ACTORS are sometimes creative with their CV, if it means being cast. Horse-riding was often a boasted skill.
But Irish actor Michael Fassbender is so established he could be honest about his lack of equine experience, before filming the new western, Slow West.
It didn’t make life any easier on set, however.
“First of all, I was introduced to a horse called Awesome, and I wasn’t so awesome on Awesome, so they introduced me to Arnie, who was a lot more chilled and easier to ride,” says the handsome 38-year-old actor, in an accent that still has traces of his Killarney upbringing (Fassbender was born in Germany, but the family moved to his mother’s native Ireland when he was a toddler).
“He made up for my lack of riding skill, so it was a lot of fun.”
Set in the 19th century, Slow West tells the story of 16-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), as he travels from Scotland to Colorado in pursuit of his lost love.
He’s confronted by the dangers of the frontier and teams up with a mysterious and monosyllabic traveller, Silas Selleck, who protects him for a price.
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The role of Silas was written with Fassbender in mind.
“We bashed the script around a lot and Michael came up with some great ideas. He was very much involved in the writing process. He’s a great collaborator,” says writer and debut director John Maclean.
“Silas could have been the solitary, macho type, but Michael gives the character vulnerability. He’s a man of few words, but Michael could give him shades of grey, despite that.”
Fassbender had worked with Maclean on two short films — 2009’s Man On A Motorcycle and 2011’s Bafta-winning Pitch Black Heist — before Slow West.
“It was nice to see that journey through, as this was an idea that he’d had brewing for a good few years,” says the actor, who also served as an executive producer on Slow West.
“Part of the draw was also that, ever since I was a kid, the idea of being in a western has appealed to me, so it’s great to have been given the opportunity to do one,” Fassbender says.
And Silas was a fun character to embody.
“He’s a bounty hunter, a loner who doesn’t really have much in his life, in terms of love and companionship. And he’s without much joy in his life, so he’s become a bit bitter and cynical. The introduction of Jay, into his world, infuses him with some feelings of hope and enthusiasm, and commitment to something other than money.”
As inscrutable as Silas is, he has an agenda as he accompanies the naive, lovelorn Jay across the beautiful but threatening landscape, which is peopled by all manner of desperate eccentrics, including an intimidating posse of outlaws, led by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn).
“This story is very much about the land we’re in, and America is very much a character,” says Fassbender. “Silas can survive very well out in the wild west, but Jay is hopeless, and so the two of them get together and come to depend on one another.”
A teenager when he realised he wanted to act, at the age of 19 Fassbender moved to London, first studying at the prestigious Drama Centre London, before landing TV roles, including in the TV series, Band Of Brothers, in the early 2000s.
He worked intermittently, bolstering his income by pulling pints — until he was cast in 2007’s 300, the stylised big-screen adaptation of Frank Miller’s blood-thirsty comic book series, co-starring Gerard Butler.
A string of critically acclaimed performances soon followed, in movies including Inglorious Basterds, X-Men, Prometheus and A Dangerous Method. In 2013, he was nominated for an Academy Award, Golden Globe and a Bafta for his role as cruel slave-owner Edwin Epps in 12 Years A Slave.
The film marked his third collaboration with director, Steve McQueen. The first was 2008’s Hunger, in which he played IRA member Bobby Sands; the second was 2011’s Shame, in which his performance as a sex addict earned more Golden Globe and Bafta nods.
Is it a challenge not to absorb the dark subject matter of his films?
“I do get depressed, but fortunately it’s for a short time, especially with Steve McQueen, where you film over short periods of time. It was 25 days for Shame, 35 days for 12 Years A Slave, so you just have to hang in there.”
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Not only do critics hail him one of the most impressive actors of his generation, but Fassbender has a huge following of loyal fans, though he’s not interested in any ’sex symbol’ tag.
“It’s whatever people write or say, it doesn’t change my day-to-day activities,” he says. “I’ve kind of stopped reading most press of late, including newspapers, which is kind of weird. I try not to spend too much attention on good or bad press, because if you live by it, you die by it. I don’t have a television either. The less distraction, the better.”
Indeed — for this is a man known for submerging himself into his performances.
“I’m a complicated person,” Fassbender says with a grin. But the actor, who’ll also be appearing in the title roles in Macbeth and Danny Boyle’s biopic Steve Jobs later this year, says he doesn’t know why he’s so often drawn to dark roles.
“I think human beings are complex, and I like to play characters that don’t hold answers for the audience,” he says. “I don’t like to be on any moral crusade. I just want to present them in a provocative way, with all the bells and whistles.”
Slow West is released in cinemas on Friday, June 26