Total Film has woken Michael Fassbender up. When he strides into the London hotel suite where we’re waiting for him he admits jovially that he just “dropped off next door”.
No surprise. The 34-year-old Irishman has been busy jetting around the globe (“Toronto, New York, then back here, then New York again and then Paris…” he reels off when we ask why he’s pooped) promoting two awards botherers; stark (in every way) sex addict treatise Shame from Steve McQueen, and David Cronenberg’s psycho-sexual period drama A Dangerous Method .
That’s in-between festival appearances, promotion for Steven Soderbergh’s kickass actioner Haywire , finishing filming Alien equal Prometheus and prepping for a slew of future projects.
A Proper Man
It’s fair to say that the world has woken up to Fassbender. He won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for Shame , which we have a feeling won’t be the last gong of his career.
There’s talk of him taking over the 007 mantle and being pursued by producers to be the new RoboCop . Gossip and fan websites drool over him (often in alarmingly graphic detail) and heady adjectives such as virile, magnetic and charismatic are regularly ascribed to his performances.
Fassbender is, in an industry of pretty-boys, a proper man. And an actor who has built a powerful reputation on fearless, intense and corporeal roles; scary skinny as IRA prisoner Bobby Sands in Hunger , live-wire buff in 300 , handsome cool in Inglorious Basterds and stealing the show as a potent Magneto in X-Men: First Class .
The Oddities Of Acting
He could be forgiven for a certain amount of swagger. But though he has a cheeky twinkle in his eye in person, Fassbender is also engaging, open, thoughtful and quick to laugh – passionate about his job but aware of its oddities.
While he found Shame a fascinating subject matter, he’s aware that people will be curious about his getting naked and the uncompromising sex scenes (“You’re bollock-naked, it’s awkward,” he admits).
He loved Cronenberg’s “intelligent introspection” but understands he’ll be asked about what it is like to work with Keira Knightley. Is honest about his ambitions to make a blockbuster to expand his audience reach, yet hasn’t moved to Hollywood and isn’t too starry to get excited about his dinner (“Ooh, what are we having?” he asks enthusiastically when informed it’s lunchtime by a publicist).
Staying Ahead Of The Pack
Dressed casually in a black biker jacket and jeans with cropped hair and coppery stubble, Fassbender is tall, tightly sprung and looks like he could take care of himself.
But he’s also quietly spoken and articulate, carefully considering each question before answering in the lilting accent that doesn’t get many outings among the RP and American roles. And increasingly rare in Hollywood, he’s got a sense of humour and self-awareness.
Even though everything looks rosy right now, as a pragmatic actor who learnt all the cocktail recipes he might need if he had to fall back on bartending, he’s keen to continue learning to stay ahead of the pack. “You just try and be as sponge-like as possible and try and soak up as much information as you can…”
A Hunger For More
Shame reunites you with the team from Hunger – what was it like going back to that group after just completing a massive, multi-cast franchise like X-Men: First Class ?
“On X-Men we ran over schedule so it cut into my preparation time. I just had to get busy quick in the five weeks we had to film it, which is quite a condensed time frame. But it was great because it was just like picking up from where we left off at Hunger , with Steve [ McQueen ] and Sean [ Bobbitt, cinematographer ] behind the camera.
“We just got on with it. The end of Hunger was a continuation into this. It was always a special experience working with Steve and that team.”
Did the team, and feeling safe with them, help you take on such a controversial project?
“I don’t think I would have taken it on with just anyone. It felt like it didn’t matter what we were trying to do, I knew that Steve would be asking serious questions and it would be an interesting project.
“Things changed for me after Hunger and to have the opportunity at that time to do something like that with somebody like him – it felt like we’d sort of formed a union then. So whatever [ this project ] was, I was going to be involved with him if he wanted to have me.
“Obviously when he told me what the subject was about my imagination started to do its thing, so I was prepared for compromising positions and nudity and all that. Then when I got the script I was really impressed by how beautifully written it was.”
A Raw Performance
What was it like working with Carey Mulligan?
