Michael Fassbender interview
By Richard von Busack
After concluding an exceptionally busy year, the Irish/German actor Michael Fassbender is sure to be short-listed for the Oscar nominations for his role as the sex addict Brandon in Shame.
The poster, showing tangled bedsheets—literal dirty laundry—indicates the film’s open address of an uneasy subject.
Whatever problems Shame has, they’re not due to Fassbender, whose talent for both intricate details and larger than life emotions have made his name as one of the most exciting actors alive. He’s been excellent in adaptations of everything from Marvel Comics to Charlotte Bronte. (Rumors are he will play one of the ultimate antiheroes, the eminent Victorian hero and scoundrel Harry Flashman; it’s hard to imagine better casting.)
Metro: The Hollywood Reporter described Shame as “gruesome,” a word that might have been more useful to describe a Tom Six movie.
Fassbender: Some think that violence is more of a natural phenomenon. Certainly, it’s more easily sold.
Metro: How did you meet director Steve McQueen?
Fassbender: I give Gary Davy full credit. He’s a casting director in London. He felt very passionate about me being involved. He set up a meeting between myself and Steve.
I think I left a lasting impression on Steve, for all the wrong reasons. I think Steve didn’t like me much: I think he found me cocky, and maybe in a way defensive. I guess I probably was. As an actor, you go in for auditions; either you get them and off you go, or you don’t. I spent a lot of time not getting them, and getting a lot of rejection. The second time we met, I had something to show him, a scene from Hunger—he offered me the role after that.
Metro: How did McQueen describe Shame?
Fassbender: He basically said I’ve got this guy…the story is sort of about addiction and a guy trying to find intimacy and connection. And he’s a sexual addict. And on this journey that he takes, we follow him through this sexual addiction.
Metro: Considering the places Brandon was going to go, weren’t you nervous about the role?
Fassbender: I’ve so much faith and trust in Steve. My fear is that I couldn’t give him what he needs. That was sort of my main concerns. And of course, ooh, I’m going to be doing some hairy stuff. I knew I was in the right hands, and so I know it not going to be exploitative…I’m talking about the sex scenes, which are there as an insight to the character and which are not meant as any sort of titillation.
Metro: How specific is Shame to New York City? And have you spent much time there?
Fassbender: I’ve always loved NY and I actually would like to live there for a spell. I love the energy there and love the people. I think that New York energy goes definitely hand in hand with what happens to Brandon. It was important to place this character in a city where he had access to excess, 24/7. He’s someone imprisoned by his physicality and his addiction. And New York is, in a way, an enabler.
Metro: Do you have an opinion on whether or not Cissy [Carey Mulligan, above] and her brother Brandon had once been incestuous lovers?
Fassbender: I do have my own backstory and my own idea of that—it’s something, obviously, that Steve, Carey Mulligan, and I discussed. But even in that triangle, we all had our own individual details and backstories.
It doesn’t matter what they were, these details; people are intelligent and they have their own lives, which they bring into the theater. The important thing to give them the familiarity, so they can identify with and participate with the characters. We leave the blanks for the audience to fill in. That’s something much more interesting than anything we can explain.
Metro: Are there any particular clues we should be looking for?
Fassbender: Not really.
Metro: You were a Catholic altar boy once; did the nature of your scenes in Shame give you any religious pangs?
Fassbender: No. Again, I’m interested in human nature and how we exist and co-exist. We all rely on one another to connect—I don’t practice any religion now, but I do feel like I’m a spiritual person, and I don’t feel sex is dirty or shouldn’t be kept behind closed doors. Most of us participate in it—why shouldn’t we investigate our relationship with it? And our relationship as a society with sex is so unhealthy. We’re not allowed to freely explore it.
Metro: John Eastman’s book Retakes tells a story John Boorman directing Herbert “Cowboy” Coward in Deliverance—he played one of the two hillbillies in the money scene. After Boorman explained the action, Coward supposedly said, “That’s alright, I done worse than that.” Some of the viewers of Shame might feel the same way…
Fassbender: I think you’re right. Reading the script, the first thing that struck me was that I can identify with a lot of things here, and I think most honest people will feel the same. I think that’s what makes this film most relevant: it’s not about casting aspersions or judgment on the way we live.
Metro: Reportedly your next partnership with McQueen is 12 Years a Slave, based on Solomon Northrup’s true-life account of being a freeborn man kidnapped by slavers and sent to a plantation in Louisiana in the 1840s.
Fassbender: I’m very excited about it. It’s a beautiful script. And that’s kind of all I can say about it. Hopefully we’ll be doing it next summer.
Metro: Have you seen a script yet for At Swim-Two-Birds?
Fassbender: Yes. It’s a trip! I’d been aware of the book before. In 2009, I had a meeting with Brendan Gleeson, I’d been a massive fan of his since I was 16 when I first knew I wanted to act. I found him to be such a generous artist. I haven’t heard anything since then…
Metro: I haven’t read that particular book, but I’m a huge fan of Flann O’Brien’s journalism for the Irish Times.
Fassbender: It’s said he’s a lot like Hunter Thompson…
Metro: The Mardyke Estate, the housing project where you acted in the film Fish Tank (above) looks fairly dangerous. Did the locals resent the movie being made about their home?
Fassbender: No, a lot of them are in the movie. I think as long as you’re going in there and not patronizing them, the people were cool. I do remember walking past a high-rise flats and a nappy (diaper) came crashing down beside me, thrown from the 50th floor. There are colorful characters there. We had a blast, not once did we encounter any danger or aggression. One guy parked his car and didn’t want to move but that was a petty thing.
Metro: Is it as much fun playing Rochester in Jane Eyre as it looks?
Fassbender: Did it look like fun? (Laughs) It is fun. The first thing that struck me about the character was…and I may be way off the mark, but it was in my gut: he seems quite bipolar to me. And that encompassed the journey for me: the rages, and the fun. He’s such a well-written character and I had such absolute joy on that set, working with Mia and doing scenes with Judi Dench—a fantastic apprenticeship for me, that. And of course Cary Fukunaga is what he is: a very talented, intelligent and sensitive director who knows exactly where to place the camera.
Metro: Was it your decision to make Magneto in X-Men: First Class an avatar of the 1960s spy films?
Fassbender: Matthew Vaughn said early on that this character was supposed to hark back to 60s Bond. When I was considering the accent, I’d wondered if I should imitate Ian McKellan as a young man, with his voice and mannerisms. Matthew said that he liked an accent that was unusual and off-center, and that what was interesting about Sean Connery’s Bond…I immediately got what he was about. And then I went back to the source material to the comic books. There was so much information there, it made my job so much easier.
Metro: From watching you in Shame, you strike me as an actor without fear.
Fassbender: I’ve got plenty of it. I have to live with it, you know, I have to not enjoy it, but enjoy the challenge it…to recognize it as a friend, not as a foe. It keeps me on my toes, and pressurizes me, and brings some element of quality to the work. It just so happens that characters with conflicts are the ones that are most interesting to explore and watch. The greater the conflicts, the more you’ve got something really interesting to work with.