British Actors You Should Know: Michael Fassbender

Picture shows: Michael Fassbender as the android David.

Michael Fassbender as David in Prometheus

© 20th Century Studios

British actor Michael Fassbender was actually born in Heidelberg, Germany; his father, Josef, was German, and his mother, Adele, an Irish woman originally from Larne, County Antrim, in Northern Ireland. Michael was raised in the town of Killarney, Co. Kerry, in southwest Ireland, where his family moved when he was two. His parents ran a restaurant; his father is a chef. In interviews about his childhood, he remembers watching a lot of American TV and films from the 1970s, mostly his mom’s favorites, and can still sing the theme tunes if pressed. 

I feel like I’ve learned a lot and I continue to learn. Every time I go back on a film set I have the same doubts and fears. ... This is my job, this is what I do. And then, you know, the same feelings of responsibility and, like I say, doubt and passion. Those things remain the same.

By his own admission, Fassbender came to London as a young teenager with early ambitions to be lead guitarist in a heavy metal band, but he became interested in acting and attended the Drama Center London. He dropped out in his third year and has admitted to dreams, where he returned there to finish the course. His big break came with Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds after losing out to Ben Affleck for a role in Pearl Harbor

After a rocky start on his first audition for director Steve McQueen, the two became close friends and colleagues, with Fassbender leading three of McQueen’s critically acclaimed films: Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave. McQueen taught him to trust his instincts, to go to a character’s darkest places, and discover his vulnerabilities. His entry into the Marvel Universe as Magneto in the 1011 reboot of X-Men: First Class appealed to him as, in so many of his roles, he plays a troubled outsider. Famously, he has said that Magneto “just needs a hug.”

His hobby, Formula One racing, appropriately matches his fearlessness as an actor. Let’s take a look at some of his many film roles.

'Inglourious Basterds'

Ten years in the making, Inglourious Basterds was the project to which Quentin Tarantino kept returning. The Inglourious Basterds are a group of Jewish-American renegades led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), whose function is to perform shocking acts of retribution on Nazis in France toward the end of World War II. Fassbender’s character is Lieutenant Archie Hicox, a British commando and former film critic, whose character was patterned on actor George Sanders in Hitchcock’s Rebecca

In this clip, Hicox is recruited in this scene by a heavily disguised Mike Myers as English General Ed Fenech, and Churchill (Rod Taylor). Hicox’s film expertise is needed for Raine’s grand finale at a movie premiere which will be attended by every major Nazi officer. Expect lots of blood and violence, it’s Tarantino, but Hicox’s part in the drama makes more sense than most of the film. Watch at your own risk.

Inglourious Basterds is available as a streaming rental on Amazon Prime Video.


Directed by Steve McQueen and written by acclaimed Irish playwright Enda Wals, Hunger is the harrowing story of the 1981 hunger strike in the infamous H-block of Belfast's Maze Prison. Irish Republican inmates, led by Bobby Sands (Fassbender), refuse to eat until the British government acknowledges the IRA (Irish Republican Army) as a legitimate political organization. 

Fassbender underwent a physical transformation for the role, losing 30 kilos on a diet of berries, nuts, and canned sardines. Hunger won the 2008 Cannes Camera d’Or, among other top international prizes, and Fassbender earned several international festival awards, including the British Independent Film Award (BIFA) and Irish Film & Television Award (IFTA) for Best Actor, a London Film Critics Circle Award, and Best Actor honors from the 2008 Stockholm and Chicago International Film Festivals.

Hunger is available on Netflix.


In Shame, a British film set in New York City, Fassbender plays New Yorker Brandon, a sex addict. Once again, Fassbender and McQueen lead us into darkness and vulnerability, with a character who longs for and fears intimacy, for which he compulsively substitutes empty sexual encounters. His younger sister (Carey Mulligan), an aspiring singer, moves into his apartment, stirring up memories of their shared painful past, and Brandon’s facade of normalcy cracks. 

Like Hunger, this was an awards magnet for Fassbender, who won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards. Roger Ebert summed it up thusly: "This is a great act of filmmaking and acting. I don't believe I would be able to see it twice."

Shame is available as a streaming rental via Amazon Prime Video.

