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Is Michael Fassbender the sanest star in La-La Land?

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Is Michael Fassbender the sanest star in La-La Land?

Post by Admin on Sun May 15, 2011 7:22 pm

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/magazine/article3012991.ece

Janice Turner
May 14 2011 12:59PM

He’s starring in everything from X-Men to Jane Eyre. But the man rumoured to be the next James Bond much prefers Hackney to Hollywood

When Michael Fassbender enters the room wearing a raffish trilby and holding a glass of champagne, my thespian-o-meter tilts to max. Actors wear hats to go around unrecognised, although since headgear always draws the eye, it seems a covert look-at-me ruse. But later when, reluctantly, at my request Fassbender removes it, I realise I’ve misjudged him utterly. He is trying to conceal the most theatrical thing about him, an uneven, garish blond dye job for the role he is currently filming, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.

It’s like an early David Beckham, I say. “Jesus!” he exclaims in soft Irish. “That’s not bad. I thought I looked like a ten-quid rentboy.”

But by next year, Fassbender, 34, may be thinking about adopting disguise. He has half a dozen starring roles in major films by hot directors about to be released like a volley of rockets at a firework display. Magneto in X-Men: First Class; Rochester in Jane Eyre; playing Carl Jung opposite Keira Knightley in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method; with Carey Mulligan in Steve McQueen’s Shame; directed by Steven Soderbergh in Haywire; Prometheus, the Alien prequel; plus, he is slated to play Arthur in Guy Ritchie’s Excalibur.

After a decade of steady ascent, a pincer movement between indie grit (as Bobby Sands in Hunger or the charismatic boyfriend Connor in council estate drama Fish Tank) and box-office gloss (such as 300 and Centurion), Fassbender deserves his champagne. Even after a long day of X-Men press interrogation, he is open and unspoilt, grateful for the gods’ present favour but – like all who had a long haul to success – aware it may not last. “Have some, please,” he insists, sharing his champagne and clinking my glass.

To meet Michael Fassbender, you wonder why it took Hollywood so long. Six foot tall, broad shoulders atop a slender yet fine-muscled frame, he locks his pale blue eyes into yours as he speaks, while seeming to gauge from time to time that you are sufficiently disarmed. Yes, a charming man. Yet his vulpine jaw and angular cheekbones – product of his German ancestry – mean his face can flick from kind to cruel, open to opaque, besotted to brooding, making for a scorching Rochester. In Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds he plays an English officer, but he’d equally make a louche officer-class Nazi. Or, as is muttered, the next James Bond.

So how does it feel to be on the launch pad of global fame? So far he has managed to protect his below-the-radar life. Working with Brad Pitt, he witnessed the downside: “A young female fanbase is the toughest to slip and slide away from,” he says. “I don’t suppose Robert Pattinson could just stroll down to Tesco without getting mobbed. It is nice to be able to go out and continue to observe people, a luxury as an actor.” Significantly for someone on movie-star wages, he is based in London Fields, Hackney, in grainy East London, after a stormy relationship with Los Angeles.

The city bruised him badly at 22, when he set forth to capitalise on an early break in Band of Brothers. He got meetings, but only sporadic jobs, felt overwhelmed and returned home somewhat crushed. “I had a lot of lean years where I wasn’t working,” he says. “Sometimes I think you are holding on to something so tight you come into a room and reek of desperation. It’s a terrible Catch-22: if you work you get the confidence, but in order to work you have to show them something you’ve done. I made a balls of so many auditions, lost so many jobs.”

If acting didn’t work out, his Plan B was to open a bar. It was no bottom-of-the-whisky-glass whim. He was raised in the restaurant trade: his father a chef, his mother front of house. They ran a restaurant called West End House in Killarney, County Kerry, until they retired recently. Michael worked in the kitchen, helped unload deliveries. He saw his parents struggle in their first few years, the toll a small business takes on a marriage when money is hard-won. “I’d ask for trainers or fashionable clothes and be told we couldn’t afford them. It teaches you a lot. It surprises me the people of my age who turn around and say, ‘It’s not fair!’ I learnt that very young.”

It was not a bad preparation for showbusiness: “You always have to be smiling and happy when you’re front of house, no matter what is going on in the kitchen or in your own life.”

Growing up in the countryside, Fassbender was a dreamy child who, since most of the neighbourhood kids, like his sister, were older than him, spent much time alone. He would pretend to be the Six Million Dollar Man or the Fall Guy: “I was flying a spaceship, being Superman and climbing trees. I was always living in little pockets of fantasy, but I never thought of acting until I was 17.” At school he preferred mucking around to working, a clown not a rebel. He was a teenager when his parents took on West End House, which was opposite his school, so while they lived a few miles away, Michael was allowed to stay in the restaurant. “I didn’t take the p***. I respected the freedom they gave me.”

He is still very close to his German father, Josef, and Irish mother, Adele, and his sister Catherine, a neuropsychologist who researches ADHD in children. Their parents met in a London nightclub and moved to Heidelberg, where Michael was born. His baby talk was German and his mother, who learnt the language, insisted they talk it at table in Ireland, which embarrassed him at the time. Summers were spent with German relatives, so he speaks the language (rustily) still, well enough to appear in a film sometime, he hopes.

There is a driven, organised Teutonic side to him that he attributes to his father. “If I came home with 85 per cent in a test, he’d always ask what happened to the other 15 per cent. It was awful at the time. I was like, ‘I can never please this guy.’ But it is useful now.”

His mother shared with him her passion for Seventies films, the movies of the great method performers Pacino, De Niro, John Cazale and Christopher Walken. He started reading about the Lee Strasberg school method, directed a group of friends in a production of Reservoir Dogs – which tickled Tarantino when he told him about it. His parents were anxious he go to university first, but he came to London to drama school, leaving before graduating when he was cast in Band of Brothers.

