The GQ Cover Story: Michael Fassbender
Listen, America, if you want your leading men to play robots or dudes with superpowers, Michael Fassbender isn’t so Stanislavsky that he’ll roll his pretty Irish eyes at you. But that’s not why he’s the most exciting leading man to emerge in years. It’s because he dives into roles that would make most Hollywood himbos piss in their loincloths: a hunger-striker, a sex addict, a vicious slave driver. Why does Fassbender push himself to such extremes? To find out, GQ’s Zach Baron rode shotgun with him and barely lived to tell the tale
Posted November 2013 | By Zach Baron | WARNING : EXPLICIT CONTENT
Before Michael Fassbender loses control of the 340-horsepower Mustang GT the two of us are riding in, before I learn what it is to watch the world fade into a rotating blur of life-threatening objects—wall, wall, other car, wall—I walk into the lobby of a racetrack thirty miles outside Montreal, only to discover the wrong X-Man waiting for me. It’s supposed to be Fassbender, up here in Canada shooting X-Men: Days of Future Past, meeting me at this track. That was the plan. And for a moment I think Fassbender is indeed the man I’m looking at, except the man I’m looking at is shorter and more cuddly than I had been led to believe, his hair longer, his stubble red, his eyes pale blue-green.
He leans against a counter, talking animatedly with a track attendant in a rich Scottish brogue, looking and sounding altogether like…
I walk back outside and then back inside, like: Maybe this time it will be the right X-Man.
Nope. Definitely James McAvoy. Young playboy Professor X to Fassbender’s swinging-’60s Magneto in X-Men: First Class.
My phone buzzes. The accent is Irish this time. The actual Michael Fassbender, calling to tell me he’s in traffic. He’ll be here soon, he says apologetically.
We’re northwest of the city, where the land flattens out—long low barns, wildflowers, fields like line drawings. It’s a Sunday morning in early August, the weather unseasonably cool. The racetrack is here at Montreal’s enormous second airport, Mirabel, built in the ’70s and abandoned three decades later. Cargo planes still fly in and out. But that’s more or less it, except for the Circuit ICAR racetrack—built right out by the runway, 2.11 miles long, sixteen increasingly sharp, increasingly terrifying turns.
McAvoy is waiting for Fassbender, too. They were out the night before—they’ve been in Canada together since April, reprising their X-Men roles—and they’re both car guys, so Fassbender invited him along. McAvoy acknowledges it must’ve been disorienting for me to find him standing in the lobby instead of the guy I’m supposed to meet.
“We’ve decided to switch names and identities and schedules for the week,” McAvoy says, running with it. His accent goes full Fassbender. “Growing up in Ireland…”
McAvoy gets pretty far into the joke, narrating the Fassbender biography. The actor’s birth in Germany. His childhood in Ireland. His lonely teenage metal-nerd years. McAvoy doesn’t come right up to Fassbender’s glittering envy-of-the-industry present, to this fall’s 12 Years a Slave—directed by longtime Fassbender collaborator-slash-soul-extractor Steve McQueen, in the most harrowing installment of the three harrowing films they’ve made together—or his other, less art-house-y new movie, The Counselor, from Cormac McCarthy’s second-ever original screenplay, about a drug deal gone spectacularly wrong, with Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz and Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz and directed by Ridley Scott. But McAvoy comes pretty close, tracing Fassbender’s uncommonly gradual climb up the slippery, desperate slopes of Mount Hollywood, before he’s interrupted.
Fassbender walks in. He’s in bright green Adidas track pants and a black T-shirt, hair sticking up everywhere, eyes bleary and barely open. He looks as if someone rolled his body the thirty miles out from Montreal and he woke up on mile twenty-nine. It’s hard to tell if he’s badly hungover or just rakish. He greets McAvoy with a fraternal hug, shakes my hand. “Bloody traffic,” he says cheerfully.
We are led into a classroom for a safety briefing. Maxime, a French-born former professional wheelman with immaculate gelled hair and nifty driving sneakers, is our instructor for the day. Each of us—Fassbender, McAvoy, me—gets a bottle of water and a piece of paper with a diagram of the course. On the page, it looks cute, a little ectoplasm of 180-degree curves and certain death. Fassbender starts drawing on his handout: first a cube, then a cube with legs, then what looks like a mailbox.
Today, Maxime tells us, we will be driving a fleet of Mustang GTs. He starts going through slides. The seat, Maxime says, gives you the feel of the rear tires. The steering wheel gives you the front tires. At high speeds, you brake in a straight line, then turn; you do not do both at the same time.
