Michael Fassbender eludes easy categorization. We know he’s an actor—a fine and versatile one, who since his breakout role as Bobby Sands in Hunger (2008) has become practically inescapable. In the past three years, we’ve seen him as Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds (2009), Connor in Fish Tank (2009), Rochester in Jane Eyre (2011), Magneto in X-Men: First Class (2011), and Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method (2011). In 2011 alone, Fassbender starred in six films, including one summer blockbuster and one NC-17 scandal. By any reasonable standard, this range of performances should qualify him for household-name status.
And yet, it was not until Shame (2011), director Steve McQueen’s sex-addiction drama, that we actually began to recognize the man’s face. This isn’t a slam. If anything, it’s a compliment. No two Fassbender performances have been alike. Normally we can depend on a certain consistency in even our more talented movie stars: Brad Pitt and George Clooney have their swagger, Robert Downey Jr. has his smirk, and Johnny Depp has his tics and funny hats. Michael Fassbender has none of these. A chameleon isn’t supposed to have a defining characteristic.
The 35-year-old actor can now be seen in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the sci-fi epic that opened on June 8 and takes place in the same universe as Alien but explores different themes. 1. “We will start off the film in some caves on earth, where they find these hieroglyphics and these paintings that are from thousands of years ago, which actually exist. The idea is: was there an outside influence in the evolution of man and the creation of man?”3. “I think when these pieces work best, scifi or fantasy pieces, there is something more at work, like Blade Runner… You draw the audience in with real, complex characters, and a real world you imagine they would live in, and then there is this philosophical theme around it. It’s a complete piece, as opposed to just set-piece action scenes, and spaceships and then everything else is kind of just filling in the gaps around that.”Plot details were vague throughout production1, but we knew the film followed a space expedition in the late 21st century; we knew the explorers encountered a less-than-friendly alien race; and we knew that Fassbender played “David,” an advanced piece of artificial intelligence who is an exact simulacrum of a human being, minus emotions and ethics. In a viral video released in April, Fassbender as David says, 2. “I thought I looked a
bit scary.”“I can do almost anything that can possibly be asked of me! I can assist your employees! I can make your organization more efficient! I can carry out directives that my human counterparts might find…distressing.”2 Fassbender delivers these lines like HAL-9000 crossed with David Bowie.3
As an actor, Fassbender has yet to be nailed down. The repressed Carl Jung, Shame’s alienated Brandon, the villainous Magneto, the cartoonish Lt. Hicox… these performances have already established him as one of the best actors of his generation, and he now seems on the edge of superstardom. A long-awaited summer blockbuster prequel could be his ticket.
If “Michael Fassbender, Star” has a distinctive trait, it’s his laugh. He opens his mouth wide and the top half of his head seems to bend backwards, erupting in a big, perfect cackle. It’s the kind of laugh that makes every joke feel like the funniest joke in the world.
Fassbender on Fassbender
As his movies become bigger and his profile rises, Fassbender has finally been forced to enter the realm of “celebrity,” an altogether different job than “actor.” The superstars have it easy. In movie after movie, they’ve honed distinctive onscreen personas they can transfer onto the talk show circuit with relative ease. We can expect Pitt to be a pretty-boy on Leno, or Depp to be a quirky misfit on Letterman, or Downey to be a wiseass with Kimmel.
In its own unscripted, free-form way, “Michael Fassbender, Star”44. “I’ve been spending a lot of time in airports and hotel rooms. It’s interesting because this is all part of work, so it’s obviously a part and parcel of trying to get the film out there and get people to see it. But it’s weird, I’m used to working on a product and then the product comes out, as opposed to selling the product.” may be his most challenging role to date, but so far he’s taken to the interview circuit with ease. In interviews he is friendly and affable55. “I like O Brother, Where Art Thou. I remember going into the cinema one day and I was pretty down and I think it was a pretty gloomy day outside, and I went to see that and I came out with a nice spring in my step and then the sun was shining.”,6. “I like the freedom of being on a bike; when you are in a car, you are in a box, so you are protected, whereas all the elements are there on a motorcycle, the road is there, the wind, everything; it’s much more of an experience.”7. “It was the sixth film in 20 months and I thought ‘okay, I need to take a break now, and go back to reality and the real world and draw from that.’ And so going along the road, mile by mile, you just feel like you are washing away the previous work. Each place was amazing. It was the first time I’d been to Bosnia and Croatia. That was amazing, and then we managed to get a sailboat around the coast and visit the islands. That was stunning. And Italy, I really enjoyed Italy, just the experience of eating [laughs].” never more so than on the red carpets, where he keeps answering the same questions about spanking Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method with the same wry joviality. He has hobbies that lend themselves to pleasant talk-show anecdotes: racing cars, riding motorcycles6, and travelling across Europe following completion of Prometheus.7
He looks great in any setting, with the cheekbones of a pretty-boy and the jaw of He-Man (the best of both worlds). He’s striking in a tux, regal in a uniform, fit in a tracksuit and, you can’t help but notice, rock-solid in the nude.88. “I try and keep somewhat fit. Usually it’s just mainly cardio stuff, like jump rope, using my own body weight as opposed to weights. Heavy bag, focus mitts, pretty much boxing-related exercise.” On red carpets, he looks so goddamn perfect you almost want to punch him, but then he’ll give another pearly white laugh and you’re back in his thrall.
