In 2008 British director Steve McQueen made his first major feature film, Hunger, about IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, played by Michael Fassbender, which was honored with multiple awards.
They’ve teamed up again for the drama Shame in which Fassbender portrays Brandon, a successful New Yorker who spends his days and night indulging in reckless sexual obsession, on an inevitable path toward self-destruction. His life style is interrupted when his wayward sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up unexpectedly and crashes at his apartment.
Michael Fassbender spoke with us about working again with Steve McQueen and shooting the sexually graphic scenes, which has earned the movie a NC-17 rating.
How do you go about internalizing and preparing for a part like Brandon? There must be a lot of self loathing involved.
A very big part my preparation is I just reread the script. I might read it 350 times and so I’m spending a lot of time with him, and I’m getting to know him. Through the day I’m like, ‘What would Brandon do in this scenario?’
You’re gathering information every day and you’re putting it together and you’re sitting down with it and you’re thinking, ‘Is this logical,’ and if it is logical then I give it a try. And then Steve is there to steer me in the right direction with that.
It’s just about trying to understand him and relate to him, as opposed to judging him. That would be a mistake.
Can you talk about the actor/director relationship you have with Steve? Why does your relationship work so brilliantly?
It actually doesn’t. No, this is like Abbot and Costello, we pretend to like each other (he laughs). I think it’s just a hard thing to put your finger on it.
It’s a chemistry that I’m very, very grateful for and I feel so blessed that I’ve come across it, because it is something that, for me for sure, I was always looking for, a collaborator.
Hunger was a big break for me and it was Steve’s first movie, so together we were experiencing a lot.
We just formed a language very quickly and when we started Shame it was like we had just walked off the set of Hunger and onto that. We picked up immediately, it was amazing.
How did you put yourself into the head space to be able to play the intense sexual scenes?
Steve was like, ‘You’re an actor, that’s your job, go and do it.’ It’s very simple for me. I keep things very simple. People [say], ‘Oh my God, and then you’re naked. What’s that going to do for your career?’ It’s like, ‘I’m not a politician.
My job is to facilitate characters, I’m a storyteller, I’m some facet of telling that story.’ And that’s it, end of story.
Was there a back story that was given to you about Brandon and his sister Sissy, because there seems to have been an event that has shaped their current relationship?
We talked about back story, obviously the three of us got together and discussed it many times, and I think we all had an idea of something, but perhaps our own versions of it. But I’m not going to tell you what that is. It’s not really that important to be honest.
They never mention their parents, so that already speaks volumes and there is a history between them, and I thought, ‘God, isn’t it great that there’s not a paragraph in this film where they have an explanation of what happened, expositional dialogue?’.
We get that there’s a history between these two, that they’re coming from somewhere and I think you have wonderfully intelligent people that go to see the film, they fill in the blanks much better sometimes than what you can ever put on the paper.
What was it like to see the final version of the movie? Did it surprise you?
I’ve only seen it once and it was a bit overwhelming really. I think I watched the third act like this (puts his hands over his eyes). I thought it was beautifully shot.
I was very moved by all the characters in it and this idea that each character is trying to connect or is looking for human help.
It’s tough to be human and out there. We’re all fragile in our own way and we’re all trying to find our way. [But] I was taking so much on board I need to watch it again to be honest, and I’ll watch it back in London, hopefully with Steve and not a thousand people. (he laughs)
How are you enjoying this period in your career?
I feel like I’m pretty blessed to be working with people like Steve. That’s really it, that I’m allowed to work with the people that I’m working with. For me this position would have been the highest I could have hoped to achieve when I started out.
I’m trying to enjoy the rest of it, but it does make me a little bit scared about what’s next, because I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about things that I’ve done, or linger in the past. I could find that depressing.
So my main [focus] is what am I going to do next, and hopefully do a good job on the next one.