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Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy & more save the world in 'X-Men: Days of Future Past'

Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy and Hugh Jackman
Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy and Hugh Jackman
20th Century Fox

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” is the ultimate “X-Men” ensemble, combining the casts of the first three “X-Men” movies and 2011’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” In “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” the superhero mutants fight a war for the survival of the species across two time periods. The beloved characters from the original “X-Men” film trilogy join forces with their younger selves from the past who were introduced in “X-Men: First Class,” in order to change a major historical event and fight in an epic battle that could save our future.

Peter Dinklage, Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Ellen Page at the New York City press conference for "X-Men: Days of  Future Past"
Carla Hay

At the “X-Men: Days of Future Past” press junket in New York City, several key members of the team gathered for a press conference: Hugh Jackman (who plays Logan/Wolverine), Patrick Stewart (who play older Charles Xavier/Professor X), Michael Fassbender (who plays young Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto), James McAvoy (who plays young Charles Xavier/Professor X), Ellen Page (who plays Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat), Peter Dinklage (who plays Dr. Bolivar Trask), producer Lauren Shuler Donner, producer Hutch Parker and screenwriter/producer Simon Kinberg. Here is what they said.

If there is one word to describe “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” it is “intense.” Hugh, Michael and Ellen, how did that affect the filming? And was there one moment that stood out for you as being particularly intense to film?

Fassbender: [He says jokingly] It was like camping: We were in tents.

Jackman: [He says jokingly] It’s difficult for me to answer, because I don’t talk to anyone on set. I don’t like people looking at me, that kind of thing. [He says seriously] With a cast like this, it’s sort of filmed like two films. The beginning was the future, which was like an incredible reunion for all of us. [He says jokingly] And then came the younger, more inexperienced actors ….

Stewart: Can we stop calling them that?

Jackman: Should we just call them “inexperienced”?

Stewart: Do you want to take a vote on that?

Jackman: The whole time, as intense as the material was, it was incredible. And I’m probably uniquely qualified to say, having worked with everyone, that being on the set throughout the whole thing was a joy. This film has always had a great bond from the beginning. And I see it with you guys working together. It’s a great bond, everyone’s very passionate about it, takes it very seriously but has a lot of fun.

But in terms of intensity, I remember very clearly sitting in the back of that private plane and watching these two guys [he points to McAvoy and Fassbender] go at it. I saw this with absolute sincerity: I was never sure it would be possible to fill the shoes of Ian [McKellen] and Patrick [Stewart] and what they did.

When I saw “First Class,” I realized these guys did it with such aplomb and confidence. Not only did they feel like the younger versions of those characters — sorry, the most “inexperienced” version of those characters — but they also made it their own. And it’s an incredible feat what you guys did. You guys anchored the films in [the first “X-Men” movie], and these guys anchor the films in this.

Ellen, so much of “X-Men: Days of Future Past” hinges on Kitty Pryde’s interactions in sending Wolverine into the past. What was it like to film those moments?

Page: It required a lot of focus. It’s going back to what Hugh was saying. I’m getting to be in confined space with unbelievably extraordinary actors. So one minute, I’m watching Patrick deliver a monologue over and over and over again, and just blowing your mind and inspired by it completely. And then the next [minute], you’re spending your day with the loveliest human beings who are sweet and generous and funny. And it just makes every day a joy.

Patrick and James, what has it been like to play older and younger versions of the same character and in such a close physical proximity?

McAvoy: Kings before queens.

Stewart: In a sense, it was a no-brainer how that [scene] was staged. If it had been in a set where we could have gone for cocktails, opened the window, had a cigarette, [it would have been] a very different kind of scene. I'm not quite sure how it came about, that we were nose to nose like that, but I can't now think of any other possible way of making the scene work, because you are looking into the eyes of yourself.

It was James’ first day at work on the movie, and it was my last day of work on the movie. My bags were packed. I was ready to get out of Dodge. I don’t recall rehearsing it, James, do you?

McAvoy: No.

Stewart: We knew the lines, and they rolled the camera. It was 40 minutes’ work, as far as I can recall. I shouldn’t have said all that. I should’ve said we worked on it for weeks! Just the two of us, Bryan [Singer, director/producer of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”] and the crew, but it wasn’t like that at all.

McAvoy: I've been a fan of Patrick for a long, long years. I watched him for seven years in “Star Trek” and way back to “Dune.”

Stewart: Wow.

McAvoy: I know, dude. You were amazing in that. So getting to come and do my version of a character that he's been in charge of for 14 years, at his face, it was quite nerve-wracking. In your face, man!