“Let’s try not to spin out today,” Maxime says, because that’s what happens when you engage both brake and steering wheel at one hundred miles per hour. The seat belt is called a nutcracker: “If you want to know whether your braking is good or not, feel around that part.”
Okay? Okay. Any other questions?
“Why do you guys use Mustangs?” Fassbender asks.
“The engine in there is top-ten toughest in the world,” Maxime says.
“So you can’t break them,” Fassbender nods, like: We’ll see.
Also, Maxime mentions belatedly, there is no passing on the track.
We don black balaclavas. Fassbender looks like he’s about to hijack a cargo jet. I look like a hostage. We decide to ride together, for the camaraderie of it. They hand us helmets. “You want to hold the water?” he offers as I awkwardly clamber in shotgun. “We can share it.”
Maxime lines us up. He’ll be first, in the pace car, followed by McAvoy, then us. At the start, Fassbender begins revving the engine, the Mustang angrily vibrating in place.
“Oh shit,” he giggles as we wait for the flag. “I think I need to fart.”
“This is a safe space,” I attempt.
He turns and looks at me, two skeptical eyes visible through the visor of his giant helmet.
“I’m not sure that it is,” Fassbender says drily, turning back toward the track.
Then the flag drops.
In 12 Years a Slave, Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, a Louisiana slave-owner whose inner rot seems to sprout from the very land itself—an evil man, even in comparison with other evil men. This is a film that, frame by frame, is soaked in a dread so exquisite and unrelenting as to be almost unbearable. And though the film belongs to its precise lead actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped and sold at auction, it is the menacing dynamic between him and Fassbender’s Epps—hard-eyed, without mercy, wearing Jack Nicholson’s weird head towel from The Missouri Breaks—that gives the film its terrorized, furious heart. Fassbender’s performance is singular in the sense that no one has even attempted what he’s doing here before: a man awash in plantation liquor, angrily in love with one of his own slaves, visiting every kind of nightmare on himself and his property, human and otherwise.
And then there’s The Counselor. Fassbender shot it back-to-back with 12 Years. He plays the title character—because this is a Cormac McCarthy screenplay, that’s all he’s actually called, “the Counselor”—a self-satisfied, fainthearted lawyer whose decision to participate in a drug deal is revealed to be a very bad decision indeed. The film is a gleefully trashy morality tale: Snuff films are described in the courtliest of metaphors; roadside decapitations unfold as elegantly as ballet. The first time you see the Counselor, his head is buried between Penélope Cruz’s legs.
“How do you know how to do that?” her character asks.
“From hanging out with really nasty girls,” Fassbender’s Counselor responds, and you think: Here is the one actor we have today who can deliver that line with the sleazy sexiness it requires.
It’s hard to remember, watching stuff like this, that he hasn’t been around that long—that unlike, say, Brad Pitt, his co-star in both 12 Years and The Counselor, Fassbender has only been working, really working, for five remarkable years, ever since Steve McQueen saw what a decade’s worth of casting directors didn’t and chose him to play Irish hunger-striker Bobby Sands in 2008’s Hunger.
The first time he appears in Hunger, his character is being forcibly stripped and washed. Fassbender is thrashing and naked, howling with the fury of a guy who’d pretty much given up on basic human vanity, let alone a career—he was 31 then and had no reason to think the next ten years of his life would be any more fruitful than the prior ten, most of which he’d spent behind a bar. It’s a remarkable performance, transfixing even in the moments he is barely doing anything at all: lying in a prison cell, say, his face a smiling clown’s mask of blood.
The last day on Hunger, McQueen gathered everyone involved with the film and made a brief speech about his lead actor: “Nobody knew who he was then. But I went to the crew, and I said, ‘Everybody here at some point in life is going to say, ‘I worked with Michael Fassbender.’ ”
Today, on the phone, McQueen sort of chuckles, thinking about that moment.
“And I don’t think I was wrong.”
We are immediately going very fast.
“I don’t understand the gears!” Fassbender is yelling. He’s moving the gearshift all over, like a magic wand or a broken joystick. “Where the fuck is third gear?” It does not seem to matter where third gear is.
There is no passing allowed. Maxime was very clear on that. The goal at this early moment is simply to get a feel for the track. And yet: Now we are flying past McAvoy. The cars are all wired up, and our walkie-talkie crackles angrily: “No passing!”
Fassbender laughs a high-pitched laugh. “Fuck you, buddy!”
