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INTERVIEW | Michael Fassbender On Life, "Shame," Sex and "A Dangerous Method"

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire October 6, 2011 at 5:03AM

Since their dual premieres in Venice, David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method" and Steve McQueen's "Shame" have defined 2011 as the year of Michael Fassbender.
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INTERVIEW | Michael Fassbender On Life, "Shame," Sex and "A Dangerous Method"
Michael Fassbender. Photo by Olga Bas for the New York Film Festival

Since their dual premieres in Venice, David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method" and Steve McQueen's "Shame" have defined 2011 as the year of Michael Fassbender.

Portraying real-life psychiatrist Carl Jung in the former and fictional sex addict Brandon in the latter, Fassbender has received across the board raves for his work -- just as he has for nearly every role since his 2008 breakout in McQueen's debut, "Hunger." Together, the films work as thematic companion pieces, each discussing sex and the human condition (albeit in drastically different ways and set 100 years apart). Together with Fassbender's work released earlier in the year -- Cary Joji Fukunaga's "Jane Eyre" and Matthew Vaughn's "X-Men: First Class" -- it's a quartet of performances that further annoints Fassbender as one of the best actors working today.

indieWIRE got a chance to sit down with Fassbender as he made a stop at the New York Film Festival to promote both films (which have impressively both screened in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and now New York). The films hit theaters November 23 ("Method") and December 2 ("Shame"), respectively.

So you have two films here at the New York Film Festival - "Shame" and "A Dangerous Method." Do you mind if we just sort of go back and forth discussing both of them?

Absolutely.

Let's start with simply how you got involved with them.

David [Cronenberg] asked if I would come to Toronto and have lunch with him and discuss this project that he wanted to do. That's how it started. We chatted over lunch and he told me basically what the film was about and what things to look at and research if I was interested. And we just sort of took it from there.

As for "Shame," the first I heard about that in 2008. Steve [McQueen] and I were at a dinner at the House of Parliament in London. They were celebrating Film 4's contribution to film, and he told me the idea. I didn't get the script, but he told me the concept.

From there, researching and inhabiting these roles must have been a lot to take on. On the one hand there's Carl Jung, a real-life person who must have required research in a more formal way. And then there's Brandon, a fictional sex addict with problems that probably exceed that of most of Jung's or Freud's patients. How did you take these characters on?

Obviously there's a lot of material in relation to Jung. It was a matter of sort of finding what I could read in the right amount of time. And really, in both scenarios and in most jobs I do, it revolves around the script. The story that we are telling in that concise period of time. You know, it's an hour an a half to two hours to tell this story. So I spent a lot of time with the script.

There was also a biography that was available for Jung, which was great. You can just follow that: What his parents did, uncles... there was also a lot of religious influence in his life. And another great thing about these characters -- Jung, Freud and these sort of really obsessive-type characters is that they made a recording of everything, whether it be the correspondence between the two with Jung delving into his childhood and explaining when he started to realize the self. He said the seeds of his psychoanalysis and philosophy were there. So that's that.

But when you have a character like Brandon -- which is fictional -- then, according to information given to you in the script you put together a logical biography. That's something I do with all scripts anyway, whether it's a fictional character or not. What did their parents do? What they were like in school? Did they have a lot of friends or were they loners? What sort of drinks they like to have? All these sort of questions and all those sort of things that just sort of give you a full idea of the character, where he's coming from and where he wants to go.

Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley in "A Dangerous Method." Sony Pictures Classics.

And what about these characters related to you both as an actor and as a person?

It's hard to pinpoint any one thing. By spending a lot of time with them in terms of the script, you start to try and understand behavioral patterns. And by doing that you start to reflect on yourself and you look around those in and around you. You just try and understand. I think that's sort of a major part of my job. Not necessarily to have all the answers, but to try and understand their motivations. When you get that, then you figure out what sort of moral compass they have and how that differs from you. Those sort of questions you ask yourself. This is all kind of boring because it's all my homework.

No, not at all.

But yeah, I write a list of characteristics down on the page. From those characteristics, I tick the ones I think I have available to myself, and then the ones that I don't... I find them. They're in there somewhere. We're all pretty much the same. We're all built up of the same things. So it's just a matter of investigating and being honest with yourself. And then hopefully doing justice to people you're trying to portray -- and never judging them.

I actually saw these films on the same day back in Toronto.

Oh wow, okay.

And to see them back to back like that... It really made clear something I really appreciated about both of them. I mean, yes, one is about these historic characters and one is about a man with sex addiction. But I felt like "Shame" was very much also about this sort of hyper-sexualized world that we live in and a very real portrayal of that world. And I also felt like "A Dangerous Method," despite the fact that it's set like 100 years ago, much of what's being discussed resonates today. Monogamy, for example, is an issue your character in that film struggles with and that's still a very taboo topic in our society.

What's interesting is that 100 years ago they were talking about sex and our relationship to sex. And then we have a film like "Shame" which is very much dealing with today's relationship to sex. Not everybody's Brandon, but there's elements to Brandon and the world that he occupies that unless you're dishonest with yourself you can recognize and relate to certain things.

