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johanna schneller: fame game

Sometimes the odd intimacy of my job is unsettling. There I was on a Saturday morning just before Valentine's Day, in a lavish hotel suite on Park Avenue in New York. The windows were laced with frost, but the room was warm and filled with flowers. The gorgeous man beside me - tousle-haired, sleepy-eyed, barefoot - was just finishing a room-service breakfast of oatmeal and tea. He was wearing jeans and a grey T-shirt that looked like they were thrown back on after a night on the floor, his lean, six-foot frame was draped languidly over a settee, and we were talking about passion. For a moment, it was tempting to imagine a whole other story.

But that's what movie stars do, stir up fantasies. And though the actor I was interviewing, Michael Fassbender, isn't a movie star yet, he's about to become one. A big one, I think, of a kind we've been missing: 33, decidedly talented, slightly exotic (born in Germany and raised in Ireland, he has an appealingly unplaceable accent). He's more accessible than Daniel Day-Lewis or Clive Owen, edgier than Colin Firth, more believable in period pieces than Brad Pitt, more elegant than Daniel Craig or Ryan Reynolds, and manlier than the newly hatched batch of twentysomething superheroes-to-be.

Throughout the coming months, you'll have plenty of opportunities to see I'm right. In the superhero prequel X-Men: First Class, due June 3, Fassbender will headline as Magneto, Ian McKellen's role. A still from that film shows him squaring off against James McAvoy's Charles Xavier, but it's no contest: Fassbender looks like a lion toying with a trembling tapir.

Soon after that, he'll star in films from Steven Soderbergh (the political thriller Haywire, co-starring Ewan McGregor); Brendan Gleeson ( At Swim-Two-Birds, opposite Colin Farrell); and David Cronenberg (the drama A Dangerous Method, in which Fassbender will play Carl Jung to frequent Cronenberg collaborator Viggo Mortensen's Sigmund Freud). But first, on March 18, Fassbender will appear with Mia Wasikowska in a stormy new version of Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Fukunaga ( Sin Nombre), in which his Mr. Rochester is every English major's fever dream.

"Rochester's a classic Byronic hero," Fassbender said, rubbing his unshaven chin. "The shady past, the intelligence, the passion and courage, the destructiveness and self-destructiveness. He toys with Jane, because he's trying to test her, figure her out. He's intrigued by the purity of her. And the surety of her. But there's a real cruelty to him as well. Which I really enjoyed, to have as part of his character. People do that to each other." His teeth flashed as he chuckled. "But it was important for me to also convey his yearning and his utter fear of losing her," he continued. "When she goes, that's it, his life is over."

The scene where Jane tells Rochester she's leaving took seven hours to film. "I remember looking into Mia's eyes all that time," Fassbender said, "and thinking, 'Oh my God, that's what it looked like.' I recognized the look from breaking up with girlfriends. I could see all of that in her eyes. And that was when the camera was on me. So I tried to do the same for her. It's those little moments where you go somewhere else, where acting is at its best. But they're rare."

Fassbender almost had a moment 10 years ago. Making the rounds in Los Angeles, he scored a part in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, and came close to landing the lead in Pearl Harbor. But Ben Affleck got that role, and Fassbender's screen time in the miniseries was reduced. He slouched back to "working behind a bar [in London]and thinking, 'I just want an opportunity to show what I know I can do.' "

He got it when director Steve McQueen cast him as the martyred IRA leader Bobby Sands in 2008's Hunger. Fassbender starved himself to a cinder, dropping from 160 to 127 pounds in 10 weeks. His doctor's secretary thought he was dying of cancer, but he burned through the screen. "I was waiting for that one," Fassbender said. "That changed my life, definitely."

After Hunger had a triumphant screening in Cannes, directors came calling - including Quentin Tarantino, who cast Fassbender in Inglourious Basterds. As Lieutenant Archie Hicox, he spoke in a British accent so plummy you could make a pudding from it, and stole the film in three scenes. Currently, he's working with McQueen again, shooting Shame in New York (he plays a sexual adventurer; Carey Mulligan is his younger sister). Then he'll appear in Prometheus, a sort-of prequel to Alien, for director Ridley Scott.

Fassbender already knows how to dish like a star, though, spicing up his work anecdotes with just enough personal detail. He's not being a bad boy on purpose - he's just innately mischievous. Discussing Jane Eyre, he did a cheeky imitation of Orson Welles's Rochester - "Jane! Jaaaane!" he wailed, in Welles's booming tremolo - and admitted to feeling for Rochester's mad wife. "Back in those days, she might have just been randy," he said. "You know: If she likes to have sex, she must have the devil in her." He grinned. "I'd burn the effing house down, too, if I was locked up in that room." (Did I mention it was a tad hot in the suite?) Later, discussing the effects of his near-starvation for Hunger, he said: "It does give you a certain high. Everything streamlines. And it kills your libido. You become quite Zen. Because you're not thinking about sex. Your body, I guess, won't allow for it. I realized, wow, what a distraction sex is. I got so much more done during the day."

Then, just before my time was up (and just as I was thinking I'd have to open a window to get some air), Fassbender mentioned family. "My mum and my sister are big fans of the novel [ Jane Eyre]" he said. "That's kind of the starting reason I wanted to do it. I haven't seen the film yet. I wait until the premieres, to achieve maximum nervousness. But I'm keen to see what they think of it. They'll be honest with me."

Wrapping with a modest shout-out to mum and sis? A star is born.