Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender are a public couple. She kissed him, after all, before accepting her Oscar for The Danish Girl last February. But they’ll never be accused of oversharing. Neither is active on social media, and on the hot Sunday afternoon when EW interviewed them in downtown Manhattan, Vikander, 27, and Fassbender, 39, sit on opposite ends of a couch. And though they do address their relationship, calmly and efficiently, they would much rather talk about their work.
That still includes the experience that brought them together. Adapted from the 2012 novel by Australian writer M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans, directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), stars the two actors as a married couple living on a lighthouse-capped island who suffer multiple miscarriages before a rowboat mysteriously washes ashore one day with a baby on board. Isabel (Vikander) convinces her husband Tom (Fassbender) to keep the newborn child as their own, but it’s an agonizing decision, especially when he encounters a bereaved woman (Rachel Weisz) on the mainland whom he suspects is the girl’s mother.
In an engaging interview, Vikander and Fassbender take a journey back in time — both to the 1920s, when the film takes place, and to 2014, when they met and fell in love while making it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Everybody saw you both at the Oscars this year, where Michael was nominated for Steve Jobs and Alicia won for The Danish Girl. But The Light Between Oceans was filmed before either of those movies. Does it feel like a long time ago?
ALICIA VIKANDER: Well, at least for me, The Danish Girl was one of the fastest post-productions I’d been through in my career. Jason Bourne might beat it, actually. But other than that, Testament of Youth, Ex Machina, those films came out more than two years after they were shot. That’s more common. But normally the experience flows back to you as soon as you reunite with your friends. We just saw Derek [Cianfrance], who I hadn’t seen for a couple of months. We have a lot of experiences and memories to go back to.
Michael, Derek said that he basically wrote the part with you in mind.
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: That’s nice, yeah. Well, I guess he got the part off the book, then maybe thought of me. I feel very flattered because I’m very lucky to get to play a character like Tom. I really like Tom. I see him as sort of a hero to me, so to get the opportunity to bring him to life, I did feel quite a bit of responsibility. That character is someone I would aspire to be.
You had the book but were there any other references you were looking at for Tom? With the mustache, there’s a sort of Clark Gable classicalness to him.
FASSBENDER: Hmm, well we were looking at pictures.
VIKANDER: Of lighthouse keepers.
FASSBENDER: Yeah, of lighthouse keepers. Derek had sent some pictures, and there were a couple of them that had mustaches in there. And it’s funny, the Clark Cable thing. I thought of Gone with the Wind. Our film is very different, but I was always sort of reminded of that type of old-fashioned storytelling. Not only the fact that it’s obviously set in a postwar period, in this case post-World War I, but a lot of the elements in it were like an old-fashioned movie.
We never see any flashbacks, but the character is obviously haunted by the war.
FASSBENDER: Tom’s lived a whole other film before we pick him up. And what he must have gone through in the fields of France. It was a very turbulent time in history, post-World War I. How that great war affected so many small towns all over the world. And you see a small town like Partageuse [the fictional Australian town where the story is set], where a whole generation of men disappeared.
There’s a clockwork emotional efficiency in the story. While it’s tremendously sad, the film ends, and there’s a sense of uplift.
FASSBENDER: Yeah, hopefully. That’s definitely what everyone was aiming for, including Stedman, if I may speak for her. There is a reason that we feel the way we do by the end of the book and the end of the movie.
VIKANDER: And it’s also something with Derek’s films. I felt with Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines that I got so close to these characters, I felt I could walk down the street and see them or refer to myself or people I know. And when both films end, I totally think that these lives continue on. The uplifting thing is that there is such a big emotional draw, but you don’t need to give a big punch.
Were you drawn to the universality of the story?
VIKANDER: Yeah, it got me. I almost felt a tiny bit embarrassed because of being too close to something that’s very private in somebody’s life. It’s like there’s a window that’s opened up and I got to peek in. But everyone surrounding you has gone through similar things. The search for love or the desire to have a family or the loss of a child.
