All hail the mighty Michael Fassbender — especially when he’s not so mighty.
He stomped, snarled, roared and bellowed, furious and bigoted, chewing up the screen like a wild beast munching on a puppy. Steve McQueen’s acclaimed historical drama 12 Years a Slave is a brutal account of America’s shameful history in slave trading, and Michael Fassbender’s head-turning performance as a raging plantation owner drilled to the heart of the director’s intent: to shock and compel audiences with drama they don’t want to watch and can’t look away from.
Fassbender received an Academy Award nomination for his troubles. While already a well-established name, the role solidified his reputation as one of the most intense actors working today.
“Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry,” is the classic line attributed to Dr Bruce Banner / The Incredible Hulk, and if Fassbender has never used it during an altercation with a concierge on the subject of, say, why the window in his hotel room isn’t perfectly framing the sunset (after all, he is a Hollywood celebrity) he might want to try it out for size. There’s something about the way Fassbender channels his inner rage that feels so, well, real. Only a brave soul would want to test how much of it is an act.
With such a natural simmering energy, it would have easy — or at least obvious — for Fassbender to stake his claim in Hollywood as the go-to guy for angry and perverted people. Indeed, his career is littered with these sorts of roles: the Spartan warrior in Zack Snyder’s homoerotic swords-n-sandals migraine-maker 300 (2006), the psychopathic comic book villain in Jimmy Hayward’s critically lambasted fantasy western Jonah Hex (2010), the Roman soldier in Neil Marshall’s Centurion (2010), the cold-eyed nymphomaniac in McQueen’s Shame (2011). Fassbender is currently on Australian screens in his biggest (commercial) role as the famously irritable Magneto in Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.
The 37-year-old actor, still a relatively new commodity in America’s revolving door celebrity culture, seems to be conscious of his default setting as an alpha male. In his attempts to widen his scope, Fassbender has made his most interesting creative decisions.
In staid academic mode as Carl Jung, David Cronenberg’s dry historical drama A Dangerous Method (2011) got Fassbender part of the way there. So did his role as a sophisticated robot in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), an immensely controlled performance easy to overlook amid the film’s ever ballooning sense of spectacle.
But Fassbender’s most captivating performance is in the mail. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s offbeat comedy Frank, about a dysfunctional indie band that retreats to the woods to record an album, arrives on Australian screens June 19. Fassbender has a huge part in it – he even plays the eponymous character, a marvellously talented musician regarded by his small following with messiah-like reverie – but you’ll barely seem him at all. To be precise, you won’t see his face.
For the vast majority of the running time, Fassbender wears a giant papier-mâché head. Inspired by English comedian Chris Sievey’s character Frank Sidebottom, this is how Frank rolls: he showers, eats and sleeps wearing that huge silly head and never takes the damn thing off. When the band’s newest member Jon (Domhall Gleeson) poses the obvious question, Frank responds with an airy monologue about how every human face is weird when you think about it.
Against the odds, Fassbender makes the role work. Frank’s blithe but sage mannerisms have an oddly calming effect on the people around him, and the character is memorable for reasons that extend beyond his ridiculous appearance.
If the message is obvious — the guy wearing the crazy mask is the sanest person around — Fassbender fills out the role with a surprising amount of emotional complexity. How he does this, in the absence of an actor’s most powerful tool (their face), is through a shrewd combination of voice control and body language. It’s great to see the mighty Fassbender acting not so mighty; with a bit more work developing his range, there’s a chance he’ll evolve into one of Hollywood’s finest.