How Michael Fassbender Made Steve Jobs Human

How do you make the greatest visionary of the digital age human? As he guns for an Oscar nod, the actor tells us how he became the Apple founder.

01.05.16 5:01 AM ET

Steve Jobs opens with a mission.

Or maybe it’s a vision.

The lionized tech wunderkind is basking in the success of his ambitious, provocative 1984 Macintosh ad which cast Apple as rabble-rousers disrupting some Orwellian dystopia and, in a way, saving the human race through computers—specifically, their computers. Jobs is on a tear, hell-bent on kicking off the Macintosh launch event with his computer speaking the word “Hello.”

There’s a glitch and the team might not pull it off, an inexcusable turn of events that would ruin everything Jobs is setting out to do: destroy the 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque notion that computers are scary things with sharp edges. He wants to make them friendly and accessible. Human, even.

Michael Fassbender, the actor who has already earned Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, and Critics Choice Award nominations for his portrayal of Jobs, laughs when he thinks about how committed to that mission Jobs was and how successful it became.

“When the Macintosh first came out, people were like, ‘Wow, it’s great but it’s a toy I wouldn’t know what to do with it,’” he says. “It’s funny that it was the first evolution of what would later become the iMac, the computers that were candy-colored. You almost wanted to lick them or eat them.”

If Jobs’s goal was to foster a relationship between humans and these machines, it’s undeniable that, all these years later, he accomplished it.

“Now we live in a world where people take their laptops into bed with them and keep their phones beside their beds and have phones in their hands most of the day,” Fassbender says. “It’s almost like another limb. It went beyond a functionary thing. We’ve developed relationships with these devices. For me, I thought that was extraordinary.”

In many ways, though, Fassbender is outlining what would become the biggest hurdle for the Steve Jobs filmmakers in creating a movie that attempted to make big, scary Steve Jobs—with his own hard edges, otherwordly reputation, and deified cultural status—like that Macintosh in 1984: accessible.

It’s a movie that set out to change our relationship with a man we’ve sainted as a visionary and whose notorious drive—that vision—defined him.

It set out to make him human.

Fittingly, there’s a line in Steve Jobs that’s Jobs’s own: “Hello.”

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Jobs is asked by longtime collaborator Steve Wozniak (played by Seth Rogen) how he manages to perfect the creation of products that are revolutionizing how humans interact with the world, all the while failing in his own interactions with the people in his world.

His response: “I’m poorly made.”

It’s a pivotal moment in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, halting a whirlwind, time-spanning narrative with a jolt of emotional clarity. “The objects that he’s making, he wanted them to be better,” Fassbender says. “But these machines, they couldn’t take him beyond his own personal limitations and shortcomings, you know?”

Much of Steve Jobs centers on the character’s likability, or rather the frustrations of those in his life that he wasn’t always that. “It’s not binary,” Wozniak tells him. “You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” At another point Jobs says, “I don’t want people to dislike me. I’m indifferent to whether they dislike me.”

But it’s three words—“I’m poorly made”—that jettison the importance of his likability altogether.

It alters our understanding of who Steve Jobs was. Forget likable, or Machiavellian, or arrogant, or genius. It’s simpler than any of that: He was human.

Fassbender is on his second round of press in support of Steve Jobs, now on the campaign trail for what he hopes will be a Best Actor Oscar nod for his performance. The website GoldDerby.com, which aggregates predictions from the industry’s top awards bloggers and professionals, suggests that Fassbender’s nomination is all but a certainty, even if the film’s Best Picture hopes have dwindled a bit.

Few films released in 2015 earned more press and media fascination—perhaps predictably—than Steve Jobs. But it’s been ruled somewhat a disappointment at the box office, something that director Danny Boyle himself owned up to when the film opened in the U.K. a month after its stateside release.

Its $17 million domestic gross almost exactly mirrors the much derided 2013 Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher, which grossed $16 million, despite having more than twice the budget. (Fassbender once playfully joked “I studied Kutcher” when asked how he prepped for his own performance.)

