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Life in the Fassbender lane

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Life in the Fassbender lane

Post by Admin on Sun Sep 11, 2011 2:58 am

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2011/0910/1224303814090.html

The Irish Times - Saturday, September 10, 2011
Life in the Fassbender lane

DONALD CLARKE

What’s special about Ireland is that we are steeped in storytelling. That rich involvement has influenced me. I guess that’s why I do what I do

WHO IS THE ERA’S most prominent youngish Irish actor? Quite a few people, if stopped randomly on the street, might nominate Colin Farrell or Cillian Murphy. But, as of the second week in September, the correct answer must surely be Michael Fassbender. The Kerryman, now 34, is everywhere. Two films starring Fassbender have just premiered at the Venice Film Festival. In David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method , he appears as the controversial psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. In Steve McQueen’s Shame , he plays a New Yorker obsessed with sex. Those films won’t be with us for a while, but, as of this weekend, you can catch him as Mr Rochester in Cary Fukunaga’s fresh take on Jane Eyre .

When does the man sleep? He can barely have had time to change his underpants over the past year.

Sounding a bit weary after the flight from Venice, his handsome head cropped to a tight number-three cut, Fassbender laughs croakily and agrees that it’s been a very busy year.

“I have managed a break. Once I finished Prometheus , I went on a six-week road trip with my dad and a friend from school,” he says. “My mother flew in and joined us. I turned off the phone and didn’t look at e-mails for three whole weeks.” Oh yes, I forgot about Prometheus . That’s Ridley Scott’s puzzling companion piece – not a sequel, but shot in the same universe – to the director’s own peerless Alien . My understanding is that any actor who reveals even a hint of the plot is liable to be summarily executed.

“Yes. That’s true, I think,” he says. “I think there is somebody watching me right now. It’s something I really can’t talk about. I can say I’ve never seen sets like them. We’re so used to green screen now. But these are extraordinary real sets.” Despite recent turns in Inglourious Basterds and X-Men: First Class (I hope you’re counting), Fassbender is, perhaps, still best known for that incredible performance in Steve McQueen’s Hunger . Playing Bobby Sands during the last days of his life, the actor unveiled stunning levels of focus and intensity. The same qualities are on display in Jane Eyre . By some reckonings, there have been 18 versions of Charlotte Brontë’s novel. But Mr Rochester – the sombre figure who employs, then overpowers the heroine – has rarely seemed quite so fleshy and angrily human. How on earth do you set about making sense of a near-mythological character? “Well, the first thing that struck me – and I don’t know if I’m on the right track – was the notion that he was quite bipolar. One moment he’s very disconnected and in a dark place and then you find somebody very engaged and excitable. He puts up these defences, so nobody can get at the bad places in his life. I really wanted to show that.”

I have heard that Fassbender’s mother and sister were both fanatically keen on the novel and that, when shooting the film, he felt a particular responsibility towards them. I guess if they hadn’t liked the film they would have been too polite to say. “No they wouldn’t, actually,” he laughs. “Oh, they’re very good that way. They really liked it.”

Born in Heidelberg to a German father and a mother from Larne, Fassbender moved to Killarney with the family when he was two, and his parents ran a restaurant in the area. He explains that, as a number of European factories had recently moved to the area, his German surname did not seem quite as out of place as you might expect. It’s difficult, when considering that attractive town, to avoid the idiotic assumption that anyone growing up there must have enjoyed an idyllic childhood, with gambols in leafy groves and frolics by twinkling brooks.

“Yeah, it was a happy childhood,” he agrees. “For sure. I remember that, as a child, I always desperately wanted to grow up. I was always into cars. So there was an urge to get my licence when I was old enough. There was yearning there. But Killarney is such a beautiful place. What’s special about Ireland is that we are steeped in storytelling, whether it’s poems, songs or novels. To have that rich involvement in the arts has influenced me. I guess that’s why I do what I do.” Fassbender goes on to describe a drift into amateur dramatics as a teenager. His future direction was assured when he devised and starred in a theatrical production of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

One wonders what Tarantino made of this story when the two men were working on the director’s Inglourious Basterds . I don’t imagine any royalties came Quentin’s way. “He liked it. He was happy once I assured him that the proceeds went to charity,” Fassbender says, before dipping into an effective Tarantino impersonation. “ ‘Well, as long as nobody made any money out of it,’ he said. Apparently there’s a loophole if you do a play for charity. Well, that’s what we told ourselves at the time, anyway.”

Fassbender eventually made his way to the notoriously tough, method-friendly Drama Centre in north London. He doesn’t regret the choice, but left six months early because he felt the training was occasionally a little too intense. Watching his acutely focused recent performances and considering his suave, old-fashioned good looks, you would not be surprised to hear that he quickly secured a very tasty gig. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg snapped him up for a role in the epic second World War series Band of Brothers. But a relatively fallow period soon followed. Indeed, he admits that, before Hunger came along in 2008, he was considering taking up the family business.

“It was a genuine thought,” he says. “You always want to believe that you are good enough to be working. I learned how to run a bar. I learned all the cocktails. And that was the only other thing I had experience of doing. Then suddenly I got auditions again. That can happen. When you direct your energy somewhere else, the universe can repay you.”

It’s easy to forget how badly Hunger could have turned out. There are few more sensitive subjects than the hunger strikes. But McQueen, until then regarded as a gallery-based visual artist, made something utterly extraordinary of the material. Pulling out the vibrancy from Fassbender’s piercing eyes, he turned the protagonist into a haggard, living work of art.

“Being Irish and familiar with the topic, the hardest thing was making sure that you showed as much respect as possible. You want to create a rounded character. When the audience looks at me, I am taking a journey on their behalf. We are asking questions about how humans relate to one another.” Fassbender, an endlessly articulate man with a sly sense of humour, clearly has enormous respect for McQueen. He acknowledges that the director changed his life “both personally and professionally”. So, when he called Michael and asked him to be in his second feature, the actor felt that he didn’t even need to see a script. If the partnership continues, Fassbender could become Robert De Niro to McQueen’s Martin Scorsese. “My first ambition as an actor was to discover a director and work things out together,” Fassbender says. “ Hunger was my first real lead and his first feature. So that did happen.” Received to rapturous reviews at Venice, McQueen’s Shame follows a man who, after his sister moves into his New York apartment, finds himself overcome with rampant carnal urges. By all accounts, the picture features quite a few explicit sex scenes.

Fassbender also indulged in some sweaty faux-copulation for Andrea Arnold’s fine Fish Tank . You couldn’t say he wasn’t a brave actor.

“You still feel embarrassed doing those scenes,” he admits. “First and foremost you make sure your partner is comfortable. You are not doing it in a titillating way. You have to commit. You tell jokes to put people at ease. Then you can try and forget the room is full of people and you are bollock-naked.”

It’s easy to see why every director with half a brain is fighting to get Fassbender into their film. He is not short of charisma, but he also is a very impressive thinker. Whereas some actors favour instinct, he demonstrates, in our conversation, an ability to analyse the dynamics of every character’s journey.

But he likes a laugh as well. Given the assortment of furiously furrowed characters he has played, this aspect of his personality comes as a welcome surprise. “I think I’m pretty light hearted,” he says with a Munster burr. “I find myself smiling and enjoying life. I am very lucky to be where I am. How could you not enjoy it? It doesn’t get any better.”

Jane Eyre is on general release
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