The Year of Michael – An Interview With Michael Fassbender
Michael Fassbender looks tanned and relaxed as he strolls into the bar at Claridge’s Hotel in London to join me for a drink. Sporting a bushy red beard, he is thin and slight in appearance, and like the chameleon he is on screen, he glides through the hotel undisturbed by importunate fans. For someone who became so famous as an actor in 2011 – starring in a slew of movies as diverse as X-Men, Jane Eyre and Shame, among others – he is remarkably still able to fly below the radar when he’s on the street, in his civvies.
After his annus mirabilis last year, there is no resting on his laurels. Fassbender’s plate this year is every bit as diverse. He stars in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the long-awaited $200m prequel to Alien; he’s doing another arthouse movie with Steve McQueen, Ten Years a Slave, about a freed slave who is caught and re-enslaved. He’s also about to have his first stint as a producer on a feature film on the Irish legend Cú Chulainn, with his London-based production company Finn McCool films. Oh, and he’s also part of the Irish male acting aristocracy starring in Brendan Gleeson’s film adaptation of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds.
Overnight success was a long time coming for Michael, and when it did alight, just over four years ago, everything changed really fast. After causing an international sensation playing a mesmeric Bobby Sands in the low budget feature Hunger, for which he lost 30 lbs, Michael Fassbender went from being a jobbing actor and part-time barman in London to one of the most sought after leading men in Hollywood.
“I haven’t had much time to think about it, to be honest,” he says, giving me that sideways, impish grin. “When I was working behind the bar and doing any sort of odd jobs, the idea that I could actually make a living from this was like a dream. To be in a position to be working with all the big names that I have like Tarantino, Cronenberg, Soderbergh, Jarmusch, Scott, it’s kind of unreal.”
Fame brings many perks, but these days Fassbender (35) is very low key about those he chooses to enjoy and how he spends the currency of celebrity. Falling out of nightclubs and dating starlets has never been his thing, especially not since he broke out as a star. As someone who loves motorbikes and cars, road trips with his dad and his friends are where he gets his kicks, easily avoiding the other clichés of fame like the plague.
“I did go to Monaco to the Grand Prix recently and because of the position I’m in, I was allowed to stand beside Michael Schumacher in his car on the grid – that was pretty amazing and something of a childhood dream. I’ve been a fan of motor racing for 20 years. Other than that, I keep it pretty basic. Nothing has really changed in my everyday routine. It’s always about telling the story well that matters to me – the fame that goes with it is not enjoyable to me.”
Fassbender has lived in London since he moved there at 19, to study drama at the Central School of Speech and Drama.
He’d had a steady career for several years in British television before Hunger in 2008, for which he won numerous accolades, including a Best Actor nomination in the European Film Awards.
The following year, at Cannes, he stood out in two contrasting roles: as a magnetic philanderer in Andrea Arnold’s Jury Prize-winning Fish Tank and as Lt. Archie Hickox – a delightful caricature of a World War II British army officer – in Quentin Tarantino’s delirious fantasy Inglorious Basterds. Shrewd choices of action roles in Centurion and Jonah Hex (both 2010) led to an amazing twelve months.
In 2011, Fassbender first established himself as a Hollywood star in his role as the brooding, compelling Mr. Rochester in Cary Fukunaga’s magnificent Jane Eyre. Then he took on an extraordinary range of other leading roles: Magneto in Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (in which he coolly evoked a young Ian McKellan); Carl Gustav Jung in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method; and an Irish rogue posing as a British spy in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, in which he spectacularly wrecks a room at the Shelbourne hotel in Dublin, in a to-the-death battle with the Amazonian American wrestling star Gina Carano.
But the crowning achievement of last year was his second feature for McQueen, Shame, an unsparing portrait of a wretched, damaged, self-loathing sex addict in New York, a performance that sealed Fassbender’s status as a major star willing to risk (and reveal) all. The almost unanimous acclaim from American critics was in contrast to the attitude of the Oscar voters, who snubbed Fassbender come nomination time in favor of worthy but less ambitious performances. It was hard to recall an actor who could incarnate so many styles with such complete conviction and succeed. Fassbender is an improbable thing: an unforgettable chameleon, a man who can dominate the screen in myriad ways but who you can walk past on the street without noticing.
London was also where his parents, Adele, from Larne in County Antrim, and Josef, from Heidelberg, first met. Michael was born in Germany, where he lived until the age of two, when the family relocated to Killarney and opened a restaurant, The West End House, which they still run. He has a sister, Catherine, who works as a neuropsychologist and with whom he is particularly close.
Did his parents’ culinary skills carry over to him? “I do enjoy cooking and I can cook the basic things. I’m definitely not afraid to go into the kitchen,” he says, grinning. “Obviously I grew up around that sort of world, so it’s not something that scares me. My dad would probably say I should be cooking a lot more, because I haven’t been doing much for the past few years. He gave me a Jamie Oliver cookbook recently – now there’s a man who should be Prime Minister for all the positivity he brings into the world!”
At home in Killarney, the house was bilingual and today he is almost as comfortable speaking German as he is English, something which was put to use in Inglourious Basterds.