FASSBENDER: Or healing. We’ve all experienced how time heals. And you go on and life continues. It’s so interesting what Alicia said because you have Tom, who’s lived through the war, and also Isabel’s character, what she was experiencing with the loss of all her brothers. And we come into these lives as they’re in flux. And we leave them again, and there’s a whole new generation that’s going to go through the next phase.
Do you think the story has any current political relevance?
FASSBENDER: Well, Stedman has cleverly put in this character Frank [Leon Ford], Hannah’s [Rachel Weisz] husband. It’s such a terrifying thing when mobs of people get together and persecute foreigners. And what happens to him is he dies. And this is something we’re dealing with a hundred years later. This problem with migrants being able to integrate into societies and the dangers they face are very real. It’s very relevant to today.
You mentioned Gone with the Wind, and Derek was telling me that when he was looking for Isabel, he said, “Get me Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence, get me Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, and get me Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind. And he said he found that in you.
VIKANDER: Um, well. You just mentioned three of the people that inspire me to act. As an actor, I still have to remind myself of daring to let go and not to repeat myself. To make a film like this, I couldn’t have done this without the people involved. The first time I met Derek, of course I had already read the script and knew it was a challenge. But I also loved meeting him because I admired him so much for being able to get all of those actors in his films. That shows also what a filmmaker is — bringing the right group together but also bringing out performances. I felt like I had forgotten myself that I was watching actors, which is not an easy thing.
You guys shot in a remote part of New Zealand. What was it like making a movie in that environment?
VIKANDER: On the first day of filming I got breathless. I was on the top of the lighthouse by myself and I could look out 360 degrees and not see another human being. I was kind of claustrophobic by the greatness of nature.
FASSBENDER: When the wind picks up, it’s pretty exhilarating — and maddening. In the story, the previous lighthouse keeper goes nuts and kills himself. That struck home to me. On the first few nights, we were in these caravans, and they were rocking back and forth because of the relentless howling of the wind. And I was like, “Wow.”
VIKANDER: I felt so much a part of the elements of nature out there. I kind of wanted Mother Nature to just calm down. One of the nights the storm hit, I thought that my trailer might just pitch over any second. It did jump a bit. I got quite scared.
Did acting in the elements make things more difficult?
FASSBENDER: Easier, actually. It was a rare opportunity to experience that place, and that unique experience for sure lent itself to the film.
VIKANDER: Like the scene when the storm is coming and you started to collect the sheep.
FASSBENDER: The goats.
VIKANDER: The goats, sorry.
FASSBENDER: Or was it sheep? I just remember those goats and those crazy chickens.
VIKANDER: For that night, the crew had prepared wind fans, but what you see in the movie is pretty real. We were practically flying off those lighthouse stairs. It was pretty nuts.
FASSBENDER: The DP [cinematographer Adam Arkapaw] maintains that lightning hit a tree very close to where their campers were. So that would have, obviously, not been great.
Arkapaw has such an eye. The movie looks fantastic. You’ve worked with him a couple times, Michael?
FASSBENDER: Yeah, the first thing I did with him was Macbeth, then Light Between Oceans, then Assassin’s Creed [in theaters this December] as well. He’s an artist, definitely. A very special talent. Derek kept going, “You’re making my movie too beautiful, Adam!” He’s got a great eye, and on all his works, True Detective, Top of the Lake. He’s a formidable force, that’s for sure.
The movie is a wrenching piece of drama for both of you, especially Alicia. What was the hardest scene to film? The second miscarriage is devastating.
VIKANDER: That was the scene I was most worried about, yeah. I think I’ve played a mother six times. And as a woman who doesn’t have kids, I felt that the women in the audience who have gone through childbirth might say, “She doesn’t know what it is.” So I asked a lot of women, to make sure we told that scene with truth.
