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.
“With Connor, I knew that he had to be sexy,” Fassbender says. “With Brandon, in a lot of respects, I knew that he had to be repulsive in certain scenes. There was an ugly element there that I really wanted to get to and feel comfortable showing. . . . Connor’s got his issues of irresponsibility, but [with] the sort of masks that Brandon is wearing, he’s much more of a performer in pretending everything’s all right. This is the thing about addicts — they become very good at acting and adapting to whatever scenario they’re in.”
The same could be said for Fassbender, who showed such promise in acting school at Drama Centre London that he got an agent and left before graduating (“I was sick of it,” he says). In 2001, he secured a role in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers,” a high-profile Tom Hanks-Steven Spielberg project that he assumed would lead to more work in Hollywood. Instead, he went on audition after audition, with little to show for his trouble. “In the two years after ‘Band of Brothers,’ I probably did a total six weeks’ work, maybe,” he says.
Still, he says, “I always told myself that I was good enough to be working. I knew what I was capable of doing, and I knew what was out there. And that [belief] was something I always had. . . . When you’re dealing with something where there’s so much rejection involved, you definitely need that to preserve yourself,” Fassbender says, yawning. “The worst thing, I suppose, for that scenario is that you become bitter, and you don’t want to be that.”
Fassbender culled his self-confidence while enjoying a near-idyllic childhood in Killarney, Ireland, a town of 12,000 where his parents ran a restaurant and bed-and-breakfast. “It was pretty innocent, really,” he says of his childhood. “Fishing, climbing trees and running around the countryside — it was a very sort of free experience. All I had to do [was] be back home at 5 or 5:30 for dinner, but other than that I was allowed to be pretty independent.” After the de rigueur rock band start-up (“We only played one-ever gig, and they kept turning down the volume”), Fassbender discovered acting when an actor trained at the highly regarded Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin visited his high school.
“He set up a couple of workshops, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ ” Shortly thereafter, Fassbender gathered his friends and directed a stage production of Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” in which he played Mr. Pink. The two-show run drew 120 people the first night and 150 the next. “I learned an awful lot from that, actually,” he says, “probably, in a lot of ways, more than I learned in anything since. Just the fact that with enthusiasm, passion, whatever you want to call it, and hard work, things get done and you learn by doing. It’s really that simple. And I sort of carry that through today, that doing is how you learn. And it gave me confidence, as well.”
“Confident” may not be how British director Steve McQueen would describe his first encounter with Fassbender when the actor auditioned for “Hunger,” McQueen’s debut feature. By that time, Fassbender had appeared in two feature films, Francois Ozon’s “Angel” and Zack Snyder’s “300.”
“When I first met him, he was a pain,” McQueen says. “It was almost like he didn’t want to be [there]. It might have been my own naivete, being a first-time director, not understanding that, more often than not, actors get rejected. And they sometimes only bring a bit of themselves [to an audition] because they get hurt all the time. But with Michael, I thought, ‘What’s he doing here?’ There was almost a cockiness about him. I thought, ‘Okay, thank you very much.’ Then my casting director persuaded me to bring him in the next day, and he was a different person. I thought, ‘Wow, that could be Bobby Sands.’ We met a third time when I actually gave him the role, then I got on the back of his motorcycle and went out for a drink, and that was it. We got on like a house on fire from then on.”
Fassbender dropped more than 30 pounds to play Sands in “Hunger,” which features an excruciating sequence as the character withers away during a hunger strike. “Shame” demanded a similarly all-in physical commitment. “Bobby Sands basically stopped eating to make his body into a weapon,” McQueen says, “and in some way he created his own liberty by doing so. Brandon is on the bang-on opposite side of the situation, in a Western metropolis where he takes in all the freedoms that he wants, but by doing so he imprisons himself.”
The climactic sequence of “Shame,” in which Brandon hits rock-bottom through a series of increasingly impersonal and desperate sexual encounters, wasn’t the most difficult part of the film to shoot, Fassbender says. (“You just have to take off your pants and jump in,” he says, laughing.) Instead, it was a pivotal scene involving Sissy in Brandon’s bathroom. “We weren’t getting it,” McQueen recalls. “We did take after take, and I was getting a bit concerned. I just went upstairs to where he was and said, ‘I don’t know what that was, but that’s not Michael Fassbender.’ And I think that sort of shook him a bit.” What was going wrong? “It has a lot to do with technique, but after a while you have to go beyond that. And that was what Michael was relying on with Carey — a lot of trade and technique. I felt he was holding on to the bar rails, and he had to let go. And then he let go, and it was amazing.”
After “Shame” and “A Dangerous Method,” Fassbender will next be seen in Steven Soderbergh’s mixed-martial-arts action thriller “Haywire,” then Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” an untitled Jim Jarmusch vampire film and a third film with McQueen, “Twelve Years a Slave,” with Brad Pitt and Chiwetel Ejiofor. But even in such elevated company on set, he still lives in his longtime East London neighborhood, hangs with his best friend since childhood and stays close to his parents and sister, a neuroscientist in Sacramento. With so much staying the same, what’s changed the most?
“The work,” Fassbender says, without hesitating. “The opportunity to work. I can’t really explain what that means to me, to be working — and with the cream of the crop. . . . I could really sort of care less about fame or the trimmings or whatever else goes around it. I just love doing my job, and I love to work with people who inspire me.”
The interview’s over, and it’s been several minutes since the last yawn. Suddenly, Michael Fassbender is wide awake.