Some actors, at a certain point in their careers, equate attendants with actual achievement. So they surround themselves with layer upon layer of assistants and managers and publicists and security guards.
And then there's Michael Fassbender, who flies pretty much solo. He's professional and pleasant, the opposite of egomaniacal.
"Everybody's got a job to do. It doesn't have to be a drag for anyone," he says. "I try to make interactions as honest as possible. But there's an element of me that's guarding myself, not letting it all hang out."
Understandable, given the 36-year-old actor has been down this hyped-up publicity road before. Two years ago, Fassbender was supposed to be an Oscar shoo-in for playing a sex addict repelled by actual intimacy in Shame. Things didn't work out quite as planned, so this time, even as his film 12 Years a Slave is hailed as the best of the year, Fassbender is donning those proverbial awards-season earmuffs as best he can and playing it cool. But, he admits of the Oscar noise, "You listen to it because people are saying it often enough."
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In reality, Fassbender is about as loose as you can imagine. "He speaks to the guy sweeping the street the same as he does to movie executives. He's a humble person from a great family," says Steve McQueen, who has directed Fassbender in three films: 2008's Hunger, 2011's Shame and this year's Slave. "He's so far removed from the characters he plays. In terms of acting, the comparison I would make is to (Marlon) Brando. There's a femininity to him and a gentleness and a masculinity that is not offensive or removed. He can draw people in to his characters."
The actor, born in Germany but raised in Ireland, broke through in Hunger, whittling himself down as an IRA prison protester. This year, his unhinged, brutal turn as slave owner Edwin Epps is considered one of the film's many standout performances. "I felt I had a huge responsibility to make a layered human being out of the character and to really show the effect of that world," says Fassbender. "Epps is horrendous, but he's also kind of a victim."
The same can be said for the shifty attorney he plays in Friday's The Counselor. His character, whose name is never revealed, falls madly in love with Laura (Penelope Cruz), buys her a ring he can't afford and attempts to get a piece of the drug pie that fuels the lavish lifestyles of his cohorts. "At the beginning, you're like, 'This guy's a (expletive).' But he's not conniving or being devious with Laura. That's what I always liked about him," says Fassbender.
Of course, being involved in such a passionate project involved getting hot and heavy on screen. Even for someone as breezy and confident as Fassbender, sex scenes are off-putting. The Counselor opens up with the kind of lusty, ardent coupling that shows little but says a lot.
"The scene at the beginning is racy. It's not dirty. It's beautiful," says Fassbender.
But wait, wasn't it just a bit awkward shooting it with Cruz, the real-life wife of Javier Bardem, who co-stars in the film as the Counselor's flashy boss?
"It's always weird doing sex scenes ... because you always want to make sure your partner is comfortable. It's always a bit nerve-racking, unless you're both really into each other!" says Fassbender, quickly adding that that wasn't the case here. "Javier is so cool, man. Javier was in the next room watching the monitor - no, I'm just kidding! He was funny, man. He was joking about it." But sometimes Bardem did supervise. "When we were doing rehearsals, he came back into the room and was like, 'I forgot something.' They're both amazing sports. It was fine."
In general, that seems to be Fassbender's attitude toward most everything. He's the opposite of tortured or pretentious. He's doing this interview after weeks of non-stop press, and while he's a bit tired - "Wake up!" he admonishes himself - he's perfectly fine with answering the must-be same questions on a mind-numbing continuous loop.
"For the most part, you're dealing with intelligent people who have a passion for the arts," he says. "I don't have anything to complain about."
He keeps his game face on, at least in public, but he can throw down with the best of them, reports Bryan Singer, who directs Fassbender in May's X-Men: Days of Future Past.
"For an actor who on screen comes across so intense, to then to be so fun and cool as a person, it's such a blessing," says Singer. "We went to Formula One together. He's a huge racing fan. We've had more than a few drinks together, including one night that was one of those banner nights," continues Singer, adding that Fassbender's recovery time is awe-inspiring. "Sure enough, we shot this amazing scene in the morning. ... He was all-around awesome."
It's hard to walk away from Fassbender without rooting for the guy. He's careful about his roles, trying his best to not squash the momentum he has built. "I've always tried to pick things that affected me. I use my gut feeling. Hunger totally changed everything for me. I was 30 years old and trying to get a lead role. It was very difficult. I was not on any list, and there is a list," he says.
Of course, fame has a price. For the first time, reports London-based Fassbender, he saw paparazzi outside his home. Good thing he can deftly dodge them on his motorcycle.
When he's not working, says Fassbender, "I like speed. Not the drug. Wait, you want to do some?"
He's kidding. "I like karting. They're really fast. There's a place outside London I go to. You get on the ones with gears and they go pretty fast, 90 miles an hour. You're two inches off the ground. I'm scared before I get in them but once I'm in them, it's quite relaxing," he says. "You've got to stay focused."