Actor Michael Fassbender doesn't exactly strive to make viewers like him. After getting his break playing the Northern Irish martyr Bobby Sands in director Steve McQueen's Hunger, some of his most notable roles have been as the supervillain Magneto in X-Men: First Class, a statutory rapist in the British indie Fish Tank, and a barely sympathetic sex addict in McQueen's highly lauded Shame. And yet, thanks to top-notch acting chops and charisma to burn, Fassbender, 36, has become one of the biggest names in the business.
In the unflinching Oscar front-runner 12 Years a Slave, his latest venture and third collaboration with McQueen, Fassbender plays Louisiana plantation owner Edwin Epps, a shockingly brutal yet pitiful villain who becomes the master of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man turned slave whose autobiography inspired the film.
Catching up with DETAILS at New York City's Conrad Hotel, Fassbender spoke about getting into character as Epps and living among "ghosts" during the sobering production, as well as how he and close friend McQueen lightened things up between takes. Sporting some scruff that recalled Epps' unkempt beard, the actor also talked grooming, workouts, the Oscars, and what it feels like to be called "the finest actor of your generation."
DETAILS: Surely you've been getting a lot of Oscar questions, so let's just get it out of the way. This looks like the film that's finally going to get you a nomination. And while it's clear from the work you do that you're not an actor who's in it for trophies, the question remains: How bad do you want it?
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: I mean, of course—listen, I think all of us appreciate a pat on the back or just to be recognized by our peers. It's nice to have recognition, and I guess our vanities cause us to like praise. But I've seen this film and I think it's a masterwork. It's a really important film that goes beyond a cinema experience. And I just feel happy. I'm totally content right now. Whatever comes after this, it's icing on the cake—a bonus, gravy, whatever. And now I'm thinking about the next project I have to do. I've got to move forward and think about work.
DETAILS: When Details spoke to Steve McQueen in 2011, he mentioned that by the time you and he had had your third meeting while prepping for Hunger, you were hitting pubs together on your motorcycle.
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: They don't really go well together, do they? Pubs and motorcycles. [Laughs]
DETAILS: Probably not. But what's the rapport between the two of you like between takes? Because you seem to have this fun, brotherly relationship, yet you're always shooting devastating stuff.
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: I really consider Steve like a brother. He's like family to me, and I love him. He changed my life. On set, there's a lot of focus, but in between takes, we have fun if there's a day that allows for it. Obviously, some of the scenes in this film deal with very difficult material, and sometimes I just kept to myself to stay focused. But other times, where we could find it, we liked to have a laugh or have some lightness or sing a song. We'd break bread together at lunch. With something like this, I think it's important to find reprieves, grab some air, and raise each other's spirits.
DETAILS: McQueen has gone on record saying that you're the finest, or at least most influential, actor of your generation. And he's certainly not the only person to have said that. What does it feel like to hear that?
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: I just feel so humbled by it, and flattered and grateful. I mean, there's nothing for me to really say, other than that I just feel so blessed to be working with Steve for the third time now, and to be working with the best, and learning from the best. That was the ultimate goal and dream when I started doing this, and, knock on wood, I'm living it now, which is incredible.
Fassbender and McQueen on set
DETAILS: It's an age-old tradition for people to label someone the "next this" or the "next that," and certainly there must have been many out there who've called you the next Brad Pitt. In 12 Years a Slave and The Counselor, you act opposite Pitt. What's it like working with him?
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: It's nice, really. I first met Brad on Inglourious Basterds, and he was so generous to me on that set. We only had a small scene together, but he was very encouraging. And then he was going back and talking to people in the business about me. That's the kind of guy he is—he's a real champion of new talent coming through. He saw Hunger and went to Steve [McQueen], and said, "I'd like to do something with you." [Pitt is also a producer on 12 Years a Slave.] So that's his whole spirit as an actor and performer—that generosity. It was a great opportunity to share the screen with him, and then to get to do it again with The Counselor. Brad's practical and straightforward. He comes to work, rolls up his sleeves, gets interactive with all the crew members—a real team player. It's inspiring.
DETAILS: Ostensibly, you're the key villain in 12 Years a Slave, but you also give Epps these layers of ignorance, religious complication, and pitifulness, which actually seems like the least demanding of what McQueen has asked you to do. Did it feel different?
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: I can never really tell, because my process is always pretty much the same, in terms of getting my prep right. I was in New Orleans about five weeks before we started shooting—working on the accent, working with the script, reading [Solomon Northup's memoir], and living alongside Epps, basically. I guess the responsibility was high on this one because this is real people, real history. So I felt that the responsibility was superceding my own input, and that was always very much alive in me. We were shooting on the real plantations, and it often felt as though the ghosts were among us.
DETAILS: Your facial hair is very notably grown out in this film, to the point that you could literally twirl that mustache if you wanted to. What about your own grooming habits? Do you prefer to be clean-shaven or have a little stubble?
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: I suppose I'm rarely clean-shaven. There's often a bit of scruff. Depending on the job, if I need to shave, I'll shave, but in everyday life, I'm pretty much unshaven.
DETAILS: What kind of exercise do you do in your everyday life? What's a typical Fassbender workout when you're not losing 30 pounds or going full-frontal for Steve McQueen?
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: I'm not a great fan of the gym, I gotta say. There's something that really breaks my heart about watching descending red digits on a machine. [Laughs] But I do, obviously, use it as often as I can. I guess jump rope is always good. Any sort of boxing training I find good, like low recovery time, high-intensity stuff. I'm not a big fan of using too many weights. I like to use my own body weight. So I'll do a lot of pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, running—various forms of that. And a cross-trainer. What a killer. I really don't like that machine, but it's a good one.
DETAILS: Looking ahead at upcoming projects, you've got an adaptation of Assassin's Creed in the works, a film you're starring in and coproducing. Why the passion for that? Are you a gamer?
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: I'm not. I just met up with the people at Ubisoft through a friend of mine whom I was working with on something else. He said, "These guys want to meet you." So we discussed Assassin's Creed, and I didn't know anything about it. I'd heard a bit about it and seen the adverts, but that's it. And they told me the whole bible—the encyclopedia—of Assassin's Creed, and I was like, "Wow, this is really cool and something worth exploring." So I'm very excited about that, and we're working on the script at the moment.
DETAILS: And then, at the other end of the spectrum, you have the upcoming Macbeth. From video games to Shakespeare. Do you think of yourself as a renaissance man?
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: I don't know. I don't really like to find labels for myself. But I'm familiar with Shakespeare from the years of going to drama school [the Drama Centre London], particularly. It was a classical-oriented school, so of course we dealt with all the classic Shakespeare. But it's going to be a challenge. I just try to find things that are diverse and fun and risky.
—R. Kurt Osenlund is an arts and entertainment writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him at @AddisonDeTwitt.
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