Michael Fassbender has become a Hollywood star by not adhering to expectations. Rivka Galchen meets film’s enigmatic outsider.
I HAD ALREADY been turned down by two drama schools,” Michael Fassbender was explaining over breakfast in one of those New York hotel restaurants where beautiful people add wheatgrass to their smoothies.
That rejection at 19 led him to London to try his luck auditioning for the Drama Centre there. He had prepared an Iago monologue, had gone over it hundreds of times, but he was still nervous.
He had been replaying the words of a director from one of the other drama schools, who had told him that he could recognise an actor from the way he enters a room.
‘‘I still hate that,’’ said Fassbender.
Before the audition, he was trying to get the director’s words out of his mind.
‘‘I went to the urinal, and as I was pissing, I saw that someone had written ‘Hi, Cookie!’ on the wall. Those words were staring at me, as I stood there.
"I had just finished playing the Cook in a production of Mother Courage, and I had done it with a Scottish accent. Cook; cookie. ‘I’ll do the Iago monologue in a Scottish accent,’ I decided, even though that wasn’t how I had prepared it.’’
After the audition, Fassbender was asked why he’d chosen that accent, to which he answered something about it being a way to bring mischief into the piece, which seemed true enough.
‘‘It’s funny. I haven’t thought about that for years and years. I’m not saying what I saw was a sign or anything. But maybe I did sort of take it that way, and that helped me.’’
The 38-year-old actor diverted into this anecdote while we were talking about his role in the upcoming film adaptation of what theater people call the Scottish Play.
It’s considered unlucky to call it by its name, ‘‘Macbeth’’ — which is precisely how he refers to it.
Fassbender, who is playing the cursed king, doesn’t really buy into prophecies, signs and superstitions.
‘‘Except,’’ he said, ‘‘that whenever I see a solitary magpie, I salute.’’
I hadn’t heard the one about saluting a solitary magpie. Fassbender grew up in Kerry, though his mother is from Antrim in the north and his father is German.
Now that he’s thought about it, he also has a thing for lucky sevens.
He had a lucky feeling about 2007, a sense that it might be an important year.
‘‘Maybe because I was born in 1977,’’ he said.
‘‘I know that sounds ridiculous. I’m not saying I knew things would work out. I just felt that I had a chance coming my way, and I wanted to be ready for it.’’
It’s difficult, at this point, to imagine that before 2007, although Fassbender had played small parts in television and film, arguably his most well-recognised role had been as a man who swims across the Atlantic Ocean to apologize to his brother over a pint in a Guinness commercial.
Since 2007, Fassbender has starred in three Steve McQueen movies, and has been sought after and worked with directors such as David Cronenberg, Cary Fukunaga and Ridley Scott; he had an especially glorious bit in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
Today, Fassbender is both Magneto in the X-Men series and a darling of critics and intellectuals; he’s somehow a pinup and an objet trouvé and also playing Steve Jobs.
But Fassbender is also still very much the teenager of that original drama-school audition: He welcomes changes as they present themselves and he follows the signs of the present. Justin Kurzel, the director of Macbeth, said of working with Fassbender.
‘‘He’s so extremely prepared, he’s never reaching for words. And in that way he’s able to be very open to the conditions of the moment — to whatever is going on that day, to the other people who are around.
"He can discover something in the moment of doing. That’s why he’s an artist. That’s why he’s one of the best around.’’
MAGPIES are famously among the most intelligent of birds. They can mimic the calls of other birds. They improvise their nests using whatever shiny bric-a-brac and underbrush is around them.
They recognise themselves in a mirror. Fassbender had to spend much of his 20s bartending, alongside his pursuit of acting.
‘‘I enjoyed the bar,’’ says Fassbender, who had grown up clocking long hours at West End House, his parents’ restaurant in Killarney.
‘‘But, god, I really, really, really wanted to act.’’
He was nearly 30 and had not yet broken out.
Then in 2007, he auditioned for the role of the IRA member Bobby Sands in a small-budget film about the hunger strikes in the infamous Maze prison; Hunger was the feature directorial debut for Steve McQueen, a substantial presence in the British art world but a stranger to filmmaking.
Fassbender did not impress McQueen at the first audition.
‘‘Either I didn’t recognise it, or he didn’t bring it,’’ McQueen said. But McQueen’s casting director convinced him to call Fassbender back for a second look.
‘‘Then he shone,’’ McQueen said. ‘‘There was a level of commitment, and engagement, and I saw: this guy is serious.’’
Hunger might easily have disappeared behind a few reviews describing it as ‘‘artistic”, but instead it won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes, as well as major awards here and in Australia, England and Belgium.
This enabled McQueen to then make Shame (the 2011 film about sex addiction, which gave the world permission to talk and talk and talk about the exceptional size of Fassbender’s private parts) and, later, 12 Years a Slave, with Fassbender in the role of Epps, an especially brutal slave owner.
McQueen and Fassbender both became stars.
Fassbender is said to have passed out on set from the intensity of his rape scene in 12 Years a Slave, but he insists that when work for the day is done, he lives his life: ‘‘I don’t bring characters home with me. That’s just not the way I work.’’
In person, he comes across as cheerful and boyish. He is more pretty than handsome, not aggressively charismatic or excited about talking about himself, but kind and cooperative and willing.
He looks like a lead in a romantic comedy, one of the few roles he has never taken on.
