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If two actors have dominated the cinematic media hype machine this year it's clearly been Jessica Chastain and Michael Fassbender.
The former's first film, "The Tree of Life," debuted in May and she followed with "The Help," "The Debt," "Take Shelter" and "Coriolanus (in limited release) on Friday. Before this calendar year, Fassbender was best known for his work in "Inglourous Basterds" and the acclaimed British indies "Hunger" and "Fish Tank." In March the German born actor starred in Focus Features' surprise art house hit "Jane Eyre" before taking over the mantle of the Master of Magnetism in Matthew Vaughn's "X-Men: First Class." Most moviegoers now know Fassbender for the latter, but this fall two new films on the art house circuit provided him newfound critical acclaim: David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method" and Steve McQueen's "Shame." Meanwhile, in the middle of awards season hype for his stunning work in "Shame," Fassbender was busy shooting the lead role in Ridley Scott's new Sci-Fi thriller "Prometheus." Finally relieved of his production commitments, Fassbender arrived in LA last month to talk about both of his upcoming films.
The last time I spoke in-depth to Fassbender was almost two years ago before the limited opening of "Fish Tank" in the U.S. At the time, Fassbender was being tagged as an up and comer (mostly because of "Hunger"), but his career wasn't anywhere near the stratosphere it's heading into now. Impressively humble, I distinctly remember Fassbender remarking on how he enjoyed being somewhat under the radar, hanging with his friends in Venice and being relatively unrecognized. For good and bad, much has changed since then and you can bet his private life will be under much more of a media lens, especially after the release of "Shame."
After screening "Shame" at the Telluride Film Festival in September, I remarked that McQueen's drama " is simply a work of art." A subsequent viewing of the picture has done little to change my mind and "Shame" should easily headline my top ten films of 2011. As a man struggling to control his sexual addiction in modern day New York City, Fassbender has a role that would strike fear in the heart of some of the world's greatest actors. An actor is taught that they sometimes need to bare their souls for their work, but in "Shame" Fassbender follows his character to dramatic and unexpected extremes beyond the norm (and its not just the nudity we're talking about). It's one reason McQueen made sure the film would be unedited before signing up with a distributor. Happily, Fox Searchlight took on that challenge and has stood behind the picture's NC-17 rating. During our interview, Fassbender says he has fear of such roles, like any actor, but that it's a healthy reaction. Perhaps what separates Fassbender at this point in his career is his confidence to overcome such fear. Needless to say, it's a fascinating discussion you can enjoy in the embedded video at the top of this post.
Fassbender can also currently be seen in "Dangerous Method" alongside Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightly. As Carl Jung, the 34-year-old actor is playing a much different role than in "Shame," that of a 19th Century Swiss psychiatrist battling the last vestiges of Victorian repression as he debates psychoanalysis with his partial rival Sigmund Freud and passionately falls for his troubled patient, Sabina Spielrein. I wasn't a fan of Cronenberg's clinical direction of the material, but the performances are certainly notable.
As for Fassbender's breakout "year," like Chastain's, it's hardly over. There are numerous critics' group prizes to be considered and it will be intriguing to see how the mainstream media treats him and "Shame" if it can be a surprising limited release hit. And, of course, Fassbender could find his "year" stretching well into the last few weeks of February. Well, here's hoping.
For more on "Shame" check out the clips below.
"Shame" opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. It expands to more markets across the county on Dec. 9.
"A Dangerous Method" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.
For year round entertainment commentary and awards season news follow @HitFixGregory on Twitter.
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