In this interview, Michael Fassbender talks through some of his most famous roles over the past ten years, discusses how he gets into character, his journey to stardom, the people who helped him along the way and more.
It has been ten years since Michael Fassbender shot to fame on the big screen in Hunger. The German-born actor, who grew up in Killarney, Ireland, was 30 when he got his big break in Steve McQueen’s biopic of Irish republican hunger-striker Bobby Sands. Now, at 40, he is a two-time Academy Award nominee (12 Years a Slave, Steve Jobs), a SAG and Critics Choice Award winner (Inglourious Basterds) and a British Independent Film Award winner (Shame, Hunger) – to name some of his many accolades.
He has also done his turn as a superhero playing Magneto in Marvel’s X-Men movies and starred as Macbeth in Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of the Shakespeare play. Other films of note include playing Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method and donning a papier-mâché head to play a character inspired by comedy musician Frank Sidebottom in Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank. In his latest project, Sir Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, the sequel to the legendary director’s Alien prequel Prometheus, he is seen reprising his character of sentient android David.
So Michael, you shot to fame with Hunger, which you made ten years ago, and you’ve now made three movies with Steve McQueen. How did you find each other?
Michael Fassbender: Well, really I have to thank a casting director called Gary Davy. He called me in to meet Steve initially. I’d got the script for Hunger and I was very sensitive to the material. My mum comes from the north and I just wanted to make sure that if we were making a film about this topic that it was handled with the utmost respect.
Had you heard of Steve or did you know his work before getting the script?
Michael Fassbender: No I didn’t. I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to art, I have to say. Embarrassingly so. So Gary was like, ‘you’ve got to come in and meet this guy’. It wasn’t like my door was getting knocked down with offers or anything [laughs] so I went in to meet Steve and I immediately knew that I had to work with him, that he was special.
What was it?
Michael Fassbender: It was just the way he answered my questions. […] Just the way he talked about people… Steve has got such an empathy for humanity. He loves people in all their greatness and in their flaws. It was palpable sitting there with him. So, I left the room thinking ‘that was a good meeting’. I was pretty happy. And then I later found out he hated me [laughs].
Really? Why did he hate you?
Michael Fassbender: I don’t know. I think he said I was arrogant [laughs]. But I don’t understand. I guess I was maybe a little defensive. I hadn’t been working a lot and I don’t know how I came across in the room. I thought I came across well but that just goes to show how much I know. But Gary again said to Steve, ‘you need to get him back in and let him read and do the scene, this is the guy for the part’. So I came in and I did a section of the scene
between Bobby and the priest and then they offered it to me after that.
What is the difference between making a big Hollywood sci-fi film with someone like Sir Ridley Scott, or an X-Men film, compared to the work you’ve done with Steve McQueen?
Michael Fassbender: Patience [laughs]. It’s a slow process. With Steve it’s fast. Like Steve shot… I can’t remember what Hunger was because there was the break in between and I went off for ten weeks to lose the weight and then we came back and shot the last ten days. But Shame was shot in 25 days, that was tight but it’s not unreasonable to think. But he shot 12 Years a Slave in 35 days with one camera, which is nuts. So, we work fast. Whereas on the big productions you work slowly.
There are some funny scenes in your movies like Frank. We don’t see you do comedy enough. Do you like comedy?
Michael Fassbender: I do. I try and sort of bring it in wherever I can. Like David (Prometheus, Alien: Covenant) as well, there are some fun moments there. It’s something that I have to do more of.
Would you ever do a full-on comedy?
Michael Fassbender: Absolutely yeah. Maybe people don’t think of me [laughs]. I spoke to Seth Rogen about it. We’d met before, I was a fan of his work. I think I threw a blueberry at him actually, it was at one of these dinners and he was at the table across the way and so that was our introduction and then I got talking to him. So, when we were on Jobs he said, ‘I thought we’d work together at some point but I thought it would be in one of my movies’. So yeah, maybe at some point.
You choose characters that push boundaries and sometimes you have to do extreme things for your roles. Is that the kind of thing you seek out?
Michael Fassbender: It appears so sometimes [laughs]. I don’t know. I guess I’ve always wanted to learn as much as I can in the time that’s been afforded to me. And the roles that have really attracted me have been perhaps in an area where I thought, ‘jeez, am I going to be able to pull it off?’ or ‘what sort of scope are these characters in and is it something that I can find or reach?’
There was a lot of emotion between you and Alicia Vikander in The Light Between Two Oceans. How do you get to that place when you’re shooting an emotional scene?
Michael Fassbender: It can be various different ways. Sometimes you try and remember something that was sad or traumatic or a time that really affected you emotionally and try and sort of relive that. That’s one way of doing it. But as the years go on I find that just by relaxing, I try to get to a place where I’m physically and mentally very relaxed and focussed. And then it’s kind of strange because you sort of exercise that muscle over many years and go into that sort of state, it becomes a trigger.
Finally, what was your most personal experience with a character and most difficult time as a character?
Michael Fassbender: Personal, I suppose would be Hunger, just because I was so hungry [laughs] in more ways than one. I just wanted to get an opportunity to ‘act’. I wanted to really have the opportunity to do this for a living. I was 30 and I got this opportunity to play a lead role in a film and I really wanted to make sure I grabbed that opportunity with both hands. And then I also spent ten weeks by myself losing the weight and it was a very solitary experience and a very profound one. So that whole story was very personal to me as well. The fact that it was part of my history that’s got to be the most personal. The toughest one was Jobs.
Because of Aaron Sorkin [laughs]?
Michael Fassbender: [laughs] He wrote all that stuff! No, it was just so dense and it was such a mountain. Like I said earlier, I’m a slow learner. When the script arrived for me and the opportunity to play the part I really thought, ‘this is not me, this should be somebody else. It’s a miscast scenario’. Then I spoke to my agent and my dad and they were like, ‘you’ve got to go for it’. So, I was like, ‘okay, I’ll go for it’. But at the beginning in rehearsals I was trying to find a way to get out of the job. I remember telling my driver, ‘if I put my arm in the door and you slam it, it should cause a break and should get me out of this gig’. But I thankfully didn’t and I just went back to my room and continued learning the lines. But there were some daunting moments in that process.
TEXT: JASON ADAMS/HOT FEATURES | PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK