Michael Fassbender on ‘Alien: Covenant’, How David Has Changed, and Playing a Disembodied Head
Ridley Scott has a way with androids. In 1979’s Alien, he explored the terror off biomechanical efficiency through Ian Holm‘s Ash, a deadly cybernetic sleeper agent aboard the Nostromo programmed for cold efficiency. With his next film, Blade Runner, Scott dug deeper, evolving from the idea of artificial intelligence to that of artificial life — replicants; androids with rich emotional complexity, eager to face their makers.
With Michael Fassbender‘s David, Scott has created something of an amalgam of the two — Ash’s chilling, calculating nature and Roy Batty’s thirst for life. First introduced as the synthetic aboard the Prometheus, and no small factor in its downfall, David will meet up with a new crew in Alien: Covenant — a crew that includes a familiar face. Walter, the next-generation model of the David-8s, stripped of all the former’s nastier human tendencies like ego, pride, and ambition, but nearly identical in every other way. For Fassbender, that means doing double duty in Covenant, where he has to play both androids, and according to co-star Katherine Waterston, they’ll even share the screen together.
Last summer, I was lucky enough to visit the set of Alien: Covenant at Fox Studios in Sydney, Australia where I joined a small group of journalists to tour the sets, observe filming, and speak with the cast and crew. During our interview with Fassbender, he talked about how David has spent the decade since Prometheus, David’s continuing fascination with the mysteries of nature, how Walter relates to his human crew mates, why he doesn’t find it challenging to play two characters, and more. Read the full interview below.
You’re playing two distinct characters in this film. Is it almost like doing two movies at once?
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: Not really. Just different costumes. [Laughs.] It’s pretty straightforward in the fact that Walter is very much a synthetic minus any of the human traits. So when the David 8’s came out, there was a resistance from people to that model. Because it freaked them out a little bit. Because he was demonstrating a lot of human qualities, and his programming was veering towards human characteristics, like ego and vanity and pride. They found that to be not so much useful as opposed to making people uncomfortable, so they designed the following models with fewer of those human traits. Well, none of them really. So Walter is just a very straightforward, logical synthetic really. He’s more like a Leonard Nimoy/Mr. Spock type character. Whereas David is…it’s been ten years since we last saw him, without any maintenance. So those human qualities have sort of gathered momentum a little bit, I suppose. They’re as much a part of him now as his synthetic qualities. But Walter’s just really there to serve the ship, and its crew.
Now that David’s been on his own, how does that change him as a character?
FASSBENDER: Well, we sort of saw in Prometheus the concept of David witnessing Weyland meeting his creator, and so David was in some respects, as Peter Weyland was, in awe of his creator. Until you see the fallacies of your creator, and how mortal they can be. I think he’s moved on, I think it would be fair to say. [Laughs.]
In Alien, they still haven’t perfected the androids. What are some of the drawbacks that Walter has?
FASSBENDER: I don’t think he really has any, to be honest. Like I said, he’s like a very efficient butler/bodyguard/technician. He’s just solely there for the purpose of the ship and the crew. So there’s no complications in his programming, not like anything we’ve seen in the previous Alien films. I suppose he’s more like Bishop in Aliens. But with even less of those human traits. But he would be more along that line than Ian Holm’s character for sure.
Katherine says Daniels perceives him as a friend. What’s Walter’s concept of her?
FASSBENDER: He doesn’t have one. He’s just there to serve her. She might invest whatever she does as a human being in him…but I always thought about the Spock character. He doesn’t have that emotional involvement. He can appreciate it I suppose, but it just doesn’t really come into his world of thinking. I guess with the Ian Holm character in Alien he was programmed to do what he was gonna do as well, which was essentially bring back that Alien life form. So that was a very specific programming on his part.
FASSBENDER: Yeah, exactly.
When you were making Prometheus did you have any ideas about how David would progress in potential sequels?
FASSBENDER: Ridley and I have met several times since shooting Prometheus, and we talked about this film. But never — for some reason, which is kind of odd — really discussed that much about the evolution of David. I just got the script and it was all there really. So I can’t take any credit on that front. [Laughs.]
So Walter back then was not even in play?
FASSBENDER: That’s right, yeah. Fairly early on Ridley had sort of said that he was planning to have two synthetics. So I did know that quite a while ago actually.
Is there a reason, creatively speaking, why the new android looks like David? Not in terms of plot, but why was it important to have you playing two different characters?
FASSBENDER: Because it’s cheaper. [Laughs.] I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Ten years have passed between Prometheus and this film. How much do you know about what’s been going on with David?
