Fassbender fleshes out characters with physicality
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
NEW YORK (AP) — It may be three years since he played the hunger-striking Irish national Bobby Sands, but it’s still a relief to see Michael Fassbender eat.
So strong is the memory of Fassbender’s performance in “Hunger,” for which he lost 50 pounds, that the sight of him eagerly wolfing down a plate of eggs and bacon, as he did over a recent interview at a Manhattan restaurant, seems like breaking character.
But the jaunty, 34-year-old actor has lately been having his fill. He stars in two of this fall’s most notable releases: As the sex-addicted Brandon in “Shame,” by Steve McQueen (who directed him in “Hunger”) and in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” as the pioneering psychologist Carl Jung. That caps a year in which he also starred as Magneto in the blockbuster “X-Men: First Class” and as Edward Rochester in “Jane Eyre.” He recently shot Ridley Scott’s science fiction thriller “Prometheus,” which is planned for next year.
“After ‘Prometheus,’ I just shut up shop,” says Fassbender. “I’ll give myself a break and I think everybody else. It’s sort of like Fassbender overload here.”
Foremost, perhaps, is his performance in “Shame,” which won him best actor at the Venice Film Festival and has him in the conversation for an Oscar nomination. It’s a shattering performance of a self-abusive New York bachelor who avoids intimacy with the compulsive pursuit of carnality.
“I really wanted to keep him as close to me as possible,” Fassbender says of the character. “I didn’t want to hide behind any masks. When I initially read the script, I was like, ‘A lot of this is relevant. I recognize certain things in here.’ And so I wanted to make him just an ordinary guy on the street.”
The part curiously dovetails with “A Dangerous Method.” Cronenberg’s film focuses on the relationship between Jung and his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), whose prism for understanding the mind was more principally sexual than Jung’s broader perspective. In the movie, Jung, like Brandon, is racked by sexual temptation and guilt.
“They’re linked,” Fassbender says of Brandon and Jung. “They probably could have helped each other out a little bit. Maybe Jung would say, ‘Go see my friend Freud.’ He’d be right up his alley.”
That the body should play such a central role in both characters — one whose clothes are frequently shed, the other who remains clad in the formal style of turn-of-the-century Switzerland — isn’t a coincidence for Fassbender, who takes pains to find the physicality in a part.
In this, John Cazale is a major influence on Fassbender. He vividly recalls the posture of Cazale (as Fredo) in “The Godfather Part II,” sitting in a plush arm chair.
“The unpredictability that he managed to incorporate in his physical life, I was like, ‘I need to be doing something like that,”’ says Fassbender.
“For me, sometimes I can express much more of an intention with my body and body language than a page of dialogue,” he says. “You just think: What sort of animal is this guy? How does he move? Is he light on his feet or is there a lot of weight? What are the clothes that you wear?” — Fassbender pauses and then laughs — “or lack of?”
Over breakfast, Fassbender is relaxed and jovial. His musical bent (he was raised on a series of instruments, first the tin whistle, then piano accordion, then guitar) reveals itself most readily in gleeful interpretations of TV show themes and sound effects. At mention of “The Godfather,” he merrily and accurately hums the Nino Rota score.
When the artist-turned-filmmaker McQueen first met Fassbender, he says he thought he was “a bit cocky.” But on their second meeting, the two hit it off and have made a close partnership since. Fassbender will again work with McQueen on his third film, “12 Years a Slave,” about a New Yorker who was captured in 1841 and enslaved in Louisiana.
Asked to explain their collaboration, McQueen replies, “It’s love, I suppose. I don’t mean it in a corny way, but in a real way. You don’t know why, you’re just happy it exists and you want it to continue.”
“He is a great actor mainly because of his vulnerability, absolute,” says McQueen. “There’s a femininity to him which actually can translate in a way that we, the audience, can identify with him.”
Fassbender, whose mother is Irish and whose father is German, was born in Germany but raised in Killarney in County Kerry, Ireland. His parents ran a restaurant, but Fassbender — having first wanted to be a musician — found acting after attending what was advertised as local “comedy-drama” classes.
He formed his own theater company and put on a production of Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.” (He played Mr. Pink.) Ironically, he’d later work with Tarantino, playing a British lieutenant in “Inglourious Basterds.”
Fassbender thought he had arrived in Hollywood when he landed a small role in Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ “Band of Brothers.” He moved to Los Angeles but felt “overwhelmed” and got little traction in auditions.
“So I went back to London to reassess the situation and I told myself I wouldn’t go back there again until I had something in my back pocket and had some ammunition to go back with,” Fassbender says.
The 2006 action hit “300” was the passport he needed for Hollywood. “I went back there and found a new agent and had a better sort of idea how I wanted to approach it, what I wanted to get from it,” he says.
After that, it was “Hunger” that really propelled Fassbender. He also drew acclaim for his performance as the roguish boyfriend of a young mother in “Fish Tank.”
Cronenberg says it was Fassbender’s posture as a British officer in “Inglourious Basterds” that reminded him of Jung, but he was unsure Fassbender had the necessary kind of intelligence for the part.
“I had to meet Michael and talk to him and kind of get a feel for that aspect of it,” says Cronenberg. “Carl Jung is a completely different kind of person from the real Michael Fassbender, who’s very playful and funny and light.”
Fassbender employs a methodical approach to finding a character. He lists its main characteristics and the “little, tributary characteristics” and then uses it as a checklist against his own qualities.
“You go through the list,” says Fassbender. “‘I have that. I have this. Not so much this.’ And then you try to discover it within yourself. It’s there somewhere.”
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