knotted scar on his forearm. He then hikes up his pant leg to reveal an inch-long gouge in his shin.
MF: That's the bigger one. I'm proud of that.
JM: You've got the two. Oh.
In short order, McAvoy makes noises about having to depart soon for home, where he has his son to look after. But first, he and Fassbender start planning a date for their next adventure: a track day, to race motorcycles. ("We're great on two wheels, just not so much on four," Fassbender reassures me.) Soon, they say, after Fassbender returns from a trip to Ireland.
JM: I'm up for it.
As we drain our fourth round of pints, I excuse myself to take a piss—much to the amusement of my drinking companions.
MF: Hey, should we just leave? Just leave and he comes back and there's only the tape recorder.
JM: [Laughs] Actually, could I have a cigarette? Are you smoking?
MF: I don't have any fags. You know this is all being recorded here.
JM: We're going to look so cool.