Now he’s creeping up on the pace car. He’s got our Mustang right up behind Maxime’s bumper, slamming on the brakes when we get too close, which is every other turn. I’m levitating in my useless passenger seat, my cheeks making cartoon shapes when we come around the curves.
It should be said that Fassbender is a beautiful driver. He’s deftly painting the line Maxime is laying down, even anticipating it. Ahead of us, you can see Maxime notice it, too: Our pace car is clearly speeding up. Like: If these guys can handle it…
Well, okay: We are immediately going even faster. On the turns, our car starts drifting, the two of us awash in that sickening sensation when the wheels are gripping nothing at all. There is a quick pit stop to regroup, and then we’re in the car again; on our second or third lap back out, Fassbender screaming in pursuit of Maxime, we hit the second-to-last curve, a bobby pin at 15—the sharpest turn on the course—our car pitching toward the back of Maxime’s car, Maxime’s brake lights hugely red and approaching at a terrifying rate of speed, Fassbender slamming on our own brakes, yanking the wheel to begin the turn, and our car…
Spins out completely. Everything is a blur as we’re rotating on the track, walls coming in and out of view, Fassbender and I both just screaming until…
We come to a rest, facing exactly the wrong way on the track. We both exhale violently. We’re laughing giddily. I look up happily at the world that’s just been given back to me, just in time to see…
James McAvoy bearing right down on us, the hood of his car aimed squarely at the hood of ours. Fassbender and I suck our breath in at the same time, so loud it’s audible: uuuuh. And then, at that last moment…
McAvoy jerks his wheel. His vehicle slips narrowly past ours, the two of us grim and silent, watching him go by, Professor X come to Magneto’s rescue once more.
And then Fassbender fires the engine back up and takes a couple of extra laps, because we missed one, spinning around in place—and because once we start driving again, the car immediately runs out of gas, as if it, too, were traumatized, so we have to stop off in the pit and refill—and Fassbender expects to get in all the time he’s owed, even though all the other cars are now finished and off the track, even though our walkie-talkie is again blaring: “Mustang, back to the pit, please. Mustang back to the pit.”
“Don’t give me a car that doesn’t have any juice in it,” Fassbender retorts indignantly at the one-way walkie-talkie, and around again we go.
Afterward, I see McAvoy in the men’s room. He yells over across the urinals: “That was crazy, ay?” I nod: Yeah.
“Michael,” McAvoy says, zipping up. “He should’ve been a race driver.”
A few lessons about success in Hollywood, from a man who would now know:
1. The words that come out of your mouth no longer mean anything.
“I make a lot more friends, you know what I mean? You become a lot more successful in terms of, like, talking to a girl. She’s all of a sudden more interested in me. I know that, like, three years ago, she would’ve walked away after two sentences left my mouth. I remember I was sitting at this table at this thing, and I was talking to this girl. I was like, ‘God, I am so boring right now.’ But she was like, ‘That’s so interesting!’ I was like, ‘You know what? Five years ago, this would not have been interesting.’ ”
2. Buy gold.
Conversations with Michael Fassbender sometimes go in surprising directions. He has not been spending much of the money he’s made in the past few years, he tells me, apropos of not much, from acting in X-Men and Scott’s Prometheus and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds—he still lives in the same East London bachelor apartment he’s had since his twenties—and that presents an interesting conundrum:
“It’s probably not good in the bank,” he muses, as though this is the first time this notion has occurred to him. “You need to get it out of the bank.”
Out of the bank?
“You hear, ‘Oh, we’re in this much debt.’ It’s like, where is that money?! All these numbers: Where do they come from? One hundred billion whatever, these numbers. I’d like to see a room with that amount of money. There is no room that could take that amount of money. That money doesn’t exist.”
But you’re in the same spot, right? I don’t know what you get for X-Men, but you’ve never seen $7 million in a room, either.
“No, but what I’m saying is like, countries going, ‘We’re in this much debt, and we’ve got to get it together to pay off this debt.’ It’s like, ‘You’re never going to pay that debt off. It’s impossible.’ I worry about currency and money. Inflation, bang, and next thing, a million’s not worth anything. Like in Germany before and after the war, when it really crashed. It was like 2,000 marks for a loaf of bread or something, you know what I mean? That’s why you’ve got to get it in bricks and mortar.”
Perhaps it’s time to upgrade to a new apartment.
“Or some gold.”
You should buy a house made out of gold.
“I want that gold house.”
Forgive him—we’re drinking beer at a bar off the racetrack, and we’re both still alive, so why not a gold house? Gold houses for everybody!
