Fassbender on Fire

 Brian Bowen Smith

"Hi, I'm Michael."

With a powerful handshake, Fassbender, who arrives in his own dark jeans, sweater and sports jacket, introduces himself to the staff assembled for the photo shoot to accompany this story. It is part of the actor's talent and enigma that no one assumes to know what he's going to be like. A stylist has cautioned that Fassbender is "running on fumes" after staying out until 2:30 a.m. the night before, first going to CAA's pre-Globes party and then dancing at an undisclosed location. But instead he is upbeat, pleasant and affectionate (he gladly gives out hugs). Mercurial, he wears a wide grin you rarely see on the big screen. Confides one member of Fassbender's inner circle: "I always tell Michael that if James Bond and Peter Sellers got together, he'd be their love child. His response: 'I'm leaning a little more toward Sellers these days.' "

VIDEO: 'Shame' Red Band Trailer: Michael Fassbender Brings Sex to the Subway

Indeed, the mischevious Fassbender is known to break out in song on-set. One of his favorites, according to the confidante, is "Regulate" by Warren G and Nate Dogg. "You couldn't ask for a better dichotomy," says the friend. "He's got charm and a smile that both disarm you and let you know there's a tiny bit of trouble lurking, but when it comes to work, he's serious and committed on a level I've rarely seen."

Alison Owen, who produced Jane Eyre for BBC Films and Focus Features, says director Cary Fukunaga wanted only Fassbender. "He's dream casting," she says. "He has a natural air of mystery, which is perfect for the role of Rochester. A number of Jane Eyre films have failed because Rochester wasn't strong enough. And Michael is obviously very good-looking and sexy, which helps."

If Fassbender the man is a mystery to many in show business, it's because he intentionally skirts the Hollywood social system. London remains his home and he has no plans of relocating to Los Angeles, even if he has become a bona fide movie star. He's far more intrigued with New York than L.A. and hopes to start spending more time there, saying he likes the vibe (Shame was set in New York).

The Germany-born Fassbender grew up in the lush tourist town of Killarney, Ireland, raised by a German father, Josef, and Irish mother, Adele, both of whom ran a restaurant. If cultural generalizations are to be believed, the actor's Irish roots run strong (gift of gab, love of storytelling, reddish-brown hair), coupled with a healthy dose of German determination and discipline. "The arts are very alive in Ireland, so that had its influence on me. But I consider myself European, really," he says.

As a teenager, Fassbender wanted to be a guitar player in a heavy metal band but had a nagging feeling he wasn't good enough. He says his older sister, Catherine, was the brainy one (she's now a neuropsychologist at UC Davis, studying the effects of ADHD on children) whereas he discovered he wanted to be an actor at the age of 17 when cast in a play by Donie Courtney, who ran a local theater troupe in Killarney. "It felt right," says Fassbender. Josef Fassbender, in an interview with a local Killarney newspaper, said his son was a "born performer," though Josef initially discouraged him from pursuing a career in acting.

When Fassbender turned 19, he moved to London and attended the Drama Centre. "It took me a while to come to grips with how expensive London was. My parents helped me out, but we never had a lot of money," he says. "So it was very sticky the first three or four years between paying drama school fees and surviving. The first place I lived was a studio I shared with a Brazilian girl. We weren't seeing each other or anything, but I remember there was a big hole in the window and it was so cold in the winter."

Fassbender dropped out of the Drama Centre and went on tour with the play Three Sisters from the Oxford Stage Company. Upon his return to London, his U.K. agent Katherine Fleming helped land him a supporting role on the miniseries Band of Brothers, which aired on HBO in 2001 and was produced by Steven Spielberg. He was confident it would lead to other offers. It didn't. "I came to Los Angeles and did auditions for television. I made a terrible mess of most of them, and I was quite intimidated," he recalls. "I felt very embarrassed and went back to London. I got British television jobs intermittently between the ages of 23 and 27, but it was very patchy."

