A staunch advocate of method acting, Michael Fassbender dropped to just nine stone to play Bobby Sands in the 2008 biopic of the IRA terrorist’s hunger strike.
Hunger placed Fassbender firmly on the map. But while he endured physical extremes for that movie, the 34-year-old insists his latest film, Shame, a searing study of sex addiction that has already won him Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival and a Golden Globe nomination, was mentally distressing.
“I had to lose weight for Hunger, but I had a timetable to stick to,” says the actor in an Irish lilt. “But Shame was pretty disturbing; the idea of what my character is about, the relationships, intimacy and how that’s a difficult thing for some people.”
Fassbender plays Brandon, a New York office worker with an uncontrollable libido whose life is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan).
“The idea of sexual addiction is a grey area. All of us were probably introduced to it through celebrity stories, so there’s a certain public perception that it’s a self-indulgence within that world,” says Fassbender, a bundle of restless energy.
Shame reunites the actor with Steve McQueen, the Turner Prize-winning artist-turned-director who gave him his breakthrough in Hunger, and the screenwriter Abi Morgan, who also penned The Iron Lady.
Bleak and melancholic, the film is dominated by long scenes with limited speech punctuated by Mulligan’s heartbreaking rendition of New York, New York – but Fassbender insists there’s also a sense of optimism as Brandon tries to deal with his addiction. While Fassbender’s striking performance has garnered critical acclaim, there’s also a whole lot of hoopla surrounding the explicit sex scenes and uncompromising nudity.
“People are going, ‘Oh my God, you’re naked! What’s that going to do for your career?’ I’m not a politician. My job is to facilitate characters. I’m a storyteller and that’s it, end of story.”
That’s not to say he didn’t feel embarrassed on set, however.
“Of course,” he laughs. “I don’t feel comfortable parading around naked in what is essentially, at the beginning, a room full of strangers, but it had to be done. Besides, my imagination was much more devious than what was in the script,” he adds with a wicked grin.
Born in Heidelberg to Josef, a German chef and mother Adele, who hailed from Larne in the north of Ireland, the actor’s family moved to Killarney when he was two. His interest in acting was sparked at school by an ex-pupil who returned and introduced drama classes.
“Then he stopped and I saw him in town and asked what was happening. He said, ‘I’ve set up a professional company, why don’t you come and do some part-time stuff?’ And that was it. It started from there,” he recalls.
At the age of 19, he moved to London to study at the prestigious Drama Centre and in 2001 got his first TV gig in the Steven Spielberg-produced Band Of Brothers.
“I was like, ‘This is it, I’m on a road’,” he recalls but admits it was an “arrogant and stupid” way of thinking, as he didn’t work for a year afterwards. In the ensuing years, he combined the odd TV series and small screen movie with pulling pints for extra cash.
It was only after he was cast as Stelios in the 2006 CGI blockbuster 300 that he could finally earn a living from acting. And then along came Hunger, which won numerous plaudits, including the Camera d’Or at Cannes.
“Steve [McQueen] changed my life with Hunger,” he says and reveals it’s why he didn’t even need to read the script for Shame before accepting the part.
In the last couple of years, he’s continued his fondness for playing dynamic but complicated characters, from Lt Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds, to Magneto in X-Men: First Class and Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. And 2012 will prove no different.
Following Shame, Fassbender appears in Steven Soderbergh’s espionage thriller Haywire, before returning to the subject of sex in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, in which he plays Carl Jung opposite Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud. Beyond that, he’ll star in Ridley Scott’s Alien-inspired Prometheus before reuniting with McQueen for a third time on Twelve Years A Slave, alongside Brad Pitt.
After years of toiling, Fassbender is finally having a “moment” and the actor is determined to enjoy it.
“I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about the things I’ve done, or linger on the past. The main thing is thinking about what I can do next and making sure I do a good job,” he says and then breaks into a wide grin.
“When I decided this was what I wanted to do, this was the situation I dreamed about being in. It’s nuts.”
Fassbender’s rise to the top
Michael Fassbender was born on April 2, 1977 in Heidelberg, Germany.
His parents owned a restaurant in Killarney, Ireland, where he worked from the age of 12.
According to Fassbender’s “family lore”, his mother is the great-great-niece of Irish revolutionary Michael Collins.
He recently produced his own short film Pitch Black Heist.
He’s obsessed with motorbikes, go-karts and cars and has set his sights on gaining his pilot’s licence.
Shame is released in cinemas on Friday, January 13; Haywire on Friday, January 20 and A Dangerous Method on Friday, February 10.