Every Michael Fassbender fan freaks out in his or her own special way. Critics draw Daniel Day-Lewis comparisons, bloggers term themselves “Fassinators,” and women pass out in movie theaters when the actor comes on-screen. The fainting occurred at the Toronto International Film Festival, at the premiere of Shame, a movie in which he stars as a mournful sex addict. The film was acquired by Fox Searchlight and will see its release timed for optimal Oscar consideration in December. The unconscious woman was revived and taken to the hospital…
David Cronenberg, who directed Fassbender as Carl Jung in this year’s A Dangerous Method, says that the actor so effectively lost himself in the part that at the Venice Film Festival, “nobody recognized him until we introduced him to the audience.” Both men were pleased by this. Shape-shifting, Cronenberg said, is a rare and fantastic skill for an actor to have: “The more a chameleon you can be, the better off you are.”
Fassbender, at 34, has an appealingly weathered face. Unlike most of his American peers, he looks (and acts) his age, perhaps because he’s been at this awhile. Shortly after high school, he moved from Ireland to London to study acting. Success was patchy, and he built a decade-long portfolio of near misses, disappointments, and bartending jobs before a stream of TV work allowed him to act full-time.
“Michael’s got a working-class attitude, in a good way,” says Cronenberg, and Fassbender’s approach does contain an element of manual labor. To prepare for a role, he’ll read a screenplay as many as 300 times in daily shifts of seven hours. What he first seeks in a project is literary merit: “I like a story that is challenging to me as a reader, and therefore as an audience, and therefore as a player.” Which often translates into parts he can disappear into.
Shame, the latest of these feats, begins with the actor naked and laid out on post-sex bedsheets like a strip of raw bacon. This is the actor’s second collaboration with Britain’s Steve McQueen, who directed him in 2008′s Hunger. For that film, Fassbender dropped forty pounds to play the IRA prisoner Bobby Sands, and Shame demands similar physical sacrifices. His every crease and follicle is on view as the compulsively oversexed Brandon, who lives in a cashmere-lined world of luxury and self-loathing. (Think Patrick Bateman in a minor key.) Fassbender cannily plays Brandon as if he were a cyborg trying to imitate human behavior: His reaction times are off, his stares inappropriate, his bearing frozen. When asked how he readied himself for the film’s many nude scenes, he is characteristically proletarian: “You feel awkward and mortified, but you get on with it. I’m not easily embarrassed.”