INTERVIEW: Michael Fassbender

Posted by · 7:06 pm · January 19th, 2010

Michael FassbenderMichael Fassbender is unemployed.

This, at least, is what he tells me at the outset of our conversation, and he sounds entirely relaxed about it. As well he sound be: after 18 months of back-to-back film projects, a catholic range spanning the gruelling physical demands of “Hunger,” the arch larking-about of “Inglourious Basterds,” the kitchen-sink grit of “Fish Tank” and the blockbuster polish of the upcoming “Jonah Hex,” the 32 year-old Irish-German thesp has more than earned himself some downtime.

Not that Fassbender is entirely sure how to enjoy it. “I don’t really know what to do with myself, to be honest,” he tells me over the phone from Los Angeles, where his next vehicle – “A Single Shot,” a “very quirky” thriller in which he has the lead role – is currently in pre-production.

“When you’re trying to make it as an actor, all you want to be is busy. After nearly two years of bouncing from one shoot to another, even a little time off is kind of disconcerting. I don’t even really have a home at the moment to spend it in.”

He laughs, but there is a trace of weariness in his voice, its lolloping West Irish rhythm occasionally colored with harder enunciation that only faintly betrays his half-German parentage. His professional restlessness, however, has made him one of the past year’s most visible young actors.

Months after his breakout turn as IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in festival sensation “Hunger” turned critics’ heads and netted him both a BIFA Award and a BAFTA Rising Star nomination, he was back with a key part in the hefty ensemble of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” for which he and his co-stars stand to pick up a SAG Award this Sunday.

Currently, however, he’s hitting U.S. screens with a striking turn in Andrea Arnold’s searing Cannes hit “Fish Tank,” as Connor, a working-class security guard who enters the life of 16 year-old tearaway Mia (Katie Jarvis) as a paternal influence, only for their relationship to take a rapid turn for the inappropriate. The character is a far cry from his dryly urbane film critic in “Inglourious Basterds,” or indeed the terse martyrdom of Bobby Sands, but Fassbender is in no hurry to carve a star persona for himself.

“I don’t pick films with the mindset of what a certain sequence of roles will do for my career,” he says. “I look for flawed characters, characters with some complexity. And I look to work with good writers and strong, confident directors. So when something comes along that catches my interest, I do it, whatever the nature of the part, or the project. There’s no real plan.”

“Fish Tank” falls into the category of projects he committed to on the director’s name alone. “They didn’t have a script when I signed on. I just knew I wanted to work with Andrea,” he tells me, expressing his admiration for the Oscar-winning British director’s 2006 debut feature “Red Road.” “There’s no judgment of her characters in her films. She’s just interested in people as people.”

Indeed, when he agreed to the project, Fassbender had little notion of the character he would be playing – Arnold took the unconventional, part-improvisational approach of shooting the film in chronological order, only giving the actors their scenes for the following week on the preceding Friday. As such, the darker turns taken by the character were as much a revelation to the actor as they are to the audience.

Michael Fassbender in Fish Tank“It was very important to Andrea that we shot in sequence. When we meet Connor, he’s light, he’s fresh, he’s the only positive influence in that unhappy household. But what we learn about him is that he’s not yet grown up. He’s a good-natured man who runs away from his problems, and he sees this ready-made family he can just jump into.”

In a sense, it’s this immaturity that accounts for Connor’s bond with the young, unformed Mia – and ultimately takes it into dangerous sexual territory. Fassbender was undaunted by this tricky moral ground (“My only concern was for Katie, that she was comfortable with this, not for my own image”), steadfastly refusing to cast judgment on the character.

“In a way, playing a part like this allows you to judge your own morality,” he continues. “I thought about what my own influence would be in that family. I wouldn’t make the same decisions Connor does, but I could relate to him. I have something of a problem with responsibility myself.” A pause, before a breezier tone takes over. “Luckily for me, my career allows for that!”

Fassbender heaps praise upon 18 year-old first-time actress Jarvis: “There’s a real truth about her as an actor, no frills or fuss … I was trying to keep up with her, to be honest.” He hands much of the credit for their easy onscreen rapport to Arnold’s ability to “create a safe space” on what was a very intimate shoot.

A greater difference between this experience and the big-budget shenanigans of “Inglourious Basterds” is hard to imagine. Like “Fish Tank,” however, “Basterds” was a proposal whose principal attraction was its director: “In truth, I’d have jumped at the chance to work with Tarantino, even if it was for a three-line part. Who wouldn’t?”

Fortunately for Fassbender, the role of Lt. Archie Hicox, the dapper British cinephile-turned-resistance fighter who anchors the film’s lengthy, intricate tavern sequence, featured substantially more than three lines. That said, it’s not the role Fassbender was hoping for when Tarantino’s script first came his way.

“Yeah, I was gunning for Hans Landa,” he laughs, referring to the showily villainous role that has landed Austrian actor Christoph Waltz countless awards to date. “I spent ages rehearsing Landa, working on the accent, really putting all my eggs in that basket. Then, at the audition, Quentin tells me they’re not after a cool character, and asks me to read Hicox!”

Fassbender’s disappointment was short-lived as he threw himself into preparation for the role of Hicox, whose suave physicality and clipped, patrician tones he mastered by studying tapes of British actor George Sanders in the Saint films of the 1940s. “There’s a heightened language and elegance of movement to that whole era, a focus on words we don’t even have today,” he says. “You don’t often get an opportunity to capture that.”

He professes to be awed by Tarantino’s “balancing of the ludicrous with reality,” and relishes the professional contrast between studio productions like “Basterds” and scrappy indies like “Fish Tank.”

