Interviewed in Maclean's magazine about his new film, A Dangerous Method, the director David Cronenberg confessed to being puzzled by the behaviour of one of his actors.
It was Michael Fassbender who, in the movie, plays Carl Jung in full, waistcoated Viennese fig, with brilliantined side-parting, a hefty moustache and granny spectacles. In the film, he falls out with his distinguished mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) over his treatment of a father-obsessed patient, played by Keira Knightley. But it wasn't his performance that bothered Cronenberg. It was his smile.
"He's so perky, it drives you crazy," said Cronenberg. "One day, I found him out in the sun in his costume and make-up, with this big smile. I said, 'Michael, why are you smiling like that?' He said, 'I don't know ... life.' I said, 'It's so irritating that you're happy all the time.'"
What's not to smile about? Fassbender is currently the most in-demand actor in the world. He's the star of three films – Shame, A Dangerous Method, Haywire – whose releases are timed for Oscar consideration. He has phenomenal range. He's the go-to guy for any director in search of a square-jawed romantic hero (Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre) a troubled Mitteleuropean visionary (Jung in A Dangerous Method), a nasty seducer of young girls (in Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank) or a fanatical Irish Republican hunger-striker (Hunger). He can do tough-heroic (300), cool-heroic (Quentin Tarentino's Inglourious Basterds), cartoon-heroic (Magneto in X Men: First Class), and SF-heroic (Ridley Scott's forthcoming Prometheus). He hasn't yet been tried out for comedy, musicals or children's movies, but you wouldn't bet on him failing at any of them.
At 34, the youthful good looks that first attracted attention in the 2001 Spielberg-Hanks TV series Band of Brothers have matured into full leading-man maturity: the chiselled cheekbones, the startlingly bright, grey-blue eyes, the wide mouth, the killer smile. You can actually find an online blog which advances the theory that Fassbender is actually a shark. But the internet is full of female twittering about his chiselled features. One website is called I Fancy the Fassy. In another, a mosaic of pictures is devoted to his neck alone. He seems to combine the good looks of several famous men (James McAvoy, Ewan McGregor, David Beckham) but eclipse them all with a wiry, Celtic edginess. He's become expert at the menacing sideways glance, the unexpected snarl, the feral grin. Does that explain the chronic happiness noticed by Cronenberg? Or maybe it was the fact that he'd spent the morning spanking Keira Knightley at her behest (for a scene in the film, obviously). At the National Board of Review awards, where he later won the Spotlight Prize for ubiquity, Ms Knightley apparently assured him, "Michael, if I had to be spanked by anybody, I'm glad it was you."
His performance in Shame as Brandon, a New York businessman who spends his every waking minute obsessively pursuing sex, has so far won him 12 Best Actor awards and 11 nominations, and that's before we've started on the Oscars, the Golden Globes and the London Critics' Circle. It's ironic that the best-received work of this mercurial, perma-changing actor should be in a film about emotional blankness.
According to himself, he was a bit of a blank as a kid. He was born in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1977. His German father Josef was a chef, his mother Adele was from Co Antrim, Northern Ireland, a distant relative of Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary leader. When Michael Fassbender was two, the family moved to Killarney in southern Ireland, and ran the local restaurant, West End House. Brought up a Catholic, and an altar boy, Fassbender didn't shine at school but found an outlet for his energies in heavy-metal music and flirted unsuccessfully with playing in a band. In his teens, he worked in the restaurant and saved money to travel – and picked up enough German from his father to stand him in good stead when playing a British lieutenant speaking almost-perfect German in Inglourious Basterds.
His first stage performance, at 17, was playing an Ugly Sister in a pub-theatre panto production by his school drama teacher. Something about the experience stuck fast, and he went to learn acting at the London Drama Centre. After the early success of Band of Brothers, Fassbender spent five years in odd jobs – appearing in a Guinness ad, a rock video, a radio dramatisation of Dracula, and on stage playing Michael Collins at the Edinburgh Fringe – before impressing as Stelios, a young Spartan soldier, in 300, Zack Snyder's comic-strip version of the battle of Thermopylae.
