Michael Fassbender is either one of the world’s most well-adjusted human beings, or the most brilliant liar. “I can lie pretty easily to journalists,” he tells me, and he says he’s good at it. “I have to be.” But as this is the policy a well-adjusted movie star might adopt, talking about it only reinforces the impression of someone unusually at peace with himself.
Fassbender came to fame playing men who are decidedly not at peace with themselves. In 2008, he starred in Steve McQueen’s debut film, Hunger, as the Republican prisoner Bobby Sands on hunger strike. McQueen then cast him as a sex addict in Shame, followed by a sadistic plantation owner in 12 Years A Slave. Fassbender has appeared in Fish Tank and Inglourious Basterds, played Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method, Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre and Steve Jobs in the eponymous biopic, as well as the mutant antihero Magneto in the X-Men franchise, and Macbeth. Once dubbed “Britain’s Brando”, he brings to every part an intensity of commitment that makes audiences feel they are not watching a performance, but spying on a man’s rawest private self. This sense of intrusion is both electrifying and unsettling; it can feel almost indecent.
Twice nominated for an Oscar, the 39-year-old stars in three new films between now and January alone, one of which he also produced. And all this with barely a misstep (he opted not even to watch the 2010 flop Jonah Hex), nor gossip column indiscretion. It is about as flawless a movie star career as would be possible to perfect. “Jesus, I know!” he agrees. “I know, I know. It’s nuts. It’s been pretty incredible.” There is no actor alive, he says, with whom he would want to swap places. “But then, you know – and this is dead true – I’ve never wanted to swap places with anyone.”
What is your own moral compass? You’ve got to stay true to that, regardless of what your loved one’s compass is
Fassbender has made 10 films back to back since 12 Years A Slave, and must be exhausted, but you wouldn’t guess it. In fact, I’m not sure I would have recognised him. He’s wearing board shorts when we meet in a Soho hotel, having been to the gym that morning, and his face is covered in a careless fuzz of gingery hair. I hadn’t expected his accent to have survived 20 years in London, nor so many roles demanding different nationalities, but he still sounds unmistakably Irish. He has that actorly alchemy which makes his face look quite different in every film, so it’s a surprise to find that in real life he looks like Sharon’s brother Fergal in Channel 4’s Catastrophe.
We are about to see him in a stunning film adaptation of the 2012 novel, The Light Between Oceans, set on a remote island off Western Australia shortly after the first world war. Fassbender plays Tom, a taciturn veteran who takes a job as a lighthouse keeper, soothed by the isolation until he falls in love with a vivacious young woman from the mainland, Isabel, and marries her. The couple are torn apart by two successive miscarriages, and when a rowing boat washes up containing a dead young man and a crying baby girl, Isabel implores Tom to let her keep her. Against every instinct, he agrees and they pass the baby off as their own. “What I liked about it is, it’s a film about decent people,” Fassbender says. “You know, it’s not, ‘Here’s the baddie, here’s the goodie.’ That’s the great thing about the story. It’s not like you think, ‘What were they thinking? They were out of their minds.’”