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When Charles Met Erik
In casting the characters of Charles, a gifted young Oxford graduate in genetics, who is the world's most powerful telepath; and Erik, who as a young man – and under horrific circumstances – discovered his power to control magnetism, the filmmakers were mindful that they had to find two young actors whom audiences would accept in roles Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen had made their own.

James McAvoy, who moves effortlessly between roles in independent films such as Atonement and The Last King of Scotland and blockbusters like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Wanted, got the nod to portray Charles. McAvoy embraced the challenge of essaying the character at a transformative moment in his life. His Xavier is dissimilar in key ways from the confident, patriarchal Xavier from the original trilogy. "In those films,” explains McAvoy, "Professor X is selfless and egoless. He is focused on humanity, on the rest of the world, and on helping others. When we meet him in this film, as a younger man, he's self-centered, has an ego, and is a little bit lost. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is about Charles finding his purpose, and that was very much what attracted me to the role – to see who Charles was, and to explore the reasons why he became the person he did. Matthew made it very clear at the beginning he wanted both me and Michael [Fassbender, as Erik] to play the characters, and not play Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen as younger men.”

"I thought James had everything the role required,” says Vaughn. "In the previous movies, Charles was the ultimate teacher, with a Zen-like air. Our younger Charles is a bit more fun. He's running around and he's more proactive. Charles is caught up in himself. He enjoys success and is prideful.” Adds Jane Goldman: "The real challenge in delineating Charles was finding his flaws and making him a multi-layered character. James McAvoy came up with some wonderful ideas about the character because he has such a good handle on Charles.”

When we meet Charles in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, mutants have not yet revealed themselves to the world; in fact, Charles is uncertain if there are mutants other than himself and a young woman named Raven he had befriended years earlier. "As far as Charles knows,” says McAvoy, "he is just a guy who can read minds, and while he hopes there are other mutants, his path has not yet been set on rousing the mutant race and seeking acceptance from humanity.”

Charles discovers the purpose of his formidable powers when he connects, telepathically, with other mutants around the world. He does this through a device long known to the legions of X-Men fans: Cerebro, a metallic, high-tech headpiece that amplifies Charles' telepathic powers. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS' Cerebro is an early prototype of the streamlined device seen in the X-Men films set in contemporary times; young Charles' ‘60s-era Cerebro has been cobbled together with tech and equipment from the period, including toggle switches, cathode ray tubes, and old antennae. Production designer Chris Seagers backward-engineered the original films' Cerebro, to be, says the designer, "a very simple structure with its center core coming from the design of the later films, and the dome itself based on observatory domes dotted about the English countryside.”

Cerebro provides a kind of epiphany for Charles. "He realizes for the first time that there are thousands, if not millions of mutants out in the world, and that humbles him,” says McAvoy. "It crystallizes his mission and his purpose in life: to find other mutants and help them.”

Charles has already become embroiled in a looming war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, when he saves the life of a mutant possessing formidable powers and a haunted past that has already set the mutant, Erik Lehnsherr, on a path that will soon take him to a war with Charles. But for now, they are friends and kindred spirits. "This is the first time in their lives they've met someone who is an equal, someone who understands the other and can push the other, too,” says McAvoy. "Charles is fascinated with Erik's potential.”

In fact, Charles is the first person with whom Erik has ever connected. Says Michael Fassbender, who portrays Erik: "There is a very strong bond between Charles and Erik, and a deep respect. But from the beginning, their ideologies are at odds. Erik is very wary of new elements in his life and of getting close to someone again. He does so with Charles as much as he can with anyone. We wanted to have a believable journey to the point where their devastating rift begins. When Erik and Charles have their parting of the ways, audiences will realize that great things could have happened if they had joined forces forever.”

Erik is also hesitant to join Charles on his mission to save the world from itself. Why, asks Erik, is humanity even worth saving? "Erik is quite Machiavellian; he believes the end justifies the means,” Fassbender explains. "He has no regard for humans, and feels they're inferior.”

Erik's cavalier attitudes about humans stem from his childhood, which couldn't have been more different from Charles' life of privilege. Erik had to survive without parents, and as a youngster was forced to endure unimaginable hardships. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS introduces Erik with a recreation of the scene that opened the original X-Men, set at the Auschwitz concentration camp, in the 1940s. There, young Erik, horrified when the Nazis separate him from his parents, reveals his mutant abilities, bending the camp's metal gates. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS then picks up after that scene, as Erik, still a youngster, becomes the test subject of a Dr. Schmidt, who is determined to fully unleash and harness Erik's powers. "Matthew and I had always admired the power and impact of the concentration camp scene in X-Men, which really informs the character of Erik,” says co-screenwriter Jane Goldman. "And Matthew wanted to explore what happens next to Erik. What you see will change the way you feel about Erik, and allow you to see him through fresh eyes.”

Twenty years later, Erik now a grown man, has one mission in life: track down and kill Dr. Schmidt (whom we'll again meet in a very different guise). Erik is a force of fury and hate, hunting Schmidt and the other Nazi doctors whom he believes turned him into a kind of Frankenstein's monster. Even as Erik finds his first friend in Charles and is embraced by the other members of the team that will become the X-Men, he never veers from his mission. "Erik is totally driven; if Charles or anyone gets in his way, he's going to put them down,” says Fassbender.

Vaughn had seen Fassbender's critically acclaimed performances in 300, Hunger, and Inglourious Basterds, and after Fassbender's impressive audition, cast the actor as Erik. "Michael gives Erik an interesting attitude, and Erik is really straight-up cool,” says the director. "Michael's work in this film is reminiscent of Sean Connery's interpretation of James Bond. Erik is like the ultimate spy – imagine Bond…but with superpowers.”

Fassbender, who was eager to play the complex character, notes that when he got the script, he thought it was "truly clever. There were real consequences to each action in the film. It wasn't all guns blazing. There was so much more going on, many layers in the writing, and I was very impressed with that.” Fassbender also notes that he did not draw on the previous films to develop his interpretation of Erik. "The source material is in the comic books. We were really starting from scratch in order to present a fresh look at the material.”

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