You and the cast have been taking the fictional band onto the road to promote “Frank.” I caught your one song set on Tuesday at the film’s New York premiere, and just last night you guys performed on “The Colbert Report.” Did you have any idea what you signed up for when you agreed to make this film?
It was my idea actually! I really pushed for us to play live and just because the whole thing is about this band. So, I had a hand in that myself.
The film’s called “Frank,” but it’s impossible to get a read on the guy, since it’s all told from the perspective of Domhnall Gleeson’s character. How did you get a firm idea of who Frank was?
Frank’s only real dialogue with people is through his music. So it’s not like he’s doing it for any other reason than just existing. And that’s kind at the core of him. Whereas opposed to Dom’s character, John is somebody with a lot of talent and a lot of ambition. And Frank is somebody with talent, but zero ambition. And that’s kind of what happens when these two worlds sort of get together.
Thankfully you have both.
That’s kind of you to say.
It’s common for actors to feel uninhibited when in disguise. Did you feel that way playing Frank?
Absolutely. When you put on a mask there’s this sort of feeling like being bulletproof. So, yeah I immediately felt a sense of mischief, playfulness and an anarchic sort of streak as well. Kind of like that trust exercise where you fall backwards and hopefully the people in the room catch you, otherwise you hit the ground. That’s kind of what it was like every day.
Did you wear the head off set to stay in character?
No. I don’t really do that in general. I kind of come in and out of characters. I just like to do it that way. And so I took the head off in between takes. It would get quite hot and sweaty in there after a while and just sort of restrictive. But like I say, fun as well. I couldn’t see much as well.
The film riffs on your celebrity in a fun way. Knowing that Michael Fassbender is under that head creates this rock star allure so essential to the character. Did that aspect of your casting appeal to you?
No. None of it was really that thought of. I just read the script and was like, “This is nuts. This is fucking nuts and I want to be a part of it.” It’s fun, I laughed out loud many times reading it and it was poignant and touching and had these other elements to it, which because I was laughing had opened me up to them much more. So yeah, I just thought it was a really unique piece.
And yeah the idea of acting with a head, I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t an appeal. People have been using masks for theater for thousands of years, you know, so it’s another part of the craft that I thought would be cool to explore. I had done a little bit of Commedia Dell’arte at drama school, but never really had the chance to do it in the professional realm.
How did you go about forming Frank’s physicality?
He is this sort of frail, kind of geeky character. I also wanted him to have in his movement a kind of confidence, at times, and a sexuality at times. And other times he’s just a very sort of inhibited or introverted sort of character, which I felt like I needed to express through my physicality. So I definitely ramped up the physicality more than I would do in another film because the expression is essentially from the neck down.
His voice was also tricky to nail down with the head. So I practiced the accent at home without the head, but when I put the head on, it made it weird. It reverbs the voice quite a lot in there, there’s a lot of echo. But other than that it was a blast. I loved wearing the head.
Do you like to watch yourself on film? A lot of actors don’t.
I love it. I like to do it many times. [Laughs] No, it’s not a particular fun thing to do. It’s like hearing your answering message on the phone. Except you get the visual to go with it. So yeah, I just think it’s part of my job to sort of take a look and see what I’ve done wrong. Things that work. So I usually watch the films once or twice.
Not being able to see your face must have made for a weird viewing experience.
Not really actually. I’m just watching it going, “Uh, I don’t like that. I like this. That works, that doesn’t.” I’m just judging things. The first viewing is pretty vanity driven. I’ll be watching myself more than the overall piece. I’m more relaxed during the second viewing because I’ve seen it and I can start to sort of give a better perspective view of it all.
Did your work on “Frank” change your approach on the projects that followed? It seems from what you’re saying that the experience brought you back to your drama school days in a way.
No. Funnily enough, the job just before brought me back to school.
No. The Terrence Malick movie. That definitely felt like I was entering an apprenticeship with him, because he’s a master. And there was a lot of improvising in that. Loads of it, in fact most of it is kind of like that. So that was like going back to school. It was really good that I did that just before this to keep the freshness and unpredictability of Frank, hopefully for the other actors as well. I always try to sort of mix it up and follow instincts before questioning. As opposed to sitting back and judging them to be right or wrong. That’s for the director to do. So just an immediate response to the instinct.
Do you like to improvise?
I do. Yeah. It’s hard. Sometimes it just becomes mush. It’s very important that the team doing it are in sync and are listening to one another and they’ve got a direction because otherwise it could turn into a shouting fest. It just becomes rudderless. So it’s good in the right hands.
With Terrence Malick I’m guessing you were in the right hands.
Yeah. He’s a genius.
I hope you’re in his movie.
Me too. [Laughs]
You do blockbusters but you still have your hand in the indie film world. You’re clearly an actor drawn to good characters, not to budget size.
No the size doesn’t really… size doesn’t matter. [Laughs] The great thing about doing independent films is that they move fast and I like that. I like the speed. I like moving fast and having to be on your toes. There’s a great excitement that comes with that. I like to go and see an adventure ride and then I also like to go see something that’s got maybe more of a social commentary, more relevant to what’s happening to the world and us as human beings. And all the rest of it. So, it’s also fun as an actor to do those things.
And also just the pure fact that doing the bigger films, if the film industry is doing well and big films make money, then the independent films do well because the money trickles down to them. The little films need the big films to do well because they are dependent on getting that money. So they rely on each other. And the independents keep the bigger films interesting as well because they are having to go farther with less. There’s not the money, there’s not the time that is afforded for the big films. But one allows the other to be made. “Frank” gets made because I do something like “X-Men” or “Prometheus.” So I like it all. And I like the challenges of both those worlds.