If someone called Michael Fassbender an overnight success story to his face, he would probably laugh incredulously. However, that's exactly how it seemed, at least to anyone who doesn't watch much television, when the 31-year-old wowed audiences with his turn as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen's Hunger at Cannes last year. This was just the start of what is proving to be a successful period for the actor. After he was born in Heidelberg, Germany, Fassbender's family moved back to Belfast when he was just two years old, and from his accent there is no mistaking where the actor's real home is.
He might have already been familiar to the audiences of such television shows as Hex and Band of Brothers, but Hunger kicked his career up to a different level entirely. Now it is impossible to talk to him without referring to the incredible metamorphosis he underwent to play the Irish Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands. It is a process that the actor remembers with some trepidation. "I went to see a doctor at the beginning of the shoot," he says. "Basically he said that you can be 58 kilos, and then after that things start to get dangerous. I couldn't get close to 58 kilos and after 10 weeks I was more like 64."
All the same, that is still a terrifyingly low weight for someone who is 6ft tall, and it was certainly a life-changing experience for the actor. "We live in such an excessive lifestyle," he says. "It's like, I want to eat this, so I just grab it. But when you take away those options, when you know that you can only eat 600 or 1,000 calories in a day, which I did for the last four weeks, then you wake up each day with a sort of renewed sense of worth. You wake up and you go, 'Thank God I'm alive'. It's the classic thing - you take things away and then you start to appreciate what you've got. That side of it is definitely very humbling."
One of the biggest upsides to the critical acclaim for Hunger is that ever since the film premiered at Cannes, Fassbender has not had to do a single audition. He suddenly became a talent who was just chosen for roles, rather than having to win them. He jokes: "I get taken to lunch instead of having to audition. You spend years just trying to break into a room and get a role and then people want to take you to lunch "
One of the first men that came brandishing his Diners Card was Quentin Tarantino, who signed the actor up to play a British soldier called Archie Hicox in his new Second World War film. Fassbender admits that he has never seen the Italian original upon which it is loosely based. However, as the director is famed for changing scripts on the day of shooting the actor made sure he was prepared for any eventualities during the shoot. "I prepare in a very disciplined way and just go over and over the script," he says.
Fassbender is also signed on to play Heathcliff in a new adaptation of Wuthering Heights, although the project is having some difficulties getting off the ground. "I would love to play Heathcliff because I ain't getting any younger," he says. "Heathcliff is 19 at the beginning of the book." John Maybury was scheduled to direct the classic Emily Brontë story but had to pull out. Now Peter Webber (Girl With a Pearl Earring and Hannibal Rising) has replaced him and the film is set to start shooting in the spring. Fassbender, though, does not place much stock in schedules for anything.
"I just listen to my agent these days, he tells me where to be the next day and I just go," he says. "It pays to be wary in the current economic climate. I was connected to three films last year and they all got pushed back, so until you have the contract signed, sealed and delivered I'm taking nothing for granted." Fassbender is a forthright interviewee. He says exactly what is on his mind, every word is serious and yet he still manages to have a cheeky grin on his face as he talks. He says of his transformation from TV actor to film star: "I don't make choices. I just try and get a job. I feel lucky to be at the stage I am now. What interests me are the decisions that characters make and why they choose to go down one road instead of another. Very few film roles are available to young actors who can't put bums on seats in the way Bruce Willis can."
Still, that situation is fast changing for Fassbender, who has also recently completed shooting Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank. This was shot just before the actor started on the Tarantino film, meaning that there is every chance that he may be in two films making high-profile premieres at Cannes this year. That would be some way to mark the anniversary of his transformation from small-screen fixture to the leading man that everyone wants to work with.