Michael Fassbender enters an over-designed Manhattan hotel room in Soho and stretches himself across a couch, all scruffy handsomeness, his reddish hair and barely-there beard cropped short. At 34, he affects the sleepy, seductive slump of a post-adolescent who’s not entirely unaware of his boyish physical charms. The blue eyes are alert, transfixing, but almost immediately Fassbender begins to yawn. A lot.
“I’m so sorry,” he says in a mellow Irish brogue, asking an associate for a cup of tea, then promising he’ll “be able to re-energize and talk.” He yawns again, rubs his face with his hands, then breaks into a face-splitting grin, his eyes fixing on his interlocutor’s. “I’m ready. Hit me.”
It won’t surprise Fassbender’s growing cadre of fans that those last two words created a certain frisson. Since delivering an astonishing breakout performance as imprisoned Irish Republican Army activist Bobby Sands in the 2008 film “Hunger,” Fassbender has become a sort of sub-radar sex symbol among the cognoscenti. Most people have seen the lithe, expressive actor in big-deal movie events such as “300,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “X-Men: First Class.” But he has become a swoon-worthy cult figure thanks to searing, smolderingly sexy performances in independent films such as “Fish Tank” and this year’s “Jane Eyre.”
Fassbender’s sizzle factor will surely spike exponentially with the release of two films this month. In “Shame,” which opened Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and is scheduled to arrive at Landmark Bethesda Row on Dec. 9, he plays a New Yorker named Brandon whose self-destructive battle with sex addiction is heightened by the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Later this month, Fassbender plays psychologist Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” in which the actor engages in naughty bedroom spanks with a patient played by Keira Knightley (although the film’s true romance is between Jung and Sigmund Freud, played by Viggo Mortensen).
No wonder Fassbender is yawning so much. The man’s exhausted. “It’s good exhaustion, not the bad kind,” he says, sipping his tea, noting that the interviews and appearances have been “fairly full-on” since he won the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival in September. “But it’s all good, and it’s nice that people are receiving the film the way they are.”
When “Shame” made its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, it was received with a mixture of admiration for Fassbender’s uncompromising performance and slightly creeped-out unease at the film’s equally frank depiction of sexuality — a graphic, escalatingly disturbing portrayal that earned the film comparisons to “Last Tango in Paris” and “Looking for Mr. Goodbar.”
As with “Fish Tank,” in which Fassbender played Connor, a philanderer who briefly seduces his girlfriend’s teenage daughter, “Shame” elicited conflicting feelings in viewers who, although attracted to the raw physicality and sensitivity Fassbender projects onscreen, are repelled by the characters he plays.