From Holby City bit parts to severe weight loss, Michael Fassbender has suffered for his craft. But, as Jonathan Pile discovers, life’s about to get a whole lot better...
We are alone with Michael Fassbender in his hotel room. He’s on the carpet in front of us, on his knees. If we’re honest, it’s not a situation we had envisioned when we arrived at The Dorchester an hour ago.
Maybe it’s boredom — he’s been stuck inside most of the day. Maybe it’s frustration — London is currently bathed in glorious sunshine, which he’s missing. But most likely it’s the champagne. He filled his empty (but clearly used) glass as we walked in and he’s making fast work of it.
At this point — just so we’re 100 per cent clear — it’s pertinent to mention that there’s nothing untoward going on. When we started the interview, Fassbender was in his chair, in a conventional sitting position. Then, with no warning, he slowly moved forward and slid on to the floor. But instead of repositioning himself on the couch, he’s still happily kneeling on the carpet and talking enthusiastically about his new film X-Men: First Class, in which, we can reveal, he gives a stand-out performance.
“There are elements in it that are quite sophisticated,” the 34-year-old tells us excitedly. “It’s set in the Sixties, so the themes of racism and prejudice are quite fitting alongside the civil-rights movement. And then of course you’ve got the decade’s style and music.”
The sharpest minds among you will have noticed that the time period positions First Class as a prequel to the Bryan Singer and (less acclaimed) Brett Ratner films. And taking on the role of the franchise’s greatest villain, Magneto, means Fassbender is unavoidably set to be compared with the actor who played the part previously. Fine if you’re replacing Ray Park (Toad) or Vinnie Jones (Juggernaut). Trickier if it’s Sir Ian McKellen. So, did he choose to imitate McKellen or plough his own furrow?
“I was going to study him and do a younger version, but I spoke to [director] Matthew Vaughn and he wasn’t keen on the idea,” says Fassbender. “So I started off fresh and just used the comic-book source material. There’s so much going on. There’s much more than is needed to create a character.”
Is he throwing down the gauntlet to McKellen and saying, ‘Actually Sir Ian, this is how you do it’? At this point, he begins to channel Brian Clough: “It’s not for me to say I’m the best, but I certainly consider myself in the top one.”
He’s joking, and he goes on to acknowledge the debt he owes to Clough for the line, but admits that he’s confident, despite the added pressure. “Hopefully the fans out there that loved what he did will find something interesting in what I have done.”
However, the most important thing to the fans is that the film as a whole is good. Have they reversed the perceived downwards trajectory of the X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine? “The interesting thing about this film is that it’s very character-based rather than action-driven. It’s about the characters and how their relationships develop, fracture and then disintegrate. We’re doing something fresh.”
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
A change of subject brings a pause just long enough for the German-born actor to reassess his position and move himself back on the couch. Well, we say German-born but his accent betrays his mother’s home country of Ireland, where Fassbender was brought up. When he was two years old, the family moved to County Kerry, where his dad worked as a chef in the kitchen of a five-star hotel.
As did the teenage Michael Fassbender — scrubbing his father’s blackened pots for a pittance. But rather than resent the aching arms and water-puckered hands, he believes the experience did him good: “That was a very interesting world to live in and you had to have a thick skin. In many respects it was a lot like acting. You have to work under extreme pressure in constricted time — you’re standing around for an hour, then the next is hectic and flat-out, then you’re quiet again.”
Learning to wash-up because you have a chef in the family is like David Beckham’s kids being experts at polishing boots. It’s a skill, but it’s not the one that’s going to impress people.
So does he know his frying from his fricasseeing?
“I would say I’m relatively OK at cooking,” he ventures, a hint of modesty creeping in. “I’m definitely not afraid to be in the kitchen. I just don’t get enough practice. It’s boring cooking for yourself, so when you’re on the road it’s easier to just get takeaway. I do enjoy it when I get the chance.”
It’s at this point an enquiry about his speciality dish (“I make a great rack of lamb”) sidetracks us. Famous people are often described as being “down to earth”, but that rarely means they have the desire to fire questions back at the person who’s supposed to be interviewing them. It’s partly because of Fassbender’s passion for the subject, but he seems genuinely concerned that ShortList learns how to improve our beef wellington. It’s all in perfecting the pastry, apparently.
This off-the-cuff knowledge suggests he’s a better cook than he’s letting on. As does a grumble about “paying £60 for mediocre pasta” in restaurants. So we offer him a chance to show off — would he stand a chance of winning Celebrity MasterChef? Again the humility kicks in.
“No, but Jason Flemyng could. He’s a great chef.”
The Lock, Stock… actor is playing villain Azazel in First Class and had the whole cast round for dinner during filming.
“I was supposed to reciprocate but never did,” admits Fassbender sheepishly. “He cooked this fantastic pork belly. He slow roasted it for 12 hours. He put it on at like four in the morning for us to eat at four in the afternoon. It was excellent.”
