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.

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"When Michael came in, I thought he was cocky," says McQueen, who also directed Shame. "It was a strange mixture of bravado and 'I can't be bothered.' It was my first time directing, and I didn't understand that actors have to deal with a lot of rejection. At that point in Michael's path, what if that door gets slammed in your face again?" They met twice more, "and he just shone through," McQueen says. "After I told him he had the part, I jumped on the back of his motorcycle and we went off for a drink. It was kind of romantic."

Many would use stronger language to describe a ride on the back of Fassbender's motorcycle. Thus he was ideally cast as English literature's ultimate romantic hero in Jane Eyre, even if his method was hardly Method. "There's a scene where Rochester and Jane are face to face, very close, staring intensely, but really we're just desperately trying not to burst out laughing," says his co-star Mia Wasikowska. "He plays all these brooding, dark characters, but the real Michael is so light and goofy. He's a good mimic because he watches people closely and finds them inside of him, and he's not judgmental."

A mix of compassion and detachment is key to the deeply compromised characters Fassbender plays in A Dangerous Method (a therapist having an affair with his troubled patient) and Shame (a perpetual-motion sex machine). To prepare for Method, Fassbender read stacks of Jung and consulted with his sister Catherine, a psychologist who studies ADHD in children; for Shame, he met with real-life sex addicts. "Brandon is self-loathing, and it creates a pattern," he says. "You go out, you have a few drinks, you have this uncontrollable urge to be with somebody, to get that release, and then there's this feeling of shame, that you're not in control of yourself. To push away the feeling of shame, you go out and do it again. You double the shame and triple the shame."

Fassbender is in every scene of Shame, which earned an NC-17 rating for nudity and explicit sex scenes. He first saw the film at its Venice world premiere, with his father sitting behind him. "My mum was supposed to be there too, but her back played up at the last minute, thank God," he says. "Obviously, I knew what we'd filmed, and it was all sort of real, and there to be seen. But actually watching it, I was a little bit 'Holy shit.' Then the lights came on straightaway as the credits were still rolling, and I was like" — he ducks on the couch, one leg in the air like a shield, as a strangled hysteria creeps into his voice — "Give me a second here. Let me put my clothes on! Just give me five."

"He's not afraid to be vulnerable," McQueen says. "There's a huge feminine side to him — he's very manly, but at the same time, there's this beautiful fragility." He adds, "All these superhero things and X-Men things, they're great, whatever, but we need Michael here on earth."

He's referring to Fassbender's sideline in effects-laden tent poles such as X-Men: First Class and Ridley Scott's forthcoming sci-fi epic Prometheus (Fassbender has also signed up for McQueen's period drama Twelve Years a Slave and will have a role in indie hero Jim Jarmusch's next project). But after spending time in his company, talking to his colleague-fans and seeing his Tarantino impression ("He also does a great Michael McDonald impersonation," McQueen adds), one suspects that Fassbender isn't merely cinema's next great thespian. He might also be an untapped comic genius.

"I would like to do a comedy!" he says. "A lot of directors and people in the industry probably think I'm this intense sort of dude, who's like, 'Don't talk to me right now,' and listening to goth in the corner naked with a banana preparing." Cue the wolf-puppy smile. "So, definitely. But you know, if somebody pulled the plug right now, I really wouldn't have anything to complain about."

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