All hail Macbeth star and man of the moment Michael Fassbender

With roles as Macbeth and Steve Jobs, Irishman Michael Fassbender is currently the hottest actor in the business, writes Helen Barlow

All hail Macbeth star and man of the moment Michael Fassbender

WHEN the film Steve Jobs was unveiled to an overwhelming reception at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this month, Michael Fassbender announced himself as a strong contender for the coming awards season.

He could be up against Leonardo DiCaprio who was once to play the eponymous Apple co-founder in a previous incarnation of the film and who instead could be a contender for The Revenant, where he got down and dirty in the Canadian wilds for Birdman director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

That Fassbender can be readily interchangeable with DiCaprio, arguably Hollywood’s most respected star, means the 38-year-old Irishman, who is often referred to as “the X-Men actor”, has made it.

He is likewise keen to get down and dirty himself, braving the freezing cold climes of the Isle of Skye to film a very outdoorsy version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth directed by Snowtown’s Justin Kurzel, an Australian director with a penchant for extreme film-making.

COLD COMFORT

How was it bathing in the pond in February? “The water was five degrees and it was minus-2 outside,” Fassbender recalls with boyish animation. “But thanks to the illusion of movies, there was a nice warm tent very close by. Watching the crew go up the side of a mountain in the driving rain with all the equipment just made me feel part of the team and very proud.”

He had some Scotch whisky to keep him warm? “Of course, we were in Skye. It would be criminal not to.”

Fassbender admits there is an element of conflict in all the characters he has played, from his breakthrough as hunger striker Bobby Sands to his sex addict in Shame and in his blockbuster roles as Magneto and Prometheus, which he is set to reprise for Ridley Scott.

While he researched previous screen productions of Shakespeare’s so-called ‘Scottish play’, Fassbender’s Macbeth takes the blood-letting to the brink. After his battle-fatigued general installs himself as King and veers away from what the actor refers to as his “power couple” with Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), he kills everyone in sight. The actor took heed from his director regarding his character’s motivation.

“Justin always had this idea of the audience watching intimately as this guy deals with post-traumatic stress disorder and loses his mind. I had never even seen it as that and it was so obvious when it was said to me.”

As Fassbender had enjoyed making three films for British director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years A Slave) he is also having a kind of bromance with the burly Aussie. He’s even producing their current collaboration Assassin’s Creed, a visual work based on the video game, and Cotillard is also along for the ride in Malta, which is standing in for 15th century Spain.

“I felt so lucky to get both of them on board,” Fassbender says. “I think it’s a fascinating concept, the idea of DNA memory alone. The world of Assassin’s Creed is a very interesting one.” Did he ever play the game? “Badly and not many times.”

The film marks Fassbender’s first primary role as producer after he executive-produced Slow West and the short Pitch Black Heist for John Maclean, another of his strong allegiances. While he admits to being drawn to the machinations of cinema and wants to direct one day, “I love being involved in the telling of stories at the ground level,” he insists he is not privy to all casting decisions and had nothing to do with his Slow West co-star Kodi Smit-McPhee being cast as Nightcrawler in next year’s X-Men: Apocalypse, where Fassbender reprises his role as Magneto.

“I thought I got rid of this guy,” he jokes, emitting his toothy grin. “I would have suggested Kodi if they’d asked me, but he did it all on his own merit. By all accounts they love him.”

He has fond memories of the pair going fly fishing in New Zealand. “We hung out quite a bit because we were down in Twizel. There’s not much going on in Twizel but there’s spectacular nature so we went for walks and he was educating me every day, young Kodi, about life and the universe. It was great to get out of the city. I am a country boy and that’s where my rhythms are at their best, I think.”

The son of an Irish mother and a German father, Fassbender, who grew up in Killarney, is an avid traveller. He loves Brazil as well, and two years ago honed his surfing skills there and more recently rode the waves in Australia. He says surfing helps him clear his head. “It’s become a great way to unplug immediately.”

He now hops on a board whenever he can, and one time sartorially wore flip-flops, to the glee of happily snapping paparazzi back on shore. “They weren’t even mine; they were my dad’s,” he chuckles.

ROMANTIC INVOLVEMENT

The click of the cameras became more intense when he became romantically involved with his The Light Between Oceans co-star, Swedish beauty Alicia Vikander, 26, one of Hollywood’s fastest rising stars who gives even the over-achieving Fassbender a run for his money in the productivity stakes. (Vikander dropped out of Assassin’s Creed to make Bourne 5 with Matt Damon.) Unconfirmed press reports stated recently that the duo were no longer a couple.

In any case The Light Between Oceans is worth looking out for. US director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) directs and adapts ML Stedman’s 2012 Thomas Hardy-esque Australian novel about a lighthouse keeper and his wife, who raise a baby they rescue from a rowboat. It was filmed in Tasmania and New Zealand, where, as usual, Fassbender enjoyed getting out into nature.

“Tasmania was amazing,” he says. “I didn’t have my motorbike this time, though I did get my hands on one in New Zealand, courtesy of a friend. So I toured around the North Island, which was great.”

Fassbender has been off the grid of late and did not travel to Telluride, partly because he’s filming Assassin’s Creed — apparently his physical appearance for the titular role could prove distracting, or so said Vikander in Venice. Though it may be a marketing ploy to give Macbeth its moment before his onslaught of publicity for Steve Jobs, which could well be the actor’s defining moment.

“I was just thinking about Aaron Sorkin as I was thinking about Shakespeare,” he ponders, “because Aaron is like a modern day Shakespeare in my opinion, he really is. He has his own specific rhythm to his writing.”

Has Fassbender revised his ideas about iPhones and social media since playing Jobs? “I don’t know. I think they are all great. I just don’t participate in them that much because I don’t have time for Twitter and stuff like that, especially if I’m working. There are texts coming in and emails and that’s plenty to keep me busy.”

That is certainly the under-statement.

Macbeth opens today

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