Michael, that’s also a very affecting scene for your character, as he shows the depth of his compassion for his wife.
FASSBENDER: He’s got absolute loyalty. There’s also a scene that’s not in the movie anymore where she tries to throw herself off the cliff and he saves her. Everything’s on a knife’s edge, and he’s concerned for her well-being.
He’s kind of a quiet, passive man for an actor like you to play.
FASSBENDER: His principles are strong. He knows it’s wrong when they don’t report the child, and he knows that it’s only going to end in tragedy. He’s an honorable man. He’s got dignity and stoicism and principles. If there were more people like him in the world, it would be a better place.
When you’re playing lovers on screen and you begin to have feelings off screen, do you have to check yourself — to be sure it isn’t a trick of your brain?
FASSBENDER: It wasn’t the first time in a movie either of us had played somebody who is falling in love. There is an element of separation there. If I’m playing a murderer, I don’t go out and start murdering people.
VIKANDER: And I think we’ve made a clear statement that we keep certain things just between us. It was very easy to unite, but that’s quite personal.
And I respect that. I’m not interested in asking all about your personal lives.
VIKANDER: [Laughing] Sure!
FASSBENDER: [Laughing] Sure, buddy!
But here’s what I’m interested in. You’ve really managed to keep your private lives private. A lot of people in the spotlight don’t.
FASSBENDER: But that’s other people. Each to their own. I’m not going to talk about my private life with a total stranger, unless I feel like I need to. Why would I? I don’t.
But can you remember a time when you were curious to know more about the private lives of movie stars? That’s the impulse in your fans to know more about your relationship.
FASSBENDER: I might have been curious about actors’ lives when I was growing up. That’s human nature. We’re all curious about a lot of things. But my curiosity didn’t obligate them to tell me. It’s the worst thing if you’re sitting there in the theater, going, “Oh, that’s the guy who dates this person and likes to do this in the morning and that in the afternoon.” Then you’re just watching a brand, as opposed to an actor.
VIKANDER: I remember in Sweden, I used to set the alarm for 2 or 3 a.m. and get up with my mom to watch the Oscars. But for me, that was the same as the stories I saw up on the movie screen. Things have changed with social media and technology, but I still feel it helps when I know less about the actors I look up to. That’s what I mean — I love the mystery behind it all.
FASSBENDER: Exactly. The actors I looked up to when I was a teenager, they all just disappeared into different characters.
Who were the actors that you looked up to?
FASSBENDER: All the usual suspects. Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Brando, John Cazale.
Yeah, I don’t think of Hackman or Pacino and wonder about their personal lives.
FASSBENDER: It was a different time. Nowadays of course everybody’s got phones and cameras.
VIKANDER: Even people who don’t have the jobs we do. I’ve been asked a lot of questions because I’m not on social media. But I did try Instagram when it came out, and I remember, just with my friends, feeling like I had to post things. And that was before I was really in films. And I know it involves a lot of other people who are not in the public eye. But it’s a pressure that you kind of have to do it. If you like it, then it’s great. And I do have a lot of friends who do communicate and express themselves and present their art through those mediums. That’s just the way we’re moving ahead. But I think you need to do what feels right.
Do either of you read reviews of your movies?
FASSBENDER: Unfortunately, yes. This fantastic actor Mel Smith, God rest his soul, we did a play together in 2005 or 2006, And he said, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.” Usually you just remember the negative ones.
VIKANDER: Yep, again, it’s just human nature. You can hear a hundred nice words about yourself, and you’ll only remember the one bad one.
There’s an Ingmar Bergman movie called Shame, funny enough. A childless couple is on an island, isolated from the rest of the world, played by Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman. Something about two of them reminds me of you two.
FASSBENDER: Well, maybe that’s because the story exists in such a primal place. Like I say, ordinary people dealing with real-life tragedies. How many people have this sort of scenario touched? Trying to have a family, and they’re having miscarriage after miscarriage. It struck me as a very real problem at a time when a lot of films are really fantastical.