“She was very easy to work with because she was brave, throwing herself into the mix. When you’re working with Steve it can be quite a frightening experience but also very exciting and educational because there are no safety rails and nowhere to hide.
“He’s got a great bullshit detector, so he just wants you to try and surprise each other and look after each other. You need somebody who’s got the chops to pull you up, bounce off you, test you, challenge you… and she’s got that, that’s for sure.”
This is very raw performance for you. You’re naked, both physically and emotionally. Was that hard? Can you watch yourself doing those things?
“I knew that when we were going there that it was pretty much keeping it as close to me as possible, and trying to be as honest as possible. I didn’t want to distance [ my character ] Brandon from me and use that as a cop out.
“I wanted to have him as an everyday guy that you’d meet and know on the street. The thing is… the nudity was awkward. I’ve only seen it once in Venice and I’ve been reluctant to watch it since. Watching it brought it home. I knew everything I did but seeing it pieced together in front of me…”
It’s not one to watch with your mum, is it?
“No! [ Laughs ] And she was going to be in Venice at one point. My dad was going to see it but luckily that didn’t pan out.
“But y’know, I trust Steve implicitly and I knew it was an important story to tell, so that gets rid of all the worries that you have about the nudity.
“You just need to serve the story as best as possible and really commit, because there’s nothing worse than if you’re going into it with trepidation or doubt.”
There’s a lot of talk about possible Oscars. Do you think that the Academy would be brave enough to give an award to something this challenging?
“That’s not really my concern. I’d be lying to say that it wouldn’t be nice to get an Oscar. I would be flattered and honoured. But for me to sit down and start thinking about it… there’s no benefit to that, there’s not a lot I can do with that information.
“Let’s just see what happens. For me, what’s really more encouraging and flattering and makes me feel, ‘Wow, thank God!’ is to see the response of the public and journalists.
“It’s encouraging because it’s the argument I always have about how there are intelligent audiences out there, and that audiences are willing to be challenged and don’t shy away from things that are uncomfortable at times to watch.
“When I hear people say, “I don’t know if an audience is ready to accept that or see that”, it’s like, how the fuck do you know? That’s what is really nice about it. The rest, the awards… let’s see what happens. Everything after that is a bonus.”
The Sex Guy
There’s also awards talk for A Dangerous Method , another film dealing with sexual impulses. Are you worried you’ll be pigeon-holed as ‘the sex guy’?
“[ Laughs ] No, because they’re two different films. I suppose there was a sexual content to Connor in Fish Tank too, but Hunger is a totally different deal and so is X-Men . Perhaps in this industry it might be easier to box people off so they can categorise you, it’s more comfortable that way or easier to sell.
“But my approach is pretty simple – I look for a good story and then I look for a good captain to steer through it.”
You had a good captain with Cronenberg on A Dangerous Method …
“It was amazing, he’s like an engineer or a scientist – he works in components and then puts them all together. He’s a director that is interested in scratching the surface.
“We live is this civilised society where we’re supposed to behave in certain ways and there’s an etiquette at play. What happens when you peel back the covers and look underneath and how do we actually deal with each other in practical terms as opposed to theoretically?
“So when there’s a curiosity in a director like that, you know it’s going to be interesting, that the characters are going to be more complex and it’s going to be a really intelligent introspection.”
And from the psychological to Soderbergh’s Haywire – where your role is all physicality. Most of your screen time involves you and Gina Carano brutally kicking the shit out of each other in a hotel room…
“I had a lot of fun doing that, we did all of that ourselves which actors get very proud about! I enjoy doing physical stuff. Fight scenes are fun but someone like Gina can literally do it for real. I’m good at pretending!”
There must have been some real pain involved even with just pretending. You’re smashing vases in faces, falling on coffee tables, denting walls….
“One thing they told me was, “When the vase comes up, turn your head so it smashes the thing, don’t look at the vase”. Of course in the first take I was like, “Oh shit!” Bang! [ Mimes being whacked in the head ] Everything went bright for a few seconds and, of course, that’s the take they used.