But yes, there is one thing missing in his otherwise perfect public persona, and that’s a hook, like the really big celebrities have. But, in recent months, he has found a peg, of sorts, in the popular imagination: call it his Fassmember. Who could forget its cameo in Shame, flapping around the sterile Manhattan apartment so footloose and fancy-free?
Shame sent Fassbender for his first tour of duty in that annual movie-star ritual, awards season.99. “It’s great that you’re in that category because [people say], ‘Oh, I thought this film was NC-17 and dirty,’ but then you get the awards behind it, then people go, ‘Well, maybe I should check it out.’ That’s the great thing about the awards.”11. “You start off at the beginning like, ‘This doesn’t mean anything, it’s a joke, keep it light, the work is the work.’ But it starts to sort of seep into you, and so then when I found out that I wasn’t nominated, of course I was upset. But again, that’s my ego and my vanities. So you sort of go, ‘Well, this is okay, you’ve got to keep that under control anyway,’ and then you move on.”10. “I try not to take the awards too seriously because it is such a subjective medium. It’s not like sports where somebody either crosses the finishing line first, or wins in a point system or whatever else.” In award show after award show, the jokes were the same. Fassbender received a Golden Globe nomination and the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival, but no Oscar recognition.10 In January, after the nominations were announced, the LA Times ran an article with the cheeky headline, “Did Michael Fassbender’s big part cost him a nomination?” It quoted a “high-ranking academy voter” who said, “He’s a guy who’s unfamiliar to a lot of people and did a movie that’s really intimate. That was a super-brave performance but…perhaps it inspired people to fantasize, and not actually vote.”11
Of course, Fassbender is a Serious Actor, and so was less concerned with nudity than with Serious Actor Stuff. Ask him about his nude scenes, 12. “They were probably the easiest things to do in both those films, Hunger and Shame. The other stuff is just trying to bare your soul and try and find the depths of the characters and try and serve the character as best as possible—that’s the tricky stuff.”and he gives the perfect answer—about how the nude scenes are the easy part, and the hard part is depicting raw emotions, etcetera, etcetera.12 But while Fassbender has been widely praised for his wounded, unnerving performance as a yuppie-by-day/sex-addict-by-night, the jokes about the size of his organ have tended to dominate conversation. In Hunger and A Dangerous Method, he plays historical figures and undergoes physical transformation; in Shame, the line between Brandon and Fassbender is disturbingly ambiguous.
We can tolerate it when actors bare themselves so thoroughly, but we can’t tolerate the same from our stars. If we are to accept Fassbender as a star, we need to know he’s stable and consistent, like Clooney or Pitt or Depp—they can add weight, drop accents, have interesting facial hair, but that’s as far as we let them go. We need to know that he’s not Brandon Sullivan, and that was just an act. We need to know that he’s really the charming fellow we’ve seen laughing it up on Letterman.13. “You’ve got somebody like Ridley Scott, obviously a master director, and then you’ve got this character to play, so you want to make sure that you’re serving the story, you are serving the director, you’re serving the other actors, and that you’re bringing something interesting, that’s it’s not one-dimensional, two-dimensional, all the things which are the other acting problems.”14. “I think that most of us are relatively good people and do good things, but we also have done things that aren’t so positive. So it’s just more interesting, as a viewer going to the cinema, to be somewhat active in the experiences as opposed to just putting popcorn in my mouth and sort of going through the motions.”
In Prometheus, “David” is handsome and charismatic, in a sterile kind of way. This amoral machine is as flawed and damaged as any other Fassbender protagonist, but this is the first one incapable of recognizing his own shortcomings.13 Only once before has there been a Fassbender performance so free of damage. Oddly enough, it was A Bear Named Winnie (2004), a pre-fame obscurity in which he played the kindly, wisecracking Canadian soldier who rescued the bear who became Winnie the Pooh. In both Prometheus and A Bear Named Winnie, Fassbender gives performances as smooth and opaque as “Michael Fassbender, Star.”14
15. “I don’t know about romantic comedies. I mean if it’s the right script…I just find they are so formulaic, and the characters tend to be kind of boring, and it’s a very black-and-white scenario. There’s the good guy and then there’s the devious boyfriend who she shouldn’t be with, and then he gets found out and then the good guy comes to the rescue; it’s like, blah, blah, blah. I enjoy wellwritten scripts, that’s what it’s all about. And a good director, and characters that are just properly rounded out.”These are fine performances, and he could continue for the rest of his career giving ones like them—in blockbusters, in comedies, on talk shows, on red carpets. Coming after a year of critically acclaimed performances, Prometheus could push Fassbender into the stratosphere. “Smooth and opaque” could be the persona that Fassbender hangs his stardom on.
But, please no. We don’t want that. We want Fassbender to be a great actor, not a great celebrity. We don’t want him to have to maintain the big, clattering machine of celebrity by feeding it with populist junk, like Johnny Depp has been doing with his Pirates sequels.15 We want him to keep taking risks—to keep courting alienation with punishing roles. Maybe it’s for the best that he didn’t win an Oscar for Shame. Look at all the recent Oscar winners who followed their wins with disposable garbage—Forest Whitaker (Vantage Point), Jamie Foxx (Stealth), Christoph Waltz (The Green Hornet), Adrien Brody (The Village).
Stardom is where great actors go when they retire, and we want Fassbender to keep us on edge. We like Fassbender when he’s a suave red-carpet fixture, but we like him even better when we can’t recognize him.