AS AN actor, Michael Fassbender has been living a soldier’s life these past 10 years. Since appearing in Band Of Brothers, the Kerryman has gone on to star as a Greek warrior in 300, as IRA MP and hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger, and in August we will see him back on the big screen as a British army officer in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
Michael Fassbender will be in Galway this weekend as one of the principle guests at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh. Hunger will be screened tomorrow at 1.30pm in the Omniplex and he will give the Actors’ Masterclass on Saturday. In this exclusive interview, Michael talks about the experience of playing Bobby Sands and working with Quentin Tarantino.
From Kerry to Sparta
Michael was born in Heidelberg in Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany to an Irish mother and German father in 1977. When Michael was two, he and his parents moved to Killarney, where he grew up and where his unusual name did not go unnoticed.
“You can imagine the combinations of ‘Fass’ and ‘Bender’ you can have and you would have the p**s taken out of you,” Michael tells me over the phone from Los Angeles on a Monday evening. “In the family you would have O’Sullivan’s one side and Fassbenders on the other so you did stand out like a sore thumb. It was interesting when I was younger but it turned out all right.”
During his teens Michael took up the electric guitar “because I wanted to be in a heavy metal band but I wasn’t talented enough”. However his mother’s love of film and drama classes at his local school of St Brendan’s College in Killarney convinced him that his future lay in acting.
“It was the films my mother suggested to me,” says Michael. “The 1970s American new wave films by Coppolla, Scorsese, those influenced me. A major factor in deciding to go into acting was the drama classes in St Brendan’s. Doing a couple of classes gave me the buzz. De Niro, Brando, and Pacino were heroes. I wanted to try and emulate them. At 17 that’s when I decided what I wanted to do.”
Michael’s first major breakthrough as an actor came in 2001 when he played the role of Sgt Burton ‘Pat’ Christenson in the acclaimed WWII TV series Band Of Brothers, produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. It was to mark the start of a career playing numerous military men in the midst of war - his first major role as a film actor would be in a war movie, albeit one set in ancient times.
300, the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, based on the Spartan’s heroic last stand against the Iranian army at the pass of Thermopylae in 480 BC, saw Michael take on the role of the Spartan Stelios. A noble, courageous, warrior, Stelios, as he lies dying following the Iranians successful final assault tells King Leonidas “it is an honour to die by your side”. It was a role Michael thoroughly enjoyed.
“It was like having all the best toys,” he recalls. “We were in an amazing location and you got to relive your childhood with the best props and people training you how to fight with a sword and shield. It was always fun filming and physicality had 80 per cent to do with the character as 300 was such a visual feast. I had to make sure I could carry a sword and shield and the shield could weight 30lbs. You had to be pretty strong to carry it. We just had to carry if for a while. The Spartans would have to carry that for whole days and during battle.”
Michael’s next project would see him play a very different kind of fighter waging war in a very different way. It is also the role for which, to date, he is best known and most celebrated - IRA volunteer, prisoner, MP, songwriter, and hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger, Steve McQueen’s acclaimed depiction of the 1981 hunger strikes.
For the role, Michael had to lose 14 kilos and weighed about 59 kilos by the end. How gruelling an experience was it - both physically and physiologically - for Michael to lose that amount of weight and to put himself into the mind of a man on hunger strike?
“There were moments when losing weight was tough but the whole experience was more positive than negative,” he says. “There were lots of intense periods where I needed to be by myself and have that discipline to fast. Then again our ancestors did this, even as recently as my grandfather, he went on pilgrimages and fasts.
“During the fasting I had moments of euphoria during the day but at night it was horrendous. I got a flavour of what they went through, but at the end of the day I could go home. These men were doing it for real. Sands was an IRA solider who sacrificed his life in prison for what he believed in.
“I knew we had something special filmed and I didn’t want to let the rest down. I respected the topic matter and gave it the amount of preparation it needed. I was in Belfast for five weeks before making the film, getting the accent right, talking to people about what his mindset would have been in prison, what these men felt they were fighting for, and then put it away, and do what you felt was right.”
Hunger put the Irishman on the map and won Michael the best actor awards at the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival and the 2009 London Critics Circle, IFTA, and BIFA awards.
Michael’s next major feature film will see him play a solider once again, but as is becoming the pattern, a very different soldier in a very different setting - the role of British officer Lieutenant Archie Hicox in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, where he will star alongside Brad Pitt and Mike Myers. The film is set in occupied France during WWII, and concerns a group of Jewish-American soldiers whose task is to spread fear by scalping and killing Nazis.
“I enjoy doing character parts and different accents,” says Michael. “Quentin Tarantino said the character is a film critic as well as a brilliant commander who would liked to have seen himself as an actor. Tarantino gave me all these old George Sanders movies so I could take on the way they speak and hold themselves in those movies form the 1930s and 1940s.”
So what is it like to work with Tarantino?
“He’s very clear and he knows what he wants,” says Michael. “He’s a workaholic and he expects the same from you. All the preparatory work is done before you arrive on set so there’s no time to waste. He’s confident and it’s nice to be around someone with that confident and creative approach. He also really enjoys film. I’ve never come across anybody who knows film, like he does, from around the world.”
Being a Tarantino film, there was also a lot of fun on set.
“I was pinching myself being on set with these people,” says Michael. “Mike Myers is great. He’s unrecognisable from his other films. He stays in character and speaks in that accent all day. Tarantino likes to have a fun atmosphere and has music playing between takes. If anybody was found asleep, they had their photo taken with Big Gerry, a big purple dildo. People found asleep on set would have their photo taken with the dildo pointing to their mouth, etc. If you were caught three times you were out. I was never caught but there was a wall of shame with lots of people’s photos on it.”