So you’ve got two choices: You either get nervous and overcome it, or you get excited about the fact that you might fail strangely. It was good fun.

Peter, how does it feel to be the go-to villain in TV and film?

Dinklage: Define “villain.” [He says jokingly] I jump at the chance of doing these little indie movies. Sometimes they can shine more than the big ones, given the right script and right script and working with the right actors. I’m going to argue the whole villain thing.

Simon, what was the biggest challenge of writing and producing for this big cast of characters?

Kinberg: Scheduling was tough as any scheduling I’ve ever faced.

Shuler Donner: It was hellacious.

Kinberg: Not only was it a big cast, everybody had restricted dates. Everybody was going on to other films. So the jigsaw puzzle of that was beyond complex and included that first month of having to shoot everybody out and then bringing in a new cast.

Shuler Donner: Hugh had to go away for a month to sell “The Wolverine.” Jennifer [Lawrence] was doing “The Hunger Games.” These guys had other commitments.

McAvoy: We had nothing. We were inexperienced and raw and exciting and new. Nobody wanted to hire us.

Have you ever seen a movie with so many lead roles?

Kinberg: No. I’ve never seen a movie with so many big roles. That was the biggest challenge: just keeping the characters straight in their own stories and making sure that everybody had their own emotional arc over the span of the movie so that in each scene I was telling a progression of that story. I had colored note cards on the wall, a different color for each character. I can tell you what their colors were.

They didn’t get to pick their colors?

Kinberg: They did not get to pick their colors, nor see those cards, actually, but [Patrick Stewart] was red, Hugh was purple. But at any rate, that kept it straight for me, because I could look at the board and see each of their stories broken out separately.

How did you coordinate to play the younger and older versions of Magneto and Charles Xavier? What did you learn about the character that you had not known before? And Hugh, what did you learn from your younger Wolverine?

Stewart: It made me feel that I really would like to go back, Lauren, and shoot all the other movies again, now that I know exactly where I came from and what I was. I could get so much more James McAvoy into that performance.

McAvoy: I think everybody needs a little James McAvoy in them. I don’t understand why you’re laughing. We didn’t talk about that at all.

[He says to Stewart] I’ve been watching you for years, since I was 10 or 11, when I first watched “Dune.” Your character has idiosyncracies. I know him quite well — as a performer, anyway.

But the key thing is watching the empathy pours out of you in the previous [“X-Men”] movies. And I hoped in “First Class” to emulate that particularly. It’s sort of the prime characteristic of Professor X, isn’t it? This willingness to reach out and care and touch.

Stewart: Where we leave James in this story, we are waiting to see the transition, the reformation of this character happen. That's a movie I would pay money to see.

Fassbender: I didn’t get to talk to Ian, actually, until Comic-Con [in 2013]. We sort of kept missing each other. But for this one, I spent more time. I basically had this thing on YouTube, which was Ian McKellen in the '70s, giving an RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] workshop about “Macbeth.”

And that ran for about 10 minutes, so I was just playing that, over and over again, just trying to get more of the rhythms and tones of his voice. And then, we finally did get to meet at Comic-Con, which was great, but unfortunately, I didn’t get to have a scene with him. [He says jokingly] We flipped a coin, and James and Patrick won the toss.

Jackman: I think one of the many things Simon did so brilliantly with the script was invert was in “X1,” where Professor X was a mentor and guide for Wolverine. And that became the opposite in this movie. I’ve been reflecting on how you call back for fans.

There's so many great surprises in there for fans of the X-Men — not only comics but the film series — and yet you still make the film feel like not just a celebration, but a fresh beginning. I feel like, watching this movie like we could start again, and it feels like an opening.

For Wolverine going back to the ‘70s, it’s perfect. I don't think Wolverine ever wanted to leave the '70s. The hair, the muttonchops, everything, the clothes, the cars. I think the moment that Tears for Fears, Flock of Seagulls, Wham!, Duran Duran came along, Wolverine was like, “I'm out!”

McAvoy: I am quite looking forward to seeing Hugh in drainpipes though.

What was it like to play so many heavy scenes in “X-Men: Days of Future Past”?

McAvoy: There’s a few things. You’ve got to stretch the not just the audience but characters, in order to give the audience something new. But also on top of that, half of the point in going back with “First Class” — and even though [“X-Men: Days of Future Past”] is across two time periods: the future and the past — the point of going back is to show how different people are, so the audience can be there for the key turning points in their lives when somebody goes through the crucible, and somebody is galvanized, and somebody is formed, and somebody becomes who they will be.