When actors go from their breakthrough role to a Hollywood blockbuster in just a few short years, there’s often a perception it’s happened easily for them. They’re labelled (usually incorrectly) as overnight sensations. In truth, overnight sensations are limited to the Justin Biebers of this world and largely happen via YouTube.
Fassbender’s speedy march towards his very own star on Hollywood Boulevard didn’t begin with his award winning 2008 turn in Hunger (as prisoner Bobby Sands who led the infamous 1981 Irish hunger strike) — it’s just the first time we really sat up and took notice. Holby City fans have known about him for much longer.
Well, truly obsessive, tape-every-episode Holby City fans, that is — Fassbender made one guest appearance in 2002. Alas, such die-hard fans are unlikely to exist, but this was the moment he displayed the first signs of his painstaking method-acting approach, which later saw him slim down to 58kg for Hunger.
“They were taking my spleen out and I fell asleep,” he confesses.
“I was lying on that bed for six hours. I remember waking up mid-way through the take and the director saying to the cameraman, ‘Oh, we’ll have better guest actors in the next episode.’ I thought that was awful. The conveyor belt-ness of it was pretty soul destroying as it was, without hearing that from the director.”
Which brings us to that weight loss. For his role in Hunger, Fassbender took 10 weeks to lose more than two stone. He restricted himself to 600 calories a day (“I ate canned sardines. The great thing is they have the calories on the box so I could count exactly what I was putting in”) and shed as much mass as his doctor would allow.
“I had my cut-off point and if I went below it I was told things would get a little… tricky,” Fassbender says.
“I remember looking at myself and thinking, ‘God, there are bones sticking out here.’ I went for my final check-up after filming and my doctor said, ‘Last time you came in here you looked pretty bad. My assistant was outside and she saw you and said, ‘My God, that guy’s really ill, isn’t he?’ She thought you had cancer.’ People don’t actually say anything [directly] to you.”
But, the sardine diet and rapid weight loss wasn’t the worst of it. “My libido disappeared for about six weeks,” he reveals. Although he still manages to put a positive spin on it: “It felt very liberating. You don’t realise how distracting all that stuff can be. Your body streamlines and focuses on what’s important. I suppose that’s why monks and religious people do it.”
And even when he was allowed to eat again, his pain wasn’t over: “My first meal was Japanese. It’s my favourite food. But I was freezing cold in the restaurant because my body hadn’t had to work to digest food in ages. I was sitting there at the table in my big North Face jacket.”
FACE THE FUTURE
With a starring role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds already on his CV and X-Men: First Class guaranteeing him worldwide fame (and at least two more films as Magneto), plus a groundswell of support to see him cast as the next Bond, Fassbender can now afford to pick and choose projects based on what interests him.
One of which is Ridley Scott’s ultra-secret return to the Alien universe, called Prometheus. Hardly anything is known about the film, and fans are clamouring for even the smallest details, so this opportunity to grill him on it and discover some exclusive news is too exciting to pass up.
What can he tell us? “Nothing,” he says with a laugh.
Then he relents. He says his role is “pretty big” and he (unsurprisingly) agrees with our suggestion that the script must be good to get Ridley Scott interested in returning to the franchise after 30 years and two ropey Alien Vs Predators have tarnished the brand.
“You won’t be disappointed,” he promises. “I remember when they said they were going to do another Alien, I just thought, ‘Where can you go with that?’ Then they sent the script — I kept wondering, ‘When is this going to get bad?’ and it never did.”
But if the X-Men and Alien films are as close to a
sure thing as you can get, the other film he’s working on, Shame, is at the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum.
He plays the lead character who’s addicted to internet pornography. So, how did the famously method Fassbender prepare for the role?
“I definitely explored the realm of it,” he declares candidly. “People can stay inside for 72 hours on end watching it. They can’t have sex with their wives because they’re so obsessed with it. What’s really interesting about it is that in the US alone, something like 24 million people claim to be sex addicts but the mental-health board hasn’t recognised it as an addiction.”
It’s hardly a glamorous part to take, though. So what attracted him to it? “It’s very relevant to our time,” he says. “Everything is immediate these days. If you want something, turn on a computer and you’ve got it. If you want to go somewhere, you can jump on a plane and be there. It’s
all so easy to go somewhere, to eat something, to drink something, to f*ck someone. It’s all so easily available.”
And with that, we’re no longer alone with Michael Fassbender in his hotel room. The publicist arrives to signal that our time is up. Should our paths cross in the future, his life will no doubt be a lot different — signing on for major parts in two huge franchises will do that to a guy. Still, we’ll always have The Dorchester. And his invaluable tips on making the perfect beef wellington.
X-Men: First Class is at cinemas nationwide now
(Main image: Rex Features)