Star of Hunger and Shame, Michael Fassbender tells Stephen Applebaum how he escaped the day job by playing trapped anti-heroes consumed by their burning passions
FOR an actor, success or failure can turn on a single performance. One day you could be toiling behind a bar struggling to make ends meet; the next, you could be the man or woman everyone wants to cast. Just ask Michael Fassbender.
When he landed his first TV job, in Spielberg’s epic Second World War mini-series, Band Of Brothers, he thought it was the breakthrough he had been waiting for since leaving London’s Drama Centre. Instead, Fassbender found himself out of work for a year, and – after his misplaced optimism led him to spend all his earnings – practically broke.
Roles in Sky One’s teen series Hex, François Ozon’s overheated Angel, and 300 gradually came his way. But it was playing IRA hero Bobby Sands, in Turner Prize-winner Steve McQueen’s hard-hitting directorial debut Hunger in 2008, that proved the eventual game changer. Fassbender was fearless and charismatic as Sands. His lively green eyes burned with conviction while his body withered alarmingly as the republican starved himself to death in the Maze prison’s notorious H-Block.
The film’s title spoke for the actor as well as for the story. Fassbender was hungry for roles that matched his talent, but also just for enough acting work to make jobs like pulling pints and loading vans a thing of the past. So far, he hadn’t had the luxury of being particularly choosy. “You want to be doing what you love doing,” he says, a few days before being named best actor at the Venice Film Festival for his role in McQueen’s disturbing sophomore film, Shame. “And also you’ve got to survive, financially.”
Where Band Of Brothers had been a false start, his appearance in Hunger did really make people sit up and take notice.
“I think timing and being in the right place at the right time is integral in this business,” he says philosophically. Had Hunger been delayed by a year, until the recession started to bite, he thinks it would never have been made, while the chances of an unknown jobbing actor like himself being given a leading role in anything would have been slim.
Realising the gift he had been handed by McQueen, he says: “I knew I had [the opportunity] to do something. That I had a chance. Somebody had left the door open, and I managed to get my foot in it, and I said, ‘Okay, I’m in the room now. I’m not leaving.’”
Nor did he. When we meet, the likeable 34-year-old is just coming down from working flat-out for 20 months, and looking forward to taking time off from acting to collaborate with writers on developing several new screenplays. Since Hunger, he has made films with the likes of Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank), Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), Kevin Macdonald (Centurion), Steven Soderbergh (Haywire), Ridley Scott (Prometheus) and David Cronenberg (another of last year’s Venice highlights, the Jung-Freud face-off A Dangerous Method).
Immediately before reuniting with McQueen in New York to shoot Shame, he notched up a turn as the young Magneto in X-Men: First Class. The movie seemed like an odd choice for an actor whose best work has been grounded in realism. However, Fassbender saw it as another defining moment.
“I wanted to do a studio film and it was getting to the point where they were being offered to me. So I could either go, ‘You know, I want to stay in independent films, I don’t want to do a studio film,’ or ‘Okay, I want to do a studio film.’ So then I had to find the right one.” Magneto offered some of the complexity he looks for in his characters, he says, while the X-Men mythos “is always interesting because it deals with outcasts, people who feel they don’t belong or haven’t been accepted into society”.
He doesn’t say it, but perhaps this had particular resonance for him as someone who was born in Heidelberg, Germany, to a German father, Josef, and Irish mother, Adele, and then raised in Killarney, Co Kerry, in a household where his parents spoke German and English. He was too “embarrassed” to use his former language because he wanted to fit in to his new surroundings. Even now, he says, “I can watch a film in German and I can understand most of it. But my spoken German’s pretty rusty.”
The variety of Fassbender’s movies reflects his desire “to keep doing different things, and things that scare me and challenge me, and that keep myself and everyone else guessing”. He enjoys ambiguity, and generally avoids characters that are morally black and white. “I also don’t like scripts that spoon feed the audience,” he says. “I like an audience to do some work as well.”
It is easy to see why he and McQueen make a perfect match. The director’s work is nothing if not confronting, tackling subjects that few other filmmakers would go near, in a manner that asks questions rather than offer answers.
“What we always say is when you’re sitting in the cinema and you’re looking at the screen, hopefully it’s like a mirror so you can see yourselves in the situation and in the characters. And you’ve got to go places to do that sort of thing, otherwise Steve wouldn’t bother.
“He wants to do challenging things. And he wants to make people think and talk and question what we’re all doing here, what we’re doing to each other, and how we can, hopefully, learn from each other and move forward.” This last point is crucial. No matter how dark things get in the work that he does, Fassbender says, “it’s very important to have hope. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
And Shame is both dark and harrowing. Fassbender’s character, Brandon, is a man imprisoned, not by walls this time, but by his addiction to sex. A slave to his libido, he masturbates at work, has anonymous one-night stands, uses prostitutes, and consumes pornography – anything to avoid intimacy.
When his troubled sister (a ferocious Carey Mulligan) arrives in his apartment unannounced, the fragile sense of order holding his life together begins to fall apart, and he is forced to confront his demons. Being Brandon was “tougher” than being Sands, Fassbender claims. For Hunger, he’d had to lose a lot of weight, which took discipline. Being inside Brandon’s head, however, was “mentally pretty exhausting”. Making Shame was “just very intense”, says the actor, who, though you wouldn’t think it watching the film, admits that he found being nude in a number of scenes “uncomfortable and embarrassing”.
The character’s problems are his own, but he is dealing with them in a world of almost infinite choice – the one many of us live in nowadays – where, as McQueen has said, there is “access to excess”. For someone like Brandon, this presents huge challenges. Considering the easy availability of pornography today, Fassbender says: “When I was 14, you had to reach up to the top shelf… and then there’s somebody behind the counter looking at you. So that sort of shame or embarrassment was present at the point of purchase. Now you just go on the internet and it’s like, bop, bop,” he laughs, fingering an imaginary keyboard, “and there’s two thousand million choices.”
You could say Fassbender himself is spoilt for choice. He can more or less pick and choose the jobs he does now, thanks in no small part to McQueen. They will reunite for the film 12 Years A Slave, though first Fassbender has the awards season to get through. Already nominated for a Golden Globe, he may yet pick up an Oscar nomination on 24 January.
Asked if he regrets success not coming sooner, Fassbender declares that the timing’s been just right. “I think it’s a good thing the way it happened to me because I learned lessons along the way, like the importance of saving,” he smiles. “I also think maybe a lot of things that come along with the business might have seduced me more when I was younger and I might have been distracted more. Now I think I’m in a better headspace to deal with that.” «
• Shame is in cinemas from Friday. Haywire follows on 18 January, A Dangerous Method, on 10 February, and Prometheus on 1 June