Assassin’s Creed: Michael Fassbender Talks Animus, Video Games & Making the Anti-Star Wars

We sat down with Michael Fassbender to talk of his passion for an Assassin's Creed movie, and how it differs from other franchises.

Michael Fassbender played his share of video games in his youth. But when the Assassin’s Creed movie crossed his path five years ago, it seemed like such an unexpectedly alien concept—and an eminently exciting one.

Indeed, during the intervening years since discovering the Assassin’s Creed world, the actor has seen his star rise dramatically after appearing in two more installments of the X-Men franchise, as well as Prometheus, while also earning two Oscar nominations for 12 Years a Slave and Steve Jobs. Yet, within all this exciting success, he’s remained committed to starring and also producing an Assassin’s Creed film, which in many ways is a turning point in his career, both behind the camera and above the title of the poster.

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Thus when he walked onto the Assassin’s Creed set one Wednesday morning to chat with myself and a group of fellow journalists participating in a set visit, he seemed very much at ease about a blockbuster that has turned into something of a passion project. Clearly still preparing for the day’s shoot (he’d be filming a fight scene in a few hours), Fassbender discussed with us why he has remained committed to Assassin’s Creed, the appeal of its world which he likens to being the opposite of Star Wars’ black-and-white absolutes, and how jazzed he is to have his Macbeth director Justin Kurzel onboard, offering his own strikingly visual touch to this film.

Fassbender even addresses several changes that might cause concern amongst fans since Assassin’s Creed will feature a very different kind of Animus from the video games—which only makes sense when another Assassin’s Creed producer confirmed to us that the film would spend 65 percent of its time in the modern world with Fassbender’s Callum Lynch.

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This is your second time working with Justin, and you’ve also worked several times with other filmmakers. What’s that second time around like? Is there more shorthand and quick communication?

Michael Fassbender: It depends really. There’s been a lot of talk in this, because we’ve been developing the script, and I’ve obviously been involved in this for four years now. So, when Justin came on, which was maybe a year ago, we’d been talking a lot in the development phase of it as much as anything else. But yeah, we enjoy working with one another, I think we understand one another, and definitely, you wouldn’t go back and work with somebody again if it wasn’t a good experience the first time. And a shorthand does develop.

Since you’ve been involved since day one, what is it about Assassin’s Creed that made you so passionate about this project?

I just thought if you’re doing a fantasy film, the first thing about it was to have something seeded in some sort of scientific world. What I mean is the idea of DNA memory. I just thought that was a really interesting catch and I thought that was very plausible theory. I think if you can bring something like that to a fantastical world, it just hooks the audience in even more and makes the journey even more immersive.

So, I thought that was the first thing. And then I just loved the idea of Templars versus Assassins. This idea of an elite group of people sort of struggling with the idea of free will and these sort of rebels, if you like, this kind of elite force trying to struggle for humanity, essentially. The idea that the original Assassins were Adam and Eve, and the Apple in the Garden of Eden, I thought that was really interesting. And also what I liked about it is it’s not like Star Wars where you have the Dark Side and the Light. Both of these factions, they contradict each other all the time; they contradict themselves all the time. And they’re hypocritical of their beliefs. And I thought that was cool. So morally, you have a very gray area that they are working in, and I thought that was unusual for this sort of type of film and also a lot more interesting.

It’s been developing for a while. What was the key aspect that made it ready to go?

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We had a start date! [Laughs] We’re still working—with these sort of films, you’re always working on it. We got Justin. We were lucky to get him onboard, and then we assembled a cast, and the script is something we’ve always been working on. But we definitely got to a place earlier this year where we felt we had a structure, and we had something that was simplified, because as you all know this is a very dense world. And trying to bring it to the cinematic experience is different.

So, we just tried to simplify as best we could, and really get the important aspects of the games across, because there’s a lot for an audience to take onboard. So to really find a format where we could get these things across and keep it in a cinematic and dramatic experience, so that was really the challenge.

What’s also interesting about this as a blockbuster is you’re the main character, but you’re playing two characters. Could you talk about how you differentiated these two personas for the film?

Well, one doesn’t say a lot, and the other does! [Laughs] Basically, we have in this story somebody who doesn’t realize where he’s coming from. He doesn’t have a lineage that he can feel a belonging to. So, that’s our modern day protagonist Cal: he doesn’t realize he’s an Assassin. He’s a bit of a lost soul, and sort of always drifting in and out of correctional facilities. And then of course Aguilar is somebody who belongs to the Creed. He has a cause, he’s been following that cause, he belongs to it, and so they’re the two very different standpoints of the character. And hopefully Aguilar will teach Cal from the regressions that he does belong. But that’s essentially the main difference between the two characters.