The whole thing about "Shame" is that it's not only about sex addiction. We chose that as Brandon's primary condition, but the fact of the matter is that we are getting so much information thrown at us these days and people are trying to sell us stuff all the time. 24/7, sex is everywhere. There's posters and big billboards of women in their underwear, whether they're selling soda or breakfast cereal. People are selling sex along with the product, and also accessibility. That's probably the main thing and we have that with everything. That's why these conditions manifest themselves in gambling, an unhealthy relationship with food, drink, drugs, sex...

And I think it's down to a society that's quite driven by anxiety. People are confused. It's an overload of information. So people sort of have strange ways of expressing themselves through out those mediums. It's this whole idea of access to excess. That's basically what we have. And New York is a very good example of a city that has that 24/7. You can access any amount of excess you want. And where does it end? And what happens to us because of that? I don't think it's a judgment or some sort of demonization of the world we live in. It's just asking questions and provoking thought. I can relate to that because it's all around me.

When I was growing up, if you wanted a porn magazine or a porn video you had to reach up to the top shelf and that probably took an hour and a half of courage. And then you had to go to the front desk and confront the person you were buying or renting the material off of. The shame element was there and it was immediate. Nowadays you just hit two buttons on the computer and there's thousands of options.

Michael Fassbender in "Shame." Image courtesy Fox Searchlight.

And that's very new.

Exactly, it's very new. And I think this idea of accumulation and this necessity to own things and possess things and experience things has been sold to us and promoted to us. I think in some respects a lot of forms of intimacy are being taken away. The physicality of the act is there, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of emotional content. That's certainly true in Brandon's situation. Brandon is someone who doesn't feel comfortable in an intimate environment. It just freaks him out and it's an area he just loses control in. For whatever reason specific to him, he can't handle it. Even down to his sister coming. The idea of her embracing him even in a hug... That makes him squirm, he needs to get out of that. Again, with his sexual relationships he's much more at ease paying for a prostitute or having a casual encounter with someone for one night. Because they leave his life and they don't bring any of their emotional life into his life. Therefore, it's all kept clean.

In terms of Freud and Jung, we take for granted a lot of the teachings these guys are the forefathers of. The idea that our bodies are responsible for so many things in childhood. How we relate to excrement, anus, parents, vagina, penis... Nobody was dealing with these sort of things in the early 1900s. And Freud was like, "This is going to reoccur in your adult life because of the experiences you had with this in your formative years." This is a language we understand very well now because it's part and parcel with our everyday lives. The idea of an introverted personality or an extroverted personality comes from Jung.

But I think a lot of us in this world are trying to figure out what we're doing here, how we relate to each other and how we relate to ourselves. Why do we do certain things and what sparks those motivations or those actions? It's always interesting just to investigate those things. Again, I'd be lying if I said I had any of the answers to these things. But it's just good to be asking the questions and be provoking these thoughts.

And that's what I think is interesting about these two projects. And that's what interests me with most things. To have ambiguous characters that aren't sort of clear cut in being good or bad. Now the audience is mostly in a very safe place. They know who they should be rooting for and it's all very easy to sit there and eat your popcorn and not be challenged. Whereas I think films like this are more challenging to the audience. They have to participate more. And that's what excites me personally.

And your work in [Andrea Arnold's] "Fish Tank" is very much the same. It confused me as to why I still liked your character in the end, given what he did. But I did.

I think we're all pretty capable of doing pretty hideous things. And then we're also capable of humanity and positivity. In "Fish Tank," Connor the character is very much the catalyst for Mia to get up and out of there. He was the only person in her life that was giving her some sort of confidence and telling her that she was special and that she should follow her dreams. And then of course, he breaches the line and abuses that trust. But he brings a lot of good into her life as well. And that's the thing. It's not so clear cut and there's a lot of grey areas that are interesting to investigate.

With Steve McQueen and David Cronenberg, I had the pleasure of speaking with both of them recently and they both clearly seem to have a lot of faith in you as an actor. What was it like working with them? They're clearly very different directors, but they are both clearly really uncompromising directors.

I'll give you the similarities between them first, because I think it's more interesting, really. Because they have hugely different personalities... I'm sure you noticed that from just meeting them. But what's great is that they love working with actors. And they both have a real interest in the human condition. Both of them are always investigating and asking questions. They're also both very intelligent people and very aware of the world around them. And very highly read, and also very confident in themselves... Which is a great attribute to have as a leader. People will follow you if you're not afraid to look stupid or vulnerable or feminine or nerdish. This is life, and this is happening, and it shouldn't be shied away from. It shows a great amount of strength. And on top of it all, they have a great sense of humor. We have a lot of fun on set and I think they trust me because they know I go away and I do my homework and I come to the table with something. It might not be the right thing, but I'm trying something out. It's a very collaborative experience.

I might be speaking out of place, but both those guys have an idea of what they want. A rough sort of plan. But when you come on that day, anything can happen and anything can change. You can go in a completely different direction. Or not. And for me, that's what makes this business exciting. They both create a very safe environment to create and take risks.

Check out audio from the interview on Peter Knegt's blog.

This article is related to: Features, Interviews, New York Film Festival, Shame





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