Fassbender on Fire

Brian Bowen Smith

One of the most gifted actors today, the star of "Shame," "A Dangerous Method" and the upcoming "Prometheus" has the industry in awe. Says one studio chief: "In our world, the real deal doesn't come along very often."

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.

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"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).

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"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--produced by See Saw Films and Alliance--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."

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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."

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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.


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