This movie season, Michael Fassbender seems to keep getting lectured on the ways of the world. By an unlikely teacher.
The German-born, Ireland-raised actor plays cruel plantation owner Epps in the period drama "12 Years a Slave," in which Brad Pitt, as a morally scrupulous carpenter, admonishes him that a more enlightened way of thinking is about to leave him in the dust.
And as the in-over-his-head lead character in Friday's release"The Counselor," Ridley Scott's drug-trafficking thriller based on Cormac McCarthy's first original screenplay, Fassbender is a lawyer set straight by Pitt's world-weary smuggler.
"Brad seems to be telling me like it is a lot lately," Fassbender said with a laugh. "I don't seem to listen."
All that screen time with one of the world's most famous people highlights the trust filmmakers have these days in the by-his-instincts Fassbender. Yet the pairing simultaneously throws into relief how the 36-year-old actor continues to live in a kind of A-list shadow.
Despite potential career-making turns as a coolly composed young Magneto in "X-Men: First Class" and a candid android in Scott's "Prometheus" the last few years, Fassbender hasn't exactly become a household name. Yet he still manages to land some of the juiciest roles in moviedom.
Steve McQueen has cast him in all three of his films, including IRA prison tale "Hunger" and sex-addiction drama"Shame," and Fassbender has regularly worked with directorial royalty like Quentin Tarantino and David Cronenberg. Fassbender often elicits critical praise—The Times' Kenneth Turan said he "mesmerize[d]" as Carl Jung in Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method" in 2011 — yet has never been nominated for an Oscar.
In "The Counselor," Fassbender plays as an unnamed, smooth-talking attorney. Deeply in love with his fiancée (Penélope Cruz), he decides to try to make an even better life for the couple than his upper-middle class profession allows and orchestrates a drug-smuggling deal. He's soon foiled by unexpected forces, and the walls begin to close in.
"To me this is a story of greed, a man who's living a good life but wants an even better one," Fassbender said. Though the movie has received some negative advance word-of-mouth and appears headed for the box-office cliff, it shows Fassbender in one of his signature acting poses: suave and swaggering with flashes of vulnerability, searingly intense but not prone to wild displays of emotion.
"There's an arrogance to the counselor I really wanted to tap into, someone who's really stupid but thinks he's smarter than he is," he said. "Which is not that different from Epps, who's really not intelligent by any stretch of the imagination."
If the roles, which Fassbender shot in succession over the last 18 months, provided the actor with a sort of pair of id companion pieces, film fans might find in the combination something more akin to a cinematic antidote. People who walked out of "12 Years" angry at just how brutally his character treats his slaves will see Fassbender get his comeuppance in "The Counselor," where his selfishness leads to a horribly painful fate.
Fassbender has a kind of turn-it-on intensity that's in stark contrast to the so-called method approach favored by a number of other dramatic actors (think Daniel Day-Lewis' living as Abraham Lincoln to play the 16th president in Steven Spielberg's 2012 film). He has developed a reputation for doing things like joking around with the crew, then snapping into the scene.
"Michael is blessed with a great crystal intuition. He'll say, 'I don't want to practice; I just want to do it,'" Scott said. "And five minutes later he's giving you a fantastic scene. It's like watching Federer or Nadal. You don't know how they do it. You just like watching it."
On the set of the sex-addiction drama "Shame," several costars, including Carey Mulligan, described a man who could have been mistaken for one of the crew before takes; in one scene he even took a quick tequila shot before transforming into a tortured man grimly exorcising sexual demons.
(Don't be fooled by the transformations, he said; those intense scenes can overwhelm him. In one particularly difficult "12 Years" moment, he recalled, he became so invested he briefly passed out. And in "Counselor," he found himself unexpectedly breaking down crying during a scene where a jefe is telling him what's about to befall him. "It just happened. I'm still not sure how," he said.)
Fassbender's style with interviewers has a similar switch-flipping quality. The actor spends much of the conversation in earnest analysis of his characters' motivations. But he bursts out in comedic song after saying he and McQueen may next collaborate on a musical (really) before quickly going back to discussing the sociology of the antebellum South and how a man's psyche might be affected by slave ownership.
After years of parts in European films, including Andrea Arnold's 2009 Cannes entry "Fish Tank,"Fassbender (raised by his German chef father and Irish mother) broke through in the U.S. that year with another Cannes film — Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds."
As a British film critic-turned-secret agent who infiltrates a Nazi hideout, the bilingual actor's German skills came in handy in a long underground scene. The movie had him playing opposite — who else? — Brad Pitt. Perhaps not wanting to take too bold a position on his better-known counterpart, Fassbender, when asked about their chemistry, offered little more than Pitt is "generous."
"Basterds" led to the "X-Men" and other studio roles. It also has yielded periodic tabloid interest. Fassbender, who lives in London, has gained some notoriety for an active night life as well as prolific romantic adventures — he's been linked to "X-Men" costar Zoe Kravitz and British Olympian Louise Hazel — and has said he's never had a relationship longer than two years.
But how much longer he can continue in this in-between place as a top actor but not a top star remains to be seen; in today's Hollywood, most actors tend after a while to either break all the way through or return to supporting parts or smaller productions. Fassbender professes no such concerns. "It's about making bold choices and bringing a freshness that's engaging," he said of his career path.
Just the same: He's trying to take a little more control. He has signed on for his first producing role, of a movie version of the video game "Assassin's Creed," which he is developing and may star in, though he said he hopes to soon get to the brass tacks of casting others.
That Brad Pitt relationship may come in handy yet.