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'X-Men' stars: New movie is 1st class story

By Tim Lammers, Contributing writer
Published On: May 31 2011 04:47:51 PM CDT
Updated On: May 31 2011 05:01:51 PM CDT
Michael Fassbender in 'X-Men First Class'

20th Century Fox

No. 14: "X-Men: First Class" -- $146.4 million.

It's been a whirlwind past couple of weeks for the stars of "X-Men: First Class," beginning with a press gathering for four days in London and then, with barely a day break in between, more time for media in New York ahead of the film's red carpet premiere.

It's only appropriate, though, that the cast of "X-Men: First Class" make appearances far and wide to talk about the film. That's because the mutants in the film are characters most everybody -- including stars Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon -- can relate to.

"It's a fairly serious film in the way it speaks to people who are outsiders, or people who are mistrustful of other races, genders or socioeconomic groups that are different from their own," Bacon said by phone from London. "It also speaks to the idea of accepting yourself for who you are."

Fassbender, who called in from New York, said he's been continually riveted by how the "X-Men" comics and films have been able to tell stories in a fantastical sort of way, yet be socially relevant at the same time.

"In a weird way, it's almost like the 'X-Men' stories have taken a mutant form to disguise what we as people deal with in real life," Fassbender said. "There's so much humanity in the stories. They address very universal themes."

Telling The Origins

Opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, "X-Men: First Class" is set in the 1960s, when the telepathic Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Fassbender) -- who can generate and control magnetism -- meet for the first time and assume the identities of Professor X and Magneto. Coming from decidedly different backgrounds, the compassionate Charles and vengeful Erik together forge a foundation to lead younger mutants who feel lost and confused in a society that mostly shuns them because of their extraordinary abilities.

Among those willing to exploit the most vulnerable of his kind is the evil mutant Sebastian Shaw (Bacon), the billionaire owner of a swank lair known as the Hellfire Club. A destructive force who can absorb and manipulate energy, Sebastian ultimately wants to eradicate humans and create a utopia where only mutants exist.

At the heart of "X-Men: First Class" is Charles and Erik's uneasy alliance against Sebastian, who is using the Cuban Missile Crisis to trigger nuclear war so he can reach his end game. Fassbender said he loved that -- like in the comics -- "X-Men: First Class" finds Charles and Erik working together and respecting each other's viewpoints despite their huge ideological differences.

"We're dealing with these very complicated and ambivalent characters. It's not your classic sort of hero and villain story with these two," Fassbender observed. "All through the comic book series we see Magneto and Professor helping each other out. Magneto helps him rebuild Cerebro and even takes over the school, even at a point where they are arch-enemies. I find that to be a very mature way of dealing with these characters.

"As we know, there are great political leaders who have opposite viewpoints, will often sit down and have lunch. But what do they speak about? What goes on behind closed doors? It's a very intriguing concept."

Honoring Previous Versions

Kevin Bacon and January Jones in 'X-Men First Class'
While "X-Men: First Class" signals a fresh beginning for the film series, Fassbender said he and McAvoy very much wanted to keep intact the essence of the respect Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart created between Magneto and Professor X in the previous "X-Men" films.

"The fans really responded to what Sir Patrick and Sir Ian created for the characters. They brought an awful lot of intelligence and authorities to the roles," Fassbender said. "James and I tried to get to those same heights for our portrayals of the characters. We wanted to create that connection for those two from the moment they meet. We wanted them to feel that they've each met someone who's an equal."

While Fassbender said he was inspired by McKellen's performances as Magneto, he was encouraged by director Matthew Vaughn go a different route with the character -- a direction that would bond, for the lack of a better word, the actor with an iconic performance of another legendary actor.

"I think Sir Ian's performance of Magneto is in the ether, specifically with the authority the character brings. But in an early meeting with Matthew, he brought up Sean Connery because the film was based in the '60s and Erik was sort of this lone assassin character like Connery in an early James Bond film," Fassbender recalled. "Matthew told me, 'Sean Connery worked as Bond because he had an unusual nuance in his accent and you have something similar, so I'd like to utilize that.' At that point I realized that I wasn't going to study Ian's physicality and voice."

While Bacon didn't have any previous screen versions of Sebastian to refer to, he said he found a lot of inspiration in the comics, even though the character from page to screen had undergone a significant transformation.

"Sebastian Shaw in the comics is a very huge, muscle-bound guy with a ponytail and dresses like George Washington," Bacon said. "There was a thing in the early days of the Hellfire Club being written where everybody dressed in a revolutionary, Louis the 14th kind-of look. Now he's a '60s billionaire playboy, but a lot of the essence of the original character of Sebastian is still there since I drew heavily on the comics for my research."

Balancing Comics, Film

Bacon said he's well aware that diehard "X-Men" fans have scrutinized every last detail of the film during its production, and while he respects their viewpoints in relation to the comics, he said you ultimately have to find a proper balance between the original medium and its translation.

"I think we have a responsibility for sure to the fans," Bacon said. "It's the first time I've certainly worked in a situation where people are constantly blogging on the film and trying to get any update they could on what we were doing. It definitely was an interesting kind of vibe. I don't think you can please everybody ever -- I'm guessing people will go, 'Wait a second, Sebastian doesn't look anything like he does in the comics,' but on the other hand, I feel really strongly that the movie has to work beyond that."

Effectively, Bacon said, he wants "X-Men: First Class" to work for everybody.

"I want people who have never read a comic book to go and enjoy this movie. I want women who are normally not even drawn to a film like this, to go and get something from it, on an emotional level, a romantic level or whatever," Bacon said. "We had to be bold in that way. We had to be bold with our choices. We are not continuing the story -- we're going back and reinventing it in a way that I think is really clever."

And with any luck, the story of the new "X-Men" will continue, and not only because both Bacon and Fassbender had a great time making the film: Enrolling in another "X-Men" class will give Fassbender another chance to secure himself that super cool, retro Magneto helmet.

"Man, I really should have walked off with it -- I think I really messed up," Fassbender said, laughing.

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