The Brooding Intensity of Michael Fassbender

Passion, power and emotional ferocity are all hallmarks of a
Michael Fassbender performance. But is he just a kitten in real life?

Here’s a funny thing. I’m in the audience at the New York Film Festival. On stage director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender are answering questions about the disturbing, brilliant film that’s just been shown. Shame, McQueen and Fassbender’s follow-up collaboration to the gruelling Hunger has Fassbender delivering a volcanic performance as a sex addict who’s either dialling rent-a-hooker, beating off at work or devouring porn at home. Intense, dark stuff.

Someone from the floor asks Fassbender a question about the relationship between the two damaged lead characters, a brother and sister (Fassbender and Carey Mulligan). Halfway through Fassbender’s measured, thoughtful reply, McQueen chips in with a helpful clarification. “Absolutely,”, says Fassbender. Pause. “Yes,” says Fassbender, turning to McQueen, his face darkening, his brows beetling. “Please don’t interrupt me again.”

For half a second the big room at the Lincoln Center takes a breath. And then Fassbender’s face dissolves.

The man who played the hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger, the brooding Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, the lairy Connor in Fish Tank, is laughing. Laughing and doubling over, a tear springing to the corner of his eye. He’s pricked the slight pomposity of the event, just a bit, and he’s absolutely delighted.

“People think that I’m very intense,” Fassbender told CBC recently. “But I’m very silly really. I like to laugh and have fun.” There’s the word, and from his own mouth – intense. So why are we surprised that the characters Fassbender portrays and the man he claims to be are so very different? Actors are meant to fool with words and gestures, that’s their job. But there is something remarkable about Fassbender. Maybe it’s the way he can turn that intensity on and off, modulate it. Someone should tell Christian Bale.

The 33-year-old German-born, Irish-bred actor dropped out of London’s Drama Centre in 2000 – unhappy with its disregard for movies – and with what must be the luck of the half-Irish landed a part almost immediately on Band of Brothers, alongside Tom Hanks. Since then he’s turned up in more huge films than people would give him credit for – 300, Jonah Hex, Inglourious Basterds, X-Men: First Class – winning nominations and awards for all of them.

The chronology doesn’t tell the whole story though. With Band of Brothers Fassbender really thought he’d made it. In fact he followed up the TV ten-parter (he was in seven episodes) with a lean patch, working in bars, doing night shifts loading trucks, doing the odd Holby City on TV, turning up in a pop video, the sort of acting gigs most actors are familiar with.

Luck changed for the better, by an order of magnitude, when Steve McQueen cast him as Bobby Sands in Hunger in 2008. “I was 30 years old, recession was just around the corner… and for someone to take a chance on an unknown actor, you know. To take the risk…” his voice trails off. This is another genuinely lovely thing about Fassbender – he’s clearly ferociously committed to McQueen –”Apart from a big argument on the first day of Hunger, we just [he clicks his fingers]”.

Fassbender doesn’t feel strongly about the director because McQueen saved his acting bacon, he’s convinced of the director’s genius and of the importance of their bond. “My dream from the age of 17 was to have a relationship with a director. I was looking at Scorsese/De Niro, Lumet/Pacino. That would be the ultimate, to have a collaboration like that. To be on a wavelength that powerful with somebody. That was why I was so lucky to find in Steve with Hunger.” McQueen, incidentally, returns the evaluation: “Michael is a genius really. I want to work with the best actor there is. And I think he is, basically.”

Shame is Fassbender’s Mean Streets. In a just world it would win Oscars all round – even the tiniest roles in this film burn like phosphorous – but Oscar doesn’t go a bundle on masturbation, hookers, the suggestion of incest, all that jazz. A sex-addict who was also in a wheelchair, maybe…

“He [McQueen] mentioned to me in 2008 that this was an idea and I was ‘fine, just tell me when and where’. I didn’t even need to see a script. It was that simple.”

Would Fassbender have been put off if he had seen the script? Did he know how much full-frontal business there was going to be? Did he understand how damaged, deranged, desperate the lead character was?

And how do you set about playing that sort of part anyway, a questioner from the floor asks, reminding Fassbender of the shocking weight loss he went through to play Bobby Sands. “I just went out and had lots of sex, just tried to embrace it as best I could.” He’s laughing again, so is the entire room. Then, Serious Face. “Preparation? Just reading. I spent a lot of time with the script.”

Thoughts go immediately to Daniel Day-Lewis, how he refuses to step out of character during shooting. He could take a lesson in lightening up from Fassbender, one of his biggest fans.

So, a handsome devil, a bloody good actor and a fun guy who’s prepared to get butt naked in the name of his art, it’s no surprise that Fassbender is suddenly everywhere. Coming soon, he’s the lead in Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s first sci-fi film since Blade Runner. He plays psychiatry pioneer Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. And he’s reteaming with McQueen for Twelve Years a Slave, with Chiwetel Ejiofor and some guy called Brad Pitt.

Michael Fassbender, you are so made.

