- The Brooding Intensity of Michael Fassbender


Michael Fassbender charms a woman into bed in Shame

Passion, power and emotional ferocity are all hallmarks of a
Michael Fassbender performance. But is he just a kitten in real life?

Here’s a funny thing. I’m in the audience at the New York Film Festival. On stage director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender are answering questions about the disturbing, brilliant film that’s just been shown. Shame, McQueen and Fassbender’s follow-up collaboration to the gruelling Hunger has Fassbender delivering a volcanic performance as a sex addict who’s either dialling rent-a-hooker, beating off at work or devouring porn at home. Yeh, intense, dark stuff.

Someone from the floor asks Fassbender a question about the relationship between the two damaged lead characters, a brother and sister (Fassbender and Carey Mulligan). Halfway through Fassbender’s measured, thoughtful reply, McQueen chips in with a helpful clarification. “Absolutely,”, says Fassbender. Pause. “Yes,” says Fassbender, turning to McQueen, his face darkening, his brows beetling. “Please don’t interrupt me again.”

For half a second the big room at the Lincoln Center takes a breath. And then Fassbender’s face dissolves.

The man who played the hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger, the brooding Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, the lairy Connor in Fish Tank, is laughing. Laughing and doubling over, a tear springing to the corner of his eye. He’s pricked the slight pomposity of the event, just a bit, and he’s absolutely delighted.

“People think that I’m very intense,” Fassbender told CBC recently. “But I’m very silly really. I like to laugh and have fun.” There’s the word, and from his own mouth – intense. So why are we surprised that the characters Fassbender portrays and the man he claims to be are so very different? Actors are meant to fool with words and gestures, that’s their job. But there is something remarkable about Fassbender. Maybe it’s the way he can turn that intensity on and off, modulate it. Someone should tell Christian Bale.

The 33-year-old German-born, Irish-bred actor dropped out of London’s Drama Centre in 2000 – unhappy with its disregard for movies – and with what must be the luck of the half-Irish landed a part almost immediately on Band of Brothers, alongside Tom Hanks. Since then he’s turned up in more huge films than people would give him credit for – 300, Jonah Hex, Inglourious Basterds, X-Men: First Class –winning nominations and awards for all of them.

The chronology doesn’t tell the whole story though. With Band of Brothers Fassbender really thought he’d made it. In fact he followed up the TV ten-parter (he was in seven) with a lean patch, working in bars, doing night shifts loading trucks, doing the odd Holby City, turning up in a pop video, the sort of acting gigs most actors are familiar with.

Luck changed for the better. But then changed by an order of magnitude when Steve McQueen cast him as Bobby Sands in Hunger in 2008. “I was 30 years old, recession was just around the corner… and for someone to take a chance on an unknown actor, you know. To take the risk…” his voice trails off. This is another genuinely lovely thing about Fassbender –he’s clearly ferociously committed to McQueen –”Apart from a big argument on the first day of Hunger, we just [he clicks his fingers]”.

Fassbender on set with co-star Carey Mulligan and director Steve McQueen

Fassbender doesn’t feel strongly about the director because McQueen saved his acting bacon, he’s convinced of the director’s genius and of the importance of their bond. “My dream from the age of 17 was to have a relationship with a director. I was looking at Scorsese/De Niro, Lumet/Pacino. That would be the ultimate, to have a collaboration like that. To be on a wavelength that powerful with somebody. That was why I was so lucky to find in Steve with Hunger.” McQueen, incidentally, returns the evaluation: “Michael is a genius really. I want to work with the best actor there is. And I think he is, basically.”

Shame is Fassbender’s Mean Streets. In a just world it would win Oscars all round – even the tiniest roles in this film burn like phosphorous – but Oscar doesn’t go a bundle on masturbation, hookers, the suggestion of incest, all that jazz. A sex-addict who was also in a wheelchair, maybe…

“He [McQueen] mentioned to me in 2008 that this was an idea and I was ‘fine, just tell me when and where’. I didn’t even need to see a script. It was that simple.”

Would Fassbender have been put off if he had seen the script? Did he know how much full-frontal business there was going to be? Did he understand how damaged, deranged, desperate the lead character was?

And how do you set about playing that sort of part anyway, a questioner from the floor asks, reminding Fassbender of the shocking weight loss he went through to play Bobby Sands. “I just went out and had lots of sex, just tried to embrace it as best I could.” He’s laughing again, so is the entire room. Then, Serious Face. “Preparation? Just reading. I spent a lot of time with the script.”

Thoughts go immediately to Daniel Day-Lewis, how he refuses to step out of character during shooting. He could take a lesson in lightening up from Fassbender, one of his biggest fans.

So, a handsome devil, a bloody good actor and a fun guy who’s prepared to get butt naked in the name of his art, it’s no surprise that Fassbender is suddenly everywhere. Coming soon, he’s the lead in Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s first sci-fi film since Blade Runner. He plays psychiatry pioneer Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. And he’s reteaming with McQueen for Twelve Years a Slave, with Chiwetel Ejiofor and some guy called Brad Pitt.

Michael Fassbender, you are so made.

© Steve Morrissey 2012