Someone nudges Michael Fassbender into my hotel interview suite. It's September; the Toronto International Film Festival is raging. Fassbender's being manhandled at 10-minute intervals to talk about his new drama, Trespass Against Us, a father-son drama set in the Irish Traveller community in rural England. (Brendan Gleeson plays his father.) It's only noon, and he's trying to be present. But he looks exhausted, pale in his black clothes, rubbing his eyes.
At 39, Fassbender is winning the fame game. He works with the coolest directors – Steve McQueen, David Cronenberg, Quentin Tarantino, Cary Fukunaga, Ridley Scott, Danny Boyle. He has two Oscar nominations and three psychotically lucrative franchises: X-Men, ongoing; Assassin's Creed, recent; Alien, which gets a new sequel-slash-prequel this summer. He's tall, fit, the stuff of female fantasy. But though it's exciting to be in a room with him, it's also unnerving. There's something uneasy about his handsomeness. His eyes glint a little too mischievously; his grin is a little too wide. His teeth aren't pointy, but they seem to be. He'd be a great wolf in a live-action Red Riding Hood. Or Cassius, lean and hungry.
The first scene of Trespass Against Us, which opens Friday in select cities and on VOD, slaps us in the face: Chad Cutler (Fassbender) sits in the driver's seat of a beat-up car, but he's not driving. His young son, Tyson (Georgie Smith), in his lap, wearing his school uniform, is – at breathtaking speed. The other seats are overstuffed with young men, who roar and cheer as the car careens over fields, chasing a terrified hare. The hare darts. The car veers. Then Chad covers Tyson's eyes. Tyson laughs as Chad floors it.
The sequence instantly pushes us, the audience, into a parallel world where fun and danger are inverted. "But that's a milder version of the reality," Fassbender says with a dry chuckle. "A settled Travelling family lived in the village where I grew up in Ireland, and I was very good friends with them." (Of course he was.)
"The kids drove cars, quad bikes, they broke bones," he continues. "They had bare-knuckle fist fights where there were no rounds – they went until someone gave up or was knocked out. They learned life by the hard-knock method. They're not a squeamish bunch, not PC or concerned about health and safety in any way. Their community exists beside the settled community, but not exactly harmoniously."
Trespass Against Us is inspired by the British TV documentary Summer with the Johnsons. As a Traveller, Chad lives outside the law with his extended family – headed by the indomitable Colby (Gleeson) – in a trailer camp in Gloucestershire, surviving on wits and bald thievery. After alienating us in the opening sequence, Fassbender's task for the rest of the movie is to reel us back in – to show us, gradually but surely, that his concerns and ours aren't so different after all.
That's Fassbender's specialty. He's drawn to troubled characters who do inexplicable things: the Irish revolutionary Bobby Sands in Hunger, Fassbender's breakout film; the smoothie who seduces his girlfriend's 15-year-old daughter in Fish Tank; the tormented Rochester in Jane Eyre; the sex addict in Shame; the ruthless plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave; the murdering king in Macbeth; the insensitive computer genius in Steve Jobs; the baby stealer in The Light Between Oceans. Then he takes us deep inside their psyches, and makes us empathize.
"I like provocation," Fassbender says. His upper lip curls when he smiles. "I like to provoke. To make some noise, as Steve McQueen says. To challenge people to talk about things. To be stimulated by an experience. That's what made me fall in love with cinema."
As a teenager in Killarney, "1970s American cinema was the mecca, my bread and butter," Fassbender says. (His mother is Irish, his father German; where each pops up in his accent is part of his unpredictability.) "Coppola, Lumet, Scorsese, De Palma – they made me want to be an actor." At 19, he moved to England to study at the Drama Centre London. He tended bar, bedded women, dropped out. Steven Spielberg cast him in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, and he took it from there.
"Even with despicable or unsavoury characters, cinema works best if it's a mirror that people can recognize themselves in," Fassbender says. "We all have the ability to do heinous things. I like to bring characters a little closer to that than people like for comfort's sake. And then take them to the place where they're human beings, and not totally alien."
In Trespass Against Us, he humanizes Chad by revealing his hidden shame, his ambition for his son and how that conflicts with Colby, his traditionalist father. "Colby is scared," Fassbender says simply. "He loves his family. But he was the king, and he's afraid of change. Chad wants to move with the times."
Beyond his character, Fassbender hopes audiences leave the cinema with greater empathy for the Travelling community. "Even when we were making it, certain crew members were confused about why we were telling this family's story. There's a fear of Travellers, and ignorance on both sides as to how each community lives. Chad is trying to do the right thing, but it's hard – hard to stay where he is, and necessary and hard to break away."
I want to ask Fassbender about his next two films: Song to Song, Terrence Malick's tale of love and betrayal in the Austin, Tex., music scene, co-starring Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett; and The Snowman, an icy thriller from director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), in which he plays a detective with the evocative name Harry Hole – as in, in his soul. But our time is up.
Unexpectedly, he bends down and gives my cheek a swift kiss. Then he's yanked away, to go unsettle someone else.