Michael Fassbender - GQ - Men of the Year 2011: Breakout
Every Michael Fassbender fan freaks out in his or her own special way. Critics draw Daniel Day-Lewis comparisons, bloggers term themselves “Fassinators,” and women pass out in movie theaters when the actor comes on-screen. The fainting occurred at the Toronto International Film Festival, at the premiere of Shame, a movie in which he stars as a mournful sex addict. The film was acquired by Fox Searchlight and will see its release timed for optimal Oscar consideration in December. The unconscious woman was revived and taken to the hospital.
When he shows up for this interview on a sunny New York morning, it is not immediately clear what the fuss is about. He says hello, lights up a Camel, and dissolves sleepily into a deck chair on a terrace in Chelsea. To his left, the Hudson River; to his right, potted palms. He doesn’t look anything like he does on-screen, and this is not a roundabout way of implying that he is short. It’s a neutral fact. Instead of fusilli ringlets (Jane Eyre), Fassbender’s hair is close-cropped and gingery. Instead of a delicate complexion and boomerang jawline (Inglourious Basterds), his chin is blurred by whiskers and his forehead well lined. In real life, his eyes do not penetrate (X-Men: First Class), and his muscles cannot cast shadows (300). Even when geared up as Magneto, Fassbender is so handsome that it’s almost tacky. But in person, wearing a faded T-shirt, leather jacket, and boots with the sort of white cotton socks your dad might buy, he’s manageably beautiful—the kind of man whose face warrants a pause, not a faint. When Fassbender claims that people still don’t recognize him on the street—that his favorite activity is to “observe, blend in, and disappear amongst the crowd”—it’s possible to believe him, because he can evidently molt skins.
David Cronenberg, who directed Fassbender as Carl Jung in this year’s A Dangerous Method, says that the actor so effectively lost himself in the part that at the Venice Film Festival, “nobody recognized him until we introduced him to the audience.” Both men were pleased by this. Shape-shifting, Cronenberg said, is a rare and fantastic skill for an actor to have: “The more a chameleon you can be, the better off you are.”
Fassbender, at 34, has an appealingly weathered face. Unlike most of his American peers, he looks (and acts) his age, perhaps because he’s been at this awhile. Shortly after high school, he moved from Ireland to London to study acting. Success was patchy, and he built a decade-long portfolio of near misses, disappointments, and bartending jobs before a stream of TV work allowed him to act full-time.
"Michael’s got a working-class attitude, in a good way," says Cronenberg, and Fassbender’s approach does contain an element of manual labor. To prepare for a role, he’ll read a screenplay as many as 300 times in daily shifts of seven hours. What he first seeks in a project is literary merit: "I like a story that is challenging to me as a reader, and therefore as an audience, and therefore as a player." Which often translates into parts he can disappear into.
Shame, the latest of these feats, begins with the actor naked and laid out on post-sex bedsheets like a strip of raw bacon. This is the actor’s second collaboration with Britain’s Steve McQueen, who directed him in 2008’s Hunger. For that film, Fassbender dropped forty pounds to play the IRA prisoner Bobby Sands, and Shame demands similar physical sacrifices. His every crease and follicle is on view as the compulsively oversexed Brandon, who lives in a cashmere-lined world of luxury and self-loathing. (Think Patrick Bateman in a minor key.) Fassbender cannily plays Brandon as if he were a cyborg trying to imitate human behavior: His reaction times are off, his stares inappropriate, his bearing frozen. When asked how he readied himself for the film’s many nude scenes, he is characteristically proletarian: “You feel awkward and mortified, but you get on with it. I’m not easily embarrassed.”
If Shame fails to strip Fassbender of his cheerful anonymity, Prometheus will. Ridley Scott’s latest addition to the Alien franchise almost guarantees the actor will be ubiquitous before July. For his part, Scott doesn’t care whether his leading man is a household name by then. As he puts it simply, “Michael is the real thing.”