"I'm going to take Benedict Cumberbatch on": Stylist meets Michael Fassbender

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Helen Bownass
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Sorry, did we distract you? Michael Fassbender has been hailed as one of the bravest actors of his generation, but off screen Stylist falls for a man not afraid to show his feminine side who makes great scrambled eggs...

Surprisingly good arms. Grey tracksuit bottoms. Worried about my scabby knee. Massive smile (huge!). Bit of a fidget. Didn’t eat the biscuits. NAKEDNESS!”

Not the diary entry of a pre-pubescent teen in the first flushes of love, rather the contents of my iPhone notes after an hour spent drinking coffee with Michael Fassbender in Soho, London.

It’s a habit I have as soon as I leave an interview; type my immediate impressions of someone. Typically they’re slightly more intelligent, a little more high-brow. However, I’m going to be honest; spend time with Fassbender and you’re quickly in imaginary boyfriend territory. He’s charming, good-natured and considerate - and yes he is wearing grey tracksuit bottoms.

Which is ironic in a way because on-screen Fassbender is anything but dream boyfriend material. His film roles are dark, darker and darkest. I spent the weekend before our interview re-watching some of his oeuvre. By Sunday night I was in a fairly dark place myself.

I started with 2008’s Hunger, the role that began everything when he played imprisoned IRA member Bobby Sands, before moving through Fish Tank (2009) and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009).

A brief foray into existential comedy with Frank (2014) and superhero blockbuster territory with X-Men (2011 and 2014) followed, before reminding myself of the brutality of 12 Years A Slave (2013) and capping my voyage off with his compulsive turn as a sex addict in 2011’s Shame. (If you want to have the weirdest dreams you’ve ever had in your life, may I recommend following my path).

His current role isn’t exactly a light-hearted romp either. The 38-year-old takes the titular role in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth with the brilliant Marion Cotillard as his ambitious wife. It’s a dark, visceral and stylish reimagining; I couldn’t speak for a good five minutes after leaving the screening.

As in every role, Fassbender is magnetic as Macbeth. He is a fearless actor and has that skill of being utterly able to inhabit the skin of whoever he is playing, somehow bringing empathy to even the biggest of bastards.

Fassbender has lived alone in Hackney, East London since 2006. While  it is overrun with men with beards and tattoos drinking craft beers, it’s not prime showbiz ground. But I suspect he likes it like that. Some of his favourite local establishments include Jones & Sons, a restaurant housed in an old Victorian textile factory and the Cat & Mutton pub on Broadway Market.

Although any Stylist readers planning to casually turn up to either in the hope of locking eyes with him over a pint might be disappointed. “In the last year I must have spent about a month here,” he admits. In fact, East London is going to be rather Fassbenderless for a while yet.

Post Macbeth he takes on another mammoth role as Steve Jobs, black polo neck and all, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, which is due for release on 13 November. He’s currently filming Assassin’s Creed and next year we’ll see him in The Light Between Oceans and X-Men: Apocalypse.

Besides, home hasn’t always been East London. Fassbender was born in Heidelberg, West Germany - his father is German, his mother from Northern Ireland - but aged two, the family, which includes older sister Catherine, moved to Killarney, Ireland where they ran a restaurant, which he worked in part-time as a teenager.

He spent most of his 20s working in pubs in London, trying to crack the business, before Hunger arrived. It’s been an impressive eight years since, to say the least, overtaking Clooney, Craig, and even, whisper it, Pitt as Hollywood’s most wanted. In every sense of the word…

When I told my colleagues I was interviewing you there was much excitement. How aware are you of being a bit of a sex symbol to so many?

Well, I don’t know! [Laughs] Not until you just said it. I think it’s in the nature of the business I do. Anybody who could be put in the public sphere like that becomes a sex symbol. I don’t think I’m particularly attractive or charismatic and I don’t think I’m ugly; I just don’t dwell on it.

There are plenty of fan sites dedicated to you, how does that feel?

I find in general googling myself doesn’t do me any favours. My dad does, he’ll say, “Check this thing out I’ve seen about you” and I’m like, “OK, I’d better take a look. [Laughs] Now stop telling me about them!”

Steve McQueen (the director of Shame, Hunger and 12 Years A Slave) has said one of the most compelling things about you is your femininity. Are you in touch with that side of yourself?

I think I’m pretty comfortable, relatively comfortable, in my own skin, so yeah. All of us have a balance of masculinity and femininity.