After that sudden early success, it was slim pickings until two roles that drew on method levels of physical dedication. The first was 300, in which he had to bulk up to play a Spartan warrior fighting in tiny leather Speedos: working out for ten weeks, four hours a day, five days a week, before even going in front of camera. “But that’s fun. You get the best people training you and you get paid to look good and feel strong.”

The second was in Hunger, the first movie by Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen, in which Fassbender played Bobby Sands. It was a part worthy of a young De Niro, requiring him to starve down to a weight credible for a man dying on hunger strike. It is a darkly beautiful but disturbing film for its violence and the disgusting nature of the dirty protests. So I’m delighted to learn that to replicate the faeces daubed on the cell walls, designers used chocolate mousse. “Yeah, I could have actually wiped a bit off and eaten it,” says Fassbender, grinning.

At the film’s centre is a powerful dialogue with a priest, in which Sands attempts to reconcile his political action with Catholic theology: is hunger strike martyrdom or deadly sin? Holding the frame with immense power and stillness, it is the moment Fassbender reveals himself a star.

After this central scene was shot, the production was closed down for ten weeks while he lost 40lb, taking him down to around 9 stone. I ask how he kept strong, and he says that as a good Catholic altar boy he would give up sweets, biscuits and cakes for Lent. But while other children were allowed to cheat on Sundays or splurge on St Patrick’s Day, Michael never did. His resolve astonished, even unnerved, his parents. “I wondered,” he says, “if I still had the same willpower I had at the age of 7.” Besides, he knew the power of the film rested on his physical transformation.

In preparation he told his girlfriend he didn’t want to see her during his fast, and rented a house in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, the notorious hangout of the city’s fruit-loops, where he fitted in fine as he spent his days walking and doing yoga. He ate 900 calories a day, just a handful of nuts and berries, plus endless cans of sardines: “I thought they would be good for me; they have calcium.” He was surprised to find he had so much energy he could hardly sleep. “It’s pretty frightening. I started to understand how mentally all-encompassing it becomes and what it must be like for people with eating disorders.”

It sounds very ascetic and deeply Catholic. “Yes, I was kind of monk-like. It was like the 40 days and 40 nights alone in the desert. In a practical way, if you have friends around they will say, ‘Let’s eat this packet of crisps while we watch this movie.’ It weakens you. I thought, ‘I will stay on my path.’ ” It paid off: Hunger won the Cannes Palme d’Or and Fassbender’s performance was catnip to directors.

And so he returned to LA, no longer a naif, but with the power and maturity to get what he wanted. “I was not at the industry’s mercy any more.” But he stayed only as long as he had to, finds that LA lacks a sense of humour about itself and gets bored by the monomania of a one-industry town. “I’m afraid of what I could become if I lived in LA for too long.”

Clearly he is self-reliant, doesn’t mind the solitary preparation, the dislocation of being away on set, living in hotel rooms for the past few years. “I think that is my trump card in this industry,” he says, “That when I put my mind to something, I go for it uncompromisingly.” He relishes acquiring a new talent for a part, like riding for Jane Eyre (where filming was delayed because every time Fassbender mounted his horse it got an erection).

So what did you learn making X-Men? He grins, that Californian-dentured grin tinged with Irish brio, and says, “I learnt how to bend metal. It took a while.” As a young Magneto, the role played previously by Sir Ian McKellen, he enters a rich franchise with all its likely intrusions. But he cites the example of Viggo Mortensen, who despite starring in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, keeps a low-key life.

Besides, Fassbender avoids industry parties, is suspicious of the seduction of stardom, and finds a creativity in London and New York he never found in LA. His niggling worry is of losing connection with reality: “Suddenly you are in big films and everyone gives you free s***. You can get too enticed by it so you don’t want to lose those things. And you think, why didn’t you give me that free suit ten years ago when I couldn’t afford to get a bus?”

For such a fabulously attractive man, who has already spawned a bunch of adoring fan-sites, he is never pictured with his arm around the obvious blonde. Inquiries about his personal life are politely stalled. He dated for several years the American actress Sunawin Andrews, who already had a child. Whether that is over or whether he is dating his X-Men co-star, 22-year-old Zoë Kravitz, daughter of Lenny, he will not confirm.

But clearly any girlfriend would have to dance to the ever quickening tempo of his career. “If you have a relationship you can work around it by focusing on the time you have together, which helps you not take each other for granted.” Yet he sounds far from wanting to start a family, asking how with such a haphazard life, away for weeks or rising at 4am, he could be a good father. “I’d want to be able to put them before everything else. But at the moment my job is the most important thing for me. I want to give it everything I can.”

When, a few weeks later, I bump into an actor who worked with Fassbender on a TV series, he expresses delight about his stellar success: “He is a great guy, a good laugh and very sane.” Certainly, Fassbender must be the only actor in Hollywood never to have therapy, yet he has just played Carl Jung, one of the forefathers of psychotherapy. Clearly queasy of the LA obsession with the self, he reflects that Jung’s fixation with each individual reaching their potential is appealing, “but I think it is important not to lose the idea that we’re all reliant on each other and interconnected.

“What I am trying to say is that when you get on the Tube, if you ask the person who sells you the ticket how they are and they’re like, ‘I’m good, how’s your day?’, that exchange feeds you and feeds them. You get so much out of that in terms of feeling there is a purpose. Rather than always thinking how I can achieve the best for me.”

Not the usual philosophy of a movie star. But maybe scrabbling up the hard way, as Michael Fassbender did, is the best protection against success.

X-Men: First Class is released on June 1 2011
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