Michael Fassbender: I move about
He's too sexy by far, with piercing blue eyes and a disarming smile. But aside from hunkish appeal, Michael Fassbender also happens to be one of the outstanding actors of our time. His performance in 12 Years a Slave is alternately chilling and mesmerizing, and justly earned him his first Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. Of course, many industry observers believe that he should have been nominated for his masterful work in Shame, the gritty sexual drama that earned him a BAFTA award nomination for best actor in 2011. That film launched his career as a leading man and he's never looked back since.
Today the Irish-German heartthrob is happy to be calling his own shots and will soon be seen in the studio blockbuster, X-Men: Days of Future Past, the latest instalment in the highly successful film franchise in which he reprises his role as Magneto. It's all part of his chosen life as the wandering actor.
"I don't seem to be spending much time in any one place these days," Fassbender says. "But I find that strangely freeing. I just need to carry a few books, a motorcycle helmet, and I'm ready to go."
Shot in Montreal last Summer, the new X-Men film gave the 36-year-old Fassbender the chance to hang out with his good friend James McAvoy and also take out to the race track a few times. Fassbender is an avid motorcyclist and enjoys testing his limits whether it's surfing or karting. "I like to take risks," he smiles. "I get anxious if I'm not pushing myself out of my complacency."
His daredevil approach to life is no doubt just as alluring to women as his appearance, and he created quite a stir at the Toronto Film Festival last September when he partied his way across town and was seen dancing up a storm with no less than five fellow female revellers.
Fassbender's irreverent side is also matched by an underlying deep sensitivity, and he admits that he can cry easily when things "touch his heart."
That kind of emotional transparency is what draws both audiences and directors to him. Steve McQueen, who directed Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave, Shame, and Hunger, extols his virtues: "He's a humble person from a great family. He's so far removed from the characters he plays. In terms of acting, the comparison I would make is to (Marlon) Brando. There's a femininity to him and a gentleness and a masculinity that is not offensive or removed. He can draw people in to his characters."
Born in Germany, raised in Ireland, Fassbender occasionally manages to find time to drop off his travel bag at his flat in East London where he rides around town on his motorcycle. He is currently "single" although one suspects is rarely alone!
Fassbender is currently working on a big screen adaptation of Assassin's Creed based on the Ubisoft video game in which he will star as well as produce.
Q: Michael, you've worked in both serious drama as well as in big sci-fi studio films like your X-Men film over the last several years. Do you like that kind of balance?
FASSBENDER: I don't necessarily have a plan when it comes to that although when I did the first X-Men it was the kind of project that helped me get other projects financed. Doing X-Men: First Class brought me to the attention of a very large public just as Prometheus did, but I normally look for interesting stories with talented directors.
I loved the idea of doing the new X-Men [Days of Future Past] and seeing how that story evolves and also getting to hang out with James [McAvoy]. Sometimes it's just the atmosphere and where you're going to be shooting the film that influences your decision.
Q: What was your experience working with director Bryan Singer on Days of Future Past?
FASSBENDER: We had a great time. We did our fair share of drinking and we were also able to get out on the town and take in some of the city. Together with James [McAvoy], we went to the Formula One race in Montreal and had a lot of fun meeting some of the drivers and hanging out in the pit lane. I love racing.
Q: In 12 Years a Slave, you chose to be part of a film where you weren't the main character and you play a very despicable slave-owner?
FASSBENDER: Yes, but the role was very powerful and I would always accept any opportunity to work with Steve McQueen again. Steve is like a brother to me. He's a brilliant director and he gave me my shot at working at this level and being able to work the way every actor dreams of. He was the one who was willing to take a chance on me by offering me the lead role in Hunger when I was a total unknown.
But generally my choices usually have very little to do with being the star or not. I like being able to do very intense dramas as well as entertaining films. They draw out different sides of your personality and allow you to experience different approaches to making films. It's all very interesting to me.
Q: You also got to know Brad Pitt, whose company helped produce the film, during the shooting of 12 Years a Slave?
FASSBENDER: He's a true gentleman and a very good man who wants to be part of good films. Without his [financial] support and determination 12 Years a Slave would never have seen the light of day.
Q: You seem very fit. Do you work out a lot?