And so, you’ve got to hang around for the worst moments. If they don’t kill you, they make you stronger. And what’s interesting in this movie is that lots of people do get killed; they don’t get stronger. But in aid of saving the future and somehow altering the past, that’s kind of dark and amazing. But ultimately, I don’t know what I’m saying.

Kinberg: One thing about making a movie with so many characters is that you do have to choose a protagonist. You have to choose the one person whose story is the emotional core of the film. And that was young Charles — for me, writing it.

And it was really the story of a guy who starts the film without hope and ending the film with hope. And once you know that’s the arc and you’re going to end the film in a hopeful place, all of the darkness and the trauma they go through is going to arc them out to a safe and happy place at the end.

Stewart: And for the maturer Charles, this movie from the very first shot has found him in a situation unlike any before. Whenever we’ve seen the good professor, he has always had options. And those options have included negotiation, persuasion, diplomacy — some resolution that will not be violent.

Right from the beginning of this movie — thank you, Simon — there is no other option, because our enemy this time is not available to rational conversation, to be reasoned with. The professor has to make the decision that we have to destroy something in order to survive. It toughened up Xavier, from my point of view, and I enjoyed that. Thank you.

When you had to film those heavier moments, did you let them linger or did you try to break those moments as soon as you weren’t filming?

McAvoy: There’s a lot of levity on set. We’ve got a lot of nice people. And one of the beautiful things about a company like this is we are privileged to have the highest actors working today. Highest actors working today? Really tall actors! Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Jackman — they’re really tall!

But they’re multi-award-winning, top of their game, biggest people on the planet — and yet, the egos were never present. Just people who work hard for each other. And quite often when you’re doing the heavy, heavy, heavy stuff, it is nice to have cast mates who know when you need to be pulled out of it and that kind of thing. We were all there for each other in those moments, I think.

Will “X-Men: Days of Future Past” be the last we see of the younger Xavier and Magneto?

Fassbender: That’s a question for Simon [and the other producers].

Jackman: I can answer that. No, I can’t.

McAvoy: Let’s see how the box office works.

Stewart: There is another [“X-Men”] movie. I believe it must have been considered. Where we leave [Xavier] in this story we are waiting to see the transition, if you like, the reformation of this character happen. That’s a movie I would pay money to see.

Shuler Donner: Also, “First Class” was more of Magneto’s movie. It was Erik’s movie and establishing the two of them [Erik Lehnsherr and Charles Xavier] meeting and becoming friends, but by the end of that movie, they had become frenemies. They pulled apart.

So starting [“X-Men: Days of Future Past”] with them in the future was so smart, because you see in the future, they do come together. But when we leave our movie in the past, in 1973, they are really apart, as they are in “X-Men” 1, 2 and 3. So there is an adventure to be had.

Peter and Michael, what were your reactions to your “X-Men” characters interacting with a U.S. president such as Richard Nixon? And Michael, what do you think a superhero from Ireland would be like?

Fassbender: Stay tuned. Actually, I’m developing a myth story for cinema, at the moment. So hopefully, that will be on our screens soon enough. We’ve got great, rich Irish mythology, which is not dissimilar to Greek mythology. So there’s some really interesting stories there.

Working with an American president. That was Mark [“Camacho”], wasn’t it? He was excellent. I just didn’t realize he was the same person when he was out of makeup. We spent quite a while in that green tent. Again with the tents. You were right we were in tents. And he was fantastic. It was a joy.

And it’s fun when you take moments in history and you play with them. I think that’s another great thing that the “X-Men” franchise does. And when you go back in time, you can play with those events.

It was a very smart idea to have the Magic Bullet Theory for Kennedy, and to play out those scenes with Nixon. Not only is it a very bold move, it’s also a fun one. I think taking large strides instead of half-steps is the best way to approach these kinds of things.

Dinklage: Especially with President Nixon, there’s a fine line where you can go into a little bit of comedic territory, because so many people have done their famous impersonations of him. You can get very Rich Little with it. And Mark [Camacho] certainly did not. And the makeup artists [with that Richard Nixon] nose, that famous nose.

And considering my mother was an elementary school teacher for 35 years, and she taught at the Nixon School in New Jersey, I was raised a very liberal Democrat. She was protesting Nixon when he was in office. We have a picture of my mother and Nixon shaking hands, much to her [her shudders]. But we put it up on the mantle and rubbed it in her face for a little while there. Mark looked so much like the real man.

Stewart: I’ve got a question. When we were in the Oval Office the last time, that was in [“X2”]. For all intents and purposes, we were in the Oval Office. And the White House historian told us that there was an escape door or hatch concealed in the Oval Office that should the situation arise, the President can be put instantly somewhere else and safer. The escape hatch we see in this movie, is that the real one, where it really was? Did you research that?