Are you as casual with nudity at home as you seem to be on-screen?

I wasn’t casual on-screen at all! That’s the acting, darling! [Laughs] At home yeah, it’s nice to be naked!

Did you always want to be an actor?

No. I wanted to be a musician, but it dawned on me that I wasn’t good enough for that. I just didn’t have the talent to be honest [laughs].

So, how did it happen?

I’m so grateful that Donny Courtney, a local lad from Killarney, came back from Dublin and set up a drama workshop in our school, because before that I didn’t have a clue. When I discovered that I was very driven, I felt really connected to this form of storytelling. It’s tough on teenagers. What are you going to do, when you’re thrown out into the world? Do you go to university, and if so, what do you study there? You have to narrow down your choices so early.

Were you quite at peace with the world around you as a teenager?

I was a relative amount of trouble but I wouldn’t say I was on the extreme side of that though. I was bouncing in the middle. I wasn’t super popular, but I wasn’t unpopular… I wasn’t totally nerdy but then again I was pretty nerdy.

So if you were in an American high school film you would have been…

I just drifted and did my own thing. My friend Emerson and I were like two peas in a pod. We hung out a lot together and had the same interests. It was helpful to have a close friend because teenage years can be confusing.

Would you ever want to relive your teenage years?

[Laughs] Yes. You know, I mean… no!

How was your relationship with your family?

Great, they’re fantastic. My sister was always very encouraging, she was never one of those cruel types. As a family we’re pretty open, which is not necessarily a normal thing, it’s always special when you can all talk to each other. I was talking to my parents just now before I came down to meet you. My dad’s like, “You have to come home now!” I’m definitely due a visit…

Are you expected to put the bins out when you’re at home? Or are you your mum’s little prince?

[Laughs] I think, because they don’t get to see me all that often they do like to treat me. So yes, they spoil me.

Don’t be embarrassed. I sometimes take my ironing home to my mum…

I never iron! Only if I absolutely have to. I do own an iron, but I don’t know where it is. My flat is a mess at the moment, I haven’t been there in ages.

What did your parents teach you that’s shaped your career today?

My mother introduced me to a lot of films from the Seventies - Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese, and Sidney Lumet. My dad has always had that expectation if you’re going to do something do it properly, that’s something I definitely inherited. They both gave me that philosophy of being fearless and not to worry about making an idiot of yourself. They taught me it’s OK to fall flat on your face, you just get back up again and give it another go. And don’t take yourself too seriously.

A lot of the roles you’ve played have been so serious though. Are you as dark in real life?

I don’t know! [Laughs] I don’t think I’m overly dark. There are moments when I get low, like everybody else, but I don’t think it’s a dominant part of my personality. I’m quite upbeat and fun-loving. It just happens to be the roles that I’ve ended up playing or choosing. It’s time to do a comedy.

Would you do a rom-com then?

If it’s funny, cleverly made and there’s something that has a real human core to it then yeah, I’m open to it, definitely. I love that whole Bridesmaids crew for example, Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Kristen Wiig, all of them are spectacular.

Can you tell jokes?

I’m not a great joke-teller. I’m actually pretty bad. I’m only funny inadvertently.

Macbeth is a huge role and Shakespeare can be intimidating to take on, particularly the language, was that a concern?

It is intimidating, I suppose. I understand what it is to me. It might not be what the historians make of it. The language is obviously key to it all. But I also didn’t want it to become a barrier, I wanted to find an intimacy with the language so it was just there and part of the texture of it.

Are you quite bookish in general?

No, that is a New Year’s resolution that I never fulfil… [laughs] My sister always loved reading but I didn’t get into it until I was about 10, so I was quite late. I should do it, I do have a lot of time when I’m on planes, but I just love sitting there and watching movies.

There are so many themes that run through Shakespeare that are so pertinent today. Was there anything that resonated for you in Macbeth?

There was the post-traumatic stress disorder angle that we went for. From the beginning [of the play] we meet a man who’s already not completely with his faculties. He’s a soldier who has crushed someone’s skull, he’s engaged in battle daily. That form of combat and the scars that it leaves mentally, all made sense. A couple of gentlemen came to see us on set including a fellow that was suffering from PTSD, he was very candid about the condition and his experience of it, which was very helpful.

