Even by the usual standards of the Isle of Skye in early February, it wasn’t the balmiest of mornings. Visibility was so poor that Marion Cotillard, one of the two stars of the new cinema adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was filming on the island, had strayed into a bog and disappeared from view. It had taken two crew members to fish her out while the mud sucked at her feet.
By midmorning, the temperature was still 10 degrees below freezing, and the hail was so furious that the director, Justin Kurzel, had to fasten industrial fans to the fronts of his cameras to blow it out of shot. After calling action, Kurzel and his crew watched scenes on a monitor under a flapping tarpaulin. But Michael Fassbender, who was playing Macbeth, had to stand there unshielded, his face turned towards the storm.
I meet Fassbender 15 months later, on a roof-terrace bar during the Cannes Film Festival, the day before Macbeth’s world premiere. It’s 29C outside, and the sun gleams over the bay like a polished plate. The 38-year-old actor is sitting with his shirt unbuttoned to the chest, and his teeth are bared in a wide, wolfish grin.
The terrace is preposterously out of whack with the on-set conditions Fassbender is describing, and we’re both laughing semi-guiltily at the contrast. He concedes that the weather during the Macbeth shoot was on occasion “restrictive”. But for Fassbender, restrictive is good.
“Innovation comes through restriction,” he says. “And while on a big film you’ve got all the options in the world open to you, on a small film even getting it made is a hard thing. I love how fast you have to work – that pressure of having to get it right in one take or not at all.”
Whether the budget allows for one take or 50, Fassbender’s capacity for getting it right is now well known. It’s almost impossible to leave one of his films without feeling you’ve just seen one of the greatest actors of his generation swinging away at the coalface.
His first major screen role came in 2001, with a part in the HBO series Band of Brothers. But his real breakthrough came seven years later with Steve McQueen’s Bafta and Cannes-winning Hunger, in which Fassbender played the IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands, and survived on water and seeds to lose more than two stones for the part.
He went on to star in two more films for McQueen, Shame and 12 Years a Slave, as well as playing the villainous Magneto in two X-Men films (a third is due next summer), the luxuriantly named Lt Archie Hicox in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, David, the T E Lawrence-channelling android in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, a thunderous Rochester in Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, and other unquiet souls.