Michael Fassbender returns to cinema screens tomorrow in the latest movie in Ridley Scott’s Alien saga — and, perhaps fittingly for an actor who is one of Hollywood’s hottest properties, he plays not one, but two roles.
In Alien: Covenant he stars as David, the synthetic human first seen in Scott’s 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus. He also plays Walter, an upgraded version of the android.
Walter looks almost identical to David, but in terms of personality, he is very different, bereft of David’s emotions.
“He is sort of a different version of what David was, because David was very humanlike and had elements in his programming that allowed him to develop human personality traits that freaked people out,” Fassbender says.
“So they built the following synthetics with less of those human design traits. Walter is very much a non-emotional robot.”
The actor adds that he enjoyed the unusual experience of performing “alongside” himself.
“There are a couple of scenes just between David and Walter,” he says. “We did some cool stuff there where we filmed it with the camera on a special computerised crane.
“When we did the David take, the movement of the crane was mapped in electronically. And when we did the reverse for Walter, it follows that same electronic path as it did for David. Then they laid me in as Walter into the scene with David. That was pretty cool. It is interesting to see how technology has developed on that front.”
Synthetic humans have played important roles throughout the Alien franchise, from Ian Holm’s performance as Ash in Scott’s 1979 original film to Lance Henriksen in Aliens (1986) and Alien 3 (1992), and Winona Ryder in Alien: Ressurection (1997), but Fassbender says he did not pay much attention to his predecessors while preparing for his roles.
“For Prometheus I didn’t look at him [Holm] at all,” he says. “I didn’t look at Bishop in Aliens, either, [or] any of the previous synthetic incarnations. I really rooted it in Peter O’Toole, David Bowie and Olympic diver Greg Louganis — they were my three influences for [David].”
The O’Toole influence gives the Covenant an unexpected Middle East connection.
“There is a reference to Lawrence of Arabia in a scene that I do where he is singing the song that Lawrence sings where it echoes round the valley,” he says. “I think that’s cool when you do that with any franchise or running series: you can do little hat tips to previous films and have a level of consistency that the audience can anchor themselves down with.
“Then when you want to go and do different things, and take the character to different places, they are more willing to do that having found a place with him that is familiar.”
As for Walter, Fassbender reveals another iconic influence.
“For Walter, there is more Leonard Nimoy in there,” he says. “Sort of a Spock-like influence. I wanted something that was without emotional content, something that was very logical.
“It’s interesting, looking back at Ash, I think [Holm] has purposefully played him very human. It is only after the fact, when you watch it again knowing he is a robot, you almost project the idea that he is a robot onto him. I think he plays it very humanlike, whereas I have gone the opposite direction with this — and I went the opposite with Prometheus as well — where we know early on that it is a robot.”
Although Scott’s return to the Alien franchise with 2012’s Prometheus was one of the most eagerly anticipated films in years, it met with mixed reactions from critics and audiences. Fassbender says the latest instalment is very different from its predecessor.
“I would say that it remains in the [Prometheus] universe,” he says. “[But] it is probably harking back more to Alien in terms of it being a thriller.”
Fassbender also reveals the new movie is “a lot scarier” than the previous film.
“It is relentless,” he says. “But not in a way that you see with a lot of action films, where it is action packed. This is psychological suspense.
“The elements of Prometheus that are present are in the grandness, the world that we are trying to explore, the planet that we are on. Those things are similar.
“What really made Alien stand alone is that you never left the ship, so it was a very claustrophobic experience. There are elements of that in this, for sure. This has a more expansive sort of world that is much more exposed and breathable than just the confines of a ship.”
• Alien: Covenant is in cinemas from tomorrow