It’s only right that Michael Fassbender broke through in a movie called Hunger. Ever since starving himself and shedding 30 pounds to play IRA martyr Bobby Sands, Fassbender has been conversely devouring role after meaty role, displaying a voraciousness that filmmakers, audiences, and critics alike have been only too happy to oblige and endorse. This year alone has offered four memorable, engrossing, and provocative Fassbender turns, in Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method, and Shame, the latter of which sees the 34-year-old deliver what may well be 2011’s best male performance. Looking at the current cinema landscape, one might say Fassbender has emerged as the Tilda Swinton to Ryan Gosling’s Meryl Streep—the cinephilic answer to the mainstream’s similarly sought-after, prolific, top-of-his-game star performer. He’s an actor who seemingly can’t miss, and whose work you don’t miss.
Unlike Gosling, though, Fassbender doesn’t bowl you over with his handsomeness. Standing in his presence, you realize all the more that his magnetism is firmly tied to his superior, switched-on performance capabilities, of which his rugged good looks are but a fine aesthetic bonus. In a meeting at New York’s Loews Regency Hotel in early October, when he was in town promoting both A Dangerous Method and Shame during their New York Film Festival runs, Fassbender chatted with Slant about the auteur partnerships he’s rapidly amassed, the awards buzz he’s gaining, the “Michael Fassbender Sex Season,” and that insatiable appetite.
So, you’ve been having quite a year.
Yeah, I know!
Is there something specific about it that stands out? A highlight?
Not really, no. I haven’t had much time to think about anything. I was just sort of going from one job to the next right up until the end of July there. I did take two months off and went on a nice little road trip around Europe. I suppose that was a highlight. It was something I’d been wanting to do for the last 10 years, and it finally came to fruition. It’s nice when you have these sort of dreams or aspirations to do something and you finally put them into action. It’s cool.
And it’s a trend for you, it seems. Are you aware of how hot and in-demand you’ve become? Is that something you think about?
Well, you know, for the last couple of years, just the sort of directors who’ve been keen to work with me has really blown my mind and let me feel like I’m in a super-privileged position. And it seems to be continuing, touch wood. That makes me feel super lucky. I started out when I was 17, and this is sort of the pinnacle; this is where I thought the highest level I could reach would be. Number one, I’ve formed a fantastic relationship with [Hunger and Shame director] Steve McQueen. When I was 17, I was like, “God, I’d love to have a relationship like a Scorsese/De Niro or Sidney Lumet/Pacino.” I wanted that sort of connection with a director, and I’ve discovered that with Steve. Then there’s the array of directors that I’ve worked with on top of that: Tarantino, Andrea Arnold, Matthew Vaughn, Ridley Scott, I just finished with him, Steven Soderbergh, David Cronenberg…I mean, it’s nuts. So, that never goes unnoticed on me and I always feel very blessed to be in this position. When you start off, to be a jobbing actor, and to be able to make a living out of this, is already good enough. So to get to this position, it’s pretty crazy.
You first became known to U.S. audiences in 300. Watching that movie now, it’s almost strange to see you as one of the guys on the sidelines. When you were making that, were you thinking “Man, I could carry this thing!” or were you just glad to be getting exposure in a film that big?
Regardless of the part, I always look at the other roles and think about how I would interpret them. Not to say that I would do them better, but I spend a lot of time with the script; that’s part of my process. So, in doing that, I’m reading all the other parts, and I’m starting to form ideas of how I would play them. So, of course, I’m thinking, “Oh, here’s how I would play Leonidas.” But that can also make it more exciting to see somebody else embody it, and I was ultimately very happy with the character I had. It was clear to me that I was the crazy one, and it’s fun to play the crazy guy who appears to laugh at death. And, yeah, to be part of a big film at that point, for me, was very exciting.
Speaking of a movie that shows a lot of skin, you’re appearing in two films right now—A Dangerous Method and Shame—that deal explicitly with sex. Is it purely coincidental that they’re coming out back to back, or are we in the Michael Fassbender…
I was going to say “Sex Phase,” but that works too.
Yeah, the Sex Season. [laughs] I didn’t even think about A Dangerous Method when I was on Shame, or any correspondence or similarities or parallels, whatever; they just sort of came about. Shame started back in 2008, when Steve told me at a dinner that he had an idea and gave me the breakdown of the story. I was like, “I’m in, just tell me when you need me.” So, I didn’t even have a script at that point, but I knew that we were going to be approaching this subject. And the whole thing with David [Cronenberg] just sort of happened as well. He called me up and said, “Would you fancy coming up to Toronto to sit down and have some lunch? There’s this project I hope you’ll be interested in working on.” And, of course, I went, and we sat down and read the script. Christopher Hampton wrote such a language-intense and very muscular piece in terms of it being pretty much all dialogue-based, so I thought it would be a nice and interesting challenge. And I loved the idea of working with Keira [Knightley] and Viggo [Mortensen] and Vincent Cassel. I thought, “These are interesting ingredients—let’s see what happens.” But I never really dwell on anything or plan anything at all. I just sort of take things as they come, read the script, look at the director, and if they match up, I go to work.
In A Dangerous Method, you often have to remain very stoic and clinically objective as Keira Knightley is practically coming out of her skin. Was that at all difficult? Did those scenes require many takes?
No, not at all. I mean, she’s really doing the work in those scenes, so I had better have my shit together. Because if she’s giving all that physicality and emotional commitment to it, the worst thing would be for me to sit in the background and drift off and not be present for her. That would be awful. That was something that I was discovering when I was putting the character together. It’s always important for me to establish a physical life for the character—how the character moves, what sort of shoes he wears, what props he surrounds himself with, how he smokes his pipe, all those sorts of things. Bringing the physicality to [Carl Jung] was part of the fun of it, and at the beginning of the film, especially, I wanted to show someone who was young, enthusiastic, determined, ambitious, and yet insecure at some level and needing to prove himself. He hadn’t yet felt confident in his achievements at that point. And then we see him go through his mental breakdown and start to discard the disciplines of the world that he’s come from. Those various stages of life are what I wanted to represent as much as possible with the physical form. That was always in the front of my mind.
What’s the most interesting thing that you learned about Jung while you were researching the role?
The toughest for me to get a handle on was the fact that his wife had provided him with his springboard, essentially. She was so wealthy. [Jung] didn’t have the confines that Freud would have experienced. Freud had a family to feed, and he was the main breadwinner. Jung had the freedom to be much more experimental with his work and to take many more risks. And I’m not sure Freud would have done that anyway because he believed in very rigid scientific form within psychoanalysis, whereas Jung was like the sky’s-the-limit, there-are-no-boundaries type. And then, in his childhood, I found some interesting stuff—the idea that, in Switzerland, back in the late 1800s, there was a trend to be dabbling in mysticism. It was quite prominent, and people, including Jung, were partaking in séances and things like that. And at one point, I think it was his cousin who was communicating with spirits. So there was a definite form of superstition and a spiritual side to him that made me understand more why he ended up in that realm of psychoanalysis later in his life, because of what happened in his youth. And the fact that his dad and six of his uncles were pastors; these are very strong influences in those formative years.