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Five Things Michael Fassbender Should Learn From Ewan McGregor

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The costars of Haywire have a lot in common.

by James Brady Ryan

Before Michael Fassbender became the latest indie dreamboat, we had Ewan McGregor. With a similar roguish charisma, McGregor climbed up from films about heroin addicts to become a bona-fide star, with a stable career and impressive filmography. Since the two are about to appear together in Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, we came up with a list of five things the heir apparent can learn from his predecessor.

1. Choose franchises wisely.

I think we all know what we're talking about here. No one could fault Ewan McGregor, back in the more innocent days of the late '90s, for saying yes to Star Wars. At the time — and maybe even now — I don't think a single actor would or could have said no to the question "Would you like to work with George Lucas on the next three Star Wars movies?" As some old aristocratic countess might say, it just isn't done. That said, franchises are tricky beasts; they seduce you with the promise of steady paychecks and A-list recognition, but sometimes you end up in… Star Wars. Could McGregor have realized what he was getting into? We can't say for sure — did his contract mention Jar Jar Binks? The point is, pick your mainstream work carefully. Fassbender has done well so far: X-Men: First Class turned out to be stylish and fun, but it had the potential to be a real train wreck. Still, I hope he'll tread carefully if anyone asks him to say the word "padawan."

2. Don't be afraid to whip it out.

Shame's been winning accolades this movie season not only for a brave performance by Fassbender, but also for a brave performance by Fassbender's penis. But let's remember: Ewan McGregor's been the reigning king of male nudity for well over a decade. From 1996's The Pillow Book to Young Adam in 2003 — two years after he won the hearts of teenage girls everywhere in Moulin Rouge! — to I Love You Phillip Morris to The Ghost Writer, he's hardly had a role where he hasn't gotten naked. And all this flashing hasn't hurt his career; if anything it's made him seem more daring and exciting an actor. But! McGregor's getting into his forties now, and might be moving on from making a ton of sexually provocative movies. We'll need someone to fill that niche for a few years. Fassbender?

3. Stay at least 50% indie.

Because your indie movies will save you. Ewan McGregor made the aforementioned Star Wars prequels, Down With Love, The Island, and Angels & Demons, and came out with his reputation mostly intact. A string like that could have taken down a lesser actor, but who wants to talk about McGregor's performance in Nanny McPhee Returns when he was so amazing the same year in Beginners? (No one except children, and they can't buy movie tickets on their own. Yet.) Taking a shot at the mainstream is always risky, because failures will be writ large. Sometimes you come away with hits, but if you have a robust body of decent or even just ambitious independent films as a counterweight, you won't be sunk by the real stinkers. Fassbender's mostly stayed away from the mainstream, but he's taking more and more big roles. (His next "big name" project, Ridley Scott's Prometheus, looks like a smart choice, thankfully.) He should consider this: pretty much no one remembers that he was in Jonah Hex. If he wants people to keep forgetting things like that, he needs to keep one foot in the arthouse.

4. Work with auteurs.

"But James," you say, "Michael Fassbender just appeared in A Dangerous Method, directed by David Cronenberg!" Yes, and it was a good move on his part. McGregor has racked up an impressive number of films with distinguished directors: Danny Boyle, Roman Polanski, Baz Luhrman, Tod Haynes, Tim Burton, Michael Bay. (Kidding! Kidding with that last one.) While some of these collaborations have been more successful than others, most of them count among McGregor's most memorable films. And, if you want to be cynical about it, a director like that can act as a criticism shield if the film is a total flop: much of the attention goes to the man behind the camera and his product, while critics and audiences probably won't fault you for wanting to work with such an impressive name.

5. Be charming.

Fassbender has good looks and talent to spare, and these things will get him far, I hope. But nothing will maintain an audience quite like charm. McGregor has it in spades — that cheeky smile, that willingness to laugh at himself, that generally sane personal life. He doesn't come off as either a diva-ish movie star — check out the documentary Long Way Round for proof — or a moody Method actor, the kind who might throw a phone at you or scream at your children out of "dedication to his craft" and/or drunkenness. This is not to say that Fassbender needs to be beholden to his fan base twenty-four-seven — simply that when you come off as a nice guy, a normal guy, a guy with a great smile who maybe if I ran into in a cafe somewhere… sorry. When you come off as that guy, your fans are more forgiving of your slip-ups. Stay gold, Michael.