Michael Fassbender is multitasking. He’s shaking hello with his right hand and scrubbing off photo shoot makeup with his left. Cleansed, he looks exactly the same: vivid blue eyes, electric copper hair, stubble so bright and bristly it seems impossible it didn’t serrate his makeup wipe.
The intensity is expected. Fassbender became famous playing a zealot in Hunger, and since then has shunned the sugar-coated crowd-pleasers Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper splice in between Oscar attempts and bombastic blockbusters to assure audiences they have a sense of humor. Compared to Fassbender, Christian Bale looks playful. When Fassbender joins a splashy franchise, he adds gravitas. His Magneto survived the Holocaust; his Alien android attacks the hubris and frailty of mankind. (Even while gifting Tumblr a Fassbender-on-Fassbender smooch – more on that later.)
His new film, The Snowman, is a half-step off from his serious path. The Oslo-set thriller, directed by Let the Right One In’s Tomas Alfredson, is a slightly goofy serial-killer mystery in which Fassbender plays an alcoholic detective named Harry Hole, the star of 11 gory novels by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø. The Snowman boasts identical twins and motorized garrotes and severed heads stuck to snowballs and a surprising amount of Aphex Twin. Yet, at the center of the silliness, Fassbender gives a straightforward performance of a man just trying to do his job.
As Fassbender perches on the couch, he seems very present, but protective, even for this deeply private actor. I’d been planning to congratulate him on his upcoming Ibiza wedding to Alicia Vikander. In person, it seemed safer just to talk about death.
Harry’s a drunk and an iffy father figure and a misanthrope who pushes chairs away in his office cafeteria so he doesn’t have to talk to people. What did you like about him?
A detective is a genre that I wanted to do. Then reading the books, I just really like the character. Jo had such an investment in this character. He’s really human, and I could imagine him as somebody who is living and breathing and existing. I love the fact that he’s not an action hero. When he goes into a scuffle, he usually comes out the worse for wear. And the drinking thing is just him self-medicating. I think he hates his job. He’s brilliant at it, and he can’t step away from it. There’s an obsessiveness that is part of his personality and part of his relationship to the job. So there’s a lot going on there, and then some of the stuff is in contradiction, which is interesting to play with.
Do you think you’d make a good detective?
Cause I don’t have an interest in it. I think if you want to be good at something — to find happiness in it — you have to have a passion for it.
You’ve read all the books in the Harry Hole series except The Snowman, which you avoided so it wouldn’t interfere with how you interpreted the script. How do you make time to read?
You know, you sit around set a lot. There’s a lot of time in between setups when I just read. I read in the evenings, whenever I have free time.
Would you want this to turn into a movie franchise like the Jack Reacher books?
Yes, I would, yeah.
Is there a limit to how many series you can handle?
As long as I feel like I want to do them, I’ll participate.
Harry has some weird quirks. Can you explain them? First, he carries his files in a plastic grocery bag.
It just felt right. He doesn’t carry things on him a lot. We felt that it was interesting. What he has, he has on him. And I just thought there’s something interesting and temporary about a plastic bag, something very naff, not organized, but in a way still just very practical. It’s unusual. But it was just something that happened on the day. I was like, “Maybe the plastic bag?” I just like those quirks, you know.
When he takes a nap, he sleeps on a pillow made of record albums.
I think he’s just listening to music. For me, if I’m lying on my back resting, I always like to have something under my head.
No matter how cold it gets, he never zips up his jacket.
That’s right. That’s just to make him look like a tough guy.
You really did shoot this in Norway in the winter. How cold did it get?
You know, it’s funny because Tomas talked about not putting on the jacket. He said he was on a bus trip one time and the bus driver stood outside the bus having a cigarette in short sleeves. That non-awareness of the cold that that guy seemed to have, he wanted to incorporate that into Harry, as well. It was cold, but not really that bad. It’s a very dry cold there, so it was quite refreshing. I enjoyed it, actually — it was invigorating. The air was so clean. I liked it because before I went out there, I was thinking, “Ugh, it’s going to be brutal.” But it wasn’t that bad.