'12 Years a Slave'

Fassbender's third and final collaboration (for now) with director McQueen, was on the screenplay by John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave. Based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 book, once again, Fassbender plumbs depths of darkness and depravity in the role of slaveowner Edwin Epps, presenting the character as a mass of contradictions. He’s not just an evil man, but a confused one, in love with Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), an enslaved woman, but too frightened to treat her as a human being. 

He enjoys inflicting pain, justifying it with the claim that his victims aren’t human, who can be made scapegoats and brutally punished, for just about any misfortune. Yet he seems emotionally dependent on his enslaved workers and is devastated when Patsy disappears. This time, the collaboration took them all the way to the Academy Awards, with Fassbender landing an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The film also stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, and Brad Pitt.

12 Years a Slave is available on Disney+/Hulu.

'X-Men: First Class'

The first reboot of the X-Men films that initially starred Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the leading roles as adversaries Professor X and Magneto, First Class kicked off a second round for the franchise with a superhero parable of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Set In the early 1960s, the film rewound the clock to when mutant Charles Xavier, the future Professor X (now played by James McAvoy), befriends fellow mutant Erik Lehnsherr the future Magneto (Fassbender). Charles comes from a wealthy family, whereas Erik grew up in a concentration camp, where his superpower of bending metal first revealed itself. 

Matthew Vaughn directed and contributed to the screenplay by Ashley Miller, Zack Stents, and Jane Goldman based on Marvel’s X-Men. The first film ends with the X-Men stopping a ruthless dictator from starting a nuclear war between Russia and the U.S., but at the expense of Charles & Erik's friendship as their X-Men personas are born. Fassbender reprised the role of Magneto, starring with McAvoy in three more films, 2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past, 2016's X-Men: Apocalypse, and 2019's Dark Phoenix, before it was swallowed wholesale by Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe, where will eventually be re-rebooted.

All the X-Men films are available on Disney+.

'Slow West'

Michael Fassbender was a producer of Slow West, and starred as outlaw Silas Selleck, the film’s narrator and reluctant mentor to aristocratic Scottish teenager Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Jay, a naive dreamer, has followed the girl he’s in love with, Rose (Caren Pistorius), and her father across the Atlantic, seeking a new life in the American West. But sweet, clueless Jay doesn’t realize that Rose and her father have a price on their heads, and bounty hunter Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) is one of any number of desperadoes interested in the reward. Set in the lawless wilderness of 1870 Colorado, but filmed in New Zealand by first-time British writer and director John Maclean, the film was acclaimed for its stunning visuals, dry humor, and European perspective. 

Rodrigo Perez commented on Indiewire: "Perhaps the most enriching idea in the film is not the killer in search of salvation or the comic/tragic notion of adoration that won’t be reciprocated no matter how many miles one logs, but the concept of ever-evolving families as orphans, strays and drifters collect together around the fringes of the Wild West."

Slow West is available on Max.

'The Light Between Oceans'

If Slow West was Fassbender's chance to check a Western off his list, The Light Between Oceans was his romantic drama checkbox. Written and directed by Derek Cianfranco, and based on the novel by M. L. Stedman, it’s the story of traumatized World War I veteran Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender), who takes a job at Janus Island in Western Australia as a lighthouse-keeper. Whether he sees this isolation as punishment or healing, love takes him by surprise when he meets mainlander Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander). Fun fact: Fassbender and Vikander married shortly after filming together.

He and Isabel marry, but it appears they won’t be able to have a child together. That is, until a boat washes up at the lighthouse, with a baby and a dead man aboard, and Isabel begs Tom to keep the baby. Predictably, the birth mother, Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), turns up, and the real trouble begins. While the film was praised for its cinematography and acting, it was criticized for its melodramatic twists and turns. However, the spectacular Australian scenery seems to be the real star.

The Light Between Oceans is available as a streaming rental on Amazon Prime Video.


Ridley Scott's Alien was always the franchise that wouldn't die; after multiple sequel films in the 1980s and 90s, Scott and writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof created a prequel feature film when those became all the rage in the 2010s. Set in the late 21st century when two superpowers are in competition for the solar system’s natural resources, the influential Weyland Corporation sends a shipload of scientists aboard the Prometheus to colonize a distant planet thought to be the origin of humanity. The team includes an android, David (Fassbender) and co-stars Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Ben Foster, and Charlie Holloway.  

