Even before a handshake and hello, Michael Fassbender looks at me and blurts, "You’re flying the ginger flag!" He’s wide-eyed, grinning, and stating the obvious. Curious copper comments are a lifelong blessing and curse. It’s the kind of physical characteristic that divides groups. People will praise you or play into playground PTSD for having red hair. What comes next is a bit of a surprise. "There’s only a few of us left," he says.
Most people don’t look at Michael Fassbender and think, "ginger," even if his scruffy beard is exactly that. He doesn’t talk about whether his Irish traits ever lead to bullying in his own life, but it’s interesting that he would identify with a group of Vitamin D-deprived wallflowers.
"I’ve just realized that I end up playing these outsiders all of the time," he reflects. It’s true—tormented super villain Magneto in X-Men: First Class, the sexually addicted Brandon in Shame, and his take as Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method are all roles that feature Fassbender as a man astray, navigating deep-seated issues that make it hard to emotionally connect with others.
It’s something that makes him stand out from the pack of rising A-listers whose performances tend to be cookie cutter fresh. For every emotionally complex role, there are 100 Captain Americas. "I find the characters interesting that are displaced and ones that have been betrayed," he says.
It’s hard to imagine Fassbender even having time to ponder his characters because of his schedule. Even now, he’s rushed to make a flight to New York from London to promote Prometheus, director Ridley Scott’s hotly anticipated return to sci-fi and the Alien universe.
He plays David, a man meant to look after a space crew in suspended animation while they’re on a two-year journey to the moon LV-223. Supposedly when they get there, they’ll find big answers to big questions about the origins of humanity. In a universe that redefined horror with the chest bursting, HR Giger-designed xenomorph, it’s safe to say the crew’s answers aren’t fluffy pillows when they wake up and smell the extraterrestrial roses.
Unlike his other portrayals of lost souls, David is actually a robot without one. It’s an interesting dichotomy between the humans on the ship. While they’re looking for their creators, his surround him and judge him because he’s literally synthetic. "It’s just something that sort of happened and it’s not something that I’ve even tried to steer toward," he says of his continued success of playing the outsider.
Prometheus exists in a universe that has seen a variety of synthetic persons, ranging from actors Ian Holm, Lance Henrikson, to Winona Ryder. Each robot has been an interesting take on human machines—Ian Holm, for example, was ready to rip Sigourney Weaver’s face off in Alien, while Lance Henrikson schooled humans on robot political correctness in the film’s sequel by declaring that he prefers the term Artificial Person over robot. Winona Ryder’s take left her feeling shame because of her lack of real human insides. 33 years after Ridley Scott redefined the genre, Fassbender’s David proves to be the most complicated of them all.
"The one thing that I always kept as my anchor is that he’s gathering information," he says of David. "His whole thing is information and processing it and knowledge. It’s a continuous search, but within that it’s possible that he’s developing certain personality traits." Much of that includes reading the crew’s dreams (creepy) and watching his favorite movies over and over again (normal).
"He’s not behaving in ways that we would expect humans to behave, which is sort of predictable because we have emotional connections," he says. "I like the idea of someone that’s taking in a lot of information and at the same time he’s watching loads of television." His TV of choice is watching David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia. Peter O’ Tool’s construct of man as T.E. Lawrence was surrounded by desert and strangers. Fassbender’s David, surrounded by space and humans, is interestingly the same.
"From an artistic standpoint in terms of film, the greatest thing you can hope to do is affect people," he says. "When I was affected by stories that helped me, made me feel connected, I understood myself and the idea that other people are out there connected to the same things or experiencing the same things as me."
In a movie where he plays a walking question mark – What are his motives? Does he feel? Does he care? "He’s a busybody. Human beings, they’re so funny and illogical and this idea of blind faith without any factual evidence behind it. It’s curiosity," Fassbender says, which in fact might be the most human trait of all that connects each and every one of us.