The Wild Irish Boy

7 minute read
Jessica Winter

Michael Fassbender has a look. It’s a cross between a stare, a glare and a laser attack. The muscles in his finely angled face tense, and his blue-green eyes all but pulsate in their sockets. In his breakthrough film, Hunger (2008), Fassbender, playing the IRA martyr Bobby Sands, casts that look on a well-meaning priest, vaporizing any pleas against the hunger strike that will kill him. You see the look in Inglourious Basterds (2009), just before Fassbender’s English spy tongue-lashes a Nazi lout, and in this year’s Jane Eyre, when his Rochester matches wits with the equally steely heroine. The look is the standout special effect in this summer’s X-Men: First Class, which cast Fassbender as the vengeful mutant Magneto, and it’s the default expression of Brandon, the tormented sex addict of December’s Shame, for which Fassbender is being touted for an Oscar nomination.

For his growing constituency — art-house filmgoers, blockbuster directors, sentient heterosexual females — the tension and intrigue Fassbender can generate with one look partly explain why the 34-year-old Irishman is one of the most thrilling actors of his generation. His storm-cloud charisma, readiness for extreme physical transformation and melodic Irish lilt position him as an heir to Daniel Day-Lewis.

But when one meets Michael Fassbender, there’s no look. In the flesh, he seems younger and springier than the gravely poised figure he cuts in movies, and his wide, disarming grin evokes an ecstatic wolf puppy. “He’s very playful and very funny,” says David Cronenberg, director of another Oscar-season hopeful, A Dangerous Method, in which Fassbender plays the pioneering psychiatrist Carl Jung. “He’s a total delight. He’s kind of a wild Irish boy.”

The wild Irish boy was born in Heidelberg in 1977 to a German father and a Northern Irish mother. When he was a toddler, the family — including his older sister Catherine — moved to the village of Killarney, where his parents ran a restaurant and Michael was an altar boy. “I remember hearing that the spirit was always next to you, so I would always make room in my bed for the spirit,” he says with a laugh. “I’d make room for the teddy bears, Jesus and me. And then I’d wake up in the morning, and I’d squashed ’em all.” Though the Fassbenders were somewhat pro forma Catholics (“I think we just went to church on Sunday because everyone else was doing it”), altar-boy duties awakened Michael’s interest in stagecraft. “The suspense of reality — the idea that wine turns into blood and bread turns into flesh — was a very visceral thing to deal with, and the ritual and theater of it,” he says. “I suppose it was my first experience of being onstage.”

Growing up, Fassbender idolized the late actor John Cazale (mention the scene in Godfather II when Cazale bewails the Corleone line of succession while flailing around in a recliner, and Fassbender all but leaps into the air with excitement) and dabbled in local theater. At 18, he produced, directed and played Mr. Pink in a theater version of Quentin Tarantino’s film Reservoir Dogs, as he told Tarantino when he auditioned for Inglourious Basterds. “I said, ‘Look, man, it was for charity,’ and he said” — here Fassbender arches his brows and widens his eyes, speeds up his cadence and talks out of his adenoids — “‘Hey, that’s cool, man, that’s cool, as long as people aren’t making money off my shit.'” It’s an uncanny Tarantino impression.

After studying acting in Cork and London and nearly a decade of journeyman TV work, Fassbender auditioned for the debut feature of the acclaimed British visual artist Steve McQueen. “Steve changed my life with Hunger,” says Fassbender, who carved some 33 lb. (15 kg) from his already wiry frame to play Sands.

“When Michael came in, I thought he was cocky,” says McQueen, who also directed Shame. “It was a strange mixture of bravado and ‘I can’t be bothered.’ It was my first time directing, and I didn’t understand that actors have to deal with a lot of rejection. At that point in Michael’s path, what if that door gets slammed in your face again?” They met twice more, “and he just shone through,” McQueen says. “After I told him he had the part, I jumped on the back of his motorcycle and we went off for a drink. It was kind of romantic.”

Many would use stronger language to describe a ride on the back of Fassbender’s motorcycle. Thus he was ideally cast as English literature’s ultimate romantic hero in Jane Eyre, even if his method was hardly Method. “There’s a scene where Rochester and Jane are face to face, very close, staring intensely, but really we’re just desperately trying not to burst out laughing,” says his co-star Mia Wasikowska. “He plays all these brooding, dark characters, but the real Michael is so light and goofy. He’s a good mimic because he watches people closely and finds them inside of him, and he’s not judgmental.”

A mix of compassion and detachment is key to the deeply compromised characters Fassbender plays in A Dangerous Method (a therapist having an affair with his troubled patient) and Shame (a perpetual-motion sex machine). To prepare for Method, Fassbender read stacks of Jung and consulted with his sister Catherine, a psychologist who studies ADHD in children; for Shame, he met with real-life sex addicts. “Brandon is self-loathing, and it creates a pattern,” he says. “You go out, you have a few drinks, you have this uncontrollable urge to be with somebody, to get that release, and then there’s this feeling of shame, that you’re not in control of yourself. To push away the feeling of shame, you go out and do it again. You double the shame and triple the shame.”

Fassbender is in every scene of Shame, which earned an NC-17 rating for nudity and explicit sex scenes. He first saw the film at its Venice world premiere, with his father sitting behind him. “My mum was supposed to be there too, but her back played up at the last minute, thank God,” he says. “Obviously, I knew what we’d filmed, and it was all sort of real, and there to be seen. But actually watching it, I was a little bit ‘Holy shit.’ Then the lights came on straightaway as the credits were still rolling, and I was like” — he ducks on the couch, one leg in the air like a shield, as a strangled hysteria creeps into his voice — “Give me a second here. Let me put my clothes on! Just give me five.”

“He’s not afraid to be vulnerable,” McQueen says. “There’s a huge feminine side to him — he’s very manly, but at the same time, there’s this beautiful fragility.” He adds, “All these superhero things and X-Men things, they’re great, whatever, but we need Michael here on earth.”

He’s referring to Fassbender’s sideline in effects-laden tent poles such as X-Men: First Class and Ridley Scott’s forthcoming sci-fi epic Prometheus (Fassbender has also signed up for McQueen’s period drama Twelve Years a Slave and will have a role in indie hero Jim Jarmusch’s next project). But after spending time in his company, talking to his colleague-fans and seeing his Tarantino impression (“He also does a great Michael McDonald impersonation,” McQueen adds), one suspects that Fassbender isn’t merely cinema’s next great thespian. He might also be an untapped comic genius.

“I would like to do a comedy!” he says. “A lot of directors and people in the industry probably think I’m this intense sort of dude, who’s like, ‘Don’t talk to me right now,’ and listening to goth in the corner naked with a banana preparing.” Cue the wolf-puppy smile. “So, definitely. But you know, if somebody pulled the plug right now, I really wouldn’t have anything to complain about.”

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