“We filmed that whole fight over two days and at the end of the second day I just remember I came back to the hotel and I puked up [ laughs ]. It’s amazing when your body’s running on adrenaline and then you reach the finish line it just goes, fuck it!
“It was tiring and really full on but it was with 87eleven [ stunt crew ]. I worked with them before on 300 so I knew I was in really good hands.”
Your character is an Mi5 spy and nifty in a fight – seems like a good calling card for playing Bond…
“I think Daniel [ Craig ] is doing a great job and I don’t think too far into the future. It’s one step at a time right now. Of course, every guy knows the feeling of walking round the house singing the song to himself, walking around corners with an imaginary gun. Let’s see what happens.”
You mentioned 300 , one of your first roles. Was that a good time – all the lads together, grunting and throwing spears around…
“It was a blast. it was my first big Hollywood film so it had all the trimmings that go along with that, including the trailer. I thought to myself, “Why did I bother getting a flat? I could have just lived in this!”
“We trained 10 weeks before we got in front of a camera – I was in the best shape I’ve ever been in. Zack Snyder is a very inspirational character on set and Gerry [ Butler ] was very supportive. We had scenes together and he’d be like, “Nice work, you’ll do well”.
“Things that are nice to hear when you’re lower down on the rung.”
But you’re not lower down on the rung now…
“Now I’m in a very privileged position and there’s no doubt about it. And it’s just nice when you know people are in that position, leading the cast, and they are generous like that.”
Do you do that now when you work with less experienced people?
“I try to. Most definitely there’s a responsibility to hand down the knowledge you have. Either you’re the kind of person that likes to keep secret and is afraid of the other people you’re working with, or you want to see talent at its best.
“It’s even better if you’re in the room with them because they’ll also improve you. Whatever level they’re playing at you’ll try and meet it, so it’s an important thing to always nurture the next group going through.”
What’s the best advice to give in this game?
“I think the most important advice, which I probably learnt from myself, is not to take anything for granted and not to presume that because today is going a certain way tomorrow will be the same.
“That’s something I learnt from the times that I wasn’t in the position to be allowed to work. When you really feel like this is your job, but you have to do something else because you’re unemployed in the one you really want to do.
“It makes you appreciate things and realise how precious it is.”
At 18 you put on a production of Reservoir Dogs so you must have appreciated working with Tarantino on Inglorious Basterds ?
“Without a doubt. I also had to make sure I wouldn’t be the weak link in a Tarantino film! When I went to audition for him he does all the other parts himself so that’s already a bit of a trip!”
Inglorious Basterds features one of cinema’s coolest bar scenes, as does X-Men: First Class . What made you go for X-Men at a point where you were doing well away from franchise movies?
“It got to the point where I was getting offered studio pictures and the choice is to go, “No, I don’t want to do that” or, “OK, I’ll give it a shot”.
“There were various reasons for going for it. I’m a fan of disappearing in an action-adventure film for an hour-and-a-half. Sometimes I want to escape into a fantasy world and other times I want to watch more challenging things that have more of a pulse to them.
“But then X-Men had qualities of that as well, this whole idea of being ostracised and people trying to fit in and finding acceptance, they were all interesting things. And to do a studio film – it introduces you to such a larger circle of audience and so it makes it easier for me to develop things by myself and have more control over my career.
“That was something that I wanted. You take risks and try them out and you never know what will come of it but I was proud of that.”
Are there going to be more X-Men films?
“If they make enough money usually they make a sequel. They usually give you the first one and then two options. I’ve got some interesting ideas for Magneto, as does James [ McAvoy ] for Professor X.
“I know we really enjoyed working with each other and it was be great if we could get that original team back. James and I were getting sort of giddy with the prospect of the next one.
“I want to see how Professor X becomes Professor X because he’s starting his journey at the end of this film but I’ve made my transition into Magneto.”
You’ve got the hat…
“I’ve got the hat and I’m ready for action. I’ve got the purple helmet...”