© Steve Morrissey 2012

I Became a Ukrainian Vodka Baron

Meet Dan Edelstyn. He’s made a film, he’s resurrected a vodka brand and he’s reviving the fortunes of a faraway Ukrainian village

Halfway through making a documentary about his grandmother, director Dan Edelstyn realised he was going to have to start all over again.

The film he’d been shooting since 2005 – working title From Bolshevism to Belfast – had been a great story. It told of his Jewish grandmother’s sudden exit from Ukraine in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. How privileged, pretty Maroussia Zorokovich had wound up in Belfast, where her husband, Dan’s grandfather, had promptly gone native and become more staunchly Orange than the Paisley family. It was the story of the 20th century – of persecution, revolution, migration and turmoil, of tradition and assimilation.

What made the film so compelling was that it was based on a manuscript written by his grandmother, part of a treasure trove Edelstyn had found up in his mother’s loft – “a suitcase full of photos, letters and negatives,” the 37-year-old director from Hackney tells me. “It was like a time machine into the past and I immediately wanted to go back there, to find out what had happened.”

So far, so good. But on his first recce out to a bleak corner of the Ukraine in 2008 to the village of Douboviazovka, where Edelstyn’s ancestors lived until 1917, he found something which forced him to put three years of planning and work onto the back burner – the family’s vodka factory.

“I had no idea it was there. Up until then the film had been wholly about my granny. A Who Do You Think You Are, sort of thing. But since I’m not famous it was more Who The Fuck Do You Think You Are. And then, suddenly I hit this turning point.”

“The realisation of what I had to do was instantaneous – it blew me away,” says Dan, still brimming with shambolic enthusiasm after four more years of slog. What he had to do – and did – can be guessed from the film’s title, How to Re-establish A Vodka Empire. The world’s first, and only, hyphenate indie filmmaker-vodka baron was born.

Many people dream of making a film. Most fail. People set up businesses all the time. Most fail at that too. But to do both at the same time, when you’re scarcely known in the film world and have no experience of business, well that’s kind of optimistic, isn’t it?

“You do need balls,” says Dan. “You can’t do this sort of thing without commitment. When things get tough you have to keep going. Balls, energy and love.”

Yes, love. Because on top of the whole film/vodka lunacy Edelstyn had also gone all misty-eyed with philanthropy. He’d decided that by reviving the Zorokovich vodka brand, selling it as a premium product, he could help revive the fortunes of his ancestors’ dying village. “I just got carried away with the spirit of the quest” is how he puts it, breezily.

It’s the old standby of the documentary maker who hasn’t got a story – introduce a bogus countdown, a synthetic challenge or a Supersize Me dose of jeopardy. Can Dan revive the fortunes of an entire Ukrainian village? Find out after the break.

“Here I was trying to turn around a village and I’ve done nothing in my life back in England. I’m not some kind of businessman, and here I am making big noises in Ukraine.” But what’s clear from the film is that the resistance Dan meets is genuine and hairy. There’s an uncomfortable scene where he is in the village for the second time and is heckled and jeered at by the locals. “They can get a bit paranoid about film crews turning up, making out they’re all drunks,” Dan now says, defensively.

He also had to convince the current owners of the Douboviazovka Distillery that he’s not there to claim back what many might consider their birthright. “There was initially anxiety about what I was doing there. They were suspicious.” Meanwhile, back in London, wherever he turns for support he meets scepticism. At University College London Dr Francois Guesnet, expert in Russian-Jewish history, puts it to him bluntly – “Are these people your friends? Why are you doing it? You probably will be deceived or disappointed.”

Without giving away the plot of the whole film, let’s just say that Dan has a few hurdles to cross, not least of which is the fact that his wife/camera operator Hilary becomes pregnant and gives birth to their daughter, his dog dies, his first attempt to create a palatable vodka blend stinks and a couple of very enthusiastic meetings with marketing types wind up nowhere. And he’s broke, credit cards maxed out completely.

Most people would have given up after the first hangover. Somehow Dan, driven by what must be the spirits of his ancestors, goes on to create a new blend of vodka, organises for its import into the UK and gets it into Selfridge’s, the Dorchester and No 1 Aldwych, among other places.

“The first thousand bottles you see me carrying up the stairs in the film have sold out, nearly. And I’ve just put in an order for 2,000 more. I’m going out soon to order a further 3,000. We’re creating a demand and it’s building as it goes. To help the village we need to sell maybe 100,000 bottles per year. At the moment the distillery is open for a month and then shut for two, so there’s definitely flexibility at the production end.”

And, let’s not forget, Daniel Edelstyn has made a riveting and thoroughly charming film as he’s gone, ornamented with quirky kitchen-table animation and the sort of dramatic reconstruction which doesn’t have you reaching for your revolver.

“How do I manage to make a film and create a vodka brand? Good question. If you’re juggling then you’ve got to have intense focus on what you’re dealing with. Do one thing, then do another. Don’t get distracted. Love and energy. Energy and love”.

How to Re-establish a Vodka Empire is currently on the festival circuit. Go to for more details on the film and the vodka.

How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012