By Rivka Galchen
“I HAD ALREADY been turned down by two drama schools,” Michael Fassbender was explaining over breakfast in one of those New York hotel restaurants where beautiful people add wheatgrass to their smoothies. That rejection at 19 led him to London to try his luck auditioning for the Drama Centre there. He had prepared an Iago monologue, had gone over it hundreds of times, but he was still nervous. He had been replaying the words of a director from one of the other drama schools, who had told him that he could recognize an actor from the way he enters a room. ‘‘I still hate that,’’ said Fassbender. Before the audition, he was trying to get the director’s words out of his mind. ‘‘I went to the urinal, and as I was pissing, I saw that someone had written ‘Hi, Cookie!’ on the wall. Those words were staring at me, as I stood there. I had just finished playing the Cook in a production of ‘Mother Courage,’ and I had done it with a Scottish accent. Cook; cookie. ‘I’ll do the Iago monologue in a Scottish accent,’ I decided, even though that wasn’t how I had prepared it.’’ After the audition, Fassbender was asked why he’d chosen that accent, to which he answered something about it being a way to bring mischief into the piece, which seemed true enough. ‘‘It’s funny. I haven’t thought about that for years and years. I’m not saying what I saw was a sign or anything. But maybe I did sort of take it that way, and that helped me.’’
It’s difficult, at this point, to imagine that before 2007, although Fassbender had played small parts in television and film, arguably his most well-recognized role had been as a man who swims across the Atlantic Ocean to apologize to his brother over a pint in a Guinness commercial. Since 2007, Fassbender has starred in three Steve McQueen movies, and has been sought after and worked with directors such as David Cronenberg, Cary Fukunaga and Ridley Scott; he had an especially glorious bit in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘‘Inglorious Basterds.’’ Today, Fassbender is both Magneto in the ‘‘X-Men’’ series and a darling of critics and intellectuals; he’s somehow a pinup and an objet trouvé and also playing Steve Jobs.
But Fassbender is also still very much the teenager of that original drama-school audition: He welcomes changes as they present themselves and he follows the signs of the present. Justin Kurzel, the director of ‘‘Macbeth,’’ said of working with Fassbender, ‘‘He’s so extremely prepared, he’s never reaching for words. And in that way he’s able to be very open to the conditions of the moment — to whatever is going on that day, to the other people who are around. He can discover something in the moment of doing. That’s why he’s an artist. That’s why he’s one of the best around.’’
MAGPIES ARE FAMOUSLY among the most intelligent of birds. They can mimic the calls of other birds. They improvise their nests using whatever shiny bric-a-brac and underbrush is around them. They recognize themselves in a mirror. Fassbender had to spend much of his 20s bartending, alongside his pursuit of acting. ‘‘I enjoyed the bar,’’ said Fassbender, who had grown up clocking long hours at his parents’ restaurant. ‘‘But, god, I really, really, really wanted to act.’’ He was nearly 30 and had not yet broken out.
Then in 2007, he auditioned for the role of the I.R.A. leader Bobby Sands in a small-budget film about the hunger strikes in the infamous Maze prison; ‘‘Hunger’’ was the feature directorial debut for Steve McQueen, a substantial presence in the British art world but a stranger to filmmaking. Fassbender did not impress McQueen at the first audition. ‘‘Either I didn’t recognize it, or he didn’t bring it,’’ McQueen said. But McQueen’s casting director convinced him to call Fassbender back for a second look. ‘‘Then he shone,’’ McQueen said. ‘‘There was a level of commitment, and engagement, and I saw: This guy is serious.