Fassbender on Fire
Early in January, in the aftermath of a crushing workload that included shooting and promoting six movies in 20 months, a Venice Film Festival best actor award and a Golden Globe nomination, Michael Fassbender slipped away to the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Following that relentless schedule -- and his first real introduction to fame in 2011 -- no one would have faulted Hollywood's new "It" actor for collapsing stone-cold. But if there's any one secret to what makes the 34-year-old tick, it's his absolute need to keep in frenetic, kinetic motion. So he did what any amateur adrenaline junkie might do on vacation: He jumped out of a plane high over the island.
"It was the most amazing rush," recalls Fassbender on this chilly day before the Globes ceremony in L.A. "I was strapped to the instructor, who was behind me. For 50 seconds, you're free-falling, and your brain is saying, 'What are you doing?' Once the canopy opens, he unhooks certain things and you drop down a bit. It's a crazy feeling to jump out of an airplane and land on the ground."
Speed of any kind -- motorcycles are Fassbender's passion when he's not working -- is an apt metaphor for the 0-to-60 rush of professional success the Irish-German actor presently is enjoying. Coming onto the scene a few years ago with Hunger and Inglourious Basterds after stints as a bartender, laborer and market researcher, the chameleon-esque Fassbender quickly has become one of the most sought-after actors in both the indie and studio worlds. Trained at the Drama Centre in North London, he exudes a startling range that goes from intellectual (Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method) to brooding mutant (Magneto in X-Men: First Class) to romantic (Rochester in Jane Eyre) to a startling hybrid of tortured/sexy (Brandon in Shame). This summer, he stars opposite Noomi Rapace in Ridley Scott's Fox tentpole Prometheus (he also had a small role in Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, which opens Jan. 20).
"Michael is a Heisman Trophy triple threat -- a magnetic movie star, a supremely talented actor and a great guy," says Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman and CEO Tom Rothman. "He's the real deal; that's the bottom line. And in our world, the real deal doesn't come along very often."
His boldest move yet is Shame, director Steve McQueen's brutal and evocative portrayal of sex addiction that was slapped with an NC-17 rating in the U.S. for nudity and sex. In the Fox Searchlight indie film, Fassbender bares it all, figuratively and literally. While George Clooney, upon beating Fassbender for best actor in a drama at the Golden Globes, made a crack about Shame ("I would like to thank Michael Fassbender for taking over the frontal-nudity responsibility I had"), and his, um, generous endowments haven't gone unnoticed by the audience (Fassbender jokes that his father was "very proud" when watching the movie at Venice), his role is stunning for its ability to transcend the obvious nudity and graphic sex. "Driven by a brilliant, ferocious performance by Michael Fassbender, Shame is a real walk on the wild side, a scorching look at a case of sexual addiction that's as all-encompassing as a craving for drugs," wrote THR chief film critic Todd McCarthy.
Shame earned Fassbender his first Globe nomination; talk of an Oscar nom leaves him slightly fidgety: "It would just be a bonus, but of course I would take my mom down the red carpet."
The juggling act between such divergent roles as Jung and Brandon leaves those who have worked with Fassbender stunned. "Not many actors can transform themselves like that," says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which distributed Dangerous Method in the U.S. "As I said to Michael the other day, 'It's too bad you're such a good actor because you won't be anonymous on the streets of America anymore.' He winced. That happens to all great European actors at some point."
Fassbender says what attracted him to Shame was the chance to explore the desperate search for connection; playing a young Jung allowed him to morph into a historical character. "I was a bit worried that I'd perhaps bitten off more than I could chew," he says. "But I'm always interested in trying to investigate different personalities. I want to keep myself guessing and keep the fear element alive so that I don't get too comfortable."
Jeremy Thomas, a producer on Dangerous Method, says Fassbender -- director David Cronenberg's first choice to play Jung -- read the script over and over again, even during production, something Thomas had never seen an actor do. "It's one of his secret weapons," he says.
Fassbender says he has grown deft at using YouTube to study accents (his own is Irish) or to watch a grainy interview with an elderly Jung. And for Shame, he met with recovering sex addicts: "One man had the same intimacy issues that Brandon had, so it was very helpful to me, and I was very grateful that he opened up." There was no time to feel too self-conscious when shooting Shame, says Fassbender. It helped that McQueen kept the set intimate. "We moved very fast. We shot it in 25 days, so I kind of had to get over it and get on with it," he says.
"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.' "
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.
FESSBENDER'S FAVORITES: The actor inherited his love of 1970s cinema from his mother, Adele. Her favorite actor? The late John Cazale, who played Fredo in the first two Godfather movies and starred in a string of seminal films including Dog Day Afternoon and The Conversation before dying of cancer
at the age of 42.
- The Godfather (1972): Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
- Mean Streets (1973): Directed by Martin Scorsese
- The Conversation (1974): Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
- Dog Day Afternoon (1975): Directed by Sidney Lumet
- The Big Lebowski (1998): Directed by the Coen brothers
A DIRECTOR ON HIS ACTOR: Steven Soderbergh talks about working with Fassbender on Haywire, the actor's incredible energy, enthusiasm and favorite phrase: 'So where are we going now?'
When Steven Soderbergh told Relativity Media he wanted to cast Michael Fassbender in Haywire, Relativity, which financed the action pic, balked. That was more than two years ago, and the Irish-German actor still was relatively unknown in wider Hollywood circles. "I thought, 'You should just be hoping he says yes,' " recalls Soderbergh. As for himself, the director already felt he was late to the Fassbender party. "I'd seen him in Hunger and Inglourious Basterds and my reaction was, 'This guy's a movie star.' It was blatantly obvious to me," he says. Fassbender is only onscreen for about 10 minutes of Haywire -- which opens Jan. 20 -- but his performance is a highlight of the film. Soderbergh shot the scenes in Dublin and quickly learned three things: Fassbender is a consummate professional, a cinephile and a social butterfly. "He's a blast. We're out one night and it's 3:30 a.m., and we're in someone's kitchen and Michael is singing. I'm like, 'Dude, I gotta go,' " remembers Soderbergh. "The phrase Michael uses most often is, 'So where are we going now?' He's the Duracell movie star."