Michael Fassbender: The most dangerous actor working today

The Steve Jobs star reflects on his role in the film that might well earn him the most prestigious prize in cinema: an Oscar for Best Actor.

January 4, 2016

When you need an actor to play the cold-blooded, intense and driven Apple genius Steve Jobs, who better than the equally cold-blooded, intense and driven Michael Fassbender? Asked to sum up his experience of playing Steve Jobs in the film of the same name, he puffs out his cheeks and says, “It was pretty intense.” If Fassbender, one of the most complex actors in cinema today, thinks it was intense, what would audiences make of it?

The German/Irish actor analysed the script ad infinitum in order to get inside the head of Jobs, and clearly it paid off, as despite underwhelming box office figures, his own personal performance earned him the International Star Award at the recent Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Written by Aaron Sorkin, who’s had experience in writing about controversial tech visionaries after tackling Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, the script is based on Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of the computer inventor. Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell Jobs was unhappy with that book and subsequently tried to halt the film being made.

The movie covers 14 years of Jobs’ life between 1984 and 1998, and its structure is unusual. Told in three acts of 30 minutes each, the movie plays in real time and focuses on three major product launches: the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Cube in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. In doing so the film covers Jobs founding Apple, his being forced out of the company, and then returning to rescue Apple from bankruptcy.

The biopic is directed by Danny Boyle whose work includes Trainspotting, 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire for which he won an Oscar. Fassbender himself doesn’t have an Oscar on his mantelpiece but he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 2013 for the brutal slavery drama 12 Years A Slave and his recent win at Palm Springs will certainly raise hopes. Other highlights on his glowing CV read Hunger, Shame, Inglourious Basterds, 300, the X-Men series and the recently released Macbeth.

Alongside Fassbender in Steve Jobs are Kate Winslet as Jobs’ office manager Joanna Hoffman, Seth Rogen as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Jeff Daniels as Apple’s CEO John Sculley. Fassbender met all three, as well as original Apple team member Andy Hertzfeld and Walter Issacson, to talk about Jobs, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2011. In this interview Fassbender unpicks the role, the movie and – most intriguingly of all – himself.

You had to change your schedule to appear in this film because you were about to go on a surfing holiday, right?

Yeah, and I still went on the surfing holiday – but I had some reading to do in between waves. I had just finished filming in New Zealand and Tasmania and I was down that end of the world, it was December, and I thought it would be nice to stay in the sun in Australia for pretty much the month of December.

What were your first impressions of the Steve Jobs script when you read it?

I had to do it. I just felt really lucky that it came into my path. It’s genius writing and I thought it was kind of a modern day Shakespeare. I was like ‘I have to do it, I have to take it on’.

Some of the speeches you give in 
the movie are very long. How did you prepare for that?

By reading it over and over and over again. I read scripts 300 to 350 times. When I got the script in December I was in Australia. It’s just shy of 200 pages and I would get through it, which would take me about two hours. I would try to read it three times a day when I was there and then as we came over to San Francisco in January [to start filming] it was about taking it act by act, learning 60 page bits at a time.

So for example, on day one of act one, I had all of act one learned in my head and then when we were filming act one I would come home at night and start learning act two. By the time we were doing act three I had the evenings off!

Your preparation sounds intense...

I sit there with the script and I read it and then when I go for a walk for dinner I’m thinking about it and I’m living with it. After a while I guess it’s like putting on an outfit and it starts to seep into you. I do a lot of repetition. If I think of any musician for example, they practice their instrument a lot, so I feel the same way about acting. Then you can allow the jazz to happen on the day hopefully.

But you also like to keep things loose on set, right?

It’s a very intuitive process for me. I don’t intellectualise too much. It’s about discovering things on the day. I remember Steve McQueen [Fassbender’s director on Shame, Hunger and 12 Years A Slave] said one time, ‘It’s like going into a room in the dark and you’re feeling where the furniture is’ and it’s like that on set. I like to prepare very intensely in terms of learning the dialogue like a piece of music and then on the day I try not to force things and allow the happy accidents to happen.

At the time of being cast for the role, were there concerns that you didn’t look like Jobs?

I did think to myself, ‘Geez, I don’t look anything like this guy, so how’s that going to work?’. I met up with Ivana [Primorac, head of make-up on the film] and Danny [Boyle] and we said, ‘We’re not going to try and do that at all’. The thing about biopics is that they can become about impersonations and that almost overtakes the story sometimes.

I think audiences accept things when you lay them out pretty clearly and so at the opening of the film you see I don’t look anything like him and you go, ‘Okay he doesn’t look anything like him, we can get over that now and watch the movie’. So we put our faith in that.

Then as we were filming the second and third acts, I was like, ‘You know what, I’d really like to wear the polo neck’ and Ivana had a wig made, which was amazing. I think by the third act, I’m not saying I looked like him, but there was more of a similarity there. So it creeps up on the audience hopefully.

Did you consider wearing prosthetics?

No, the only thing that I’m wearing is coloured contact lenses. At one point I was saying to Danny, ‘Do we even need them?’ And he was like ‘No, no, just give the audience that much, you know, and they’ll be grateful for that’ and he was right.

How did you go about capturing the essence of Jobs the man?

Everything kind of comes together, the physicality, how you speak, the sound of a voice and the phrasing. Like Shakespeare, the way Sorkin writes dictates a lot for you. Personality traits and the character’s state of mind start to show themselves through the cadence and the rhythm.

What research did you do on Jobs?

I watched whatever was available on YouTube. If I wasn’t filming I was at home learning lines and then I’d go out for a bite to eat and I’d have him in my ears and play some sort of YouTube clip on the iPhone on repeat.

What do you feel is Steve Jobs’ legacy?

I think he was somebody who changed the way we live our lives on so many different levels. His life was interwoven with Apple and I think his return was such a massive thing. The fact that he turned a company around that was going to be insolvent in 90 days to the most profitable company in the world or whatever it was a couple of years ago, is pretty extraordinary.

Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio were linked with the movie for a while. How did it feel to eventually land the role yourself?

Actually, I thought to myself, ‘Christian Bale is perfect! Why isn’t he doing it?!’ [laughs] I actually called him up and said that myself. I said to him, ‘You’d be perfect and I’m a big fan’.

What was it like working with Danny Boyle?

Danny is definitely the most energetic, positive person perhaps I’ve ever met. He’s just so enthused with positivity, support, patience, and so much energy and so much love. He’s a very generous man. He was always a driving force, always had time to listen to everyone, and had immense patience. I found him to be very impressive and it was quite humbling to be around somebody like that.

Are you good with technology and apps?

Let’s start with the apps: I don’t have any, so that’s easy. I’m actually pretty awful with technology, which is ironic I suppose, but what this film has made me realise is that iPhones are an extension of our self now. It’s like an extra limb. I think people would start to suffer from anxiety if you took their phone away from them. I cherish when I go on holiday that I can turn mine off and put it away.

What do you look for in characters you play?

Provocation. I always try and look at the story and see where that character fits into it. Then the audience can go, ‘I hated him’ or they go, ‘No, I quite liked him’. Hopefully people sit down over dinner and the film lives on for a couple of hours and maybe the next day and maybe the day after that. As human beings I think we’re pretty complicated and pretty shaded and we’re not so black and white. Those sorts of characters I find interesting.