If one had to find a common thread in his diverse résumé, it would be through strands of physical and emotional extremes: brutality (12 Years), starvation (Hunger), addiction (Shame), being a brilliant android (Prometheus), seducing your girlfriend’s teenage daughter (Fish Tank), bearing an inflexible need to wear a papier-mâché head at all times (Frank).
You could never accuse him of playing himself.
The director Danny Boyle said of having Fassbender play the title role in Steve Jobs, his new biopic of the Apple founder, ‘‘It’s an enormous burden, a role like that.
"It’s a Shakespearean burden, really, because Jobs is a difficult, world-shaping spirit. And Michael carried it effortlessly.
"On-set, when the camera’s not on, he’s totally easy, graceful, funny and careless — apparently careless — and then, he turns on a sixpence and delivers this absolutely ferocious level of concentration and intensity.
"I’ve never seen that kind of accuracy before, of being able to just drop into character so instantly.’’
Boyle observed that he felt there was something of Fassbender in
his Jobs performance: ‘‘It’s that quality of absolute charm being ferociously applied to the pursuit of perfection in a work.’’
Fassbender has a very deliberate and specific method: ‘‘I go over the words again and again and again and again. Hundreds of times. It’s more of a doing than a thinking thing.
"I have thoughts about the characters, I learn about them, but that’s not necessarily where the majority of the work gets done.’’
That his work was more about doing than thinking was a point Fassbender emphasised several times.
He talked about how he and the actor Liam Cunningham prepared for their 15-minute, single-shot, Grand Inquisitor-style conversation that is the centerpiece of Hunger by running through that scene 10 times a day for 10 days straight in the apartment they shared in Belfast.
On the day of filming, Fassbender and Cunningham got it on the fourth take. ‘‘It’s about finding things,’’ McQueen said.
‘‘And the way to find things is through a commitment, and through presence. And that is what Michael has. He is entirely there. Sometimes, with an actor like Michael, they become a sphere — no matter which way they roll, it’s perfect.’’
I MET Fassbender on a drizzly Tuesday morning in downtown Manhattan. Our plan was to drive out to Ringwood, New Jersey, after breakfast, to go skeet shooting together.
He had come up with the idea after first suggesting Bikram yoga, then surfing, then dance lessons, promising that he wasn’t really good at any of these things, that it was just a fun thing to do, to both be beginners. (What he didn’t want to do was visit the Apple store.)
As far as trumped-up celebrity profile encounters go, skeet shooting proved almost comically apt.
Our instructor showed us how the guns worked, how to hold them, where the skeets would emerge from, how to follow them with the eye.
He explained to us that the key to shooting is to not think about it: not to check and lift your gaze and see how the shot went, but just to keep looking at the skeet.
And then, after doing that again and again and again, you get better at it.
The most important thing is not to be thinking. ‘‘Yeah, not to think,’’ Fassbender repeats.
I gave Fassbender a look like, ‘‘Did you plan this as a metaphor for acting?’’
He smiled. We took turns at the basic range, and then went on to another range, where one skeet comes out from a small tower in front of you, the next from a tower behind.
"Like a gentleman, Fassbender wasn’t very good at the easy range; he let me win our dollar wager. But as soon as we moved on to the difficult range, his shots suddenly became very nearly perfect.
Fassbender has a reputation as a kind of Casanova, which seems a bit of a projection — the public is in love with him, while he, a man who works and travels nearly constantly, dates women, sometimes more seriously and sometimes less.
When he took a six-week holiday in 2011, it was for a motorcycling road trip with his father.
At a film festival in Sarajevo, a planned stop on their road trip, the mayor of Dubrovnik offered Fassbender a captained boat for a week, so his mom joined them on a sail.
As an April Fool’s Day joke recently, he had his driver call his parents to say their son was in jail and needed $10,000 bail because he didn’t want production to find out about it. Fassbender is not so much a heartbreaker as he is a kid.
But a certain kind of kid: focused, energetic, wildly serious about playing.
‘‘In high school, I had my first real part in this sketch play, Fairy Tales, Fairy Tales, 1, 2, 3. I was one of the ugly stepsisters. I wore my sister’s prom dress. Even though it was a pantomime, I took it very, very seriously.’’
Shortly afterward, he put together a stage version of Reservoir Dogs in which he played Mr Pink.
I ask Fassender what he thinks of Kerry’s treatment in jokes, as the equivalent of a dumb blonde.
‘‘Well, you know, it’s useful to play the part of a fool. Maybe that’s what the Kerryman is about.’’
It is difficult to think of such a straightforwardly good-looking guy as an outsider, and it is not a detail Fassbender plays up, but it is inevitably characteristic of his childhood, with a German dad and a Northern Irish mother.
McQueen said, ‘‘Look, he wasn’t a McQueen! Or an O’Reilly. He was a Fassbender. He was the odd one out. I think that’s an important part of who he is.’’
In the car, as we were returning to the city from skeet shooting, I remembered that magpies are famously never alone. That I didn’t think I had ever seen a magpie alone.
‘‘Aren’t they always in pairs?’’ I asked Fassbender.
‘‘I guess that’s why you salute a single one,’’ he said.
‘‘They’re supposed to be in twos. My dad has said to me, ‘How are you seeing all these solitary magpies? No one else does.’ But, I don’t know, I see them all the time.’’
Macbeth is released Oct 2
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