[related article: Assassin’s Creed Movie Set Visit] 

Based on the descriptions, it sounds fairly close to the first game where Desmond Miles is oblivious to the Assassins for most of his life and then [his ancestor] Altair is someone who is very much embedded in the Creed. Would you consider this part of the same universe or just an adaptation?

You know, it’s all part of the same universe. We really want to respect the game and the elements to it, but we also wanted to come up with our own thing. One thing I’ve sort of learned from doing other franchises like X-Men—audiences, I think, want to be surprised and to see new elements of what they already know, and different sort of takes on it. Like I said, we’re really respecting the very core elements of the game but then we wanted to bring something new to it as well. So that’s why we have these new central characters.

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One of the new elements we heard about today is that the Animus has been changed to give you more to work with as an actor. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Well yeah, we just didn’t want to have something where I sit into a seat, you know? Number one, we’ve seen it before in The Matrix, and it’s also not a very dramatic experience when we’re doing the modern day sort of version of the regression. We wanted to have something where the character was actually physically involved in it. And so I think they, Andy [Nicholson] and Justin, have come up with something very interested. Talking to Ubisoft, they’re thinking perhaps adopting some of these ideas. But definitely not to have it so much be Cal a passenger on a chair basically. We wanted to have something more interactive for that character in the present day stuff.

In your life, have you ever been a gamer?

A little bit, but when I started playing video games, I sort of found myself up at 8:30 in the morning still playing—throw the joystick out of my hand!

What was your favorite gaming experience?

I always liked racing games. Yeah, and I would sort of sit there and try to perfect the track or get the fastest around the track trying to get the times down. But since obviously joining this, I’ve started to play the games, and it’s amazing to see how things have come along since I was last playing. [Laughs]

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Yeah, it’s extraordinary. I mean the detail. I know a lot of gamers are fanatical about this stuff, the detail. And the great sort of educational benefits of it, the sort of history elements of it. I was talking to a friend of mine. He said his son, who was like 15 or 16, he said, “Okay, let’s go away on a trip together, and you can pick wherever you want to go.” And his son picked Florence because he played it in the game, and he wanted to see if all the elements of the city were as they were in the game.

So, that’s been a real education for me, playing the Assassins game. You can just see a 360-degree view of the city from that time. It’s pretty exceptional.

Looking at Justin’s work, he’s clearly a director with a singular vision. Obviously, you’re halfway through shooting. When it comes out, do you think it will look like Justin’s Assassin’s Creed?

I think it’ll be a collection of all of us contributing to it, from the set design team—I think he has a strong vision, but at the same time, he’s also very much a team player. And we incorporate all elements of film group—all the elements, all the departments together in putting it together. What I like about Justin is he’s strong, he is a visionary, but he also incorporates other people’s ideas and other departments.

Obviously this is going to be a very physical role. We’ve heard about the free running. But what has been the most exciting or challenging part of the training process?

Not having enough of it? [Laughs] It’s just trying to get those action scenes—we’re trying to play them out in wide [shots] as much as we can, in a one sort of run-through. So, we’re not using a lot of green screens. We’re doing it on an actual location. We were out in Malta a month ago. You know, stunt guys falling off real buildings, off real heights, without a lot of green screen. And it’s real old school like that. And that’s very much Justin’s vision. That’s exciting to see it done that way, because nowadays it’s just not done that way anymore. It’s usually done in a studio.

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Well just looking at this set and the way it all flows together, I imagine that has to help the process as well.

Yeah, this helps for sure in this element. But really, in terms of those action beats, you just don’t get that of people jumping from one building across to another building, and falling off, whatever it may be, a 30-meter drop, into an Old Town park in Malta. It’s pretty special.

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What’s it been like, your experience working with Ubisoft? Because I know it’s almost unprecedented for a video game company to get this involved into an adaptation of their games.

I think they just want to protect their franchise and protect the wonderful fan base that they’ve built up through their games. I think they’ve had experiences of films being made out of their video games and not getting the results they’d like. So, they’ve been more hands-on here, which has been great. Thanks to them, I was introduced to this world. Like I said, I didn’t really know much about it.

You seem sort of fearless because you go from a period drama, you have a comic book movie, Shakespeare, and this is a fantasy based on a video game. Is there anything that does scare you?

Trust me, all of them scare me! I just feel like while I’m in this opportunity, I might as well try as much as I can. And try to learn as much as I can, really. But trust me, there’s lot of healthy doses of fear in there.

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Are you scared right now?

Right now, at this point in time, when you say it to me like that? Yes. [Laughs]

Assassin’s Creed opens on Dec. 21, but you can read our complete set visit report on the movie right now by clicking here.