Heroes and villains in the X-Men universe are as fluid as people are in real life. Part of what makes those characters so interesting is their humanity—their fallibility, and their penchants to change their minds. Bryan Singer‘s X-Men: Apocalypse is keeping that tradition alive by continuing to shift loyalties and sympathies of characters we thought we all knew already. Set in the 1980s, the film sees the first mutant ever, Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), recruiting Four Horsemen to do his dirty work. The mutants he chooses are Archangel (Ben Hardy), a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and perhaps the most surprising of all, a very lost and distraught Magneto (Michael Fassbender).
Nerdist visited the set of X-Men: Apocalypse in Montreal last July and sat down with Fassbender, Munn, and Shipp to discuss how they all fit in to Apocalypse’s world-destroying plans, and
Michael Fassbender has now played Magneto in three films, beginning in 2011’s X-Men: First Class and continuing in the time-spanning X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2014. He told us Apocalypse finds Erik Lensherr in a very different place. “I start off in Poland,” Fassbender said. “Erik is basically living a normal life, has a family, has fallen in love, and has basically disappeared for the last eight years or so. He doesn’t use his powers, has left that life behind and lives a sort of simple life.”
Magneto has never been depicted as anything but a lone wolf—a blazer of his own trail—but Fassbender told us he’s a very different kind of man in this, and one who you’d believe might become a server of Apocalypse. “I think that’s the classic thing of any sort of megalomaniac,” he continued. “There are huge contradictions and hypocrisies within it. It’s almost like sometimes the worst dictators start off as complete idealists, and that almost makes them more extreme in their dictatorship later. So, absolutely, what Apocalypse is doing is echoing that, but for [Magneto] at that point I think it’s just about, ‘Okay, I’m gonna bring as much pain to the human race as they’ve brought me, and basically wipe them out once and for all.’ In a way, it’s a more extreme, more effective version of how we’ve seen him in the past.”
We’ve seen Magneto in the ’60s as a confused and angry survivor, and in the ’70s as a man with a clear vision of what may save his people (it involved dropping a stadium around the White House, if you’ll recall). We wonder if in the ’80s, this Magneto is closer to the evil portrayed by Ian McKellen in the original films. “I think Ian McKellen might have a problem with that [description],” Fassbender laughs. “I’ve seen an interview with him speaking about Iago and how he’s an evil character and he’s like, ‘Evil, I don’t know what to do with that word.’ And that’s true. Trying to unravel a character, ‘evil’ is just too broad a word and too cloudy a word—how do you access it, and how do you bring that characteristic and display it in a character without being ‘Mwahahaha’?”
All good villains have justifiable motivations. Fassbender was keen to point out that Magneto, regardless of who’s playing him, has got a lot bubbling under the surface. “He’s somebody who’s been injured,” the actor explained. “Somebody who’s had all his loved ones taken away from him. He’s quite singular in his thoughts and yes there’s an element of a megalomaniac in there, and an aspect of a dictator for sure. So I always had those things in mind when I was playing him, so I don’t think it’s any more of a progression towards Ian’s Magneto. I think he was kind of doing the same thing.”
For Olivia Munn, becoming Psylocke, the telekinetic right-hand of Apocalypse in the movie, seemed like destiny. Fans had made mock-up artwork of her as the character long before she’d been cast, and she even joked to us about having a leg up on the film’s director, Bryan Singer, when it came to the character. “I knew more about Psylocke than he did,” she laughed. But they both knew that the character’s attire—which is the most closely hewed from the comic book iteration—needed to not be all that the character is about.
“Apocalypse is kind of like the cult leader in a way,” Munn explained, “and within a cult there are different [aspects]. There is the religious part and then there’s like the angelic part and the childlike part and there’s the sexual part. I know that Psylocke is dressed very sexually. It’s very revealing, but it’s important to know that she always had substantive plotlines [in the comics]. It’s all for a reason. In fact, Apocalypse is the one who dressed her and gave her that outfit.”
