It is, in many senses, the epitome of the modern Hollywood career – one that any actor aspiring to A-list, box-office-banker territory should perhaps try to emulate. One moment he is the auteur, the intense, brow-furrowing interpreter of Shakespeare, the next a square-jawed, open-shirted idol of a sweeping melodrama, and then, via a quick costume change, a blockbusting action hero leaping from a comicbook page to a suburban multiplex screen.
It’s the ability to inhabit roles with both conviction and, when required, self-awareness that enables Michael Fassbender to please a wide range of cinema audiences and remain credible to each; a few months in latex doesn’t, we’ve learned, disqualify him from the casting couch of a new production of Macbeth or a role as Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung. In Frank, he even won critical acclaim playing a man in an oversized papier-mâché head.
That kind of shape-shifting ought to be part of the actor’s craft, of course. But few industries do pigeon-holing quite like cinema, and it’s testament to the 39-year-old Irishman that he is able to make choices that can earn him franchise megabucks as well as demonstrate his range. It’s a balancing act that compatriots Daniel Day Lewis and Colin Farrell haven’t yet managed, despite having similar intelligence, looks and, albeit in different ways, on-screen charisma.
Indeed, Fassbender’s flexibility seems to apply to his off-screen persona, too. He can appear like a younger Bryan Cranston, the crags just beginning to form around the eyes, the voice starting its journey toward a Charlton Heston-esque growl – the kind of man who might spend his summers teaching method acting at a liberal arts college somewhere up the Hudson Valley. The persona The New York Times said made him a “magnetic outsider”. Other times, usually on late-night television, he comes across as the perpetual schoolboy: eager to please, slightly wide-eyed and full of nervous ticks and noises – whistles, hoots, bird impressions – that convey an impish quality. This is the Irish kid in Tinsletown who still can’t quite believe his luck.
Luck probably doesn’t have much to do with his recent ascent, of course, not when you factor in three X-Mens, Academy Award-nominated Steve Jobs, 12 Years a Slave, the excellent Slow West and the just-released drama The Light Between the Oceans, but he would certainly have every right to feel he plucked a few four-leafed clovers from the fields near his Kerry home. Sought after by directors and producers – a winning combo if ever there was one – he has also earned the attentions of Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, which on its own might be more fortune than any man deserves.
The streak looks set to continue with his latest project, Assassin’s Creed, the cinematic version of the successful gaming series that will no doubt spawn a few well-paid revisits. In it, he stars as Callum Lynch, a death-row inmate who is spared execution to participate in an experiment in genetic memories – of which the main ones are of his 15th century ancestor, Aguilar de Nehar, an assassin who fought the Knights Templars’ attempts to grab an ancient artefact. It’s all Dan Brown-ish fun in the Spanish sun.
Obvious first question, really: Were you a fan of the Assassin’s Creed gaming series before the project came along?
No, to be honest. I first met with Ubisoft Motion Pictures in 2011, and I didn’t really know much about the game at all. I’d obviously heard about it and seen all the posters and adverts, but I didn’t know they story or methodology behind it. When they told me the premise behind the film: this idea of DNA memory and the war that was waging between the Templars and the Assassins, I thought all of that was really fascinating.
Was there something in all that which particularly grabbed you?
Well, the thing I thought was going to give us an extra was this idea of DNA memory; that we hold in us the experiences, mistakes and memories of our ancestors. That’s what we’ve come to call instinct. I thought that was a really cool scientific theory that seemed very plausible. But then this idea of the Assassins and Templars and the battle that goes on between them. It’s not as clear cut as, let’s say, the dark side and the light. The moralities get very blurred and both factions contradict themselves and are quite hypocritical in some respects.
Okay, so now have you picked up the games?
Oh, of course, but I’m not very good…! That’s another thing we’ve been focusing on, though. We realise that the fans really dig the historical accuracy and all the historical detail in the games. I was talking to a friend of mine who said to his son, “We’re going to go away for four days, pick anywhere.” And his son said, “Florence”. He was like, “Wow that’s impressive, my son wants to go to Florence and check out these various buildings.” His son said, “I want to go there because there’s an Assassin’s Creed game set in Florence and I want to check it out and see if the details are correct.” Like, what? So there’s definitely an educational aspect to it, which is very cool.
And there’s a responsibility, too. Games to films tend to upset hardcore fans…
Hopefully, we’re not going to let anyone down; the great thing about gamers is that they have this passion for it. Their passion spurs you on, and you know you’re making it for an audience that is critical and passionate and hungry for it. They’ll let you know if you don’t get it right. Hopefully we’re also going to bring some extra things to it – our own things. We definitely want to do something cinematic, and we’re introducing new characters and new regression time periods, so we can actually bring something new to it.
You’re working double-time, too, by playing two characters with this genetic connection?
And it’s interesting because they’re very different people. Aguilar is part of a family and he believes very strongly in the Creed. He belongs to it and he serves it. In contrast, Cal is somebody who’s much more of a drifter, really. He’s been in and out of correctional facilities for most of his life. He’s underprivileged and doesn’t really believe in much. He’s certainly got no allegiance to anything because his family is taken away pretty early. It’s with his journey, through Aguilar, that he starts to learn where he comes from and that he does belong to something special. This discovery gives him a direction for the first time.
So there are two distinct halves to the movie…
It seems like two different movies in a way, yes. That was something that I thought would be very interesting cinematically – that you could have all the colours of this Inquisition time, and then have Abstergo, which is very neutral. I thought it would be cool to see both of those worlds laid side-by-side like that. Sure enough, I think it’s turned out pretty interesting. I think that contrast will look beautiful.
You’ve re-joined your Macbeth director, Justin Kurzel. In fact, didn’t you sign him up for it?
Yeah, I can’t remember exactly when it was that I brought it to him, but it was obviously sometime during Macbeth. I don’t think he took long to answer actually. He was pretty excited by it, and I’m pretty sure he went for it immediately. It’s cool because we’ve got a great shorthand. Adam Arkapaw, his cinematographer, is fantastic and he’s a real artist. The two of them have their own shorthand, and I have one with Marion [Cotillard] also as we’ve worked together previously.
It looked like pretty hard work. Is this your most physical role?
Definitely. I did a lot of training in the gym and all that jazz. The stunt stuff was fun – trying to get it right was the most important thing, and trying to keep up with the stunt team was the challenge.
Did you dig Aguilar’s look? Did you have any input into it..? It’s sort of goth meets Tolkien…
We definitely had discussions about how far to go with him. Like, we didn’t want to go too far because we didn’t want to add something just for the sake of adding it. It was all about keeping it as simple as possible. But essentially it was just long hair, beard… all the classics! Oh, and some contact lenses to give me brown eyes instead of blue. The eyes are funny because you’re like, “Something’s different,” but you don’t really know what.
And with the costume on, did you feel you could leap over Renaissance buildings?
Oh yeah. It’s the same with any character: when you put on the uniform of the character it gives you that extra element. It helped me remember the physicality from the game – which is why I kept playing it to get the physicality and the shapes. Putting on the costume I could see all of the different poses that I needed to take – different killing stances!
Assassin’s Creed is released on December 29