Michael Fassbender has been on a whirlwind. He’s got X Men: Apocalypse in the can for a summer opening as well as Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans readying release plans. He’s finishing up Assassin’s Creed in London to open next Christmas and will be heading off to Sydney in March to shoot Alien: Covenant, the sequel to Prometheus. But like the director of that film, Ridley Scott, Fassbender also is trying to work in some time this awards season — in his case to promote his Oscar-touted and Golden Globe- and Critics’ Choice-nominated performance in Steve Jobs, which I am betting almost certainly will have him among the five Academy Award nominees for Best Actor when the announcement comes early on January 14.
Fassbender, the 38-year-old actor born in Germany but raised in Ireland, caused a bit of a stir a couple of years ago when he told GQ magazine he would not be around to “campaign” for his (eventually nominated) performance in 12 Years A Slave. He’d had the experience of what awards season is like when Fox Searchlight was pushing him for Shame. “It’s just a grind,” he told GQ. “And I’m not a politician. I’m an actor.” Well, all the aforementioned nonstop work has kept him off the campaign trail this year too, but he did find time to come back last weekend to accept his International Star Award from the Palm Springs International Film Festival , as well as attend a Chateau Marmont luncheon Sunday touting Steve Jobs for many invited Academy members.
After that lunch, I sat down with him in a Chateau suite and, in a wide-ranging conversation, asked about those earlier remarks that this whole awards thing might not be his bag. “I wouldn’t say exactly that’s what I said,”he told me. “I mean, I’ve been working, and it’s very important that people see the films. And the Academy Awards, and all of these awards, are very important because it helps people go see the film. And it’s always nice to be recognized by your peers and among your peers. And I’m totally open to that. I think (the GQ comments are) becoming something that people sort of rehash. But I do as much as I can, basically. Like I say, I’m here at the moment because I care about the movie and I want it to do well, and I’ve also got to go on set tomorrow and film. So I have responsibilities to both, which I try and sort of fulfill to the best of my abilities.”
Fassbender was hopping on a jet that night to go back and complete the last 10 days of shooting on Assassin’s Creed but told me he will be back for a day this coming weekend for the Golden Globes before jumping back on a jet to London the same night. He also will be accepting the Best Actor prize from the LA Film Critics Association (as he also did for Shame in 2011) on Saturday night for Steve Jobs, a role that came along just as he was contemplating a break. The WGA Award-nominated script by Aaron Sorkin originally had been set up at Sony but eventually found its way to Universal. Coincidentally, one of his chief rivals for the Oscar this year is likely to be The Revenant’s Leonardo DiCaprio, who originally was tipped to play Jobs in the biopic. A more clear divide you couldn’t find since DiCaprio probably has about 14 lines in Revenant, while Fassbender’s character is on just about every page in the dialogue-driven Sorkin script.
Fassbender found the assignment a bit daunting at first. “I was pretty terrified, I have to say,” he told me. “It just seemed like a huge mountain of dialogue, and I’m pretty slow at learning dialogue. But mostly I just wanted to do it justice. It was so beautifully written. Just when I read it I was blown away. I knew it was the best writing I had read in terms of a contemporary piece, so I really just had to spend as much time as I could with it. I wanted more time, but it was basically every hour of the day, to be honest, so that I could really be on the set free to play with the rhythms and to really find the elasticity in those rhythms, and in the scenes, and in the relationships.”
The film, which Sorkin based with a long leash on Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, is set in three acts representing three distinct product launches and feels oddly Shakespearean in tone — and Fassbender’s talents also are on display in a new film version of Macbeth opposite Marion Cotillard. The actor said he noticed the similarities, particularly in the cadence of the dialogue, not dissimilar to the kind of verse found in Shakespeare. He was happy that director Danny Boyle insisted on lots of rehearsal periods, so the shooting of the movie was set between two-week periods of rehearsal before each of the three acts went before the cameras. He was also thrilled that the movie was shot in San Francisco, the birthplace of the personal computer and the whole world they were trying to explore in the film.
Many were surprised when he was cast in the movie since he bears little resemblance to the real Steve Jobs. “That’s exactly what I said too when Danny called me up,” he laughed. “I was like, ‘I don’t really look like him. Are you sure? Are you drunk right now?'” But Boyle convinced him that he wanted to get to the essence of the man, not an imitation.
“I knew then in the first five minutes either the audience accepts it or they don’t, but we’re making a pretty sort of clear statement that we’re not going down the route of imitation,” Fassbender said. “And then sort of organically somewhere through the second act I said to Danny, ‘You know, I think we should get the turtleneck out and the Levi’s and go for that look in the third act.'” — which is exactly what they did. He had different options for the look at all times including a special wig he could wear or not wear, plus suits, etc. “And then we just went for it, and it felt really right. So in the end it’s almost like I do kind of look like him, but it happened subliminally.”
Fassbender has high praise for the cast (which also includes Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg and Kate Winslet), making a strong point to call it a true ensemble piece, even if the movie is titled Steve Jobs. He was especially grateful for the presence of Winslet, who plays Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ right-hand person. It was almost that way on the set, too. “Kate was just a lifesaver for me,” Fassbender told me. “She just had my back from the beginning, and she’s just so generous. She was always asking, ‘Are you eating enough? I booked you a hotel this weekend. I think you need to get out of town, have a rest.’ She was calling Danny up during the editing process saying, ‘Is everything going all right? How are you feeling?'”
Fassbender is taking charge of his life now in different ways and has his own production company. He’s been aiming for this kind of full-service career for a long time. “I started off when I was 17 doing this and was part of a theater company for six months. And after that I got my friends together and I formed my own production company called Peanut Productions when I was 18. And I directed my friends in a play, Reservoir Dogs. So that’s how it started for me, and I’ve always wanted to have more of that in my profession so I wasn’t just an actor. I want to be part of the storytelling process in terms of working with writers, finding projects, getting them made. That excites and interests me. I’m in a lucky position that I’m allowed to do it, so I want to make the most of it.”
In terms of acting projects, he likes to mix it up — going from something that might be more of a “ride” to social commentary-type films. He points out that Assassin’s Creed mixes the two.
For now he’s just hoping more people will see Steve Jobs, even though after a fast start it turned out to be a disappointment at the box office. In fact, he made reference to that in his acceptance speech in Palm Springs. “I believe that you have a movie that will stand the test of time. Unfortunate about the box office figures, but thank God for Jurassic World,” he told the crowd and particularly the Universal execs who were present. None of that matters in the end because he is enormously proud of the work.
“I totally felt so lucky, and that’s why I felt the responsibility to do it justice,” he said. “To get that opportunity is so rare, and so I just lapped it up.”