Fassbender was deliberately made up to look like David Bowie and/or the title role of David Lean’s 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. This clip of David was part of the film's promotion, which created mock commercials of Weyland’s products, including androids. (Yes, there are monsters, and even though their DNA is a 100% match to that of humans, they are not the team’s friends, and we all know that having an android aboard, with ample time and curiosity to check out his companions, is never a good idea.) As Rolling Stone put it, "Fassbender is so good, he owns the movie." Fassbender returned for the 2017 sequel Alien Covenant. 

Prometheus is available on Hulu.

'Steve Jobs'

Would you rather be trapped on an alien planet with an android or with Steve Jobs? Think carefully. The intimate portrait of the brilliant and notoriously difficult founder of Apple, Steve Jobs is directed by Academy Award-winner Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), written by Academy Award-winner Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) based on Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography. Fassbender stars with Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Andy Hertzfeld, Jeff Daniels and Chrisann Brennan. 

The action takes place backstage at the unveiling of three iconic product launches, 1994–1998, creating its own three-act play structure –– or its own nightmarish computer loop. Fassbender compared Sorkin’s script to Shakespeare, noting that discovering its cadence was key to his understanding of the role. He received Academy Award, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and SAG nominations for Best Actor.

Steve Jobs is available as a streaming rental on Amazon Prime Video.

'A Dangerous Method'

Though on paper, it doesn't sound like a horror thriller, that's how A Dangerous Method is classified. Directed by David Cronenberg and adapted by Christopher Hampton from his play The Talking Cure (itself based on John Kerr’s nonfiction work A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein), Fassbender starred as upcoming analyst Carl Jung and Viggo Mortensen as his mentor, colleague, and rival, Sigmund Freud. The third component, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), starts off as a patient arriving for treatment in 1904 in a manic condition, and is first treated by Jung, using the new "talking cure.’"(Actually Freud’s creation, but he didn’t publish it.) 

Spielrein and Jung become lovers as Freud takes over as analyst and Spielrein transfers from patient to colleague. It’s possible Spielrein’s work was co-opted by the two men, a familiar story. It’s not quite a love triangle, but a story of academic rivalry and sexual repression, where most of the wit, subtlety, and intellectual substance is shared between Freud and Jung. Poor Spielrein just gets spanked.

A Dangerous Method is available on Roku.

'Jane Eyre'

Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) directed this visually beautiful and elegant take on Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s classic story, adapted for the screen by Moira Buffini. Fukunaga’s choice of restrained emotion rather than Gothic melodrama disappointed some viewers who felt it lacked passion. Newcomer Mia Wasikowska is rightly the focal point of the film (as she is in the book, which is written in first person), a perfect foil to Fassbender’s Rochester, who can charm if he needs to, but has always had all of the power until Jane came along. 

TimeOut said it best: "With this new Jane Eyre, Irish leading man Michael Fassbender cements his natural flair for playing muscular, sexually domineering and morally tainted alpha males. ... Rochester, a man for whom money and charm has enabled him to fulfill his every whim, is blindsided by Jane, a woman haunted by her past who easily holds her own in the thrilling verbal duels the couple share."

Jane Eyre is available as a streaming rental on Amazon Prime Video.


This 2015 film of Macbeth is brutal, bloody, and compelling, directed by Justin Kurzel, with a screenplay by Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, and Michael Lesslie. Once again, and with great effect, Fassbender’s Macbeth is an archetype of the complex, tormented hero he plays so well, with Marion Cotillard as a thoughtful, lethal Lady Macbeth. The script messes with Shakespeare, sometimes for good reason, sometimes not. (Four witches? Why?). Elizabeth Debicki (Princess Diana in The Crown) is Lady MacDuff, joined by Sean Harris (MacDuff) and Paddy Considine (Banquo). 

Christy Lamar, at wrote: "[This] film is just devastatingly gorgeous to look at—with a climax soaked in a fiery red that suggests “Macbeth” on Mars—even as it contains individual images that are so graphic, they may cause you to look away. ... Fassbender has made a career out of playing complicated, tormented figures... The murder and madness of Macbeth are his bread and butter. Still, the danger that lurks beneath his lean, cool good looks gives his Macbeth an especially unsettling air."

Macbeth is available on Roku.

Janet Mullany

Writer Janet Mullany is from England, drinks a lot of tea, and likes Jane Austen, reading, and gasping in shock at costumes in historical TV dramas. Her household near Washington DC includes two badly-behaved cats about whom she frequently boasts on Facebook.

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