Michael Fassbender and Diane Kruger in Inglourious Basterds“It’s ideal going from one to the other, it keeps you on your toes,” he says. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t shitting it when I went to work on ‘Basterds.’ When the production is that big, when there are that many people involved, you really don’t want to be the one to mess it up for everyone. It’s more pressure, and I like that.”

The pressure returns, then, when Fassbender begins work in February on “A Single Shot,” with a cast that includes Forest Whitaker, William H. Macy and Thomas Haden Church, under the direction of “Down in the Valley” helmer David Jacobson. Also on his plate: Steven Soderbergh’s “Knockout,” alongside Ewan McGregor. Audiences, meanwhile, will next see him in Neil Marshall’s Roman epic “Centurion” this spring, with a villainous turn in comic-book adaptation “Jonah Hex” following in the summer.

Beyond that, a legion of projects are in the pipeline for the actor, perhaps the most intriguing of which is “Sin Nombre” director Cary Fukunaga’s take on Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre,” in which he’ll become the latest actor (following the likes of Orson Welles and William Hurt) to take on the tortured Byronic hero Mr. Rochester. “There’s so much history to Rochester, so many flaws,” Fassbender says at the close of our conversation. “That’s the only kind of romantic lead I’m interested in playing.”

It promises to be another busy year. Fassbender should enjoy his unemployment while it lasts.

“Fish Tank” is currently in limited release.

→ 14 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Interviews

14 responses so far

  • 1 1-19-2010 at 7:30 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    And he’ll be in Soderbergh’s “Knockout.” Lensing begins in February.

    Nice interview, Guy. Twenty years from now I believe Fassbender will be considered one of the greats.

  • 2 1-19-2010 at 7:41 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Gittes: Thanks … the interview was done last month, but I just picked up on that and added it a moment ago. The guy is busy!

    As for Fassbender, I totally agree with you. He’s not putting a foot wrong, and I think there’s talent of Day-Lewisian proportions there. (Plus, he’s already been robbed of one Oscar nomination.)

  • 3 1-19-2010 at 7:55 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    Yep. I think Fassbender I think Day-Lewis. Same goes for Christian Bale if he, like Fassbender, can take on more varied roles from here on out.

    Not sure why there’s no Jonah Hex trailer yet.

  • 4 1-19-2010 at 8:18 pm

    zls said...

    Thanks for the great interview!

  • 5 1-19-2010 at 8:35 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    Fassbender is going to be a beast. No question.

  • 6 1-19-2010 at 8:35 pm

    Simone said...

    Great interview Guy! I’m so happy for the direction Michael’s career is going. I hope that by your interview article with him featured here, readers of In Contention will come to appreciate the true talent he has and that he is someone to watch.

    I’ll let my peeps know about your interview.

  • 7 1-19-2010 at 8:57 pm

    Jim T said...

    Bravo, Guy! He is very good, no doubt but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Day-Lewis did things in A Room With A View that Fassbender has yet to prove he can do.

  • 8 1-19-2010 at 9:30 pm

    red_wine said...

    Great interview Guy, Fassbender is simply magnificent in everything I’ve seen him in so far. He was totally robbed for Hunger(Brad Pitt was nominated for boring us to death) and he actually manages to makes a big impression in the huge illustrious cast of Inglorious Bastards. A supporting actor nomination is called for, along with one for his sparring partner, August Diehl.

    He definitely has 1 of the most interesting film0graphies of any actor right now. The balance between blockbusters(Centurion, Hex), prestigious indies (Hunger, Fish Tank) and a combination of both (Inglorious Basterds) is exquisite. One of the most exciting actors working today for sure.

  • 9 1-19-2010 at 10:22 pm

    BurmaShave said...

    Part of me wants Fassbender to succeed Craig as Bond, part of me wants much better for him.

  • 10 1-19-2010 at 10:35 pm

    Danny King said...

    Great interview!

    It’s so refreshing to see an actor that really gives a damn about his profession (Michael C. Hall’s speech!)

    Seriously though, Fassbender is an actor I truly admire. I loved the bit about him rehearsing endlessly for Landa and then getting turned down. I’m sure many actors would have walked out, but he took it in stride like a professional.

    I can’t wait to see some of the films he has on his upcoming slate, particularly the Rochester role. The minute I read that, I smiled. He’s perfect for the role. Then again, with the versatility he’s shown, he seems to be perfect for tons of roles.

  • 11 1-20-2010 at 6:49 am

    Matt King said...

    Interesting that he’s doing Jane Eyre. I’m excited to see that. Also interesting because Fish Tank director Andrea Arnold is doing Wuthering Heights. Fassbender would make a good Heathcliff too.

  • 12 1-20-2010 at 8:36 am

    Flosh said...

    Great interview. Fassbender is an incredibly exciting young talent – he actually gave my favorite performance in Inglourious Basterds (so dapper!). Can’t wait to finally see Fish Tank.

    And did anyone else read that he’s playing Jung to Christoph Waltz’s Freud in David Cronenberg’s new movie? I hope I’m not making that up…

  • 13 1-20-2010 at 9:26 am

    Paul Outlaw said...

    And nobody over here has seen François Ozon’s 2007 English-language romantic epic ANGEL, in which Fassbender is excellent as Romola Garai’s “love interest.” (Hey, she’s the title character.) It was the first performance of his that caught my attention. Still amazed that this film never got a U.S. release. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but it’s eminently watchable. Sam Neill and Charlotte Rampling co-star.

  • 14 1-20-2010 at 1:26 pm

    Simone said...

    Flosh, you are correct about Michael playing Carl Jung in Cronenberg’s ‘A Talking Cure’. I cannot wait to see that as I was a psych major at Uni and I love, just LOVE Cronenberg.

    Paul, yes, I saw Angel, it was a fantastic film. Not a masterpiece, but a great film that was ignored in the US due to not getting a distributor. Also, it was screened at TIFF 07.