Actors are a dime a dozen, but leading men are harder to find. That’s because there’s more to the job than having brooding good looks or a tuxedo-ready figure. Talent and smarts also enter the equation, but so too does sensitivity and charm.
Ireland’s Michael Fassbender has quietly become the leading man of his generation because he has all of these in spades. His strong German features are softened by a laid back Irish attitude to life and other people.
His intensity is modified by his “don’t be talking to me” ready laugh. You can hear his Kerry accent, too. It’s soft and a bit well traveled, but it’s undeniably there.
Next week Fassbender, 37, stars in one of the biggest blockbusters of the year, the highly anticipated "X-Men: Days of Future Past." It’s a multi-million dollar spectacle that is certain to break the box office when it opens nationwide on May 23.
The "X-Men" franchise is a hit because it’s so relatable, Fassbender tells the Irish Voice.
“I think that’s what makes it such a huge hit all over the world. That idea of being ostracized for being different, for feeling like a misfit or living on the fringes of society. Whether it’s down to skin color, religion, sexual orientation, it’s obviously something people can relate to.”
The new film deals with the persecution of minorities in a way that fellow actor Sir Ian McKellen, who plays the older version of Fassbender’s character Magneto, couldn’t miss.
“When Bryan Singer (the "X-Men" director) asked me to be in these films he sold it to me on just this point,” says McKellen. “As a gay man you can identify with mutants – people who have talents but are despised by society as they’re different…”
Fassbender takes a similar view. It’s the fact that the X-Men stand out like sore thumbs wherever they go that makes them so relatable. Growing up half German in Kerry may have taught him a thing or two about that.
“All my closest friends from school were half-Italian, or half-Canadian. My best friend Emerson is from San Diego. He’s this half-Irish and half-American guy who ended up living in Killarney,” says Fassbender.
“My fiend Peter is half-German, half-Irish. It’s funny. I guess it's people who come from a similar circumstance, maybe they gel together.”
It might be the part of the reason he’s an actor too, because he learned early on how to relate to people in different ways.
“Very possible. I just know the very first time I went to an acting and drama class I felt very comfortable. I felt really at ease in the realm and I felt there was a clear expression for me there.”
"X-Men: Days of Future Past" is a mutant film, but there’s very human qualities displayed in these comic books," he says.
“For example, how we have this problem as humans with things that are different, destroying things that we fear. I think that’s at the core of the 'X-Men' comic books and that’s what draws people to it from Japan to Peru to Ireland or wherever it may be.”
There are moments in the new film when Fassbender’s character is so bad-ass onscreen that the audience literally cheers. He appears at one point wearing a Trilby hat and black wrap-around 1970s sunglasses. That led to whoops of delight from the audience.
Fassbender spells cool, obviously. But his favorite scene in the new film belongs to actor Evan Peters who plays the speed of light character Quicksilver. All Fassbender has to do in the scene is stand stock-still.
“That was my favorite scene in the film. I loved the introduction of that character and Evan is wonderful as Quicksilver. It’s my boy, it’s my son. Look at him go,” Fassbender says.
“In my favorite scene I am literally doing nothing. There’s a lesson to be learned there.”
It’s one of the many gee-whiz moments in the film that seem crafted to make you feel like you’re 12 years old again. Another is when Fassbender’s Magneto lifts a baseball stadium with his mutant powers.
“Oh yeah, the stadium. Lifting it up? It took a little bit of practice that. It took a couple of takes if I’m honest. We didn’t get that in the first one,” Fassbender laughs.
At the press conference his affection for his banner name co-stars is obvious. “This is genuinely the nicest bunch of people,” he says.
“Hugh (Jackman) is a massive movie star and the most generous presence on set, the most generous actor. He leads by example. Then you have legends like Sir Patrick (Stewart) and Sir Ian (McKellen). Ellen (Page) is hilarious as well. They came together and worked as an ensemble and it was a privilege to work with them.”
Many actors enjoy talking about themselves; Fassbender clearly prefers to compliment others. It’s probably the Irish in him.
He left Killarney, Co. Kerry when he was 19 and has lived in London for nearly two decades. But home is still Ireland, he says.
"Frank," his forthcoming film with Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, is a quirky fictional telling of the life of the very real cult music figure Frank Sidebottom. It’s a risky independent feature the like of which many other Hollywood actors at his level might have shied away from. It also requires Fassbender to sing in a rock and roll band. Was he nervous?
“No I loved it. Music has always been such an important part of my life,” he says.
“Luckily my parents always encouraged my sister Catherine and myself to play music. Whenever I am doing acting, the rhythm of the piece is always important.
“So to actually have the chance to do a musical, which I think 'Frank' kind of is, was great. I got to live out so many fantasies in my own head. They actually let me do it.”
The film has already been a major hit with critics, who love its weirdness and Fassbender’s remarkable performance. Next on his slate is the sequel to Ridley Scott’s "Prometheus." Before that he’ll star in Shakespeare’s "Macbeth." How did he feel about tackling such an iconic role?
“It was scary, you know?” he confesses. “I was trying to fill some pretty big boots (Orson Welles, for example). The subject matter and it being Shakespeare meant taking on the challenge of that too. But I loved it.”
The schedule was pretty grueling he says, with the weather in the Isle of Skye at the beginning of February this year being “pretty brutal.”
“But I loved working with Australian director Justine Kurzul and Marion Cotillard and Paddy Considine (who starred in Jim Sheridan’s "In America"). I’ve been a fan of Paddy for so long, so to do some work with him was great,” Fassbender says.
“The weather conditions were nuts. It was four weeks straight of horizontal rain. Luckily I was well equipped for it having grown up in the west coast. Any rain that’s going to hit Ireland dumps down there!”