On the Fass track: the unstoppable Michael Fassbender
The Irish star has a Frank chat with Insider
Last time I met Michael Fassbender, he was an unknown Irish actor who was about to make a bit of a splash in a film about Bobby Sands. Six years on he's one of the biggest young stars in Hollywood, and well on his way to becoming the greatest film actor this country has ever produced.
In films like Hunger, Shame, A Dangerous Method, Prometheus and 12 Years a Slave he's proved himself a fearless character actor of genuine range for whom no challenge seems too great. But even he must have paused for thought when considering his latest role.
In Lenny Abrahamson's extraordinary new movie Frank, which is partly based on the life of 80s novelty performer Frank Sidebottom, Fassbender is required to spend practically the whole film hidden beneath a giant, pouting, fibreglass head, his voice muffled, his famous face nowhere to be seen. Surely even he must have been daunted by this prospect?
"No!" he says, laughing. "When I read the script I just thought it was really funny and unusual, such an odd story in ways, but also an endearing and very human story. It had me laughing out loud at times, so it wasn't a very difficult choice."
Fassbender's character in Frank is part genius, part lunatic, a man with a history of mental illness who can only approach the world from within the safety of his cartoon head. He's the lead singer in a band so hopelessly uncommercial even their name – 'Soronprfbs' – doesn't make sense. Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy play his partners in crime on a rural recording session that seems a doomed enterprise from the start.
The real Frank Sidebottom died four years ago. How much did Fassbender know about him before the shoot began? "I'd never heard of him," he says. "When I was growing up down in Kerry we didn't get English channels, it was only the privileged few in Dublin at that point! It was just RTé One and RTé Two and there was no Frank Sidebottom.
"But when Lenny told me about him, and how he was the inspiration for the film, I watched his music videos and interviews and I tried to get some of the mad spirit of him. But there were other influences for us, we were looking at Daniel Johnston, and Captain Beefheart, people like that ... "
Fassbender says that working with that head was more of a challenge for his co-stars than him. "For me, it gave me a kind of freedom. At drama school we used to commedia dell'arte a bit, and wearing a mask of any kind does liberate you. I got used to it pretty quickly, and in the end got to like it – I wanted to take the head with me on to the next job and do everything in the head!" He drew the line, he says, at sleeping in it – those kind of method extremes are not his style.
His co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal recently deadpanned that acting opposite an expressionless head was no big deal. "It's not entirely foreign to me," she said, "I've had experiences like that in my life." But it can't have been easy. "I just let them worry about it," Fassbender laughs. "When I was wearing it I could see things to the side of me a bit, but nothing straight ahead. There's a bit of mischief that comes out in you when you're wearing something like that, and I always felt it was up to them to get out of my way."
But it's remarkable how much emotion and pathos Fassbender manages to communicate against the odds, especially as the film nears its conclusion. "Even though it's a comedy at times", he says, "Frank has rather a lot on his plate and I never wanted the serious side of his story, his mental illness and so on, to be forgotten."
It's hard to think of another actor who could have pulled off such a meaningful performance while wearing a huge fake head, but then Michael Fassbender has been defying expectations for quite some time. Born in Heidelberg in 1977 to a German father and an Irish mother, he grew up Killarney, County Kerry, where his parents ran a restaurant.
Michael discovered a flair for acting in his teens, and moved to London at 19 to study at the celebrated Drama Centre. He got an early break with a decent role in Steven Spielberg's 2001 TV drama Band of Brothers, and later produced and starred in a stage production of Reservoir Dogs. But until the mid-2000s he was probably best known for his role in a stylish 2004 Guinness TV ad, playing a man who swims from Ireland to New York to apologise to his brother.
Things looked up in 2007 when he co-starred in Zack Snyder's action fantasy 300, but it was Steve McQueen's Hunger that changed Fassbender's life forever. His portrayal of IRA hunger strike leader Bobby Sands was a revelation, and had less to do with the extreme weight loss he went through than Fassbender's intensity and onscreen charisma.
"I felt really focused, really centred, really strong," he's joked. "Hungry all the time, obviously." But his work on Hunger set him apart as a major star in the making. "It got people talking," he recalls, "and got me into rooms I might not have got into otherwise." It got him an instant Hollywood career, and within a year he was working with Quentin Tarantino.
Since his appearance in Inglorious Basterds in 2009, his film career has blossomed. He's worked with Ridley Scott on Prometheus, played a jaw-grindingly intense Mr Rochester in Cary Fukunaga's acclaimed Jane Eyre, co-starred with Brat Pitt and Penelope Cruz in The Counselor, and become a key part of the ongoing X-Men franchise. In a few weeks' time he'll reprise his role as badboy mutant Magento in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Is it hard to move between smaller films like Frank and $200million superhero yarns?
"Well the way you work, the things you do with the character, essentially stay the same," he says. "The difference is just time and – obviously way more people on a big set with $150 to $200 million dollars to play with, and the scale of all that can take a bit of getting used to."
Of late, Fassbender has also had to get used to attending a lot of awards ceremonies. His shocking portrayal of a demented slave owner in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave earned him SAG, Bafta, Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor. He won the IFTA on home turf, but none of the international awards. However, one can't help feeling that an Oscar is only a matter of time. Did he have any qualms about playing as odious a character as the slaver Edwin Epps?
"No," he says, "I really wanted to play Epps the moment I read the script. Steve gave it to me and there was no reason for me to presume that I'd be playing the part of Epps, but that's the one I wanted. I read it and I just thought "God!". Well, number one that this was an amazing story, and then I thought well you know this Epps character – I think I could give it a shot and I'd be very honoured to play it.
"So no I wasn't daunted at all and I don't care about whether he's going to be likeable or not. It frustrates me when I hear that because that's not my job – it's not my job to make you like me, it's to facilitate the story, and he was a major part of that story. Obviously he's a heinous character, and what he's doing is repulsive and inexcusable, but he's also a human being and it was up to me to make him a believable one."
Does he actively seek out those difficult and challenging roles? "Yes. Well I actively seek out education in this industry, that's what I'm trying to do all the time is learn as much as I can, stretch, you know, challenge, take risks, and you know that's all that really interests me. Otherwise, what's the point?"
Frank isout tomorrow. X-Men: Days of Future Past is in cinemas on May 22nd
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent