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Post by Admin on Sat Jan 23, 2010 7:10 pm

Better late
Michael Fassbender’s dues-paying path has finally led the actor to starring roles

Michael Fassbender, 32, says Hollywood “overwhelmed me a little bit’’ on his first foray there about 10 years ago. (Jennifer Taylor for The Boston Globe)

By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / January 24, 2010

NEW YORK - In today’s youth-obsessed culture, you could call Michael Fassbender something of a late bloomer.

He’s a talented 32-year-old who paid his dues as a workaday actor juggling TV auditions in between bartending gigs, a stint doing market research for Britain’s Royal Mail, and other odd jobs. After a few years struggling to gain traction, he began landing small character parts in various UK television series.

But it was his breakthrough role on the big screen, as the glistening, sword-swinging sex object Stelios in Zach Snyder’s “300,’’ that propelled him onto the radar of Hollywood casting directors. Since then, the Irish-German actor has been on a slow burn. He lost nearly 40 pounds to play the harrowing role of hunger-striking Irish nationalist Bobby Sands in the 2008 Cannes prize-winner, “Hunger.’’ Then there was his scene-stealing role as Lieutenant Archie Hicox, a velvet-tongued film critic-turned military commando in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.’’

While portraying the polarizing Sands was a risk, Fassbender’s latest gambit could also rankle the sensibilities of some filmgoers. In British director Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank,’’ which opens Friday, Fassbender plays the seductive Connor, a vaguely louche 30-something charmer who enters the orbit of angsty 15-year-old Mia (newcomer Katie Jarvis) when he starts dating her volatile, liquor-soused mother. Fassbender blends a tender exterior with hints of a treacherous underbelly in this unflinching coming-of-age story.

So what’s been Fassbender’s reaction to watching his film career ignite over the past few years?

“Each time I think, oh, I got away with another one,’’ he says, flashing an ear-to-ear grin during a recent interview in the lounge of a SoHo hotel.

“It’s just nice to have the work, really,’’ he adds in a softly lilting Irish accent. “I’ve been knocking around for a while now, chipping away, and doing lots of character parts that have a little bit of an edge to them.’’

The role of Connor in “Fish Tank’’ is that, and much more. Set in a drab housing project in Essex, England, the film shared the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (Arnold also won that prize for her 2006 debut, “Red Road’’). A clear-eyed portrait of teenage confusion, restlessness, and sexuality, the film follows the rebellious Mia as she argues with her mother and sister, clashes violently with a group of girls, and spends hours alone working on her hip-hop dance routines.

Into this unstable milieu gallops Fassbender as her party-girl mother’s new boyfriend, to whom Mia quickly develops an attraction. She sees him as a father figure, a confidant, and perhaps her salvation.

“He’s a confident guy, but I think he’s also very generous,’’ says the ginger-haired actor. “He gives Mia a lot of nourishment in terms of boosting her self-confidence so she can go out and chase a dream that she’s a bit shy and embarrassed about.’’

Fassbender was so impressed with “Red Road,’’ he agreed to do the film without being able to read the script beforehand. An heir to British social realist directors like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, Arnold parceled out the script for each scene only a few days before filming each one, a challenge for an actor who prides himself on his meticulous preparation

“You can’t form your ideas [about the character] or any layers beforehand because you don’t know what will happen next,’’ says Fassbender. “So you have to just keep it loose, act it moment to moment, and try not to load anything onto the character. Andrea just wanted people to relax and be themselves. And this is pretty much as close to me as anything I’ve done.’’

Still, the actor knew that he had to tap into Connor’s dark side.

“The first thing I discovered about him is that he’s not very good at dealing with any sort of confrontation,’’ he says. “When the going gets tough, he just takes off. He’s very much an escapist who doesn’t want to face the truth and avoids responsibility in his life.’’

Arnold cast Fassbender before ever meeting him, because she says she had an instinct about him from the beginning.

“You can imagine in the future he’s going to get to play both the dashing heroes but also the charming villains. And of course, in this film, he’s a little bit of both,’’ she says.

Dressed in a white T-shirt and well-worn jeans, the stubbly-faced Fassbender exhibits an easygoing charm and considerable smarts. His magnetic blue eyes twinkle with mischief. And he’s definitely a guy’s guy - a Formula One and motorbike racing enthusiast who also enjoys a bit of recreational archery.

While a reporter wrapped up his conversation with Arnold, Fassbender showed off his playful side, barging in from an adjoining room and firing a Nerf bow-and-arrow over the couch on which the amused director was seated.

Raised in Killarney, the son of an Irish mother and German father, Fassbender aspired to be a heavy-metal guitarist, and eventually settled on drama school, despite the protestations of his parents.

Before finishing his studies at the Drama Centre in London, he landed a supporting role in the award-winning HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers.’’ He was just 22. When it wrapped, he moved to LA for a short stint and got an agent. After just a few months, “I left with my tail between my legs.’’

“I guess the place overwhelmed me a little bit,’’ he adds. “I couldn’t get my head around auditions. And I made a [botch] of many of them.’’

Because he didn’t have massive success right out of the gate, Fassbender agrees that his struggles gave him a great deal of perspective.

“I guess it’s made me more grounded as a person. If I was in my 20s, maybe I’d be more interested in the distractions of the business, the more glamorous side of it,’’ he says. “So I wouldn’t change the process or the trajectory at all.’’

Though he missed out on the title role in “The Green Lantern,’’ his dance card is still full of projects with some of the world’s most celebrated directors. On deck is the new Steven Soderbergh film, “Knockout,’’ scheduled to start shooting next month; rising young director Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of “Jane Eyre’’; and David Cronenberg’s “The Talking Cure,’’ in which he’s slated to play Carl Jung opposite Keira Knightley, with his “Basterds’’ costar Christoph Waltz as Freud.

But first he’ll be seen this summer as John Malkovich’s havoc-wreaking, right-hand-psychopath in the action thriller “Jonah Hex.’’

“Things have really fallen into place for me,’’ Fassbender says. “That’s not to say there was any grand plan outlined. I just feel very lucky to be a part of this profession and to carve out a living doing what I love.’’

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