Emboldened, he went to audition for a small, bleak-sounding, independent movie by a first-time director (with someone else's famous name) who was better known as a British artist. It was Steve R McQueen, who later recalled their first meeting: "When I first met him, he was a pain. It was almost like he didn't want to be [there]. There was almost a cockiness about him. I thought, 'OK, thank you very much.' Then my casting director persuaded me to bring him in the next day, and he was a different person. I thought, 'Wow, that could be Bobby Sands.'"
The two men met once more and McQueen offered him the role that would change his career (and his body – Fassbender embarked on a crash diet, a limit of 600 calories a day, to become sufficiently emaciated). "I got on the back of his motorcycle," recalled McQueen, "and went out for a drink, and that was it. We got on like a house on fire from then on."
Hunger was a harrowing depiction of life in the Maze Prison, Belfast, during the mid-1970s hunger strike. It was a stunning performance of driven, self-destructive belief that overrode all other considerations. Fassbender played the Ulster hard man with scary passion. The central scene – a 17-minute, one-take conversation between Sands and a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) which Fassbender and Cunningham rehearsed 12 times a day – offered a mesmeric insight into the thought processes of the nascent martyr. Some voices protested that it was like a recruiting poster for the IRA. They were wrong, but it's a tribute to Fassbender's acting that they thought it might be so.
The film won the Caméra d'Or at Cannes, the Sydney Film Prize and Best Picture at the Evening Standard Film Awards. Fassbender picked up the British Independent Film Award and was launched. Since then, it's been a soaring upward curve of success and acclaim. Yet he lives quietly in London and is self-deprecatory about prizes and awards ceremonies. What keeps him grounded seems to be both a suspicion of Hollywood ("When I walk in the streets of Paris, London or New York, I like having people around me, feeling kind of an electricity. In Los Angeles, life is more insular. You go out from your home, take your car, drive, and that's it") and a love of his German-Irish family.
Needing to relax last summer, after making five films on the trot, he set off with his father and his best friend on a two-month, 5,000-mile trip around Europe. He constantly mentions his mother Adele in interviews, whether as a Jane Eyre fan whose enthusiasm affected his decision to take the role of Rochester, or as a surprisingly liberal-minded spokesman for male nudity. "Women can parade around naked all the time," he told an interviewer at the launch of Shame, "but the guy conveniently has his pants on. I remember my mom always complaining about that to me, saying, 'This is such bullshit, it's always the women who are naked.' So I did this one for you, Mom!"
After Prometheus, he is slated to star in Brendan Gleeson's version of the staggeringly unfilmable At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien. And he and McQueen will reconvene their glittering partnership in Twelve Years a Slave, from an 1853 report of a black New York violinist kidnapped and sold to the cottonfields of Louisiana. But, hell, anything could happen now. There's talk that he might play Flashman, the cad and coward from George MacDonald Fraser's novels. Daniel Craig has nominated him as his successor as 007. There's nothing now off-limits to the handsome, German-Irish ex-headbanger with the world at his feet and an inscrutable (but strangely understandable) smile on his face.
A life in brief
Born: 2 April 1977, Heidelberg, Germany.
Family: Son to Northern-Irish mother Adele and German father Josef, he has one sister. The family moved to Ireland when he was two years old.
Education: St Brendan's, Killarney; trained at the Drama Centre, London.
Career: First appeared in Steven Spielberg's TV epic Band of Brothers in 2001. Won British Independent Film Award in 2008 for Hunger. Has had roles in a diverse range of films including Fish Tank, Inglourious Basterds and Jane Eyre. Reunited with McQueen for Shame, for which he is nominated for a Golden Globe.
He says: "I quite enjoy the lines on my forehead because they show my life."
They say: "They all want to become movie stars and forget about the art, but Michael is a true artist in acting." Steve McQueen, director of Shame