Seemingly overnight, Irish actor Michael Fassbender has become Hollywood’s hottest leading man. Paul Byrne puts the Prometheus man under the microscope.
You have to wonder if Michael Fassbender finds it all a bit dizzying. In a little over three years, the Heidelberg-born, Killarney-bred actor has gone from support slots in the likes of 300, Inglorious Basterds and, eh, Agatha Christie’s Poirot to the leading man of the moment. Thanks firstly to Steve McQueen’s stunning H-Block drama Hunger (2008), and later, the franchise-rebuilding X-Men: First Class, Cary Fukunaga’s tasteful take on Jane Eyre, Fassbender then getting existentially jiggy with Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Mind, letting it all hang out in Shame, and slapping a martial arts queen silly in Dublin’s Shelbourne hotel in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire.
Put them all together, and you can see why more and more people reckon this guy would make a great Bond. Those last five films all came out in 2011, helping cement Fassbender’s reputation in Hollywood circles as the new kid in town. Sure, the guy was going to be lumbered with the odd miss (2010’s Jonah Hex sinking without a trace; Haywire not quite living up to its promise), but there was little doubt that here was an actor who was willing to go that extra few inches for a part.
As Fox Filmed Entertainment CEO Tom Rothman said to The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year, “In our world, the real deal doesn’t come along very often”. Another, Sony Picture Classic’s co-president Tom Bernard warned of the downside to all this talent, pointing out to Michael as they prepared to release A Dangerous Method, “It’s too bad you’re such a good actor because you won’t be anonymous on the streets of America anymore”. Which may explain why Fassbender has decided to stay in London, even as his stock goes sky high in Hollywood. Besides, Fassbender has been too busy to worry about a silly thing like fame, shooting and promoting six movies in a mere six months. Along the way, he picked up a Venice Film Festival best actor gong and a Golden Globe nomination. Oh, and an increasingly rabid fanbase. Is it any wonder the legendary filmmaker Ridley Scott was attracted to the young Irishman when it came to casting Prometheus, a prequel-of-sorts to the Alien franchise, and perhaps the most anticipated movie of the summer. If you’re a sci-fi geek. Scott likes Fassbender so much (“He’s great,” the director states flatly), he’s cast him in his next movie, The Counselor, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, the Irishman getting top billing over Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz.
For now though, it’s all about Prometheus. Taking place in 2085 (37 years before the events of Alien), in Scott’s first return to sci-fi in 30 years, Fassbender plays android David, following on from Ian Holm’s Ash in the 1979 Alien, Lance Henriksen’s Bishop in the next two installments, and Winona Ryder’s Call in Alien Ressurection (1997). As to what exactly goes on in the $100m Prometheus, director Scott has been tightlipped on a plot that came from “one single thought” in Alien, stating merely, “I felt there was life in the old sod, but it has evolved into something else”. In other words, open your chest, and your mind will follow. For his part, Fassbender describes his David as “fastitious”, “almost like an anal butler”, pointing out, “I don’t think he has any real moral compass”. Which means this might just be another android who turns on his condescending human co-workers (played by Noomi Rapace, Sean Harris and Rafe Spall, amongst others). David’s creator in the film, Peter Wyland (Guy Pearce), says the inspirations for the android were mainly T.E. Lawrence and David Bowie (think The Man Who Fell To LV-426), Fassbender adding, “I liked the idea of having a feminine quality to him”. Interestingly, British director Steve McQueen (who helmed both Hunger and Shame, and their upcoming collaboration Twelves Years A Slave) has said of Fassbender, “He’s got an extraordinary feminity while still being very much a man’s man. That’s what propels him to greater roles. Often with leading actors, there’s a place they go, but they don’t go all the way. There are actors and there are artists, and Michael is an artist”.
Fassbender’s chameleon-like approach to his work has seen him play not only an ambiguous android but also a troubled comic book hero, a young Carl Jung, a strident Bobby Sands and the lovelorn Rochester. From the historical to the hysterical, and even the heartbreakingly horny, Fassbender would appear keen to explore every kind of role available to man, woman and child. The actor explains his eclectic CV with the battle-cry, “I want to keep myself guessing, and keep the fear element alive so that I don’t get too comfortable.” Which explains what Haywire director Steven Soderbergh reckons is Fassbender’s on-set and off-set catchphrase, “So, where are we going now?”. Clearly, we’re dealing with a very specific breed of animal here. One who likes his rushes of adrenalin. And we’re not talking mere Shame research here. On his first holiday in almost 2 years, Fassbender recently headed to Hawaii, and the island of Oahu. Where, to unwind after 20 months of fighting mutants, aliens, Nazis, Sigmund Freud, female assassins, a nutter in the attic, and Megan Fox’s bad acting, he decided to free-fall from a plane. When he’s on the ground, Fassbender has a passion for motorbikes, recently replacing his stolen Triumph Speed Triple with a BMW 1200 GS Adventure. He and his father, Josef, took a 5,000-mile bike ride across Europe together after Prometheus wrapped. Yep, it’s all beginning to make sense. The iron is hot, and our boy is striking out in every direction.
Then again, for Fassbender, success has been a long time coming. Growing up in Killarney with German father Josef and Irish mother Adele, the 35-year old actor was 17 when he first took to the stage, in a play by Donie Courtney, who ran a local theatre troupe in the Kerry tourist town. He was, says his father, “a born performer”, Michael moving to London two years later – despite Josef’s expressed reservations – to attend the Drama Centre. A role in Spielberg’s Band Of Brothers TV series convinced Fassbender he had finally arrived, but a string of failed auditions in LA soon afterwards sent him home to London with his considerable tail between his legs. “I made a terrible mess of them,” Fassbender says of the auditions, “and I was quite intimidated.”
Which may explain the supporting roles on dodgy British TV shows over the following four years. And that Guinness ad where he swims across the Atlantic to reconcile with his buddy. To help pay the rent, Fassbender unloaded trucks, bartended, and, as part of a market research, rang people who had complained about the Royal Mail. It was when Fassbender shot 300 in 2005 that his luck finally began to change. Within a year, he had a US agent, and a new UK agent. Two years after that, Hunger premiered at Cannes to critical acclaim. The following year, Fassbender was back at Cannes, this time with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. “It’s then that everything started to change,” Fassbender says.
So, where to now for Killarney’s most famous son? After reuniting with McQueen for Twelve Years A Slave and Scott for The Counselor, Fassbender has some of his own scripts in development. And there’s also those recent meetings with Scorsese to consider.
Just as comfortable in arthouse as he is in a blockbuster, Fassbender could, of course, go anywhere next. “The good thing is,” says the man of the moment, “in truth, I’ve only just started…”