FASSBENDER: Well, it’s referenced in the film. You have an idea. It doesn’t go into detail like “Day 1” — he doesn’t have his calendar or anything. But obviously I fill in those things just like I’d do with any other character. What happens before we see them in the story that we’re watching. So, like I said, there’s a lot of information there that’s given, and there’s a lot of visual things to fill in those gaps if you will. So that was definitely helpful for me, in terms of what has been occupying his time. Those traits that we saw in Prometheus, his appreciation of beauty and nature, that’s all relevant.
We saw the concept art… Is David studying the Engineers and their history?
FASSBENDER: Well, I think it’s his sort of… He’s the kind of guy that likes to keep himself busy I suppose, and believes that idle hands are the devil’s work. But like I said his interest in the way things work, his interest in creation, we could see that in Prometheus. “These guys created humans, humans created us.” This idea of creation and life and nature and art… There’s this sort of artist in there somewhere, there’s definitely an ego in there; we saw that before. So again these are very human things. I suppose he’s on this planet and — like a human — [thinking,] “Why do we do all this?” We want to leave something of us behind after we go. There’s a legacy of some sort that we’ve left behind.
Is the parallel between Engineers and humans and between humans and AI explored a lot?
FASSBENDER: It’s picked up on from the last film, but we don’t get bogged down in it.
Do you spend a good amount of time as a disembodied head as David?
FASSBENDER: I did a little bit of that this week, yep. [Laughs.]
Do you wear a green spandex bodysuit?
FASSBENDER: No, that was what it was like on the last one. But for this one I just kind of wore a black T-shirt, and just had the markings of where the head came loose.
She took his body as well. So he does have some use of that right?
FASSBENDER: Thank God, yeah. [Laughs.]
You’re often lauded for your physicality as an actor, and you’ve said you modeled the way David carries himself on the diver Greg Louganis. But what struck me is there’s a lilt and cadence to his voice. How did you develop it?
FASSBENDER: I don’t know really. I just watched a lot of Lawrence of Arabia, because he was into that, and so I just kind of worked on that tone. That again will be the same in this film. I wanted to keep that consistency through there. So there is that relatable character from the previous film. And to sort of imagine I suppose that it fit quite nicely for the idea of a synthetic voice; I was listening to HAL as well. Then I watched Blade Runner, and I did think about Ian Holm, and how they were very naturalistic sort of robots. Bishop as well. But I wanted to make it very clear that it was a robot from the get go in Prometheus. And it’s the same in this. So there is a sort of distinction between that synthetic and the humans on board the ship.
How has David’s relationship with Shaw changed over ten years?
FASSBENDER: Like any good marriage. [Laughs.] There’s a real affection there between the two of them. I think they get on each other’s nerves. Well, he gets on her nerves rather. But I suppose they went through quite a lot together in Prometheus. So there is a bond there, for sure.
We talked a lot today about how the idea of faith carries over from Prometheus, and how he does have a bit of an ego. Do you think he believes in something greater?
FASSBENDER: Then himself? [Laughs.] I’m not sure. Yeah, I think, again, it’s sort of things like…He would appreciate Michelangelo’s statue of David, or somebody like a Leonardo Da Vinci. But in a way I suppose his opinion of a synthetic is that it is in a way a step above humans. That they can sort of educate humans, I suppose. If it really needs to be boiled down.
What does he think of Walter?
FASSBENDER: I think he sees him as kin in a way. Perhaps a student, a younger brother.
Is there a way in which he becomes more human, in terms of levels of rage or…?
FASSBENDER: Yeah, more human. Engaged in all sorts of human characteristics — insecurity, ego. Rage might come out of an insecurity. I don’t know if just rage on its own is an emotion. So playing those kinds of things is kind of tricky. But things like pride can be played, envy — we saw a bit of that with Logan Marshall-Green’s character in the last one. I suppose he likes to feel important. Pride, it comes back to that I suppose. So it’s just all a mix of those things, and they definitely are more prominent in him through the years, as time has passed.
Is he capable of terror or fear as things go wrong? We didn’t really see that when things went bad last time.
FASSBENDER: Yeah, I don’t know…. I think he’s very quick to adapt. I suppose the concept of death is touched on a bit in this film. But in a way I think he feels himself to be the ultimate survivor. But he is aware of death, yeah.
Peruse the links to the rest of my set visit coverage below. Alien: Covenant opens in theaters on May 19th.
- ‘Alien: Covenant’: What Has David Been Up to in the Decade Since ‘Prometheus’?
- How ‘Alien: Covenant’ Is Handling the Franchise’s First LGBTQ Characters
- ‘Alien: Covenant’ Will Get Back to the ‘Alien’ Roots You Wanted to See in ‘Prometheus’
- The Engineers Are Still a Major Part of the ‘Alien: Covenant’ Mythology