Michael Fassbender: fearless performer with a craftsman's approach to the art of acting

His three forthcoming films – Assassin’s Creed, Macbeth and Steve Jobs – function as a sort of cross-section of where the extraordinarily diverse actor now finds himself

You may not be hearing much from Michael Fassbender in the run-up to the release of his new film, the much-admired adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which drew fulsome reviews on its premiere at Cannes earlier this year. The reason? He’s hard at work on his next one, Assassin’s Creed, a film version of the barnstorming video game. He couldn’t even spare the time to turn up to the world premiere of Steve Jobs at the prestigious Telluride film festival three weeks ago.

Video game movies don’t have much in the way of artistic pedigree, to put it mildly, so it may seem a little odd that Fassbender appears to be throwing so much into it. The film industry can sense there is big money to be found in them, but has so far failed to locate it – the recent Prince of Persia fiasco in 2010 a particularly costly example of the breed, despite the heavyweight presence of Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead. The participation of Fassbender – a bona fide Oscar nominee, no less – is something of a coup, if truth be told, and presumably the pot was sweetened by giving Fassbender an outlet for his increasingly apparent ambitions as a producer. With his Macbeth director Justin Kurzel installed too, Assassin’s Creed just might be the film to finally crack the game-to-screen transfer.

Michael Fassbender in Macbeth: watch an exclusive clip of the new Shakespeare adaptation

However, the three films – Creed, Macbeth and Steve Jobs – function as a sort of cross-section of where Fassbender, now 38, finds himself, as if extracted by some sort of career-borehole drill. Steve Jobs is a bid for leading-man credibility in an Oscar-bait Hollywood drama, edging along a path he’s previously trodden with The Counselor and, further back, as Rochester opposite Mia Waskiowska’s Jane Eyre. Creed is a big, fat commercial movie, no longer a handicap in a world where even Robert Redford does Marvel superhero movies. Again, Fassbender has a few of these already in his pocket: two X-Men prequel movies, where he played the young Magneto, and Prometheus, in which he took the creepy-android role. Macbeth, though, is part of Fassbender’s third string, the series of edgy, putatively dangerous films that, presumably, he would suppose is his “real” work. In this category you would find his Steve McQueen trilogy – Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave, as well as David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, existential western Slow West and Frank, the oddity about a musician encased in a giant papier-mache head that is almost, but not quite, Frank Sidebottom.

Fassbender’s reputation is that of a fearless, total-immersion performer, capable of bringing extraordinary intensity to the screen but just as capable of reverting to normality when the camera stops turning over. He also has – to put it politely – a reputation as a bit of a Don Juan, and has a speed-freak side to him that means he is excellent fodder for the sort of men’s magazines that like film actors to test out high-performance cars. He has also so far resisted the temptation to up sticks and move to Los Angeles, having kept a flat in the London district of Hackney for years.

With woad-daubed face and Pictish beard, as well as the backdrop of primeval, Pasolini-esque landscape, Fassbender’s Macbeth is unquestionably a boundary-pushing take on Shakespeare. Its big pitch is that Macbeth is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after fighting so many wars in medieval Scotland. “Never did it occur to me before this that this character was suffering from PTSD,” Fassbender said after the film’s premiere. “You have a soldier who’s engaged in battle month-after-month, day-after-day. Killing with his hands. Pushing a sword through muscle and bone. And if that doesn’t work, picking up a rock and using that.”

The film team review Macbeth

But if Macbeth is designed to satisfy the intellectually curious thespian in Fassbender, it is Steve Jobs that will push him closer towards realising the predictions – going back as far as his first lead role, in McQueen’s Hunger in 2008 – that he was “the next Daniel Day Lewis”.

Although it is possibly galling that he wasn’t the first pick for the role – Christian Bale had been heavily courted by the studio, but passed after director David Fincher left the film – Fassbender could at least be assured it was a blue-chip project. Scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin, best known for The West Wing, had proved his cinematic chops by writing another tech-era biopic, The Social Network, and while the replacement of Fincher by British director Danny Boyle may have spoiled the Social Network reunion, Boyle’s pedigree and long-proven skill with actors prevented the film drifting out of awards-season contention.

Steve Jobs premieres at Telluride: what did the audience think?

Boyle is certainly a strong admirer of Fassbender: calling it an “amazing experience” working with him on Steve Jobs, he said he particularly admired Fassbender’s flexibility of performance in what – true to Sorkin’s reputation – is a comparatively talky film. “When you start off your career you think there’s only one way of achieving anything, but when you get to work with really experienced actors, they’ll give you alternatives, and emotional differences between scenes. Hot, then cooler so that you’ve got choices in the editing for how the storytelling is emerging. That’s what you get with an actor like Fassbender – he finds variation on multiple takes, rather than just doing the same thing again and again. It is incredible to witness.”

