Blood, sweat, tears
Michael Fassbender plays hunger striker Bobby Sands in the most exciting Irish film of 2008, Hunger, which won the Camera d'Or award in Cannes last Sunday. The German-born, Killarney-raised actor tells Michael Dwyerabout the toughest role of his career to date and how he feels about being described as "Britain's Brando"
LAST year, Michael Fassbender was clearly marked out as an actor on the rise after the huge commercial success of the blockbuster 300, in which he played the muscular young Spartan warrior Stelios. He is now even more prominently on the film industry radar since this month's world premiere at Cannes of Hunger, for which he dramatically dropped weight for the pivotal role of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.
At the closing night awards ceremony in Cannes last Sunday night, Hungerearned its director, Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen, the prestigious Camera d'Or award, presented annually for a first feature film in any section of the festival.
The movie has been acquired for distribution in most of Europe, in the US, Australia and New Zealand. And Fassbender deservedly received rave reviews from the international critics at the festival for his riveting portrayal of Sands.
"I'm delighted with the reaction," Fassbender says when we meet in Cannes, where he is in exuberant form. "It was everything we could have wished for this film. Some great films get made and don't get seen."
Having turned 31 last month, he points out that he was only four when Sands died. "We all knew how important it was to do justice to this story and the people in it," he says. "I think Steve's approach to this is unique, and very different from the films we've seen about Northern Ireland during that time."
Director McQueen and Enda Walsh, the Irish playwright who collaborated with him on the screenplay, have approached the issues with an evident concern for the human cost on both sides of the political divide.
Playing Bobby Sands was, Fassbender says, by far the most demanding role of his career to date in every respect. Hungeris well under way by the time he first appears as Sands, being beaten and dragged naked through the prison. "It was violent and I got some bruises, but nothing serious," he says. "Steve staged it so that everything was controlled and we could feel safe." The style of the film alters significantly when Sands has an extended conversation with a priest (Liam Cunningham). The camera remains static as they engage in banter before addressing the fact that Sands wants to start a hunger strike and that 75 men are willing to join him.
"Liam and I had a great relationship when we were making the film, and we're very good friends since," Fassbender says. "That helped because it is such a long scene and so important in terms of where it leads. Steve is an artist and he had never worked with actors before he made Hunger, but he created such a strong atmosphere when we rehearsed it. Then he let us go at it, and we did. There was something very special about it."
The later stages of the film observe the physical deterioration and slow demise of Sands, who died after 66 days on hunger strike in 1981. Dialogue is minimal during this harrowing, deliberately disturbing sequence, throughout which Fassbender's performance is astonishing in its powerful expressiveness.
"I lost about 14 kilos and weighed 59 kilos by the end," he says. "It was the only way we could possibly do it and make it convincing. I felt as if I was anorexic. I became obsessed with food and counting calories. Losing all the weight was something positive for me in doing justice to the role. It was all monitored medically. But when it came to the last two days of the shoot, I seriously wondered if I really could finish it. I almost broke down."
Was it difficult for him to adjust to normal life after such an intensely immersed performance? "I felt a huge sense of relief the day after we finished shooting," he says. "I began to appreciate the good things in life more than ever. I had to get away, so I just took off to Australia on a holiday for a month."
Fassbender flew into Cannes from South Africa, where he is playing one of Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads in the Channel 4 mini-series The Devil's Whore. He says that explains the goatee beard and handlebar moustache that adorn his features because he has to be back on the set within days of attending the premiere of Hunger.
In Cannes, he was reunited with his parents, Adele, from Larne, Co Antrim, and Josef, from Heidelberg in Germany, where Michael was born. They moved to Killarney, Co Kerry, when Michael was two. Acting is not in the family, he says. His only sibling, Catherine, is a neuropsychologist in the US. Josef is a chef who has worked at the Savoy hotel in London and he and Adele run a popular restaurant, the West End House, at the entrance to the national park in Killarney.
It transpires that Michael Fassbender and I both attended the same secondary school, St Brendan's College in Killarney, albeit some years apart. After we compare notes on our individual experiences at our alma mater, he explains that it was while there, when he enrolled in an extra-curricular course in comedy acting, that he found his vocation.
"I really loved it," he says. "Then Donie Courtney, who was giving us the classes, opened a drama company and asked me to work with him. I did some panto and pub theatre."
That encouraged him to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. "It was a three-year course, but I dropped out," he says. "I've lived in London for 12 years, and work takes me all over the world, but I like to get home to Killarney a few times every year."
Fassbender's early roles were mostly for television series, among them a sergeant in the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks production, Band of Brothers; a fallen angel in the teen supernatural drama Hex; and the role of Guy Fawkes in the Jimmy McGovern-scripted Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
He reached a wide audience with one of his briefest roles, in a Guinness commercial where his character swims the Atlantic to mend a rift with an old friend in the US. His many stage roles have included his own production based on Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, and playing Michael Collins opposite Mel Smith as Winston Churchill in Mary Kenny's play Allegianceat the 2006 Edinburgh festival.
Fassbender has completed several films due for release over the next 12 months. First to open will be Angel, the debut English-language feature from François Ozon, the French director of 8 Womenand Swimming Pool. Set in early 20th-century London, Angelis a melodrama featuring Fassbender as a troubled painter who becomes involved with an aspirant novelist (Romola Garai).
"I did five auditions for François before he cast me," he says. "I really wanted to work with him because he is so open to ideas. I play the black sheep of the family, Esmé. He lives to enjoy his life on a sensual level with women, gambling and drink, but he's frustrated and insecure. He's a contradiction. He tries to appear blasé, but he actually cares very deeply about his work, which everyone else thinks is rubbish."
Fassbender co-stars with Kelly Reilly in Eden Lake, which was shown in the market at Cannes last week. Harvey Weinstein saw it there, found it "edgy and daring" and acquired the US distribution rights. "It's a low-budget British thriller that deals with teenage violence," Fassbender says. He and Reilly play a couple whose plans for a romantic weekend in a lakeside woodlands area are disrupted by loutish youths. One is played by Thomas Turgoose, who was the intimidating young skinhead in This is England.
Meanwhile, Fassbender, who speaks fluent German, gets to play a German character in the new Joel Schumacher film, Creek, which was filmed in Romania. A supernatural thriller, it's set in the present and in 1936, when the Third Reich arranges for a young professor (Fassbender) to stay with a German family in the US. "One of the things it deals with is the Nazi regime's interest in the occult, but I shouldn't give away anything else about it," he says.
In Cannes, it was announced that he will play Heathcliff in John Maybury's new movie of Wuthering Heights. Natalie Portman was to have played Cathy, but dropped out because of other commitments. "I'm very curious who they will cast as Cathy," Fassbender says. "Heathcliff is a great role, but I'm a bit nervous about it until I get my Yorkshire accent right."
He is bemused that the producers of Wuthering Heightsare already claiming him as "the most exciting contemporary British actor" and "a Brando for Britain".