Life in the Fass lane
Michael Fassbender, a proud ginger - and former metal head - tells TARA BRADYhow he prepared for his role as a robot in Prometheus, being 'hot' - and that Oscar snub
‘YEAH, I’M DEFINITELY happy to fly the flag for gingers,” nods Michael Fassbender eagerly. “I’ll take that.” He is, it hardly needs to be said, quite far over on the auburn side of the spectrum. But we, the pigmentally challenged, will take him too.
“Yes. It’s quite dark. But I have a lot of ginger in my...” He pauses.
By now it has become so commonplace to discuss Fassbender’s undercarriage that we’re having a tough time sidestepping the area in conversation. (“It makes no sense,” he says later. “All the crazy things that people do in movies and it’s that that gets all the attention.”)
He’s right. You don’t have to do stand up to mine material from Fassbender’s award-winning turn in the coruscating sex-addict drama Shame. You don’t even have to be all that amusing.
“I have to say that I was truly impressed that you chose to play it big,” said Charlize Theron of her Prometheus co-star, with a nudge, wink and a f’nar f’nar, at the Ally For Equality Award during the Human Rights Campaign gala last March. “He can play naked golf,” sniggered George Clooney during a Golden Globes acceptance speech in January.
“I have a lot of ginger in my beard,” continues Fassbender, with a rather more PG-friendly sentiment. “Weirdly, it’s probably from my dad and the German side of the family more than anything else.”
So this much-muttered-about Cú Chulainn adaptation – a project Fassbender is developing with Public Enemies screenwriter Ronan Bennett – can be relied upon to feature an all-ginger, purest Ulster heritage cast?
“Oh yeah. They’re really going to let me do that.” He puts his head in his hands and peeks up with a grin: “I’d be crucified about clichés and stereotypes now, wouldn’t I?” We could stretch the casting boundaries and include the Gleeson clan? “Well, that is a good idea. They’re amazing. All of them. Really talented. I’ll happily work with them anytime.”
That’s just as well. Fassbender is one of many names attached to Brendan Gleeson’s keenly anticipated adaptation of At Swim-Two-Birds, a project that can go ahead as soon as the figurative and literal stars align – at least long enough for Fass, Colin Farrell, Gabriel Byrne, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Cillian Murphy to form the ultimate Hibernian movie supergroup. Fassbender is “good to go” whenever Gleeson, who’ll make his directorial debut with a streamlined version of the Flann O’Brien novel, shouts “action”.
For the moment, however, the Heidelberg-born, Kerry-raised actor has plenty to be getting on with, most pressingly, promotional duties for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Today, we meet in a Soho Hotel, not a million miles from Hackney, the suburb where he has lived for the past decade. “But I do love getting home,” he says. “Everybody there is really proud of me. And very supportive.”
The hotel is a regular haunt for movie stars and celebrities. And it’s familiarity as a glamorous interview setting only serves to offset Fassbenders’s Irish features. Sitting beside him, I keep expecting to see So-Cal tan where there is only a near-translucent paleness. He frequently looks at the floor and stares off intensely when most Hollywood types would maintain second-hand-car-salesperson eye contact. Despite the proud Munster pedigree, even by the standards of these mongrel islands, he has classic, long, Northern features.
And then there’s the Nine-Hostage-recessive-gene colouring. That’s hardly surprising. His mother hails from Larne and he was raised with at least one toe across the Border.
“We used to go up to visit relations a lot,” he recalls. “It was the ’80s and people’s reaction was really strange. They had this idea that we were driving into a war zone. They’d ask you about tanks and guns. It was a big part of my upbringing but, to people around me in Kerry, it was even more distant than the German part.”
He’s always been creative but not necessarily as a thespian: “My family were very encouraging that way. My sister and I always played music. Every so often I want to pick up the tin whistle again. I wish I had kept it up a bit better.” He also plays guitar and spent a good portion of his teens wanting to be Kirk Hammett from Metallica. “Slayer. Metallica. Megadeth. I was far more interested in those guys than I was in movies. All I wanted to do was play heavy metal.”
The younger, long-haired, rocking Fassbender and his friend Mike managed one lunchtime gig, but without the assistance of a decent bassist and drummer, the band was doomed. Then his drama teacher at St Brendan’s in Killarney cast him in a wacky play and everything changed.
