Photo: Murray Close/©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.
Heretofore, thirty-four-year-old actor Michael Fassbender has had more in common with the blue-skinned, yellow-eyed “X-Men” character Mystique, given her remarkable ability to shape-shift. The premiere of his latest film was no exception. Vintage cars lined West 54th Street creating a double-wide lane for the premiere at the Ziegfeld. Platforms holding go-go dancers swayed to groovy, live jazz music, and a metal lighting truss curved into the X-Men logo completed Fox’s high-end rollout of this summer’s first blockbuster.
Fassbender has already morphed from the ’60s-slick “First Class” look of Erik Lehnsherr – the “mutant” who becomes Magneto – into the bottle-blond android of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” prequel “Prometheus.” The jarring bleach job may throw some of his female fanbase off the trail, but USA Today has already chummed the water, positing Fassbender as “the next Robert Pattinson.” Tonight may be his first chance to really pick up that gauntlet, but given the speed at which he navigates the red carpet and ducks out after the credits roll, it’s one glove he seems willing to leave on the ground.
A few months before the premiere, Fassbender came through town with a much smaller picture in tow, “Jane Eyre,” the first of three adaptations he’ll star in this year. In a suite at the Waldorf, he’s happy to talk about not only his Mr. Rochester, but also Magneto in the “X-Men” prequel and Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” which was to debut at Cannes, but was instead bumped until after the summer at the Venice Film Festival as the director is still tinkering.
“It’s interesting for me when I see characters in stories where the good guy is the bad guy and vice versa,” Fassbender explains, digging into the raison d’être behind a year that will see not only his “Byronic hero” take on Charlotte Brontë’s Mr. Rochester, but also Stan Lee’s concentration camp survivor Erik Lehnsherr who “has no time for human beings” and Carl Jung “right before he goes through his mental breakdown and winds up writing The Red Book” as detailed in Christopher Hampton’s stage play The Talking Cure. “There are elements of good and bad going on with each of those characters,” Fassbender says. “They’re all driven by a hunger and were a challenge and a pleasure to play.”
Hunger is always a good place to start with Fassbender as the actor came to most critics’ attention by dropping more than thirty-five pounds from his already lithe frame to portray Irish, IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in photographer Steve McQueen’s riveting 2008 feature film debut called … “Hunger.” “I did that by eating berries … a lot of berries,” Fassbender laughs.
He looks back on that period as “definitely easier putting it on than taking it off” and the same could be said for his approach to character, a process he sums up, whether the project is based on a novel, comic book or play, as “reading and re-reading and re-reading the script” although lately he’s been augmenting that process. Fassbender was born to a German father and an Irish mother in Heidelberg, Germany, but his slow-boiling brogue smacks of a childhood spent in the town of Killarney in southwest Ireland’s County Kerry. “I get most of what I need from the script itself,” Fassbender repeats. “Everything’s in there. I just have to work on the text and find the right rhythm, the right music.”
He’s found that music steadily since 2000, first in television, but finally making the big-screen leap in the skirts and sandals adaptation of the graphic novel 300 in 2006. The year after his portrayal as Bobby Sands, he cemented his critical reception as one to watch by bringing British Lieutenant Archie Hicox to life in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 Hitler hunters opus “Inglourious Basterds.”
Oddly, “X-Men: First Class” returns him to that familiar territory, odd because there are not that many summer blockbusters that open in a Nazi concentration camp. It’s there that a younger version of Fassbender’s Lehnsherr character witnesses his mother brutally gunned down by a Nazi performing Mengele-type experiments played with over-the-top aplomb by Kevin Bacon. There’s certainly a lot to play there, but in this case, Fassbender found himself going beyond the script to flesh out what’s described within as “Frankenstein’s monster.”
“Comic books,” he smirks, “that’s where I based a lot of my source material because that’s where this story was born. They’re very complicated and very relevant. I didn’t realize. I’d never been a comic book fan. And so when I got introduced to the comics, I was like, ‘Wow, this is all about civil rights.’ And the idea of dealing with Charles Xavier and Magneto like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, I thought that was pretty interesting.”
“I had all this sort of backstory,” Fassbender says, “everyone knows Magneto was in a concentration camp, but I didn’t realize that then he managed to free this Gypsy, Magda, from the camp and she became his wife. They had a child together and then again, mob mentality went nuts and burned his house down, killing his child. Therefore he just wiped the whole village out. And his wife was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t be with you. That’s too heavy for me.’ So she left. He’s been let down a lot by human beings. And persecuted. So when we meet him in the film, we get to see this lone wolf on a mission, very determined.”
Fassbender’s next project pits him against Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud as he shares a patient, played by Keira Knightley, with Fassbender’s Carl Jung. And again, Fassbender found himself overwhelmed by the wealth of source material. “It’s such a fascinating life,” he says of Jung. “There’s so much material that there was only so much I could manage to get through and read.”
And that “letting go” part of the process is one that’s becoming okay with Fassbender as he’s learning to lean on himself a bit more when creating roles. “You’re always going to share a few characteristics when you’re doing any character,” he explains. “I’ve got a little bit of this, I got more of this, but you just sort of exercise: Rehearse at home, run through the scenes.”
For Fassbender, looking inside is something that comes naturally because he believes “we all have the capabilities of doing whatever any one character is doing, whether it’s the best of human nature, or the worst. That’s in all of us. And that’s why people get frightened by certain things, because those things exist in them. So acting is just a matter of discovering that and fattening it. Or leaving something else aside that you have and you don’t need for the character — like intelligence. I need to find some more of that.”