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.
He must have had some reservations about the project. His face is a very valuable commodity, yet it remains hidden. “No. I never had any reservations,” he says. “I just read it, and it made me laugh out loud. There is also a very human and touching story at the core of it. It’s about this group of misfits. I found it very endearing. But at the heart of it there is this dysfunctional character.”
In the 14 months since that last encounter, Fassbender's star has continued to rise. After controversially missing out on an Oscar nomination for Steve McQueen's Shame, in 2013, he secured a best-supporting nod for his turn in McQueen's next film, 12 Years a Slave. He knows the right thing to do. Like all decent people in that situation, he brought his mum to the bash.
“I brought the whole family,” he says. “My dad and my sister were in there. But you have only one official guest that goes in with you. They were seated behind U2, which was cool. I always felt that if I did get to go it would be a simple choice. It had to be my mum.”
What surprised the Fassbenders about the experience? “It was surprisingly relaxed,” he says. “The real highlight was when you see a lot of the old legends there. There are a lot of inspirational figures there. To share a few moments with those people was a treat.” Is he still capable of being starstruck? “Oh yeah. I find that with sports personalities. With Brian O’Driscoll I definitely feel starstruck.”
Parents at the Oscars
Born in Heidelberg, Fassbender moved with his parents – his father is German and his mother is from Larne, in Co Antrim – to Killarney when he was two years old. His parents, who work in the restaurant business, seem to have earned their invitation to the Oscars by remaining impressively supportive throughout the difficult early stages of their son's career.
“I think most parents would be worried by that,” he says. “It’s just the insecurity of the business that worries people. That is very alive in people’s minds. When they saw I was serious they were very supportive.”
How did he convince them of that? “They didn’t have a choice I suppose. When they saw the determination I was putting in, they knew I was serious.”
Fassbender does try to make light of his “intensity”, but there is no doubt that he throws himself into his art. He was about 17 when, after a few amateur performances, he became committed to the actor’s life. At 19 he made his way to London and enrolled at the Drama Centre. As I understand it, this is the sort of place that asks students to reveal their emotional entrails on a regular basis.
“The Actors Studio in New York was a big influence on me,” he says. “And a lot of the guys I first got into were there. People like Brando, De Niro, Pacino were all from that type of schooling. That’s what I was into before I sought out acting schools.”
He left the school before graduating, then, after securing an agent, set out on the familiar thespian cycle of famine and feast. There was some stage work here. In the early part of the new century he secured a role in Band of Brothers. There must have been times when he doubted himself.
"Oh there were. But I had youth on my side. You are in your 20s. There's that great belief system in play. You can get by eating the same pasta day in and day out. But I never recall thoughts of quitting. I did maybe think what I would do if, down the line, it really didn't work out." Which was what? "The service industry. That's the only thing I knew: running a bar."
What really changed things for Fassbender was his partnership with
McQueen. He burned up the screen as the star of that British director's Hunger and Shame. His supporting turn as a slave owner in 12 Years a Slave fairly hissed with fury. Pundits have fought to come up with comparable pairings of actor and director: De Niro and Scorsese; Wayne and Ford; Von Sydow and Bergman. Has he figured out why the partnership works so well?
“It’s just one of those things,” he says. “There’s a chemistry. Why do certain personalities click? I don’t know. He is an extraordinary artist, and he is also an extraordinary leader. I was in great hands. Then we just formed a strong relationship through that. Trust is a great thing.”
It is rare for such difficult, recherche projects to create proper movie stars. But that's what Fassbender has become. Later this month he turns up as Magneto in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Towards the end of the year we should see him playing Macbeth opposite Marion Cotillard's Lady Macbeth in a version of Shakespeare's play by the impressive Australian director Justin Kurzel.
“That’s going to be pretty visceral,” he says. “I hope there will also be something intimate that will appeal to younger audiences.”
For all his fame, Fassbender has not yet been lured to live in the US. Like so many artistic types, he now keeps a home in the up-and-coming London borough of Hackney. Will we ever be lured to the west coast?
“What? Cornwall? I am due a visit to Wales soon. No, there is no pressure in that area. The only pressure would come from myself.”
Very amusing. He's not so scary.
Frank is released next Friday