Prometheus Star Michael Fassbender on His Robotic Role and Why He Believes in Aliens

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20th Century Fox

Michael Fassbender has had a busy couple of years. In 2011 alone, he played everything from a sex addict in Shame and Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method to X-Men’s Magneto and Jane Eyre’s Rochester. And now he’s adding a new kind of character to the already-full stable, as an android spaceship attendant named David in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, out in the U.S. on Friday. Fassbender caught up with TIME from London, where the film has already been released, to discuss how the character of David came to be—and whether he thinks a real-life David could ever exist.

You’ve said that when you were preparing for Shame, you spent a lot of time building out the character’s biography. Is that kind of character work possible when you’re playing a robot?

He’s got a life history of his own. It’s just probably not relationship-affected. A lot of the time doing the biography is interesting because you can think about what was the character’s relationship with other kids in school, with parents, all that sort of stuff, but David was a programmed entity obviously. So it’s more about how his programming has stayed intact. Are his objectives truly programmed objectives, or has he started to develop his own motivations?

There’s a lot made in Prometheus of David’s inability to feel, but there were moments when—as you said—it seems he actually can. Did you go into the film with a clear idea of whether David had any desires or emotions?

I wanted to keep it open-ended. I definitely wanted to play with it, with the other crew members on board as well as the audience. I had some ideas but nothing ever needed to be definite. I just wanted to always have that element with David, where you’re thinking, ‘Is he being sincere or is he being sarcastic? Is he being for real or is he taking the piss?’ I wanted that element alive in him.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of Prometheus)

Was that something that you discussed with Ridley Scott?

Early on Ridley and I had a talk about that, and he was like, ‘this is what we want to try to do with the character.’ He told me to take a look at The Servant with Dirk Bogarde, and I got a clearer idea of what sort of flavors we could play with in terms of somebody who starts off being subservient and then sort of grasps to take more control. That was one of the first things that Ridley said to me.

How do you go about acting that feelinglessness?

There’s always an objective. There’s always an internal dialogue going on. It doesn’t always have to be emotionally based. If I’m approaching a character I don’t necessarily think of it emotionally. I think about what the character is trying to get and what the character’s trying to achieve and how they go about doing it, and emotion is a side-effect as opposed to being a driving force.

Did you study any other famous on-screen robots?

No, the inspiration we used was David Bowie and The Man Who Fell to Earth, and for films there were the replicants in Blade Runner. Greg Louganis, in terms of physicality. Lawrence of Arabia of course, and Peter O’Toole as Lawrence, and Dirk Bogarde. They were the ingredients.

Can you tell me a little more about the Lawrence of Arabia inspiration and where that came from?

It was always in the script. David seems to have some fascination with that film and the character Lawrence, and I always attributed it to the fact that Lawrence has got a very clear vision and he’s very pure in his pursuit of it. There’s not much questioning. He’s a very decisive character, and I think David sees elements of that in [Noomi Rapace's character, Elizabeth] Shaw as well. That’s why he finds her so fascinating. He’s also an outsider like David; he’s an Englishman, but he’s not accepted really by the English or the Arab nations, so he’s kind of somewhere in the middle.

(MOREThe Robot Revolution)

What about you personally—do you think about the possibility of life on other planets?

Sure. To think that we’re the only living species out there in a galaxy that’s so immense would seem kind of strange.

Was that something that you thought about during filming?

I didn’t lay awake thinking about it too much, but there must be life out there somewhere. That’s the question that man has been asking since we’ve been here. The fascination with the stars, and what’s up there, has always had that effect on us.

 And what about the possibility of artificial intelligence like David? Do you think we’ll have that one day?

I don’t think it’s too far removed. I do believe that they have human robot-type things. I saw them on the Internet; in Asia they have something. But I think it’ll probably be more genetically modified humans. That’s probably going to be first.

Is that a scary prospect to you?

Of course there are always scary elements to science and how far we’re moving forward, but it is what it is. Things like that, in terms of scientific experimentation and evolution, they’re going to happen the way they happen and we’re going to find knowledge and use it to whatever ends that we’re going to. There’s not really much point in getting freaked out about it. It’s going to happen, isn’t it?

So if you could have a robot butler, would you?

I don’t even know if I would have a butler if I could have a butler. I would have a robot cleaner.

You spend a good chunk of the movie alone on a spaceship. What were those days like on set? How long did you spend working on those scenes?

The first week we did those, so it was maybe four or five days work in there. It was a lot of fun. I just enjoyed getting to know my surroundings, my house, as it was. I think David enjoyed himself, entertaining himself there for two years on the ship while everyone else was in cryostasis. It was a nice way for me to bring the character to life and sort of find him on set.

(MOREGreat Performance: Michael Fassbender)

Did you get to improvise any of the things David does to pass the time?

We were even ad-libbing within the scenes as well. Ridley was always open to that. We tried to vary things. That was the spirit of the movie throughout: Whatever comes to mind, try it out, put it on the floor. If you like the look of it, great. If not, try something different.

Were there any David hobbies that got cut?

I did at one point play around with a yo-yo.

So are yo-yo tricks a skill of yours?

No, I’m not much good. But I was practicing.

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