“X-Men: Days of Future Past” allows for a rare occurrence, not only in the comics franchise but in all movies. It’s a time travel picture, with the older mutants sending Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine back to 1973 to thwart a dystopian future where they’re hunted and killed by government robots. That means that we see both the old and young versions of Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy, respectively), as well as two Magnetos (Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender).
That doesn’t mean the actors actually get to share scenes — though Stewart and McAvoy do, once, when both characters meet in their conjoined mind for a little, nerd-electrifying pow-wow.
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“It was James’ first day of work and it was my last day of work,” recalls Stewart of the day it was shot. “My bags were packed and I was read to get out of dodge.” He says they didn’t belabor the scene. “I don’t recall rehearsing it. We knew the lines and they rolled the cameras and it was four minute’s work. I shouldn’t have said that. I should have said we worked on it for weeks.”
For McAvoy, he obviously had much to draw on for his performance. “I’ve been a fan [of Stewart’s] for years,” McAvoy says. “I watched the [‘X-Men’] films, and ‘Star Trek,’ all the way back to ‘Dune.’ I don’t know if anyone remembers ‘Dune.’” (Stewart played a mulleted Gurney Halleck in the 1984 David Lynch film.) It wasn’t just about nailing Stewart’s performance style, though. “I was watching the empathy that pours out of him in the previous movies. It’s the prime characteristic of Professor X: this willingness to care and reach out and help.”
He wasn’t the only one studying another actor’s performance. Stewart did the same to McAvoy. “It made me like to go back and shoot it again, now that I knew where I came from. I could get so much more James McAvoy into that performance,” he says, somewhat joking.
At the same time, Charles Xavier is in a very different spot than he has been in any other movie. “We’ve seen the good professor, who has always had options, and those options have been through negotiation, persuasion, some resolution that will not be violent,” Stewart says. “From the beginning of this movie, there is no other option. Our enemy this time is not available for rational conversation or to be reasoned with. The professor has to make the decision to destroy something to survive. It toughened Xavier up.”
Tragically, Ian McKellen could not attend the press junket, which would have reunited him — in New York City — with his dear friend and funny picture buddy, Stewart. That also meant the two Magnetos couldn’t butt heads. In fact, McKellen and Fassbender didn’t even see each other on-set.
“We sort of kept missing each other,” Fassbender recalls. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t studying him anyway. “For this one I spent a lot of time with this video on YouTube, which was Ian McKellen in the 1970s doing this workshop on ‘Macbeth.’ I was playing that over and over again, getting more of the rhythms and tones of his voice.” This of course means they don’t get the on-screen meet-up that the two Xaviers enjoyed. “Unfortunately we didn’t get a scene together. We flipped a coin and James and Patrick won the toss.”
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