Two more lessons. We’re talking about how single-minded, how borderline delusional, one has to be to decide at 17 that you’re going to be an actor—Fassbender can date it to that exact age, 17, when he was working in his parents’ restaurant in Ireland—and then nurture that dream through more than a decade of failure. In the bar, he ticks off the jobs he had, his near misses: barman, an unsuccessful audition for Ben A±eck’s part in Pearl Harbor (“Disney sent me a really nice note!”), unloading boxes off trucks, doing market research for Dell and the UK’s postal service, the Royal Mail. While working on behalf of the latter, Fassbender was tasked with following up on complaints; no call could last longer than ten minutes. “You’ve got to hang up on these, like, lovely old people.” So, next lesson:
3. Be selfish, at least for now.
What these jobs had in common is that none of them conflicted with the auditions he continued to go on with little to show for it. “I’m kind of selfish with the hours that I put into the work,” Fassbender says. He was selfish even then, when there wasn’t much work to be had, and still is now at age 36, when he’s among the most in-demand actors in his entire industry. We talk about the toll this selfishness might take on a person’s life, on one’s ability to do right by friends, family, partners. Which leads me to ask, in a way I regret before I even finish asking:
Does that selfishness extend to women, too? Since you started acting, what’s the longest you’ve dated someone?
He’s not sure he likes this line of questioning. (“I’m not sure I like this line of questioning,” he says.) But then: “I think the longest relationship that I’ve been in was two years. I started doing this when I was 17, so I guess in my dating, adult life, that kind of covers it.”
There’s a moment in The Counselor about Fassbender’s character and his relationship to women. Bardem—in tinted Elvis shades, a halo of spiky hair, his shirt covered in butterflies—playing Fassbender’s partner in crime, Reiner, delivers a judgment on the Counselor that could well, I venture, apply to Fassbender himself.
“Do you know why women like you?” Reiner asks.
“Because I’m a good fuck?” responds the Counselor (which is maybe another line only Fassbender could deliver, but no matter).
“Yeah, right,” Reiner says. Women like the Counselor, he goes on, because “they can sniff out the moral dilemma.”
As Fassbender points out to me, those are Cormac McCarthy’s words and not about him at all—and yet they are a perfect description of his talent as an actor: You can sniff out the moral dilemma. There is a kind of unresolved calculus there, whether in 2009’s Fish Tank, in which Fassbender plays a hungry-eyed security guard whose tender care for his girlfriend’s young daughter is revealed to be something quite other than tender, or 2012’s Prometheus, where Fassbender plays an android whose curiosity about how humans work disastrously outstrips his inclination to aid them. In Shame, he portrays a man brutally hollowed out by his own desires; in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, his character hollows out others the same way. Even X-Men: First Class’s Magneto, in Fassbender’s measured performance, is a man who regards his own gradual corruption with a wry fascination—Let’s just say I’m Frankenstein’s monster. Over and over again, he plays men who want to be good but probably are not.
And there is, I point out, a suspicious ease with which Fassbender’s characters break bad, one after another. We’re on our second beer at this point, and I’m reeling off the litany of roles, all these characters on the wrong side of right. It’s not immediately obvious, from the way he is in person, why he gets cast this way. He says man and bro and brother a lot. He’s cheerful if evasive, or maybe just not that self-reflective at all. Which makes you wonder—as I do out loud—whether there is something buried in the man himself that makes all those roles possible, some looming darkness or inner flaw.
To which Fassbender responds with a grin and a sly look: “I don’t know. Did you feel like it got dark in that Mustang?”
Except for the part where we almost died, no. But I’m asking you.
“Let me put it to you this way, right? A lot of comedians are dark personalities, but they’re making people laugh. So, you know, it can flip the other way. People that are playing dark roles can actually be quite light. It doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand. I think sometimes maybe people that are lighter can access that darkness easier, whereas people that are dark don’t like to access it.”
Right. It’s too close.
“Yeah, it’s too close. It’s too much maybe part of them that they don’t want to reveal. I know that I’ve got darkness, but for the most part I try and smile as much as I can, you know? I mean, David Cronenberg said it annoyed him that I used to come to work happy all the time.”
At some point during this exchange I notice what’s actually printed on his black T-shirt: hundreds of tiny skulls, each smiling a little smiley face.
Which gives us our final lesson:
4. You don’t have to be dark to play dark.
Bryan Singer, Fassbender’s director on X-Men: Days of Future Past, tells me over the phone that he’d just finished shooting a scene where Fassbender was completely backlit, and that even his backlit outline had “character”—you can hear the italics when Singer says it. Such is the natural intensity of Fassbender when you put a camera on him. “But it’s an intensity that falls away when he’s having fun or in present conversation,” Singer says. “Which, thank God. Because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to have dinner with him.”
