‘If you talk to anyone on set they don’t take me seriously at all – much to my dismay’
Few actors create characters that unnerve as much as Michael Fassbender, and in person he has an intensity that never quite fades. He talks method acting, metal music and making ‘Macbeth’
Actor Michael Fassbender. Photograph: Matt Carr/Getty Images
Director Steve McQueen (left) with Fassbender in New York. Photograph: Todd Heisler/New York Times
‘Frank’, featuring Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, is released next Friday
Fassbender in ‘Band of Brothers’
Fassbender (left) with Lupita Nyong’o in a scene from ‘12 Years A Slave’. Photograph: AP Photo/Fox Searchlight, Francois Duhamel
Fassbender (left) with James McAvoy in ‘X-Men: First Class’
It’s January 2013, and Michael Fassbender is sheltering from the icy mountain winds in a class of faux-Alpine lodge near a lake in Co Wicklow. Obviously, I’m a bit frightened of the German Kerryman. Over the past decade or so he has carved a career playing tortured ideologues, obsessed addicts, bipolar patriarchs and full-blown supervillains. Now he’s playing a troubled musician who, for reasons only vaguely explained, lives life within a giant ellipsoidal head. Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank is a comedy, but it’s quite a serious comedy.
“I think people think I’m intense from the roles that I play,” he says. “But if you talk to anybody here they don’t take me seriously at all – much to my dismay.”
That impression is not derived entirely from his roles: a dying Bobby Sands in Hunger; a sex addict in Shame; a particularly depressive Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. Fassbender attended a method-acting school – the famously forbidding Drama Centre in London – and, although he chats amiably, he has a concentration that puts you slightly on edge. He doesn’t exactly look away. But he doesn’t look straight at you, either.
Anyway, I can confirm that, for all his method training, he doesn’t wear the huge false head between takes.
“When I started, the method approach was very much what inspired me,” he says. “Through the years I’ve just developed my own way of going about it. I like stepping in and out. I will spend a lot of time with a lot of recordings, listening to all kinds of things.”
However he goes about it, Fassbender delivers intensity on an industrial level. You see it in his Bobby Sands. You see it in his Magneto, for the X-Men films. And you see it, or at least hear and feel it, in Abrahamson’s extraordinary Frank. The film stars Domhnall Gleeson as a shy Englishman who finds himself playing keyboards with an avant-garde group with an unpronounceable name: Soronprfbs. Derived very loosely from Frank Sidebottom, the faux-naive creation of the late Chris Sievey, the mysterious Frank, leader of the band, is a blend of genius and holy fool.
All this should have come naturally to Fassbender. Did he not play in a class of metal band as a youth? “Well, I wouldn’t say that,” he says. “There were two of us, and we were both called Michael. We were just two guitar players. We couldn’t find a bass player and we couldn’t find a drummer. We only played one gig. That was in Killorglin, and we played some Metallica and some Megadeth at lunchtime. It didn’t go down too well. They made us turn it down a bit. Then a bit more. At the end we were playing unplugged.”
The atmosphere on set is quietly optimistic. Having just had a critical hit with What Richard Did, Abrahamson is now a director of some distinction. The weird music seems to be coming together. The character seems fully formed. Yet this is such an eccentric project that nobody seems wholly convinced reviewers or public will get on board. Breath is being held.
Waves of expectation
A little over a year later the company can finally exhale. Frank went down a bomb at the Sundance Film Festival and has been stirring up waves of expectation ever since. It is the day of the Irish premiere, and Fassbender has touched down at the Merrion Hotel in Dublin to add a dash more promotion.