Between roles including one in a Guinness commercial (in which his character swims from Ireland to New York) and a one-off, Agatha Christie's Poirot, he took odd jobs to survive, unloading trucks or bartending. He even did market research. "I had to call people who had filed complaints about the Royal Mail and see if they were happy with how their grievances were dealt with. Most of the time they weren't," he says. "We would do various things to keep our brains from freezing, like try to stick 'Mary Poppins' or another phrase into the conversation."

All along, he says, "My goal was for acting to become my main income. I would say to myself, 'I'm good enough.' That became my mantra."

Eventually, it started to happen. He got a supporting part in Warner Bros.' 300, his strong jaw and buff torso on full display. The film was shot in 2005, and a year later he snagged a U.S. agent, CAA's Michael Cooper, and a new U.K. agent, Conor McCaughan (Fleming had moved to Australia). "I'm really lucky because these guys are really good at what they do," Fassbender says. One of the first projects they tackled was getting McQueen's Hunger made. Fassbender, a distant relation of Michael Collins, an Irish leader during the War of Independence, wanted to play the role of Bobbie Sands, the Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoner who led a hunger strike in 1981.

Fassbender and McQueen, who also is repped by CAA in the U.S., became immediate soulmates -- or almost, anyway. "When he came in to audition in 2007, I thought, 'Who is this guy?' He almost seemed like he couldn't be bothered," says McQueen. "What I didn't know was all the rejection he had suffered. He was asked back for a second audition, and the lights went on. I jumped on the back of his motorcyle and we got pissed together. That was that."

McQueen is unequivocal: "He's a game-changer. He's got a vulnerability and sensuality that is very powerful. He's got an extraordinary femininity while still being very much a man's man. That's what propels him to greater roles. Often with leading actors, there's a place they go, but they don't go all the way. There are actors and there are artists, and Michael is an artist."

Hunger made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 to critical acclaim. Fassbender's performance, which required him to go on a radical diet, drew the notice of top filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino. "It was then that everything started to change," says Fassbender. Tarantino, who was prepping Inglourious Basterds, cast Fassbender in the supporting role of British spy Archie Hicox. When the film premiered at Cannes in 2009, Fassbender's name was whispered up and down the Croisette. Fish Tank, an indie darling in which Fassbender starred, also premiered at Cannes in 2009. From there, the projects began pouring in from top-flight directors.

Fassbender's big-budget bankability will be put to the test this summer with Prometheus, which opens June 8, but he's trying not to obsess. "I keep everything very simple. I like telling stories. Doing big studio pictures definitely allows you a wider audience. Financially, it also allows you to go off and make smaller films," he says. "And, as an audience member, those studio films are fun. I like an adventure tale, and I also like to go see something that has more of a social pulse. I like to keep learning and trying new things. And if the scripts are good, it doesn't really matter."

The only project Fassbender has on the books as of now is McQueen's next film, Twelve Years a Slave, which starts shooting in May. Fassbender confides he's been talking to Martin Scorsese but won't say if there's a film afoot. He also is working with writers to develop his own scripts.

After his whirlwind schedule, Fassbender, buoyed by his newfound financial freedom, truly is enjoying the break from shooting. "It's nice to have that security where you think if everything goes tits up, I've now got a flat I own and I don't have to worry about paying the bills and putting food on the table. I'm really lucky that it happened to me when it did, considering the recession."

"The thing that strikes me most about Michael is the idea of energy, both the creative energy he pours into each one of his roles and the personal energy he has when he enters the room," says Fox Searchlight president Nancy Utley, who acquired Shame out of the Telluride Film Festival. "He lights up any room he walks into, and the level of enthusiasm he has is infectious. A lot of people are blasé or a little jaded, but not Michael."

But taking a break for Fassbender doesn't mean staying put. As soon as Prometheus wrapped production in summer 2011, Fassbender celebrated by embarking on a two-month motorcycle tour of Europe on his BMW 1200 GS Adventure (he bought it after his Triumph Speed Triple was stolen). His father accompanied him on the 5,000-mile journey, which ended at the Venice Film Festival. He's thinking about touring North America next, his need for speed, of course, unabated.

 

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