In Hollywood, strong and versatile leading men are almost as scarce as intelligent scripts. It’s a rare breed—the serious actor with defiantly masculine sex appeal who can play a swaggering action hero, melt into a shrewd character role, and charm a woman out of her clothes. Ryan Gosling, Javier Bardem and Daniel Craig are among the few who come to mind. Now Michael Fassbender joins the club. This German-born Irishman is not yet a household name, but at the rate he’s going, it won’t be long.
Fassbender, 34, has starred in no fewer than five movies this year. Last spring, he brought an unnerving erotic menace to the role of Rochester in Jane Eyre. In the summer, he harnessed Magneto’s force field in X-Men: First Class. This fall, he tore up the festival circuit, winning best actor in Venice for his incendiary role as a sex addict in Shame—a pathology he could have diagnosed in his role as Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. Finally, he takes on a female black-ops assassin in Haywire, an upcoming spy thriller from Steven Soderbergh. (Shame opens here next week; A Dangerous Method and Haywire won’t hit Canada until January.)
Cronenberg cast Fassbender after seeing the extraordinary range he displayed in myriad roles—as self-starving IRA martyr Bobby Sands in Hunger (2008), a British army officer in Inglourious Basterds (2009), and a cavalier cad who seduces his girlfriend’s 15-year-old daughter in Fish Tank (2009). In A Dangerous Method, Fassbender’s Jung emerges from the shadow of Freud (a droll Viggo Mortensen) and tumbles into a kinky extra-marital affair with a Russian protege (Keira Knightley), who graduates from wild-eyed patient to amorous colleague. Interviewed by Maclean’s this week, Cronenberg said, “I felt that Michael’s innate sexiness would work with Keira, and his sense of humour and playfulness would work with Viggo on the set.”
The Canadian director also felt Fassbender would make a convincing intellectual, even though the actor doesn’t remotely see himself as one. “Even with an intellectual character, his approach is visceral,” says Cronenberg. “He jokingly likes to say the only research he did was read ‘The Idiot’s Guide to Carl Jung.’ He reminds me of Errol Flynn. He has that same gently swashbuckling, charming tone.” Laughing, Cronenberg, adds: “He’s just so perky, it drives you crazy. One day I found him standing out in the sun in his costume and makeup, with this big smile. I said, ‘Michael, why are you smiling like that?’ He said, ‘I don’t know . . . life.’ I said, ‘It’s so irritating that you’re happy all the time.’ ”
But Fassbender is clearly capable of venturing to the dark side. For Hunger, his breakout role, the six-foot actor dropped from 165 lb. to a skeletal 125 lb., an act of self-sacrifice that scarily mirrored that of his character. Hunger director Steve McQueen then cast him in Shame, a haunting descent into sexual addiction that, ironically, seems more Cronenbergian than the elegant period drama of A Dangerous Method. In fact, we haven’t seen graphic sex portrayed with such chilling, pathological detachment since Cronenberg’s own Crash (1996). And Fassbender’s high-wire act in Shame is the one generating Oscar buzz.
He plays a suave, successful office worker in Manhattan who is addicted to empty sex—Internet porn, prostitutes, anonymous strangers. The emptier the better. From the first scene of him wandering about his apartment, frontally naked, then pleasuring himself in the shower, Fassbender strips himself bare, body and soul. When his messed-up sister (Carey Mulligan) moves in uninvited, disturbing the insular order of his life, vague hints of incest suggest his aversion to intimacy runs deep.
Unlike most movie stars, Fassbender has a fluid persona with no fixed identity. When he was introduced after the Dangerous Method premiere in Venice, says Cronenberg, “the audience gave a little gasp because they didn’t recognize him from the movie. Viggo has the same thing—he can walk through a city and no one will notice him.” But next year Fassbender will play the lead in Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s blockbuster reboot of Alien. Then he can kiss his anonymity goodbye.