You’re not the only actor playing a famous Shakespearean king at the moment, there’s also Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet

I know. I didn’t realise that until fairly recently! I thought, ‘I’m going to take Cumberbatch on!’

Watching Macbeth is a powerful experience. Were there many laughs between scenes?

Totally. I mean we filmed it on Skye in February, it was raining. I know it’s like, “So what?” Plenty of people are out in the rain working. But the whole machine has to move around in that condition. Everyone’s in the same boat, well not really, actors do get looked after… but pretty much everyone was in the trenches together - excuse the pun! I really was very proud when I saw the film in Cannes.

Was Cannes an enjoyable experience?

I was surprisingly relaxed. Other than Marion [Cotillard] telling me that I smelt of fish. I was sitting next to her, and she was like [imitates a French accent] “Did you have fish for dinner?” I said, yes and she was like, “I just want to tell you because I’m your friend that maybe you should have some chewing gum.” And I was like “I’m eating chewing gum!” So then I had to [mimes breathing into his cupped hand] to see if I stank of fish! This was not how I imagined that moment to be [laughs].

Are you tough on yourself when you watch things back?

It makes you squirm a bit. I watch it sort of as a critic. I’ll be watching my performance and seeing the mistakes or things that worked. I’m honest with myself. It’s quite tough to admit your own faults though, especially when you see them writ so large. But then you just say, “Get over yourself, you’re just telling stories. People are doing much more worthy things around the world.” I’m just happy to be allowed to have another go.

You seem quite relaxed, are you a worrier secretly?

I can be, yeah. I worry about anything that’s available. The thing with worrying as well, is that when you’re not worrying about something you feel like you’re missing a bag or something! [Laughs] You start to search for things to worry about.

I know that feeling! How do you stop it paralysing you?

I try and focus on things I can actually influence. And try and forget about the things that are out of my control. If I think back to when I was at school, when I had exams, I used to get very worried and pent up. When I was 17, I developed some form of meditation I could use at that age. It’s something you need to work at.

What scares you?

Mob mentality. What happened in Nazi Germany is a pretty good example. Displacement, fear of not having anything to eat, fear of not having housing, fear of losing an identity.

You said once that you wanted to be a journalist. Part of that is listening, is that a skill you have?

I could be better. Sometimes, I think to myself, ‘Oh just shut up! You talk too much!’

What about saying sorry? Do you find that easy?

I’m not too bad at that actually. It’s not a big deal for me to say.

You’re playing the lead role in Steve Jobs, are you rooted to your iPhone?

I am because I use it so much it becomes addictive. I spend a lot of time on my own in restaurants when I’m working away. Before I just sat there and experienced the restaurant but now I’ll fiddle with my phone. Although I don’t really do much social media.

Do you enjoy being alone in a restaurant?

I don’t mind it! I’m sort of used to it. It never seemed that strange but then people were like “that’s weird!” [Laughs] “There’s the odd guy on his own.” I do also enjoy the company of others.

Speaking of company, do you enjoy being in love?


And, are you in love at the moment?

Next question… [Laughs]

Who do you think knows you best in the world?

I suppose my parents do. I’m pretty open with them.

Which women do you admire most?

My mother, my grandmother, who’s not with us anymore, and my sister. She works so hard, and as a mother I see what that takes, and how great she is with her boys.

With so many female role models how do you feel when you hear about women being paid less than men, especially in your industry?

I think it’s wrong. Absolutely wrong.

It would be awful if you said it was fine…

[Laughs] Yeah, I think it’s great. Put more money in my pocket! Pay women less, pay me more! It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Some of the most exciting actors out there at the moment are female. Jennifer Lawrence, Mia Wasikowska, Alicia Vikander, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet… It needs to happen, and it needs to happen faster. In order to tackle anything the best way is always to get people talking about it, and force people to engage in it.

Life in the film industry is working out for you at the moment, can you ever see yourself moving back for a quiet life in the Irish countryside?

Not now, I love what I’m doing. And so I wouldn’t be happy not doing it at this point in time. It rains a lot there; I do like the sun.

Even though you’re not at home much, are you quite homely when you are there? For example, do you make a good breakfast?

I’m not bad. Scrambled eggs is an easy one. But it’s hard to beat a proper Irish breakfast: sausages, white pudding… I can’t make potato bread but the rest I can do.

Macbeth will be in cinemas nationwide from 2 October

Images: Rex Features unless otherwise credited


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Helen Bownass