“Eye of the Tiger” is the song that plays on the publicist’s phone as she connects the call with Michael Fassbender. It’s fitting intro music for the prolific 38-year-old actor, who’s made one bold choice after another since his 2008 breakthrough in Steve McQueen’s Hunger. He’s averages four movies per year, ranging from blockbusters (Prometheus, two X-Men films), bold dramas (Jane Eyre, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave, for which he scored an Oscar nomination) and genre-warping comedies like Inglourious Basterds and last year’s Frank, where he wore a giant paper mache mask over his face for the entire running time.
Currently in theaters and available on DirecTV, Fassbender stars as a bounty hunter in the tight, stylish Slow West. But he’s calling from Cannes, where on Saturday he attended the last-in-the-lineup premiere of main competition entry Macbeth, which sees him starring as Shakespeare’s Scottish rogue opposite Marion Cotillard. The two will reteam next year with Macbeth‘s director Justin Kurzel for a film version of the video game Assassin’s Creed, which begins shooting in August. Plus there’s another Prometheus, another X-Men, and oh yeah, he also happens to be starring in a film this fall as one of the icons of the last century. Fassbender spoke to EW about the thrill of the fight.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s interesting to hear you say that the Western was something you wanted to tick off the list. Do you keep a list of fantasy roles?
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: In terms of my fantasy career, yeah. In this case I think it comes from the time when I was a boy and watching Westerns and being really engrossed in them. And at that young age thinking to myself how much I’d love to be in one.
You knew John Maclean, the writer-director of Slow West, from having starred in a couple of his short films. Did he come to you or did you go to him with the idea of a Western?
He came to me. We’d always been talking about genres, ever since we made [2009 short film] Man on a Motorcycle and realized how much we enjoyed working together and wanted to do it again. And by the time we got to [2011 short film] Pitch Black Heist, he started telling me about Slow West, which had been incubating in his mind. I clearly wanted to act in a feature film that he would direct. He’s so original in terms of his visual storytelling and I wanted to do whatever I could to help get that originality out there. He went off and wrote the script and we workshopped it a bit together.
And you took on a role as executive producer on the film. Were you involved in the decision to shoot in New Zealand? It gives the movie such a great otherworldly quality. Somehow in our brains we just know it’s not Colorado.
Yeah, I love that. We were looking for that special kind of fairy tale element within the Western that I always felt to be very interesting. In terms of New Zealand, we had connections down there with See-Saw Films and the New Zealand Film Commission. Plus, the fact that they’ve got amazing crews there. And again we were looking for landscapes that seemed untouched, and they’ve got a much smaller population than in the States. And it was John’s call, he really thought the setting would work to fulfill his vision. I think it worked out beautifully.
And I think it’s historic, too. The first film to use New Zealand to mimic the American frontier.
I believe so. I was talking to Wayne McCormack, who’s an amazing guy. He was the horse wrangler on the film. He was the one who told me that this was the first Western with New Zealand standing in for America. I hope it entourages more people to make Westerns in New Zealand. The crews are fantastic down there.
So you’re in Cannes for the premiere of Macbeth. A Shakespearean classic—was this another one that you wanted to tick off the list?
I wasn’t seeking out to do Shakespeare at the time, when [producer] Iain Canning approached me. But it was one of those things. You get the opportunity to do it and there was just no way I could have said no. So then I had the privilege of meeting the director Justin Kurtzel and we had an immediate chemistry. I knew right away that I believed in him and believed in his vision. And i could feel that excitement of going on a journey together, never knowing if it was going to work or not.
It sounds similar to how you describe your relationship with John Maclean, not to mention Steve McQueen.
Yes. Steve always says, “Let’s try and fail better next time.” The risk you might fall flat on your face is critical. I love the idea of being around new, fresh talent. With Justin, it’s such a treat to watch him work and say to yourself, “He’s doing exactly what he should be doing on this planet.” The expereince of working with him was exceptional. He put his heart and soul into it.
Have you seen Macbeth yet?
No, I’m going to be seeing it with everyone else at the premiere on Saturday night. I can tell you that Marion [Cotillard] as Lady Macbeth is incredible. I know that from being across from her during the scenes. She’s mesmerizing.
What’s the atmosphere like in Cannes right now?
Oh, it’s great. It’s such a celebration of film, everywhere you look. It’s a place of absolute passion for filmmaking. And of course it also happens to be incredibly glamorous and fun.
What can you tell me about the Steve Jobs biopic? There’s a teaser that everybody got excited about last week.
I got excited about it! I really loved the teaser. I feel very lucky to be a part of this movie at all. It’s exhilarating—again, for the opportunity to fall flat on my face, maybe. But it was nothing but a joy for me to be working with Aaron Sorkin, a genius, and Danny Boyle, such an inspirational person and a wonderful filmmaker.
And the biopic is another one to tick off your fantasy list. You’ve played real people before but Steve Jobs is huge.
Oh, man. Steve Jobs changed the way we live. It’s hard to comprehend just how integral he was in the way we live our lives now. Not only in terms of the phone but also retail. There were High Street stores closing down because of internet sales, and so he imagined stores with 30 people working on the floor, one-on-one with the customers. I was very glad that we were able to explore that. The movie will show how he changed the whole experience of retail as we know it.
Have you been able to see any movie so far in Cannes?
I just got in this morning, so nothing yet. But I can’t wait to see The Lobster and Carol and many, many others. It feels like this year has a lot of varied and very intriguing stuff. I’m going to try to catch everything I can while I’m here. And if I don’t catch them here, hopefully they’ll be released soon so I can pay for my ticket at the cinema.