Last seen playing the famished Bobby Sands in “Hunger,” Michael Fassbender is well due for a feast. In the next 12 months, audiences will be able to see the versatile Irish actor in at least four films, including the acclaimed Andrea Arnold drama “Fish Tank” and as a Snidely Whiplash-type villain in the western “Jonah Hex.” But for now, he’s one of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” the prim and proper Lt. Archie Hicox, an OSS officer who’s traded in his film critic career for a chance to help the Americans bring down the Nazi brain trust. It was a part well-suited to Fassbender — as Hicox, he’s able to draw upon his own German heritage and the vocabulary he picked up as a child for a role calling upon him to pose as a German soldier to infiltrate a propaganda film premiere. Plus, he’s long been a fan of the director — as a teenager in Ireland, he once staged his own production of “Reservoir Dogs.” I got the chance to speak with Fassbender about this latest twist of fate, movie nights with Tarantino and playing Mr. Pink as an 18-year-old.
Did you have any input on the role after you got it? Given your background, it seems like such a perfect fit.
I had to work on my German, for sure — it was rusty — to get rid of certain vowel sounds which would obviously make me English-speaking, and just tighten the screws on that so there was something off about the accent, but not immediately “well, you’ve got to be English” for that German audience and you know, my family. [laughs] [I wanted to] get it as close to Hochdeutsche, which is high spoken German, as possible. So I went to see a coach pretty much every day. And in terms of finding the character himself, Quentin gave me all the inspiration — he said, “I see this as a young George Sanders,” so basically he was like “I’ll organize and get the films for you,” and I just watched as many as I could. Mainly “The Saint.” I took [Hicox] from that era, that physicality and way of speaking, which [during] the ’30s and the ’40s were very particular.
Quentin’s gift seems to be turning certain character types on their head, but you still have to play to that to certain degree — do you just have to trust his words and go from there? Is there a certain amount of moderation you keep track of in your head as you’re saying British clichés like “old boy”…?
“Jolly good”…yeah, yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly the sort of thing you’re trying to do with it [that] he does so well, that tightrope between something that’s real and something that’s absurd or ridiculous. Even the scenarios get so on the knife’s edge — for sure, I was thinking, “okay, am I sort of going too far?” But you just trust in him. He is such a fantastic director, a genius, so you trust in his writing and that he’ll let you know if it’s working or not. It is that dance between the two, for sure. I wanted this guy to come from a real place, to be a living, breathing somebody you could imagine existed, and then within that, this realm of absurdity.
Hicox is an expert on German expressionist filmmaker G.W. Pabst. Did you have to brush up on his films?
I did. I didn’t even know who he was, [laughs] which is another thing that Quentin introduced me to. I started watching his films and was like, wow, this guy is really sophisticated and [presents] provocative, strange images. He asks serious social questions. I always got a bit arrogant that the great films that we made here were in the last 30 years, but no, these were really close-to-the-bone scenarios. So I did watch Pabst, and Sanders, and then we had the movie [of the] week, every Thursday, and that was great. It’s a real community feel with Quentin. Everybody’s there, there’s pizza and popcorn. It’s a family atmosphere.
I understand you were the beneficiary too of some added screen time between the Cannes premiere and now.
Apparently so. There’s a little pre-scene to the tavern, which I always liked because it’s got that dichotomy between the polar opposites: the American vigilante group — the filthy 13, the Basterds — and then you’ve got the very [segues into prim received pronunciation] British soldier. I like that sort of build up, so I’m excited to see that tomorrow [at the film’s premiere].
You haven’t seen it in the film yet?
No, Quentin was saying he’s really happy that it’s in there now, that it joins that seam up nicely.
It seemed like a nice analogy for where your career is at the moment, when you can be at Cannes in May with “Basterds” and “Fish Tank” and in San Diego for Comic-Con in July with “Jonah Hex” — which experience was crazier?
Cannes is just so mad. It’s a circus and a filmmaker’s playground, if you like — filmmakers getting together, celebrating each other’s films, meeting each other. Comic-Con belongs to the fans. They own that festival. It’s more like we’re the visitors and they’re walking the carpet. And I love it because these are the real serious die-hard buffs that take the time out each year to come back — [with] 6,800 in an auditorium, it’s pretty powerful stuff. But going up the red carpet with “Inglourious Basterds,” with Quentin, he’s got such history in Cannes, that was a rush. I don’t think I ever stopped smiling.
When you were 18, you put on a production of “Reservoir Dogs.” What character did you play and how did you stage the infamous final scene with “Stuck in the Middle with You”?
I played Mr. Pink, a bit more like Robert De Niro in “Mean Streets,” Johnny Boy. I directed it, and it was great. That was the first time that I learned, through naïve enthusiasm, that you learn most by just getting your hands dirty and working. And that’s definitely stayed with me.
That end scene — my friend Owen O’Shea, his cousin was working in Irish television as a makeup artist, so we got her on board. Basically, we taped over [the cop’s] ear prior and had it all flattened down, covered with fake blood, then we had hum always sitting away from the audience, never really revealing that side of his face. Owen would pull him over and start sawing at the side of his head, and then [there’s] the reveal of the ear missing. We used a piece of lamb chop for the ear, and he threw that out into the audience. [laughs] It’s little things like that I really keep with me. [With] restrictions, you come up with really cool ways of getting around things.
“Inglourious Basterds” opens wide on August 21st.