‘I’ve no regrets about playing Sands’
Michael Fassbender is one of the hottest Irish actors on the international circuit. His portrayal of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands can be seen in cinemas from tonight, but he’s already got his next project lined up — with Brad Pitt and Quentin Tarantino.
Few actors get a defining role so early in their film career, but Michael Fassbender has done just that with his powerful performance as the IRA prisoner Bobby Sands in Hunger.
The harrowing, brilliant film, directed by artist Steve McQueen, has won near universal praise from critics. And its thorny subject matter — the IRA hunger striker's life and death inside the Maze prison in 1981 — has heightened the attention it's received since its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Unlike most other films about the Troubles, it's light on political and historical context. Instead, it hones in on the brutal, claustrophobic world inside the jail, and Sands' decision to lead the IRA inmates into a hunger strike in demand for political status.
It's a tough watch, as Fassbender acknowledges when 24/7 met him hours before Hunger's UK premiere in Belfast.
“This is one of those films where an audience just can't sit back and eat popcorn,” the German-born actor, who grew up in Killarney, Co Kerry, says.
“When we enter into the prison, the audience enters into the prison. They're brought into this world and it's all the little details of what these guys do in the prison that actually draws the audience in more and more.
“The human things, you know? Just these little nuances that give it a human touch.”
There's been a lot of interest in just how much weight the six-foot tall actor lost for the role. He decamped to Los Angeles for 10 weeks in preparation, existing mainly on sardines and berries. For the last four weeks he ate just 600 calories’ worth of food a day. His weight dropped to 59kg. Fassbender says he understands the fascination, even if it's become a little tedious.
“It's a bit annoying because it goes into that same thing — Robert de Niro gained this much, Christian Bale lost this much.
“I hate it when that becomes the crux but there was no way round it. The man died from starvation so it was just an essential part of telling the story. I knew that we had got some really special stuff in the first and second acts and I didn't want to break that illusion by not being skinny enough.”
Contrary to what you might imagine, the 31-year-old says his hunger actually drove him on during filming.
“People always think you'd feel weak but I didn't. I mean, you get highs from it. During the day, I had loads of energy and I could actually focus in on something, you know, strength of mind that I don't think I've ever had,” he says.
The weight issue might grab people's attention, but the actor — whose mother is from Larne and whose father is from Heidelberg in Germany — didn't neglect other aspects of his performance.
The preparation for a scene in which Sands debates the rights and wrongs of the hunger strike with priest Father Moran (Liam Cunningham) was so intense that Cunningham temporarily moved into Fassbender's Belfast flat.
“We started working on that scene together, every day. We read it about 10 times a day,” Fassbender remembers.
“That was the tough bit. That conversation was the ‘make or break’. If that didn't work the film lost its foundation. So the pressure was to get that right.”
Despite his widely praised performance, Fassbender says he's still not certain whether it will turn out to be a pivotal role for him.
“I don't know. As I said to my dad, ‘Enjoy this because this is as good as it's going to get’. I'm just happy that I have one film like this on my CV. I might never get another one again.”
And the actor has high praise for first-time director and Turner Prize-winning artist, McQueen.
“Everything about him was a real joy. He certainly brought out the best of me. It's definitely the best work I've done to date and a lot of that's down to him. He's a pretty extraordinary person to work with.”
The actor admits, however, to feeling trepidation about the reaction McQueen's uncompromising film might get.
“I'm still nervous. I'm proud of the piece and I'm proud I did it. There's no regret there. But this is where all the Troubles happened and these are local people, this is their world and I'm trying to tell some sort of a story.
“I used to come up here pretty much every summer for holidays with all my cousins in Ballymena and Coleraine. That's why it was so important for me not to make a mess of it here as well.”
It's been reported that Fassbender refused offers to meet Sands' family, but he tells a different story.
“I didn't even know whether the option was there. I just said to Steve (McQueen) that I didn't want to meet them. I didn't see that it would be beneficial for me and I didn't really know if it would be beneficial for them.
“For me, personally, it would have been a little bit too close to the bone. I was never trying to play him. I didn't want to get mannerisms or be like a replica of Bobby Sands. I wanted to get that essence across but I didn't want to get too close.”
Even before Hunger, Fassbender, who started his acting career after dropping out of the London Drama Centre, had an impressive CV.
“The first TV I did was Band Of Brothers, which was great. Probably I thought it was all like that,” he says.
Other roles didn't quite match this early coup — but parts in BBC series Murphy's Law and Sky One's supernatural thriller Hex weren't too shabby either.
He also featured in this year's bleak ‘hoodie horror' Eden Lake.
Many people will recognise his chiselled good looks from a fondly remembered Guinness ad featuring Fassbender as a bloke who swims across the Atlantic — just to apologise in person to his brother.
Perhaps his biggest role to date was that of Stelios in the 2006 hit 300, based on Frank Miller's graphic novel. He can also be seen next month in Channel 4 Oliver Cromwell drama The Devil's Whore, in which he appears alongside Dominic West and John Simm.
“I was lucky that I always managed to get character parts. I could always delve into these very different characters and that's what I like — going into different personalities and sussing out what makes certain people tick,” he explains.
Fassbender lights up at the mention of his next big role, in Quentin Tarantino's new movie, Inglourious Basterds. It's being shot in Berlin with an ensemble cast that includes Diane Kruger and Mike Myers, with Brad Pitt taking the lead role.
“My God, I'm pinching myself every day. I feel so lucky. The first thing I did was Reservoir Dogs — my friends and I staged it in a nightclub in Killarney when I was 18. I directed and played Mr Pink. To be part of a Quentin Tarantino film, it's kind of unreal to me. It's amazing,” Fassbender enthuses.
“I'm not officially a bastard,” he laughs. “I play a British officer (Lt Archie Hicox) who meets up with the bastards.
“It's a fantastic script. It's perhaps, I think, his best script. It's got all his wonderful quirks and the dialogue is vintage stuff. So it's very exciting. I'm kind of nervous about that one too.”
Is he worried about the increased attention he might get after doing a Tarantino movie?
“I don't think people really recognise me to be honest. I just take each day as it comes.
“I'm very happy to be observing and not be observed. I can sit in a cafe and watch people — I'm happier doing that.
“But the pros definitely outweigh the cons in this game. It's such a privileged line of work, you can't really complain about anything.”
Hunger opens across Northern Ireland today.