Run down the checklist of a tailor-made movie star, and Michael Fassbender ticks all the boxes.
There's the mischievous grin, framed by two days' worth of easygoing scruff. The leather jacket and old Adidas sneakers, casual but cool. The light European accent, with its hint of the British Isles. And oh, yeah -- the universally praised and in-demand talent. So why is he in a boutique hotel on a side street in New York's Soho district, talking to a handful of reporters about a film most of America won't even be able to see?
Because being a movie star, Fassbender says, isn't his goal. It just so happens that his slate of films this year, which includes a faithful adaptation of "Jane Eyre," a psychotherapy period piece called "A Dangerous Method" (in which he plays Carl Jung), and "Shame," the brooding film about a sex addict that he's promoting at the moment, have all been critical darlings. One might call that just rewards on risky career moves -- why roll the dice when you could be making big-money blockbusters? -- but Fassbender doesn't see himself as a gambler.
"What are the risks? If we look at it -- how can it be risky for me? Then you start to go into sort of an area about worrying about your image, or whatever that is," Fassbender told the Huffington Post at the Crosby Street Hotel in Manhattan on Wednesday. "I mean, I'm not like a politician; I'm a storyteller and I'm supposed to facilitate stories, they're not supposed to facilitate me. So that's what it's all about."
Make no mistake, the 34-year old Fassbender has featured in a few blockbusters; he had a supporting role in the mythology epic "300" (2006) and a more prominent one in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds" (2009). And, of course, there was his turn as a conflicted Magneto in this summer's successful "X-Men" prequel. But the German-born, Irish-raised actor has earned the most rapturous praise for his independent work, notably "Hunger" (2008), for which he dropped Christian Bale-quantities of weight to portray Bobby Sands, the I.R.A. political prisoner who famously went on a hunger strike while incarcerated in a Northern Ireland prison.
The director of "Hunger," British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen, also directs "Shame," which finds Fassbender as the emotionally-scarred, thirtysomething Brandon, staring, wincing, charming, raging and weeping his way through a downward spiral brought on by guilt, helplessness and family crises. To prepare for the role, the actor spent time speaking with real-life sex addicts, using one man's story in particular to inform his preparation and performance.
"I got a real sort of insight into this difficulty that Brandon has with intimacy," he explains. "It was exactly the same condition that this guy had, and you just realize, very quickly, how real this condition is and how it can tear lives apart. And it definitely made it clear to me that this is a real addiction, even though it hasn't been recognized officially as one. And then, okay, you've got to respect this guy and you've got to do a good job, just alone for him."
Fassbender also plotted out his character's history, which proved vital, given the dearth of backstory that the film presents. There are no flashbacks, with action constricted to a few restaurants, apartments and textured shots of late night New York City, and the dialogue is spare. The audience learns that Brandon and his visiting young sister, played by Carey Mulligan, went through some sort of trauma as children, but little else. Fleshing out the character, therefore, required some creativity.
Fassbender not only established the details of that traumatic event -- a secret he kept close to the vest -- but went as far as to figure out Brandon's dietary habits; breakfast is limited to "a can of Red Bull and probably, like, a croissant, at most," he said, given that his miserable character "doesn't get sensual pleasure from eating."
But Brandon's willful disregard for the food pyramid isn't what earned the film the scorn of morality hawks. Sex addiction is a touchy subject, and those afflicted by it don't engender much sympathy -- much to Fassbender's annoyance. "Most of us have sex, so I don't understand what we're trying to sweep under the carpet or repress or not take a look at it," he says.
Unfortunately, thanks to a very un-erotic full-frontal scene, the MPAA slapped the film with an NC-17, a rare label that effectively works as a muzzle, given that most theaters don't carry films with that rating. That concerns Fassbender, he says, because it's "a serious film that deserves to be treated as such." He also finds the whole controversy a bit silly.
"Half of us have a penis and the other half have probably seen one, and so why should it be more normal to, like, chop people's heads off and shoot people? Does that mean that that's more acceptable or closer to us as human beings?"
From those who do get to see the film, Fassbender isn't asking for anything too ambitious.
"You don't know what anybody else is going to feel, you just go for it and put it out there and hopefully other people connect to it in some way or another."