He’s been working so much the past few years that when I ask what his civilian, nonwork life is like, he shrugs and gestures around at the track: “We just did it today.” In the fifteen months between March 2011 and June 2012, Fassbender had six films come out—X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method, Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, Jane Eyre, Prometheus, and McQueen’s Shame, the last of which spawned a labor-intensive and ultimately fruitless Oscar campaign for his lead performance as a grimly compulsive sex addict. After months of promotion and glad-handing and being told over and over that he was a lock for an award, he ended up not even being nominated. (As he told this magazine last year: “It’s a vanity thing. It does become important to you. And it shouldn’t.”)
The Counselor is too defiantly bloody and operatic to threaten much in the way of Academy Awards, but 12 Years a Slave seems likely to be a different story. It is hard to imagine Fassbender’s Epps not being in the Oscar conversation. Which is a problem that Fassbender—who has been down this road and has no desire to try it again—has already solved.
He is going to New Zealand. He’s got a production company he started with a pal, and they’re doing their first feature. Production begins mid-October. After that, he’s shooting Macbeth with Marion Cotillard. “I’m going to be busy working,” Fassbender says. “I just don’t really have time.”
But people have a way of being like, “You need to be at this luncheon.”
“That’s just not going to happen, because I’ll be in New Zealand. I’ll be on the other side of the world. You know, I get it. Everybody’s got to do their job. So you try and help and facilitate as best you can. But I won’t put myself through that kind of situation again.”
He goes on a bit about the process of campaigning for one of these things. “It’s just a grind. And I’m not a politician. I’m an actor.”
Around Oscar season, the lines get pretty blurred between those two things.
“Not if you’re not there!”
He says he wants to slow down eventually, workwise, but that hasn’t happened yet. There was maybe a two- or three-week break between 12 Years and The Counselor, and then The Counselor stopped production for two weeks so that Ridley Scott could mourn his brother, Tony, who died last August. The film is very much in the spirit of the younger, more gonzo Scott brother—violent and stylized and wildly over the top—which Fassbender thinks is apt: “In a way, it was kind of more of a Tony Scott [movie] than a Ridley, you know?”
After The Counselor, he went straight into shooting the new Terrence Malick film, which may or may not be about love and the Austin music scene. In that Malick way, Fassbender is still waiting to find out if he made it into the finished film.
“I’m not sure,” he says. “I’ve got to go actually and do some more voice-over.” There is, he adds wryly, “just like reams and reams of that.”
“This is where we have fun, dude.”
And now he’s really grinning. From our spot by the bar, he points to a separate track, a cluster of tiny four-wheel karts and their winding course, marked off by big piles of tires. “I love this shit,” he says. Fassbender finds go-karts relaxing—”If I have free time, this would probably be the thing that I like to do most,” he tells me earnestly—even though he knows it’s a bit funny, a grown man with a passion for a child’s game.
And so, lightly buzzed, we find ourselves surrounded by teenagers in our second safety briefing of the day. The helmets go back on. If they wave a black flag, the instructor explains, that means they want to talk to you, because you are doing something wrong. Red flag means stop. Blue flag—”means there’s someone faster behind,” Fassbender interjects, as though maybe he’s prompted a few blue flags in the past. It’s ten or eleven laps per race, assuming you don’t crash first.
Out by the karts, he approaches a mechanic. “Hey, brother, which one is the fastest one?” The guy says 22 or 7. Fassbender claims 22.
We take to the track. In the little cockpit, I’m trying to sort out the speed, the brakes, the power-to-weight ratio. I’m angling across a turn on lap two or three in what I deem to be a pretty fine manner when, just inside my line, a kart shoots past, lightly clipping the front of mine, Fassbender cackling as he goes by. But it’s the next time he passes me, a few laps later, that feels like an indignity.
We do the course twice. The second time, I am ready. I will not be shamed. I am driving like Mario Andretti, or what I imagine Mario Andretti drives like, having never seen Mario Andretti drive. I make it six times around the track. But then it is lap seven and my kart is shuddering in a now familiar way, because Fassbender is going by me again, bouncing his kart off the side of mine.
Not this time, I think.
I floor it, come around the next curve like vengeance itself, slide off the track entirely, and end up buried in a pile of tires. A black flag goes up, mockingly, by the finish line. Ahead of me Fassbender is already slipping off into the distance, his left arm extended out in a valedictory wave.
Source | GQ Magazine