Michael Fassbender is having a banner year. The Irish actor, whose breakout role as Bobby Sands in Hunger first catapulted him to fame, will soon be seen in the sure fire summer blockbuster X-Men: First Class. Meanwhile he’s starring in Jane Eyre, an accomplished new period drama that will settle his status as a romantic Hollywood leading man. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to the actor whose mother is a descendant of Michael Collins and who, for all his fame, always remembers his Irish origins.
Michael Fassbender, 33, is pouring himself a cup of coffee in the penthouse of the Waldorf Hotel on Saturday morning. Wearing a simple grey designer t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, he looks more like a typical New Yorker than a Hollywood clotheshorse.
But when he turns slightly to say hello and flashes a megawatt smile there’s no denying his charisma or his good looks, because this man is a movie star after all.
“Would you like cup yourself?” he asks, in the Irish way, and for a moment one of the hottest male actors in the world is a Starbucks barista.
Meeting him isn’t like meeting other international celebrities, in other words -- possibly because he’s brighter, more charismatic and, I suppose, Irish. You’ll wait a long time for a Hollywood type to offer to make you coffee.
Fassbender has starred opposite Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds, he’ll play the lead in this summer’s highly anticipated X-Men: First Class, and he’ll also do the honors in the reboot of director Ridley Scott’s Aliens franchise, this time titled Prometheus.
Add to that his turn as psychologist Karl Jung opposite Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method and a new version of Excalibur directed by Madonna’s ex-husband Guy Ritchie, and you’ll notice his dance card is quite full.
Quietly, without much fanfare, the softly spoken Co. Kerry resident has become a sought-after star, but it’s his award-winning role as Bobby Sands in Hunger that still gets him most animated.
“That job is still one of the closest to my heart and I’m actually reunited with the director Steve McQueen here in New York,” Fassbender tells the Irish Voice. “We’re doing his new film, we’ve done one week already and we’re back in tomorrow again. It’s called Shame and I can’t really say anything other than that.”
It’s an interesting inheritance, being both Irish and German, and he’s the first one to laugh at it himself.
“It’s totally schizophrenic isn’t it? Irish and German is such an odd mix. It’s discipline and something else isn’t it?
“I do think I have the German discipline in my work but I don’t have it in any other aspect of my life! I do my homework; I’m very serious about preparing my roles. And the Irish part is that we’re steeped in such cultural riches, for such a small island.”
Although Fassbender speaks fluent German there’s no doubt where his loyalties lie. Pride in his country comes out in discussion.
“I remember getting into a discussion with some German actors who sort of snootily asked me what writers have you got in Ireland? I answered, ‘Are you serious? James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan – do you want me to go on?’”
Fassbender’s mother comes from Larne, Co. Antrim and his father from Germany. “We moved to Ireland when I was two and we settled in Killarney, Co Kerry. Where we were living in Germany is very industrial and very grey and my parents wanted to have countryside around for my sister and I to grow up in.”
So what would a German and Irish background make of you? Would you want to conquer the world and then write a ballad about the terrible waste of it? I think this but I don’t ask him, because although he has a terrific sense of humor, you never know what will set people off.
Fassbender’s pride in Ireland is something that just emerges naturally in his conversation.
“I have to say the Irish education system is really top notch,” he says reflecting on his days at St. Brendan’s in Killarney. “When I was in primary school in Ireland I learned about the battle of Thermopylae and 300 Spartans when I was six or seven years old. There was a real love of learning language and poetry. and we were taught history and geography. It was very well rounded.”
To my surprise, although I don’t know why this should be, I notice that Fassbender has a clear Killarney accent. And sitting there listening to him talking about the subjects he took in the leaving certificate, I have to admit he’s as Irish as I am, especially when he’s telling me he thinks mandatory Irish in high school (which he took) is a good thing and it should be continued.
Although Fassbender’s at the Waldorf this week promoting his latest film Jane Eyre (which is possibly the most atmospheric and involving version of the classic tale ever filmed), he admits he hasn’t had a minute to himself because of his filming schedule.
“I haven’t seen it yet!” he laughs. “I’m waiting for the premiere here. But making it was a fantastic experience.
“I just wanted to try and understand all the complexities of the character (the conflicted Mister Rochester). I have to say the Brontes wrote some cracking characters, both female and male. I love the idea of this Byronic hero with a shady past. We see his courage and his self-destructiveness, his intelligence and everything else.
“What I wanted to show is that he really doesn’t like himself. He tries to sabotage things for himself. I thought he was quite bi-polar in fact. One minute he can be happy and by the end of the scene he switches.
“The sins of his past are with him all the time too. I’m sure he’s visited brothels, and the fact that he leaves his mansion all the time are all things I dealt with.
“And Mia (the film’s co-star Mia Wasikowska) is just f***ing brilliant. We worked on scenes for hours and it would have been impossible to get that level of intensity without her.”
You could forgive budding Irish actors looking at Fassbender’s filming schedule to be disheartened that they’ll ever come close themselves. Few actors ever get the offers that this man is taking in his stride.
But Fassbender says press ahead if it’s what you really want, because a film career involves as much luck as it does talent.
“Oh Jesus it’s all luck and timing. I think you have to be aware of when your opportunities are coming,” he says.
“When Hunger came my way I just knew I had to get that one right. I was being given a chance to get my foot in the door. I think being aware of that and seizing it when it’s there helped.
“That feeling of timing is really important in this business, definitely. Having business awareness is important too.”
Fassbender’s Irish side has deep connections to the southwest, going back generations -- in fact, his mother is the great great-niece of the Irish revolutionary hero Michael Collins, a fact he takes considerable pride in.
“My great grandfather joined the Royal Irish Constabulary and he was disowned by the family because of it. He ended up living in the North, and when he returned years later to visit them they still didn’t want anything to do with him,” says Fassbender laughing.
“My mother’s a great-great niece of Michael Collins, which balances out things.”
The next Irish project that Fassbender is slated to appear in is actor Brendan Gleeson’s much heralded version of the Flann O’Brien masterpiece At Swim Two Birds.
“I met Brendan at last year’s Irish Film and Television Awards, and hopefully we’re going to work on it. I think he’s an amazing actor and so generous. I’m waiting to hear what the deal is and where the financing’s at and everything else.”
Gleeson will be lucky to catch him in 2011. The way Fassbender’s career is going, we all will.
Jane Eyre opens on March 11.