Quite... so, let’s talk Jane Eyre and taking on another character that fans feel very strongly about. Did you feel intimidated by Mr Rochester?
“For sure, there’s a fear element involved. there’s always a good healthy spoonful of fear that keeps you on your toes, but I do like the risk.
“My mum and sister are big fans of both Brontë sisters and I wanted to see what they would think of my portrayal of Rochester because they’re very honest. and then Mia [ Wasikowska ], I just love her, she’s amazing.”
She said that you kept arousing your horse every time you got on it...
“[ Laughs ] Yeah, it was so strange. I think he was called Prince. We had a pretty interesting bond! Every time I got on him some strange stuff was happening downstairs.
“So we’d have to get the horse handler – that doesn’t mean what you think it means – and he would get on Prince and take him for a trot down the road and, err, it would go back to its normal residency!”
Well you must have been doing something right as Mr Rochester if the horse fancied you!
“Rochester and his horse, they spend a lot of time together I suppose!”
Sworn To Secrecy
Looking forward – you’ve just finished filming Prometheus . Spill the details…
“Damon [ Lindelof ] has told the press that I’m playing a humanoid, so I feel pretty safe in saying that – but that’s about it.
“I can say that it was quite something working with Ridley Scott. He’s an amazing man – so unpretentious, accessible and available to the actors and anybody who has got an idea from all departments.
“And the sets… I don’t think I’ll ever see sets like that again. Especially with greenscreen and CGI – a lot is usually put in later but this was a physical set, it was there to be touched and experienced.”
Have you signed a contract saying you can’t tell us anything?
“Yeah. [ Squints out of the window ] I know there’s a sniper in that window over there and there’s a lip reader beside the sniper. He’s just got to tap the sniper on the shoulder and say “Do it” if I tell!
“It’s just easier not to saying anything because I don’t want to ruin it for the fans. Damon has written a very intelligent script, fresh yet respectful of the lineage of this story – it’s a really thoughtful, well-constructed script.
“The plot is so strong that the action is there to complement as opposed to the other way around.”
And it’s in 3D.
“Yep, which means I have to act totally different. No, I’m kidding. [ Imitates slow motion ] Coming at youuu…”
The Future Of Law Enforcement
Speaking of revitalising classics, there’s lots of talk about you and the RoboCop reboot...
“Well, that’s the first I’ve heard of it, I don’t know anything about it. I’m always open to ideas so it’s down to the script and the director… and it does feature a helmet. I could just model different helmets from now on.”
You’re also planning to work with Steve McQueen again on Twelve Years A Slave ?
“You know, all these things are in the pipeline so it’s probably best not to discuss them. I mean I was doing Wuthering Heights on IMDb for years and it was way out of frame!”
Effects Of Fame
Fame is a part of your life now. Can you still walk down the street?
“Absolutely. Most places it’s rare that people come up to me. Where I live in Hackney nothing’s changed, I stroll around no problem.
“I guess it’s because I’m there everyday, it’s no big deal. Most of the time people are really encouraging and pleasant and not intrusive.”
Do you worry about that changing?
“Yes, of course I do because I feel that what I get up to in my life shouldn’t bleed into my work. It’s easy for an audience member to invest in the characters I’m trying to portray if they don’t know that much about me.
“If they’re aware that Michael Fassbender’s doing this or seeing this person, it’s a distraction for them… and for me.”
The Next Move
Is there anything that you haven’t done yet that you think you’d really love to do?
“I’ve always loved the Coen brothers so I’d like to work with them. And I’d like to do a musical, at the right time with the right material. Actually I do have an idea so maybe I’ll develop it myself!”
You’ve got a production company now, is that a way to have more control over your career?
“I think it’s the next step really, it’ll be the next challenge and I do think that my job has a shelf life.
“Maybe I’d like to stop doing this at some point and look at developing things or working as a director if I feel like I’m equipped enough and I have an interesting enough story to tell.
“If I can continue to keep my options open, why not try it?”
This feature originally appeared in Total Film magazine, click here to subscribe .