He credits both of his parents, and their cultural backgrounds, with granting him different strengths. “The Germans have a good work ethic, so I’ve inherited some of that. Then Ireland, for such a small nation we really love the arts and story telling, and there’s a great mix of the two in me. My mother loved cinema and introduced me to many films and actors, which made me want to pursue this profession. I have her to thank for that. I suppose the German side wants to keep everything in control, and the Irish side wants to wreak havoc!”
Although he could have his pick of women (or men), Fassbender is mostly single these days, content to focus the bulk of his energy on all the great work coming his way. He’s briefly dated a few co-stars (Zoë Kravitz from X-Men and Nicole Behaire from Shame) and has been receiving very strong public overtures from Charlize Theron (who was involved for over a decade with another Irishman, Stuart Townsend), but his true love and mistress these days is the work. It’s as though the hungry years trying to break out as a star have made him appreciate how easy it is to get distracted by the trinkets and entourages that come with fame, and how quickly these come and go. Fassbender already knows what he likes.
“I find women attractive in all shapes and sizes and although it’s a bit of a cliché, what’s attractive is someone who’s confident and doesn’t mind showing elements of themselves that society might consider weak or making a fool of themselves. Eating what you like to eat, that’s much more attractive. It’s a prison to be constantly worrying about what others think of you and wondering if you are coming across as attractive or interesting or socially popular.
“My home is in London. I love animals and would love to have a dog, but the nature of my work means I’d have to put it into a kennel and put it through quarantine and all that sort of thing and it really wouldn’t be fair to the animal.”
When Fassbender talks about the many big names he has recently been courted by, he never fails to mention his drama teacher at St. Brendan’s College in Killarney, who, along with Steve McQueen, he credits with getting him where he is today.
“I was very average at school and I didn’t really excel at anything. I thought ‘OK, I should do law.’ The idea of the showmanship connected to that appealed to me, but I’m a slow reader, so I didn’t think I would have gotten through the volume of material or gotten the results that would have gotten me into university. Then, I thought of architecture, but I failed my technical drawing exam. Journalism was another thing that appealed to me, especially war journalism. I thought it would be interesting to see the front line rather than just what’s filtered through.
“But then Donie Courtney, who’s a past pupil of St. Brendan’s, went to the Gaiety School of Acting and he came back and set up one of these comedy and drama workshop classes. I did one or two of these and I was like ‘God, this feels right.’ I really felt like this was a medium that I could express myself in and all these people in my head could finally find a place!”
The training he did with Courtney led him to produce his first play in Killarney, which he tells me today is still the thing he’s proudest of in all his accomplishments.
“I did a stage play of Reservoir Dogs when I was 18 in Killarney after I’d got in Bric Rua, the theatre company which Donie had created. It was the first professional theatre company in Killarney. We did puppet theatre and panto and I watched Donie like a hawk for the six months I spent with him. Then I went off on my own and did a production of Reservoir Dogs, which I also produced and played Mr. Pink. I learned so much from that experience, especially that there’s nothing wrong with falling on your face while you’re trying to learn.”
Winning awards and kudos left, right and center (with the exception of an Oscar), Fassbender seems untouched right now, but he admits to being a bit non-plussed by all the fuss.
“It feels kinda strange,” he acknowledges with a shake of his head. “I remember when I first went to Los Angeles, I was 24 and they thought I was 35. The agent who took me to a television show didn’t believe me and I had to show her my driver’s license to prove I was 24. I quite enjoy the lines on my forehead and the lines on my face, because that’s my life. That’s my history and I like to see it in other people. This wrinkle is down to some girl that broke my heart and I don’t want to escape it in any way.”
He chuckles again and shakes his head at how silly it all is, at the impermanence in life that we keep forgetting about.
“The problem is, we feel a lot of pressure about looking silly or appearing weak, whatever that means, or being a failure. You have to keep saying in your head: what’s the worst that can happen? I’m trying to tell a story – what’s the worst that can happen? You fall flat on your face, then hopefully you get back up again and go for it again and try something else. We’re all going to die one day. I’m stealing that off of Steve [McQueen]; it’s what he’d say when he ordered me to take my clothes off. ‘WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE ONE DAY!’
“I try not to take myself too seriously. When my best friend in Killarney, Emerson Johnson, and I were in school together and we’d bunk off at lunchtime sometimes, I’d always be really nervous, but I remember he used to say ‘what’ll it matter in 100 years’ time?’ and he’s right. If you can relieve yourself of that pressure and not take yourself too seriously, then you can afford to look like a bit of an idiot. I think I am quite immature, or maybe just childlike.”
Given the uncertain nature of his chosen profession, I wonder how far ahead he tries to look when thinking about work and where it might lead him.
“I try not to plan too much, because when I do it usually ends up a mess. I don’t have a strategy for dealing with fame, because none of it really interests me. I can really say that honestly.
Ten years ago, I would have been attracted and seduced by all of the things that come with fame, but it doesn’t interest me at all anymore. I consider myself lucky to have achieved what I have and that a lot of great film makers want to work with me. That’s plenty and more than enough for me to deal with. I spent a lot of time out of work. Now I’m trying to make hay while the sun is shining.”
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