“I don’t know,” says the 35-year-old. “It was a great feeling. I got praise for it. And I knew if I could just stay focused enough I could give it a go.” Inspired, he put together a stage production of Reservoir Dogs, a neat precursor to his later work in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
“You’re not about to make fun of me for being a fan boy, are you?” asks the star.
Hell, no. We’re all about the Tarantino.
“Yeah. I think most people our age are. But you have to be careful. Girls sometimes roll their eyes to heaven and go ‘Oh, you boys and your Tarantino.’”
Focus is the key to Fassbender’s magic. Before shooting, he attempts to read every screenplay – even the “fun” ones like X-Men: First Class – at least 10 times a day, but usually doesn’t “make it past single figures”. He’s not method but he did drop to a 600 kcal diet – a regime of vegetables, running to stave off muscle wastage and a handful of almonds for protein – for his role as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger.
Rather than “living the material” he deconstructs each line and thinks “six moves ahead and behind” every action in every script.
“I need to know everything so well that I don’t even think about it when the cameras roll,” he says. “I probably was a bit more “methody” when I was younger. But then I was doing this TV thing with Zoë Wanamaker. And I watched her chatting away, laughing between takes, then walking over and turning it on as soon as she heard “action”. And I thought: ‘Oh. That’s interesting. So that’s how you do that.’”
Unsurprisingly, he’s put the hours in on Prometheus, director Ridley Scott’s Alien origins story and a film with its own complicated origins. At first, franchise fans were told the new film was a prequel to the 1979 classic; then it became standalone picture; now it’s officially a prequel to a theoretical prequel.
Regardless of its positioning in the sequence, Scott’s first sci-fi outing since Blade Runner is very recognisably an Alien flick. Dragon Tattoo’s Noomi Rapace is an archaeologist whose discovery of a map – common across such apparently unconnected ancient cultures as Magdalenian, Mesoamerican and Mesopotamian – allows the sinister Weyland Corporation to go forth in search of extraterrestrial life.
Other crewmembers include Idris Elba’s captain, Charlize Theron’s cruel-lipped company woman and Fassbender’s David, a humanoid android butler.
So how does an actor who’s accustomed to plumbing emotional depths gear up for playing an automaton? “Getting the physicality right was the way in,” says Fassbender. “I had that funny, almost robotic walk of Greg Louganis, the diver, in mind. Because I remember that Olympics and all these years later his economy of movement is what I remember best. I watched David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Dirk Bogarde in The Servant over and over.
“And I watched Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia almost everyday. I came to think of David as having a pride in his work that’s something like vanity.”
He didn’t have to think too hard to find a sense of punctured vanity. Last year’s Oscar snub took care of that. “It did put me in a bad mood for the rest of the day,” he admits. “There had been all this build up and then – oh – what the fuck? I wasn’t overjoyed. By midday I felt better about it but I wouldn’t say I had forgotten all about it either. It’s my own fault. I got caught up in all the hype. It shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t really. But the ego was bit bruised in the aftermath.”
This year, he promises, will be a little less hectic than last, when the actor took on Steve McQueen’s Shame, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire and X-Men: First Class.
“I have been out hunting work,” he says. “I have been out looking to do as much as I can. I had a great run of roles. You don’t say ‘No’ to any of those things. You don’t say ‘No’ to Cronenberg. You don’t say ‘No’ to Steve. You grab and fight for those parts as they come along and you don’t let go. But this year I am looking forward to taking things a bit easier.”
He credits his work ethic to his parents, who toiled long hours keeping their Kerry restaurant afloat. That may explain why Fassbender’s idea of “taking things a bit easier” is comparatively industrious. A director’s actor, Fassbender will soon re-team with filmmaker Steve McQueen and his Basterds co-star Brad Pitt for the 19th-century kidnapping drama, Twelve Years A Slave. Next month, he and Pitt will start shooting The Counsellor, a film by director Ridley Scott and writer Cormac McCarthy.
That ought to keep him in the hit parade of Hollywood’s hottest talents. And if all else fails, he’s still firmly embedded as a “hot” talent in the women’s magazine sector.
“Yeah. That’s it. That’s my career plan,” he deadpans. “I swear I’m not even trying. I don’t go to the gym. I like running. And I’ve tried surfing. But that scene didn’t really take off until after I had left Kerry. I went swimming when I went home at Christmas but it was freezing and I get a bit nervous in the sea. I’m a good swimmer but I’m not that good. But I’m never going home to work on my body.” He smiles: “Unless it’s for work.”
Prometheus opens on June 1.