Fassbender’s greatest cheerleader however, is director McQueen, who gave him that first big role and then cast him in his next two films. After Shame, the sex-addict drama in which Fassbender starred opposite Carey Mulligan, McQueen likened him to Marlon Brando, saying “there’s a fragility and a femininity to him, but also a masculinity that can translate. You’re not in awe of him. You’re part of him. He pulls you in.” After 12 Years a Slave, McQueen expanded on their “understanding” of each other to Vanity Fair: “I love him deeply … I don’t question it; that’s the funny thing. I think we have something and we just get on with it.” For his part, Fassbender says he repeats McQueen’s mantra – “We’re all going to die one day!” – when he prepares for a risky or potentially humiliating scene, and remains grateful to him for being cast in Hunger when, as a 30-year-old, he was beginning to think acting success had passed him by.

Fassbender, born in Heidelberg in 1977 to a German father and Northern Irish mother, moved to Killarney in the Irish Republic as a two-year-old where his family ran a popular restaurant, the West End House. Having got interested in acting thanks to some after-school workshops, Fassbender got a place at drama school in London, but swiftly dropped out. Like a string of other young male actors – including Tom Hardy and Damian Lewis – he got an early break on the Steven Spielberg-produced war series Band of Brothers in 2001; he then had to hack his way through the lower reaches of TV series and longform dramas – before landing his first feature film role in 300.

Even in this relatively difficult period he showed an ability to pick interesting projects – or at least, to attract the attention of those in charge of them. He swam the Atlantic for a Guinness TV commercial and turned into a goat for the Cooper Temple Clause’s Blind Pilots.

But it was playing Bobby Sands in Hunger in 2008, for which he lost 16kg as well as holding up his end of a celebrated 17-minute single-take scene, that proved his breakthrough to the big leagues. Despite his apparently instinctive facility for emotional intensity and undeniable screen presence, Fassbender adopted a craftsmanlike approach to the art of acting, telling the Guardian after the Belfast premiere of Hunger: “Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods because he practised that fucking swing 100 times a day. Why should acting be any different? It’s just boring repetition, and through that, I find things start to break down, and you start to find the nuances, all the interesting little details.”

Early on, however, Fassbender took care to associate himself with high-end, marquee directors: he played smallish parts in Fish Tank, for Andrea Arnold, and in Inglourious Basterds for Quentin Tarantino. Lead roles were a different matter – at the beginning, you take anything you can get. He played a husband menaced by feral youths in the widely liked horror film Eden Lake, and a Roman soldier in the underperforming action film Centurion; Hollywood came calling with a villain role in the dud horror film Blood Creek (Fassbender played a Nazi demon trapped in a cellar for decades), and Jonah Hex – another flop – a supernatural thriller based on a DC comic book.

However, Fassbender was still happy to remain an ensemble player as his star rose, especially if the director was a top-notch auteur. David Cronenberg cast him as Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method (opposite Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud), and Terrence Malick put him in Weightless, the long-gestating music drama due out next year (though Fassbender has expressed doubts his performance will make the final cut). Along the way he’s developed continuing relationships with Ridley Scott (for whom he played one of his relatively few top-of-the-bill lead roles, in The Counselor, as well as the Prometheus films), Kurzel and of course McQueen.

Can Fassbender go on to secure an Oscar nomination for Steve Jobs? It seems possible, if not likely. Can he become the first performer to be nominated against himself in the best actor category: Macbeth v Jobs? That would seem unlikely, but not outside the realms of possibility. With the admiration that Fassbender appears able to secure across all levels of the film world – from art-cinema purists to superhero-movie geeks – you wouldn’t put it past him.

• Macbeth is released on 1 October in Australia, 2 October in the UK and 4 December in the US. Steve Jobs is released on 8 October in Australia, 9 October in the US and 13 November in the UK.

Potted profile

Born: 2 April 1977

Age: 38

Career: Breakthrough role playing IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s awardwinning debut Hunger, in 2008. Followed this up with the McQueen-directed sex-addict drama Shame, as well as blockbusters such as X-Men: First Class and Prometheus. Moved into actor-producer role with Slow West and Assassin’s Creed.

High point: Landing title role in Steve Jobs after Christian Bale dropped out; very much in the frame for Oscar recognition.

Low point: Not working for a year after his first proper acting job, the Steven Spielberg TV series Band of Brothers; he said later he had been “arrogant and stupid”.

What he says: “I’m flavour of the month at the moment, but somebody else is going to roll around the corner in three months’ time. I just want to keep working.”

What they say: “I needed someone who could go beyond my reach. That’s what Michael does.” Steve McQueen


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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