With a growing string of critically acclaimed and physically demanding roles, Michael Fassbender is certainly on the way up. We caught up with the hard-living man of action for a nice cup of tea and a cosy chat.
Michael Fassbender is not put off in the slightest by an arduous physical challenge. To tone his body to play a scantily clad Greek warrior in the action film 300, he endured eight-hour daily exercise sessions for 10 weeks that combined sword- and spear-fighting training with a rigorous circuit-training regimen – on occasion, while nursing a bad hangover. “Some of those exercises you look at and you feel like throwing up,” he recalls – and that’s without the alcohol. And before playing the Irish Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands in the critically acclaimed 2008 Steve McQueen drama Hunger, Fassbender had to shed two and a half stones – ironically – over a similar 10-week period. He survived on little more than a tin of sardines a day and whiled away the time as quickly as possible, eventually slimming his 6-foot frame down to 9 stones.
What then does the 33-year-old actor from Killarney, Ireland, find intimidating? Stepping onto the set of his latest film, Inglourious Basterds, and finding himself face to face with director Quentin Tarantino and his co-star Brad Pitt. “That’s a pretty impressive line-up there and you just want to make sure that you keep up your end of the deal,” he says, perched on a stool in a friend’s London flat, looking prepped for a circuit training session in a hoodie and sweatpants. “And also I’m from a pretty small town in Ireland and all of a sudden you’re standing in this room and you’re like, ‘How did I get in here? How did I fool whoever it was at the front door?’ But then you get into your groove and off you go, you’re doing your job.”
Fassbender has his foot firmly wedged in Hollywood’s door now, thanks in large part to his turn as a suave undercover British army officer in Basterds, by far his most prominent role to date. But commercial success was a long time coming for the rugged Irishman, who had his first brush with fame nearly a decade ago when he was cast in Steven Spielberg’s multiple-award-winning HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. Although it would be another five years before he snagged the role of Stelios in 300 – a period marked by long droughts of unemployment – he never wavered in his faith that this was what he was meant to do. “The one thing I did always have was a real belief,” he says. “But I was obviously not working for a long time and then you start to think, ‘OK, what else can I do … in case.’” Fassbender’s back-up plan during that time: running a bar.
Fortunately, the jobs keep streaming in. In fact, British director Andrea Arnold offered Fassbender a leading role in her film Fish Tank without even meeting him – she’d seen him on a BBC program and thought he’d be perfect for the part of Connor. Making the coming-of-age movie about a teenager living on a decaying English council estate was a unique experience, he says, because Arnold only handed out the script to the cast bit by bit. “Usually I read the script lots and lots of times – that’s how I get ready. But who’s to say that my way is the right way, so I said, ‘Let’s give it a go,’” he recounts. The experiment was a success – Fish Tank won this year’s BAFTA for Best British Film.
Most recently, Fassbender dusted off his swashbuckling skills to do battle again – this time as a Roman soldier in the blood-thirsty action-packed Centurion, to be released this year. A first glance, the big difference between 300 and Centurion may only be a change of era, location and costumes – Fassbender is decidedly more covered up in the latter film. His portrayal of a Spartan warrior in 300, with his skimpy leather shorts, bare chest and rippling muscles, led many into a frenzy of appreciation for his manly physicality and set him up as an object of desire. Centurion will certainly add to this fan base’s affections, however, his breadth of work and finely honed skill as a serious actor obviously make him so much more than big-screen eye candy, but hey, there’s no harm in looking.
Words by Justin Bergman, Associate Editor of Time Magazine (Europe). Justin has written for Monocle, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Budget Travel and The Associated Press. A native of Pennsylvania, he currently lives in London.