The Wild Irish Boy

Superhero, hunger striker, Mr. Rochester, psychiatrist, sex addict. Michael Fassbender can play anyone--with or without his clothes on

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Peter Hapak for TIME

Michael Fassbender.

Michael Fassbender has a look. It's a cross between a stare, a glare and a laser attack. The muscles in his finely angled face tense, and his blue-green eyes all but pulsate in their sockets. In his breakthrough film, Hunger (2008), Fassbender, playing the IRA martyr Bobby Sands, casts that look on a well-meaning priest, vaporizing any pleas against the hunger strike that will kill him. You see the look in Inglourious Basterds (2009), just before Fassbender's English spy tongue-lashes a Nazi lout, and in this year's Jane Eyre, when his Rochester matches wits with the equally steely heroine. The look is the standout special effect in this summer's X-Men: First Class, which cast Fassbender as the vengeful mutant Magneto, and it's the default expression of Brandon, the tormented sex addict of December's Shame, for which Fassbender is being touted for an Oscar nomination.

For his growing constituency — art-house filmgoers, blockbuster directors, sentient heterosexual females — the tension and intrigue Fassbender can generate with one look partly explain why the 34-year-old Irishman is one of the most thrilling actors of his generation. His storm-cloud charisma, readiness for extreme physical transformation and melodic Irish lilt position him as an heir to Daniel Day-Lewis.

But when one meets Michael Fassbender, there's no look. In the flesh, he seems younger and springier than the gravely poised figure he cuts in movies, and his wide, disarming grin evokes an ecstatic wolf puppy. "He's very playful and very funny," says David Cronenberg, director of another Oscar-season hopeful, A Dangerous Method, in which Fassbender plays the pioneering psychiatrist Carl Jung. "He's a total delight. He's kind of a wild Irish boy."

The wild Irish boy was born in Heidelberg in 1977 to a German father and a Northern Irish mother. When he was a toddler, the family — including his older sister Catherine — moved to the village of Killarney, where his parents ran a restaurant and Michael was an altar boy. "I remember hearing that the spirit was always next to you, so I would always make room in my bed for the spirit," he says with a laugh. "I'd make room for the teddy bears, Jesus and me. And then I'd wake up in the morning, and I'd squashed 'em all." Though the Fassbenders were somewhat pro forma Catholics ("I think we just went to church on Sunday because everyone else was doing it"), altar-boy duties awakened Michael's interest in stagecraft. "The suspense of reality — the idea that wine turns into blood and bread turns into flesh — was a very visceral thing to deal with, and the ritual and theater of it," he says. "I suppose it was my first experience of being onstage."

Growing up, Fassbender idolized the late actor John Cazale (mention the scene in Godfather II when Cazale bewails the Corleone line of succession while flailing around in a recliner, and Fassbender all but leaps into the air with excitement) and dabbled in local theater. At 18, he produced, directed and played Mr. Pink in a theater version of Quentin Tarantino's film Reservoir Dogs, as he told Tarantino when he auditioned for Inglourious Basterds. "I said, 'Look, man, it was for charity,' and he said" — here Fassbender arches his brows and widens his eyes, speeds up his cadence and talks out of his adenoids — "'Hey, that's cool, man, that's cool, as long as people aren't making money off my shit.'" It's an uncanny Tarantino impression.

After studying acting in Cork and London and nearly a decade of journeyman TV work, Fassbender auditioned for the debut feature of the acclaimed British visual artist Steve McQueen. "Steve changed my life with Hunger," says Fassbender, who carved some 33 lb. (15 kg) from his already wiry frame to play Sands.

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