Michael Fassbender: The middle man

The Fish Tank star toggles between breakout actor and next big thing.

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There’s a moment in a film actor’s career that’s always interesting to observe: After several years in small supporting roles, an artist slowly reaches a level of where-do-I-know-them-from? recognizability. Then comes a crucial buzzworthy part or two, and it’s the beginning of a brief limbo period right before liftoff—if not into Will Smith or pre-couch-jumping Tom Cruise territory, then the currency of an Edward Norton, whose run between Primal Fear and the game-changing Fight Club is the perfect example of said phenomenon.

This is where Michael Fassbender finds himself as his new film, Fish Tank, gives people a rare reason to go to the movies during the traditional take-out-the-trash month of January. Granted, Fassbender’s performance as Connor, a charismatic lothario who turns the life of a fatherless council-flats teen (newcomer Katie Jarvis) upside down, is the sort of nuanced work that garners attention regardless of its release date. But this modest film from British director Andrea Arnold comes on the heels of the 31-year-old German-Irish actor’s transformative turn in the 2008 Cannes sensation Hunger and his memorable scene-stealing portrayal of military commando and ex--film-critic Archie Hicox (“If this is it, old boy, I hope you don’t mind if I go out speaking the King’s”) in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Considering that he’s got a major role beside Josh Brolin and Megan Fox in the upcoming summer blockbuster Jonah Hex, and is about to start working several other high-profile gigs, Fassbender could be on the precipice of becoming a major player.

“So that’s where I’m at?” the actor says, laughing as he nurses a martini in a Meatpacking District restaurant. “I do admire your optimism! I mean, like most actors, I try not to think of where I’m heading necessarily in terms of a 'trajectory.’ So long as people like Andrea want to collaborate with me, I feel like I’m doing something right.” Ah yes, the old it’s-all-about-the-work chestnut, though given Fassbender’s Methody commitment to roles—he lost close to 40 pounds to play Hunger’s IRA martyr, Bobby Sands—and his tendency to immerse himself in preparation for months, you believe he’s not just reciting a well-rehearsed media-friendly mantra. And as the offer to play Connor came with some complicated and challenging caveats, the actor was immediately forced to put up or shut up.

“Andrea decided she’d shoot chronologically and didn’t want the cast to see script pages ahead of time,” Fassbender says. “I managed to talk her into giving us the next week’s pages on Fridays, so that I’d have the weekend to prepare. I knew from her previous feature (2006’s Red Road) that things would be interesting, but I didn’t know where the character was necessarily headed...and there are some fairly big left turns as the story moves along. I knew he was running from something, even if Andrea wasn’t going to tell me what it was until the very last minute. This is a man who falls too easily for a ready-made family; there’s had to be a secret here somewhere.”

Indeed there is, and it’s to Fish Tank’s credit that what should seem like an obvious third-act twist manages to blindside viewers. “I figured if I can keep the actors from knowing what’s around the corner, it would keep the performances edgy and realistically grounded...and, most importantly, fresh,” Arnold says, chatting about the film in a downtown hotel lounge. “But you need both trust and talented people to do this, which is where Michael proved to be invaluable. The man is a rock; he’ll give you anything and everything. He’s one of the only actors I could see playing both heroes or villains.”

Luckily, Fassbender will have a chance to test this theory soon: In addition to playing Hex’s tattooed bad guy, he’s about to shoot Steven Soderbergh’s spy thriller Knockout; an adaptation of Jane Eyre with Sin Nombre’s Cary Fukunaga; David Cronenberg’s Jung-versus-Freud drama, The Talking Cure; and finally, the lead in the long-awaited adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong. “But what’s great about all of those characters is that they aren’t strictly good or bad,” he enthuses. “You don’t want to just be the good guy or some evil genius stroking a cat! The interesting stuff is when you get somebody flawed, somebody damaged, somebody normal who still does abnormal things. It’s the neither-nor characters that keep giving you things, that remain fascinating.” We couldn’t agree more.

Fish Tank opens Fri 15.

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