The Snowman has a subplot related to abortion. Norway has a reputation for being progressive. Still, it’s unusual to hear a movie talk about abortion as a normal fact. Was that weird for you, especially being from Ireland where abortion is still illegal?
I didn’t think about it that much, to be honest, until you bring it up now. I always think of Scandinavia as a progressive place, socially. Norway, what’s interesting is they made most of their money from fossil fuels, but they invest most of their money in green, renewable energy, which says a lot about the country.
Jo has said that the 2011 Anders Breivik mass shooting both deeply affected Norwegians and affected the way he saw violence in his own books. Could you feel that while you were there?
I couldn’t to be honest, no. I had no reference point before, so I couldn’t really tell.
The movie has amazing aerial shots of cars speeding down skinny, snowy, slippery Norwegian roads. As a person who loves race-car driving, Norway looks like a great place to do it.
Yeah, I had some beautiful drives there. I have a car similar to what Katrine [Rebecca Ferguson’s character, another officer] was driving. A lot of fun driving on ice roads.
Do they have a speed limit?
Yes, I’m sure they do. Most countries have a speed limit. Germany’s Autobahn doesn’t have the speed limit in certain sections, but I don’t know any other place in the world that doesn’t have a speed limit.
How fast have you gone on the Autobahn?
On a motorcycle, I did 140 miles an hour. In a car, I did about 160.
On the set, was there a meta-moment where you guys made snowmen?
Yeah, I remember briefly trying to make a snowman and it being a bad effort. Lots of snowball fights, though.
You seem like you’d win.
No. Depends on the day.
Did Rebecca win?
Is there ever a winner on those things? I think everybody gets their moments.
How does 40 feel at this point in your career?
You’ve talked about wanting to direct.
Yes, I’d like to do that in the next couple of years.
When you’re on the set with someone like Tomas, are you taking mental notes of what they’re doing?
Absolutely. For sure. All the time with all the directors that I’ve worked with. Even the ones that maybe I don’t like so much. I think, “Okay, I won’t do that.” But yeah, all the time just soaking up information and just trying to learn as much as I can. In 2010, Tomas and I were sitting down seeing if we could work together on Tinker Tailor. I was doing X-Men: First Class at the time and we couldn’t make it work, scheduling. But I just remembered his intelligence and the way he talked about storytelling. I thought, “Wow he’s an original and a really intelligent man. I’d like to work with him and I feel like I could learn things from him.”
How do you feel about doing romantic comedies?
I haven’t really thought about it that much. If a script is good and it interests me, then I’ll do it. I think there’s always been a market for them. I don’t think there’s ever been a decade that I’ve been around where there hasn’t been romantic comedies.
What did you think of the reaction to the Fassbender-on-Fassbender kiss in Alien: Covenant?
Uhhh … I guess I was surprised by it because I didn’t think much of it when I was doing it. But of course, it is something that people are going to ask about. So, fine. That’s just the way it is and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I don’t even take it that seriously. I take it seriously in terms of, I come to work well-prepared and I want to do my best and I definitely put my heart and soul into my work. But I don’t think it’s something that needs to be respected and revered and taken seriously. It’s fun — and if people are getting pleasure out of it, then cool.
Even when you see yourself turned into a unicorn sparkle GIF.
I don’t really look at that much of it, so I’m not really aware of what’s out there. I don’t spend a lot of time looking at these things. I’m not that caught up in it. But once you do something, I always feel like it doesn’t belong to me. Once I make the film and we send it out there, it’s out in the public domain — it’s there for people to take whatever they will from it. I always feel like talking about something is kind of pointless because the audience will see it, and it is whatever it is to the individual. And they’re right. If the person says it’s about this, then it is about that for them, regardless of whether that’s actually the case in the film. It doesn’t matter anymore. It no longer belongs to anybody.