To her, Psylocke is perhaps a little easier to manipulate into evil because she lacks a strong, supportive influence. “To be able to read people’s minds and then create anything with your mind. Those are very powerful things,” Munn told us. “Because she has this power—similar to Wolverine, who had always been manipulated so that other people can wield his powers and use him—Psylocke could always, and in the comics had always been looking for a leader, looking for guidance, looking for a purpose, and her righteous purpose in life.
“The way that I see Psylocke is as a very powerful weapon that has been used and abused by different people so that they could use her powers and she’s somebody who’s just looking for righteous purpose. Right now, that’s why she’s one of the bad guys. Later on, when she goes to the X-Men, she finally finds her righteous purpose.”
Storm is one of the comics’ most popular characters, and this movie introduces her in a very different place than we’ve seen in the previous films. As a young person, she falls in with a “bad crowd,” let’s say. Alexandra Shipp, who plays the mohawk-sporting mistress of the elements, told us about how it is that Storm could end up working for Apocalypse. “You’re seeing her where she comes from,” Shipp began, “you’re seeing all the pain that she’s gone through. It’s not like she’s in the mansion having a great time. She’s so different from all of the other kids because they come from families. They come from some sort of love and support, whereas Storm hasn’t had that since her parents died when she was five.”
Shipp continued: “She’s kind of just all messed up, and the only mutants that she knows are bad mutants. The only mutants that she knows are the mutants who use their powers for stealing, or protecting thugs or whatever.” With all of the Horsemen, it would appear finding their place is what ultimately leads them toward the ancient evil. “Storm’s in survival mode,” Shipp told us, “so when she meets Apocalypse, she’s kind of, like, hit with this revelation where she has been struggling to feel like she belongs somewhere.”
Interestingly, Shipp told us the only framework for a “heroic” mutant that Storm has is Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who, as we all remember, was spotted on television in Days of Future Past not killing Richard Nixon. “She doesn’t know anything about the X-Men,” the actress said. “The only thing she knows is about Mystique when she saved the president, but that’s basically it. Other than Mystique, every other mutant that she’s known has been bad, so that’s kind of where she’s coming from.” And it’s not about Storm being a baddie so much as not having any other way to be. “I don’t necessarily see her as a bad person, or as a bad mutant. I don’t see her as a villain. She doesn’t know that she’s a villain. That’s just all she’s ever known, is just bad.”
Because he was in full makeup and costume—which looked really cool, by the way—and was focusing on his scene, we didn’t get to talk to Oscar Isaac, but we did ask his Horsemen about working together with him. “What I loved about my first day working,” Munn told us, “I was with Oscar and with Michael Fassbender and Alex Shipp. I thought [Fassbender] had a longer face, because he’s always so serious in movies. He’s like the most smiley guy. He jokes. He’s a jukebox. He can sing any song you can think of and he’s so fun. And then with Oscar, I met him when he was already blue. Then we hang out, we joke around in between takes, always joking around and singing songs. Then about two weeks in, this realization hit me: ‘Oscar, I’m kind of freaking out… Apocalypse is Oscar Isaac to me. If I see you out of this, it will really trip me up.’ And it did.”
Fassbender also has nothing but praise for Isaac. “I’ve been a fan for quite a while now,” he said, “so I was really, really excited and pleased to hear he was coming aboard. It’s just one of those things where you admire somebody and then you get together and it works out just the way you thought it would, that’s great. We sort of hit it off immediately and were on the same page in terms of how we saw the characters and what we wanted to bring to it. It was just a very organic, easy working relationship from the beginning, which is great because we didn’t get much of a sort of build-up time to get to know each other going into scenes—it was pretty straight away.”
This series has already spawned the epic bromance between Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, and of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Add Fassbender and Isaac to that pool as well, it seems.
Despite the happy times on set, X-Men: Apocalypse is going to be pret-ty heavy indeed. We’re going to have to wait until May 27 to find out how the Horsemen fare when all’s said and done.
Images: 20th Century Fox
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!