Parker: We’re not allowed to tell you.

Stewart: Oh, man!

Michael, can you describe the experience of acting in scenes where Magneto has to levitate? Is it euphoric or disconcerting?

Fassbender: A little of both, once you make sure all the tackles are put away, and you put the harness on. That’s where it goes to another sensation altogether. If something gets caught in the wrong place, it’s fatal.

So yeah, you put on your harness, and they clip you in, and then you bless yourself, and then off you go, really. With these sort of things, they’re so advanced. It’s all drilled into a computer. They’ve got various programs settings, which will be various flight paths that you take on. Now, it’s so advanced.

Yeah, I was going up pretty high. You just hope the computer setting is done correctly. And then, it’s about keeping the body shape strong and just try to make and look like it’s comfortable.

Jackman: I have done it a few times. You haven’t got kids yet, have you?

Fassbender: I probably won’t [after these stunts].

Jackman: I have kids who’ve grown up on these rehearsal stages, and it has ruined Disneyland for them for life. They have flown on those wires. On these films, the stunt guys are great. They just rig up the kids. I actually love it. For me, it’s great fun.

Stewart: Absolutely. All actors have got a Peter Pan in them somewhere. Some actors have got a Tinker Bell. I’m not looking at anybody in particular. I did a significant amount of flying in [“X-Men: Days of Future Past”], but not all of it made it into the final cut. I and my chair were flown from one end of the stage to the other stage, starting out at 12, 14 feet and then gradually descending. Why isn’t that in the movie?

Shuler Donner: It probably took too long.

Stewart: We’ll talk about it later. I loved the flying. I thought it was fabulous!

Peter, can you talk about what your definition of a villain is? Do you think Bolivar Trask is a villain?

Dinklage: I said that more like a highfalutin actor thing of not judging your character, seeing them as a villain.

McAvoy: [He says jokingly] You are so highfalutin.

Dinklage: Aren’t I? I go back to the text. Having not been asked back to the next “X-Men” movie yet, I go back to the text, Simon. He [Bolivar Trask] really believes he's doing the right thing. He wants to save humankind, worldwide. And at the same, during the Vietnam War, one of the worst wars in our recent history, he thinks this is an opportunity to bring the world together.

But he’s also a capitalist. And I think if you’re going to tack on “evil” or “villain” to someone, those are the guys I don’t trust: war profiteers. And he sure has his big “t” on those cargo containers will all those Sentinels in them. That’s ego, war profiteering. That’s where true villainy for me lays: the guys in the suits.

The guy screaming from a tree in Central Park: He’s crazy. I get that because I’m a New Yorker. But the guys down in Wall Street in the suits, bleeding people of their life, that’s villainy to me.

Is there a historical figure from the ‘70s that inspired how you portrayed Bolivar Trask?

Dinklage: Not particularly. I just saw some old pictures of my dad and his friends at that time. And that’s where the look comes from, I think. And that’s my hair.

To the producers, how did you rise to the challenge of making all these characters’ stories work in “X-Men: Days of Future Past”?

Parker: I think a lot of the credit goes to Simon, because the key to having that many characters is that each of them has an emotional story that’s compelling and that we as an audience want to watch and follow. And I think that’s the obligation in any story, in any film. But to do it with this many characters is truly a remarkable achievement. And Simon and Bryan deserve a lot of credit, as does the cast, obviously.

Shuler Donner: Also, when we’re editing, our goal is to move the story forward, to define character, and to advance the story. And therefore, that compels us to cut from character to character and allows them to tell us the story. So that kind of dictates using them to their best advantage in resolving their conflicts or establishing the crisis at hand.

Kinberg: There’s a luxury with this cast too, as a writer, where you can tell a compelling story with four scenes, five scenes. They bring such gravity and humanity to the characters that I don’t have to do as much work as I would with other actors of lesser ability. They bring a kind of drama and understanding to every scene that weights that scene more heavily.

Can you talk about casting French actor Omar Sy as Bishop? Will he have a place in the next “X-Men” movie?

Shuler Donner: Oh, he was wonderful. He was a joy, from my point of view. Omar has a loveliness. He’s very centered. And he’s got this smile that lights up the world. He’s a joy to work with.

Jackman: He’s amazing. On all the films I’ve been on — if I look around here, I’m sure all of us have been on films with big movie stars — I have never seen females on a set react to an actor like they did with Omar. I walked into the makeup trailer as he was leaving, and literally three women collapsed. [He makes a swooning gesture.] James was leaving at the same time as well. Hard to say. Sorry.

For more info: "X-Men: Days of Future Past" website

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