Standing Tall

Romantic hero, sex addict, hunger striker — the sky’s the limit for Kerry actor Michael Fassbender. A glittering array of performances has taken him from obscurity to being man of the moment, says Helen Barlow

IRISH actor Michael Fassbender may have lost out to George Clooney at the Golden Globe Awards last weekend, but he is still a contender when the Oscar nominations are announced on Monday. They are, after all, the ones that really count.

Fassbender is the man of the moment. He has made six highly respected films in 20 months, and with Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in the can, is being hailed as a rare talent. The 34-year-old graces the current cover of industry trade magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, which quotes one studio chief saying of him: “In our world, the real deal doesn’t come along very often.”

Of course, the daring it took to play a sex addict in Steve McQueen’s new movie Shame was not something unknown to Fassbender. He had lost 40 kilos and bared his body in a very different manner to play the IRA activist Bobby Sands in 2008’s Hunger, yet that had been at a time when he needed to bring attention to himself. Now, as a rising Hollywood star, he was not about to pull back, and had complete faith in whatever his Hunger director had in store. After all, McQueen had taken a risk on him in the first place.

“Steve changed my life, it’s as simple as that,” admits the handsome actor with the striking aquamarine eyes. “Hunger came at a time when for somebody to take a risk on an unknown 30-year-old, to give me an opportunity to play a lead, was incredibly lucky. The recession hit a year later when there would be far fewer jobs out there for actors, like in any industry. Since Hunger I have been consistently working and have been allowed to make a living out of this.”

Apart from his Golden Globe nomination for Shame, Fassbender won a Los Angeles critics prize for his numerous breakout starring roles, not only in Shame, but as psychoanalyst Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method, as Rochester in Jane Eyre, and as a genetic mutant in X-Men: First Class. He will soon co-star with Brad Pitt in McQueen’s third movie, Twelve Years A Slave.

“It’s one of my wildest dreams to be in the position I’m in, to be working with so many fantastic directors and people at the top of their game. Hopefully some of that will rub off,” says the man who was born in Germany but moved to Killarney at the age of two.

That Fassbender is a self-deprecating, loveable rogue in person means he was never going to fit into a convenient Hollywood mould. He has taken a circuitous path in his career. He has always maintained he is a small man, but his buff physique propelled him into bare-chested action roles in 300 and Centurion. Yet nobody was really paying attention. Even Hunger had a limited audience. He was virtually unrecognisable as a British officer in Inglourious Basterds, he was an unsavoury family friend in the art film Fish Tank, while three potential biggies, Eden Lake, Town Creek and Jonah Hex, all tanked at the box office. He knew he needed a blockbuster and in X-Men suddenly he was everybody’s big discovery.

While his press chores for X-Men and Jane Eyre were fairly run of the mill, Fassbender knew his mettle would be tested when his two sexually-charged movies were released. Still, talking up his spanking of Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method paled into insignificance after Shame got a restrictive NC-17 rating in the US. “It’s a serious film that deserves to be treated as such,” Fassbender told The Huffington Post. “Half of us have a penis and the other half have probably seen one, and so why should it be more normal to, like, chop people’s heads off and shoot people?”

Like Hunger, Shame is a dark exploration of the human psyche and does not hold back. We see the well-endowed character in extensive full frontal, constantly having sex, and masturbating when his sexual conquests aren’t enough.

Given the furore Michael Douglas endured after his admission of sex addiction, Fassbender says people can be too judgemental of those who are in pain. “I did meet a few individuals and, listening to them, you realise the addiction is like any other, whether it be to food, alcohol or drugs.”

The film is deliberately not titillating, he says. “I knew that when I was doing the scenes. I wanted Brandon to be repulsive in moments and I wanted him to be very vulnerable. Sex is not really the focus.”

Certainly they are a bit extreme for a former altar boy. What did his parents — German-born Josef and Northern Irish Adele — think about it? “They are pretty cool. My dad was there at the premiere. It was the first time I saw the film as well, which could have been a mistake,” he chuckles. “My mother was going to come, funnily enough, but she couldn’t make it in the end. That might have been a good thing. I told my dad there was going to be some pretty extreme stuff and to prepare himself. But he said, ‘Look, you are an artist and you have got to do your thing’.” Indeed he has.

* Shame is in cinemas now. A Dangerous Method opens shortly

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