Fassbender is as confused as many culture writers as to why the film wasn’t as much of a commercial hit as pundits pegged it to be.

“I think the landscape of how we watch films as adults has changed,” he says, predicting that most of the film’s target audience will likely devour it at home when it becomes available. “I think that’s evident in films that are at cinemas, mainstream-wise. Where the demographic are teenagers, teenage boys, and that’s the reality of the landscape. So that would be my guess.”

Still, praise for his performance has been near unanimous. Hours before our conversation, Fassbender had picked up a trophy at the Palm Springs Film Festival for his performance.

Could he win the Oscar? The talk around Tinseltown is deafening about Leonardo DiCaprio’s work in The Revenant, namely all of the survivalist trials and tribulations the actor had to endure while shooting the film.

That’s all well and good, but Fassbender had to weather the machine-gun dialogue of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay. Pulling that off is its own harrowing act of survival.

But what’s more interesting, perhaps, is the way in which Sorkin, director Danny Boyle, and Fassbender work together to buck what has become a groan-worthy award-season trend: biopics that canonize its subjects at the expense of offering a human truth.

“Truth,” of course, is its own conversation in relation to Steve Jobs, which plays fast and loose with timelines, histories, and, quite flagrantly, with a few facts in the effort of serving its daring story structure. “Historians tell you what happened, dramatists tell you what it felt like,” is Sorkin’s defense of that.

The result is something maybe more compelling, a true-to-fact depiction of history: the depiction of a legacy.

Perhaps because of this, those close to the history, like current Apple CEO Tim Cook, have criticized the film. (Cook called it “opportunistic.”)

Fassbender himself expressed concerns that Jobs’s family might feel “betrayed” by his depiction. “You’re playing a person who’s got loved ones,” he says, clarifying that he hasn’t heard from any members of Jobs’s family since the film was released. “I wanted to totally respect that and respect the man.”

But coming just four years after Jobs’s death, does the film affect his legacy?

“I think the legacy is all around us,” Fassbender says. “He did change the world. I think when you change the world you leave yourself open to our story being told. He himself commissioned someone to write an autobiography about him, so obviously he wanted the world to tell his story.”

Fassbender goes on to list all the ways Jobs has changed the way we live our lives: how we communicate, how we play, how we watch movies or listen to music, even how we shop.

“Outside of that, I don’t know what Steve Jobs was like,” he says. “I never met the man. I never spent time with him. The only impression I had was from the media and what people said about him. But like I say, the legacy is the legacy, and that is something you can’t argue with. Because we’re all living it.”

That legacy, of course, goes in tandem with an image, an indelible image of a man in a black turtleneck and blue Levi’s, gazing through small spectacles as he changed the world. It’s an image that nearly didn’t appear in Steve Jobs, at least not until Fassbender himself spoke up.

Much was made before the film went into production about how Fassbender and Jobs look nothing alike.

“It’s actually something I said myself to Danny when he approached me with the role,” he says. “I said, ‘I don’t really look anything like the man.’ He said, ‘I’m not really interested in that. I don’t want to do an imitation.’”

Boyle actually felt that an actor who too closely resembled Jobs would be a distraction, with the audience spending too much time marveling or dissecting the exactness of the look. By making a strong statement from the start that this actor does not look like this person, the audience can get over it in the first five minutes.

Originally, Fassbender was set to wear a suit for the film’s third act, but suggested while they were still filming the second act that the put him in Jobs’s iconic uniform for the finale. “I thought the audience would appreciate that and we should give it to them,” he says.

For moviegoers, it’s an exhilarating moment. The sharp edges had softened. This was Steve Jobs.

It’s also when Fassbender, fittingly enough, says he felt most like the character. “In the uniform, it really felt like I had arrived at the vision, that the person had arrived.”

Has he worn a black turtleneck since? “I have not,” he laughs. “But that’s not to say I won’t again.”