By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist December 22, 2011 at 3:12PM
A couple of days ago, as part of our year-end coverage, we named Jessica Chastain as our Woman of the Year, and it was an easy decision to make; no one's been as omnipresent, or given as many different, and excellent, turns, as Chastain did. But our man of the year was slightly more difficult to choose. Should it be Matt Damon, who cropped up in five major releases, including Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion?" Hmm...no. Damon's "Happy Feet Two" shrimp partner Brad Pitt, who fought to get both "The Tree of Life" and "Moneyball" made, to tremendous results? No. Ryan Gosling, who embraced stardom at long last with a trio of performances in "Crazy Stupid Love," "Drive" and "The Ides of March?" George Clooney, who directed the latter and starred in Alexander Payne's "The Descendants?" No.
Instead, we went for a man whose roles in 2011 have varied from a Holocaust-surviving mutant to a brooding 19th century gent, from a repressed, buttoned-down legend of psychoanalysis to a troubled sex addict. It is, of course, 34-year-old Irish-German actor Michael Fassbender, who, after years of verging on true stardom, finally became something of an A-lister in the last few months.
We spoke to the actor a few days ago to tell him he was our man of the year, and he told us he feels that his 2011 has been a question of the stars aligning at the right time. "Thank you very much! I just feel like I'm in a very lucky position, I'm glad. It's a 1% position that I'm in, being in the right place at the right time. Luck, you know. I just love telling stories, I love hearing stories and may it continue, touch wood."
While his star has been on the ascent for a few years now, it's hard not to argue that it's been a long time coming. He trained at the top London drama school Drama Centre (where, remarkably, he was a contemporary of fellow freshly-minted A-lister Tom Hardy), but dropped out, finding the program didn't focus enough on film for his tastes. It didn't matter too much, though. Like Hardy, he was swiftly cast in HBO series "Band of Brothers," which provided the big breaks for an entire generation of U.K-based actors, from Damian Lewis and Simon Pegg to James McAvoy and Stephen Graham). From then, he worked pretty solidly in TV, including a regular gig in "Hex," a short-lived British take on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," a recurring role on James Nesbitt-starring Irish undercover cop drama "Murphy's Law," as a psychotic gangster, and as the legendary gunpowder plotter Guy Fawkes in Jimmy McGovern's miniseries "Gunpowder, Treason & Plot," alongside Robert Carlyle, Kevin McKidd and Clemence Poesy.
It took him a while to get to his big-screen debut in 2007, but he arrived in a big way. Fassbender starred alongside Romola Garai in Francois Ozon's English-language "Angel," and also cropped up as one of the Spartans in Zack Snyder's "300." His part, Stelios, wasn't a huge one, but he got prime placement in the trailer, which helped to raise his profile, and more and more film work followed soon after, including horror flicks "Blood Creek" and "Eden Lake" and, crucially, the lead role in Steve McQueen's "Hunger," a grueling part that saw him win plaudits all over the shop, including a British Independent Film Award. It also got him the attention of Quentin Tarantino, who cast him as scene-stealer Lt. Archie Hicox when Simon Pegg had to drop out over a scheduling clash with "Star Trek," and Andrea Arnold, for whom he played skeezy boyfriend Connor in "Fish Tank," while his first action lead followed in 2010 in Neil Marshall's "Centurion." Oh, and he played John Malkovich's bowler-hatted sidekick in "Jonah Hex," but we're trying to forget about that, and we're sure Fassbender is too...
"After 'Inglourious Basterds' I went and did 'Centurion' and then 'Jonah Hex,' and then I didn't do anything for about six months," Fassbender told us. But that brief rest period was followed by a flurry of activity that led to four films being released this year. "Last year, everything was busier," Fassbender said, "it's just this year, everything's coming out, so up until July, I was working pretty much flat out."
First up was Cary Fukunaga's "Jane Eyre," not Fassbender's first brush with Bronte; he was previously attached to star in John Maybury's aborted version of "Wuthering Heights," opposite Abbie Cornish a couple of years ago. But he couldn't be more suited to play Mr. Rochester; chilly yet passionate, prickly yet tragic, and his chemistry with Mia Wasikowska's Jane was impressive. Not long after came his blockbuster coming-out party, opposite James McAvoy as Magneto in "X-Men First Class." While the film's hurried post-production schedule occasionally stymies the finished product, the actor was easily the stand-out, channeling Connery-as-Bond in the film's highlight, the Nazi-hunting section, while also making sure that Erik's shift to the dark side was born out of pain and hurt, rather than inevitability.
And then came a duo of Venice debuts. He's solid in David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method" as Carl Jung, but it's arguably the least notable of the four performances in 2011 (principally because there's not a great deal on the page). But he more than made up for it in the other Lido-bound film, "Shame," his reunion with Steve McQueen. Fassbender arguably delivers the performance of his career to date as Brandon, a New Yorker with a sex addiction who tries to build a genuine relationship with a co-worker (Nicole Berahie), while his troubled past comes back to haunt him when his sister (Carey Mulligan) returns. It's an astonishingly raw performance, less showy than Bobby Sands in "Hunger" but just as powerful, and it looks increasingly likely to see him pick up his first Oscar nomination.
As Fassbender tells it, there was never any design to his back-to-back roles, "I don’t plan, rarely do I plan anything out. You have an idea of what you’re looking for but they just came up one after the other, it seemed like too much of a good opportunity to turn down. So I did six films in 20 months, that’s just the way it happened." But it's led to a perfect storm that's certainly placed him at the top of casting wish-lists for everything from the "Robocop" remake to Darren Aronofsky's "Noah," although the actor reveals he's not decided on anything for the moment, saying, "I haven’t done anything since July, so now I’m taking stock to reflect and decide, you know, what I want to do next," with a third project with Steve McQueen, "Twelve Years A Slave," being his only confirmed gig for 2012. Of course, he's got two killer-looking projects already wrapped: a brief role in Steven Sodebergh's actioner "Haywire," and as David in Ridley Scott's sci-fi epic "Prometheus."
Ultimately, his choice of roles comes down to something quite simple -- interesting collaborators and compelling narratives. "Listen, it's good stories. Whether it’s a big story or a small story doesn’t really matter to me. I like to keep myself guessing, and everybody else. Like I said, I just want to tell stories, good ones with good people. It’s a dice game, this whole business. You just try to load the dice as best you can, by working with the people that you think are inspiring and that you get along with. To be honest, life’s too short, it doesn’t have to be a tortuous experience, it can be a fun experience as well"
And as for his aims after "Twelve Years A Slave" shoots next summer? Well, there's a few people he'd like to work with, from established (and somewhat controversial) names, to whoever breaks out in the next few years. "I love the Coen Brothers, always loved those guys, would love to do something with them. Mel Gibson, I like him as a filmmaker, would like to do something with him. I just think he makes great films, whatever’s going on in his personal life is going on in his personal life. I thought 'Apocalypto' was one of the best action films I’ve ever seen. Shane Meadows? And, you know, always the new people. I’m always curious about who’s coming up, the next generation." Aspiring filmmakers, we'd call that your opening. Fassbender will next be seen in "Haywire," and we'll have more from the actor closer to that film's release on January 20th, while "Prometheus" will follow on June 8th. -- Interview by RP.