Michael Fassbender finds his sweet spot in Hollywood
He’s too dashing by far, with piercing blue eyes and a disarming smile. But aside from his looks, Michael Fassbender also happens to be one of the outstanding actors of our time. His performance in 12 Years a Slave is equally chilling and mesmerising, 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 for best actor in 2011. That film launched his career as a leading man and he’s not looked back since.
Today the Irish-German star 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 hit 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 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 into his characters.”
Born in Germany and 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 says he’s single, although one suspects he is rarely alone.
Fassbender is currently working on a big screen adaptation of the Ubisoft video game Assassin’s Creed, in which he will star as well as produce.
Michael, you’ve worked in both serious dramas as well as in big sci-fi blockbusters like the X-Men films. Do you like that kind of balance?
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 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.
What was your experience working with director Bryan Singer on Days of Future Past?
We had a great time. We did our fair share of partying and we were also able to get out on the town and take in some of the city. Together with James, 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.
In 12 Years a Slave you play a despicable slave owner. Were you sure you wanted this role even though it’s not the lead?
Yes. 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.
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.
You also got to know Brad Pitt, whose company helped produce the film, during the shooting of 12 Years a Slave. What is he like?
He’s a true gentleman and a very good man who wants to be part of good films. Without his support and determination, 12 Years a Slave would never have seen the light of day.
You must have to keep fit for most of your roles. Do you work out a lot?
I try to do sports as often as I can. I love boxing and skipping. Those are actually incredibly good workouts on their own and keep 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!
Are you conscious of your appeal to women?
I’m very cynically aware of that and it’s not something that I spend 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 that women are suddenly paying attention to me now that I’m successful, whereas four or five years ago I could be sitting at a bar and women would ignore me or turn away after I started 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].
When it comes to women, what do you find most attractive?
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.
You’ve famously been naked in your films. Do you have any qualms when it comes to love scenes or violent scenes?
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 I’m 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 phantasies, I keep those for myself! [Laughs].
What’s the most difficult scene you’ve ever had to act in a film?
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.
Are those moments part of what makes acting interesting?
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 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 in the past few years. That’s my life as an actor, but I don’t regret any of it.
You’re known as a bit of an adrenaline junkie who loves speed and risk-taking. Is that why you love motorbikes?
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, but I’ve been so focused on my work that I haven’t had as much free time as I would have liked.
Your father is German and you were born in Heidelberg, Germany, before moving to Ireland at the age of two. How closely do you relate to your German side?
I want to keep my ties to Germany. I still have a few aunts and uncles and cousins who 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.
What are your favourite German things?
I really love eating schnitzel with sauerkraut and I’m a big fan of 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].