It’s a decade since Michael Fassbender launched his career with a string of relatively small parts on television. He remembers with a smile, for instance, when he inadvertently nodded off while filming a guest spot for Holby City.
“Band of Brothers was my first TV gig and then I did Hearts and Bones and then Holby City,” he recalls. “I played a guy who had his spleen taken out. I remember it clearly because I fell asleep on the operating table.
“The trouble was they were filming the scene over and over again and focusing on all the doctors operating on me and I was lying there with my eyes closed and I just drifted off. I woke to hear someone whispering, ‘He’s fallen asleep.’ ”
These days, he’d probably welcome the chance to grab 40 winks. Fassbender is not only one of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood today – he’s barely paused for breath after making six films back to back – he’s also universally regarded as one of the boldest and the best. Blockbuster- making studios are bombarding him with scripts and the German-born, Irish-raised, 34-year-old is now firmly established on the A-list.
He’s up for the best actor award at the Baftas for his haunting performance as a sex addict in Shame, competing against Hollywood stalwarts: Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Brad Pitt (Moneyball), George Clooney (The Descendants) and Jean Dujardin (The Artist). It’s a brilliant portrayal of addiction and Fassbender, playing an Irishman living in New York hooked on joyless sexual encounters and internet porn, as well as his co-star Carey Mulligan, who plays his equally damaged sister, are both excellent.
Fassbender admits that when British director Steve McQueen first approached him about Shame he was daunted but not, perhaps, in the way that we might expect. It wasn’t the nudity (and Fassbender definitely does get naked) that made him nervous but the challenge of doing the role justice, he says.
“The sex scenes aren’t exploitative or gratuitous; they are there for a reason, they are there to show this guy’s inner life. He’s at war with himself and he doesn’t like himself and he is doing very damaging things to himself and yet he is trying to find some level of real intimacy, but he just can’t deal with it.
“I knew that I wanted him to go to places that were ugly and sort of display that ugliness within the character but I had the confidence, from the way he was written, that an audience would feel for him. And if it had been a different director, I would have been a lot more wary because some of the scenes are pretty graphic, but I totally trusted Steve.”
He’s clearly travelled a long way since arriving in London, a wide-eyed 19-year-old fresh from his home town of Killarney in Kerry, to study at the Drama Centre and ending up working in a bar at Victoria Station to make ends meet.
“Yes, for £3.29 an hour,” he laughs. “I’d do an 11-hour shift on a Saturday and an 11-to-4 on a Sunday and by the end of it I was knackered. And they had me on emergency tax as well, so at the end of the week I was seeing something like £15. It was a real struggle for the first three years and to be honest, I don’t know how I did it.”
It’s given him a sharp appreciation of both the city he now calls home (“I love London, I love its diversity, the wonderful mix of people”) and the value of a hard-earned pay packet. Even if these days they are a lot fatter.
“I love the fact that I can afford to take the Tube without worrying about it. I keep an eye on the money I make because it’s important for me to make sure that I don’t go back to counting every 50p. If you can survive in London, you can survive anywhere.”
Fassbender left college with a burning desire to get on, but like a host of other young hopefuls he struggled and, at times, went back to bar work to pay the rent. Hollywood, if he ever dared dream, was a long, long way away.
“But you know, my self-belief system was always pretty good. It wasn’t ‘I’m amazing, it’s a travesty I’m not getting more opportunities.’ It was just that I felt I was good enough to be working and that keeps you focused.
“But if the demons did creep in a little bit, I’d been working in the catering trade quite a lot and I kind of supposed I could have gone down that avenue if acting didn’t work out.”
He didn’t need to, of course. In 2008 Steve McQueen cast him as Bobby Sands in Hunger, playing the Irish republican who died on a hunger strike in the Maze Prison near Belfast in 1981. It changed his career almost overnight.
He went on a strict 600 calories a day diet and lost 2 stone 9lbs for the role. Such radical weight loss must have been troubling for his parents?
“Yes, they did worry,” he says. “But they know me and they know that if I decide to do some- thing, I’m going to do it and they were very supportive. Luckily they weren’t around me when I was at my skinniest. And you get kind of grumpy when you aren’t eating, so it was easier for me not to have anyone around.”
He is very close to his parents – his mother, Adele, who is Irish, and Josef, his German father, who ran a restaurant together. Recently, he set off on a motorbike road trip with his dad, driving across Europe to the Venice Film Festival where Fassbender had two films showing.
“We’d talked about doing it years ago and then I thought, ‘Right, now’s the time.’ So I said to Dad, ‘Do you fancy it?’ And we did about 5,000 miles. Hats off to him, he’s as tough as nails.
“But you know, my mum, bless her, was a bit worried. And I was worried for him and he was worried for me. Both of us nearly came to an end on different occasions.
“At one point I was sandwiched between two speeding cars and I could feel the rush of wind as one missed me by a whisker. Another time he nudged out onto a road and looked right but the car was coming from the left and again it was inches away. But thank God, it was all fine.”
Off screen, then, and on, he is a man who likes to take risks. And while he has chosen more mainstream roles – X-Men: First Class, the recently released thriller Haywire and Ridley Scott’s science-fiction film Prometheus, out in June – he is clearly drawn to edgier fare, playing the brooding Rochester in Jane Eyre and psychiatrist Carl Jung opposite Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method (in cinemas 10 February).
Given some of the roles he’s played, you might expect a bit of a tortured soul. But in person he’s down to earth, likeable and friendly. He’s single and prefers not to discuss his love life, but apart from that he chats easily and laughs frequently.
He may have been caught napping on the job – just that once – but Fassbender cannot be accused of taking his eye off the prize… and at the Baftas he may well get his hands on one.
The British Academy Film Awards are on Sunday at 9:00pm on BBC1 and BBC1 HD
This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 7 February 2012