FASSBENDER: I try to do sports as often as I can. I love boxing and skipping rope. Those are actually incredibly good workouts on their own and it keeps your body toned. I also do a lot of push-ups and sit-ups which are essential whenever I have to take of my shirt for a role! (Laughs)
Q: Are you conscious of your sex symbol status and your appeal to women?
FASSBENDER: I'm very cynically aware of that and it's not something that I pay any amount of time thinking about. As a teenager I suffered from bad acne and bad hair and I was anything but a star with girls. It's all rather strange to me that women are suddenly paying attention to me now that I'm successful whereas four, five years ago I could be sitting at a bar and women would ignore me or turn around after I start talking to them. Now I seem to be able to make a lot of female friends very easily. That can make you suspicious of one's sudden appeal. (Laughs sarcastically)
Q: When it comes to women, what do you find most attractive?
FASSBENDER: In terms of personality, I like women who are independent and self-assured and have a good sense of humour. From a physical perspective, I love everything about women. The neck, the shoulders, the wrists.I suppose I could go on.
Q: You've famously been naked in your films. Do you have any qualms when it comes to love scenes or violent scenes?
FASSBENDER: There are certain things that I would rather not do but I never ask those kinds of questions when I take on a role. I'm ready to do what's required of me by the director. That's my job. If I'm playing a sex addict, it's normal that you're going to be naked at some point in that kind of a film. Or if I'm playing in a film like A Dangerous Method where you're dealing with obsessive or deeply disturbed personalities there is no reason why I shouldn't be doing a scene that involves sadomasochistic behaviour [where he played psychoanalyst Carl Jung who spanks Keira Knightley's character Sabina Spielrein].
Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to sexual pleasure and different directors will want to treat that subject differently and so I think you should be able to show every kind of behaviour. Just don't ask me to tell you my personal fantasies, I keep those for myself! (Laughs)
Q: What's the most difficult scene you've ever had to play in a film?
FASSBENDER: There have been a few but it's hard to compare them. One of the most difficult came in 12 Years a Slave where the rape scene was fairly disturbing for me. The whipping scene [where he beats the female slave Patsey played by Lupita Nyong'o] is also very hard to watch when you see the film. The only way to really get you through those intense moments is to have the support of your fellow actors and the director. After Lupita and I finished the rape scene, we hugged each other and had a drink afterwards as a way of calming down and getting it out of our systems.
Q: Are those moments part of what makes acting interesting for you?
FASSBENDER: In terms of the collaboration and creative partnership, yes. There's such a strong connection you form with the people you work with over the course of some months on a film set. It's a very unique situation to be able to get to know the actors or crew members during that time. It's a beautiful feeling and it can be sad when it's over. But you get accustomed to that as an actor. I've rarely been home the last few years. That's my life as an actor but I don't regret any of it.
Q: You've admitted to loving speed and risk-taking. Is that why you love motorbikes?
FASSBENDER: I like the feeling that comes with speed and the sense of risk involved. I've been able to go out on some race tracks and try to perfect the skills you need to drive at the limit which is an art in itself. Motorcycles are different. You're exposed to the elements more and there's this sense of freedom that you have from getting on [the motorbike] and just taking off and travelling.
I like to be able to take breaks and get to do that. Also I've been so focused on my work that I haven't had as much time as I would like to do that.
Q: Your father is German and you were born in Heidelberg before moving to Ireland at age 2. How closely do you relate to your German side?
FASSBENDER: I want to keep my ties to Germany. I still have a few aunts and uncles and cousins whom I visit fairly regularly near Hildesheim. I visited my grandparents in Germany while they were alive and that helped me stay in touch with my German roots. My parents did their best to teach me German while I was growing up in Ireland but it's hard to stay fluent in a language if you're not speaking it on an everyday basis. Still I find it embarrassing that I'm not more fluent and although I can speak it it's nowhere near as good as it should be. I'm able to understand the language when I hear it in a conversation or if I'm watching a German film but I want to be able to speak more easily and comfortably.
Q: Do you have any favourite things when it comes to Germany?
FASSBENDER: I love schnitzel with sauerkraut and the German sense of humour. It's different from the Irish or American sense of humour, but it's surprisingly good. I also appreciate that Germans seem to have a relaxed attitude towards sex. (Laughs)