You’ve been in some of those.
FASSBENDER: Yeah, I’ve been in a lot of those. But this was just something that was relatable all over the world. There wasn’t some villain and good guys. Just regular people. The fact that I hadn’t played somebody like this very much interested me in doing it. It’s a difficult thing as an actor not to repeat one’s self. I try my best to find variety in what I’m doing, but there’s a lot out there that’s the same.
Alicia, do you think that Isabel stayed with you, some echo or shadow of her?
VIKANDER: Well I guess so because she’s an imagination of something I’ve had in my head. People can relate to reading a book for the first time and the world starts to create, even without you prepping for it. I get excited and start forming it in my head. And I bring with me the experience of shooting the film more than the character staying within me. I create her and I then I leave her.
Do you consider yourself a method actor?
VIKANDER: No, I don’t. In this film, particularly, we all knew what needed to be done to bring authenticity to the story. It was a big emotional journey. So a lot was about stepping out in between. Not just of the film, but in between takes and on days off. Go play some music or take a nice nap. And it was a great vibe on set, because we all stayed out there and had barbecues in the evenings.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind about the experience of making it?
VIKANDER: It’s what Derek said when I first met him. In our first meeting, Derek said firmly, “I expect you to fail for me, and I expect you to surprise me.” I was up for that challenge. And in exchange, he said, “I’m going to give you some cool experiences.” And that’s what he did. “Summer camp” is something I’ve used to explain filmmaking to friends and family. It’s the best feeling when you all have shared this experience together.
FASSBENDER: You have to come together very quickly. Become a family, work together, and then you disband. That’s a very specific, unusual thing to this business. And I can be a very powerful thing as well.
VIKANDER: I hope I get a bit of that from each job and experience. I didn’t go to theater school. So I’ve been extremely privileged. I’ve had the chance to work with some really good filmmakers. It’s put me in a situation where I’ve been surrounded by great actors, and for me it’s been a lot about standing in the background and watching people work.
What are you favorite performances of each other’s?
VIKANDER: Back home in Stockholm, in this tiny independent cinema, I had watched Hunger  and Fish Tank , and I was blown away by his fearlessness. I was taken aback by how much I believed those characters. They felt so real. From then on, I said, “That is one of the smartest, most surprising actors working.” He went to the top of my list of best actors of my generation when I saw him, which was especially interesting because he was a male actor, and a lot of the actors I look up to, naturally, are women.
And Michael, what have you admired in Alicia’s career?
FASSBENDER: When Alicia arrived on set, I said to Derek, “Wow, I’m frightened because she’s just so fierce and brave and she had that hunger as well.” It reminded me of when I was trying to break through and get opportunities. It was so visceral, and it was pretty amazing to behold in her. I wasn’t familiar with her work. But you can tell immediately when somebody has all the goods and more. Then we watched Pure [2010, Vikander’s debut film], and I was very impressed by her originality on screen and how she wasn’t afraid to make ugly choices. That was a real understanding.
What she did in The Danish Girl  was so fresh and modern. Gerda exists in the time of the film, but she also seemed like a very modern concept of a woman. The way she moved physically, that comes from her dance background, it’s very clear to me.
Her dance background, I would think, also contributed to the success of Ex Machina.
FASSBENDER: In Ex Machina , it’s all over that. Her specificity and attention to detail is extraordinary. I played a robot [in 2012’s Prometheus], and I thought I was a good robot, but then I saw her and I said, “There is a very good robot.’
VIKANDER: Oh, thank you.
FASSBENDER: But I just finished the sequel [next year’s Alien: Covenant], and I got to steal all of Alicia’s moves. I’ll steal everything. She makes me a better robot.
Do you want to work with each other again?
FASSBENDER: Yeah hopefully, down the line. At the moment I’m not looking to do anything really.
VIKANDER: [Laughing] Do you need some time off?