Shame's Michael Fassbender: "I Didn't Know What NC-17 Was Before This"
Michael Fassbender bares it all (pun intended) in the new NC-17 rated Shame, a tale of a sex addict living in New York co-written and directed by frequent collaborator Steve McQueen (Hunger). For Fassbender, who's on the fast track to movie stardom with leading man roles in Inglourious Basterds, X-Men: First Class, and the highly anticipated Alien prequel-esque Prometheus, Shame is a ballsy move at this point in the actor's career.
But neither he or McQueen seem concerned with what many consider the MPAA's mark of death (See: NC-17). They simply set out to make a realistic, artistic and modern portrayal of something never quite seen on screen.
I recently sat down with the actor and the director to discuss Shame, its risque subject matter, thoughts on being slapped with an NC-17 rating and Fassbender on the Fassbender furor. And if you're wondering if we were naked while we did our interview, I'll leave that answer to the imagination.
You guys definitely win the award for most uplifting movie of the year ...
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Fassbender: That's what we were hoping for!
Michael, you've done a bunch of "mainstream" films recently that have really just put you on the fast track to being a huge mega star, so doing a film like this is a real ballsy thing ...
Fassbender: Excuse the pun. (laughs)
Was there ever any hesitation?
Fassbender: Never. You know, I'm in the business of storytelling. I'm there to facilitate a story, and whether that story involves mutants or real-life people, the sort of respect I bring to it doesn't really vary. And in terms of me thinking, it's exactly what I don't think. I don't think "Is this going to damage Michael Fassbender?" I'm thinking about my job as an actor. It's not to sort of worry how an image is portrayed or anything like that. It's, "How do I facilitate the story?"
Now would I have done this film if it had been in anybody else's hands? I don't know. I knew I was going to be in the best hands possible and the trust between us is really beyond 100 percent. So it's really just about, "Am I going to hold up my end of the bargain?" and that's really where the nerves come in, and the fear. It's like "Am I going to be able to represent Brandon the correct way? Am I going to be able to bring to the table something that is going to help Steve and Abi [Morgan, the film's co-writer]?" They've written this beautiful story and my part is to facilitate it in my area. All the other stuff is just distraction, and you just keep it really simple.
McQueen: Just to jump on that. There are always actors around. But Michael is an artist. What I mean by that is he's looking for something to facilitate that -- as all artists are. So it may be high and it may be low, but where the goal is you'll go. Oh, that was a rhyme, wasn't it? (laughs)
What do you make of all the attention towards you personally?
Fassbender: I mean, really nothing changes. Obviously you're doing circuits like this and going to festivals. It's exciting and it's nice. But my day-to-day routines and activities haven't changed at all. What has changed and what is amazing is the choice. You have filmmakers who are interested in working with me that I hold in high regard, who are very talented people. So that is the pinnacle. That's the dream. At one point your just happy to be a jobbing actor, that's good enough. So to be in this position, it's like the one percentile. It's crazy
Michael, when you first read the script, what jumped out at you about this character?
Fassbender: I fell for him, you know? I felt I really liked him. I thought it was a beautiful insight into something I didn't have really any knowledge about. At the beginning, you say "Sex addiction" and you're thinking, "Oh, yeah.H Do you take it seriously? I didn't, really. And then you start to investigate and then you start to meet people and you realize just how devastating and real it is. The thing that struck me was how Abi [Morgan] and Steve had created these characters that I really cared about, and I thought it was beautiful and thoughtful. Like we said before, I'd already sort of committed. I was willing to do it anyway without the need to see a script just because I know Steve is going to be on the ball there. It's going to be dealt with in the most respectful way. In a lot of ways, uncompromising in the right places.
Brandon's a character whose life really depends on the secrets that he keeps. What did you learn about yourself while you were kind of playing that character?
Fassbender: Um, I learned that I feel lucky, I suppose. That I have a healthy relationship to sex. And also just relationships in general. I supposed I'm a pretty open person and I enjoy the sort of intimacy of relationships. And I feel very blessed. Whether that's down to the family that I grew up with, my parents and my sister. They've given me an awful lot of grounding and that sort of nurturing. I experienced it. And Brandon's sort of ... phew. I mean it's dark. It was very sort of exhausting. This job was definitely the hardest because you have somebody who doesn't like himself in a very deep way and then goes about sort of abusing himself because of it. So that's what you take from it. You feel lucky.
You two have worked together twice now and are set to work together again. What is it about each other that allows you to work so well together? Fassbender: I think trust. It all goes around trust really.
McQueen: Absolutely. Absolute trust. I'm just so grateful to have a situation where I'm working with someone. It is a dream come true in a way, you're working, you're collaborating with someone. You're pushing each other and you're sort of challenging each other and it coming off. It's wonderful. I was a bit naive. I thought every actor was like Michael. But no, they're not. He's exceptional. And I think within the work, he just transforms and transcends in some ways the character. He can actually embed himself in Brandon Sullivan and then come out, have a cigarette, and start talking to Hair and Make-Up. He has that chameleon sort of thing. And it's not put on, it's not false. He's a hard working actor in the real sense. I don't think he'll ever be that certain type of Hollywood actor because he's just too good, meaning that he could possibly be in big movies but he is just amazing. I'm going on, I'm sorry. You're here!
Fassbender: Um, I'm right here ... (laughs)
McQueen: There is a quality to him which is just incredible. I believe him. He's a man's man to an extent but there's a femininity in him, there's a fragility in him which he shows. Meaning that I can see myself in him and other people can see themselves in him. He's not just this macho guy. There's a beautifulness to him, a femininity to him, that can actually allow you to involve yourself or invest yourself with him. So that for me is a huge plus because the audience are very much sort of led to embrace him.
Fassbender: But it all comes down to the sort of environment you create as well. And I think the first thing that sort of struck me when I met Steve is this idea that he's a very honest person and open. So it's alright to be vulnerable and it's alright to be insecure, or feminine, or nerdish. All the things that we, perhaps, try and sort of disguise because we're afraid of ridicule or whatever it is. Not being accepted. These are all things that I think we can all relate to and Steve is very much an open book. But that's with the entire crew. When we were working in Belfast on Hunger, I thought, "OK, wow." I come to work and you see the passion on the art department's face or any department you like. And I was like, "Wow, this is pretty palpable and powerful stuff." But then, of course, we were dealing with the topic matter that was very personal to people that were working on it. So when we went to New York I was curious to see, and exactly the same thing happened on that set. And you're talking about people that have been working in the business for 30 years. I remember Joe the grip was saying to me, 'I don't want to let Sean [Bobbitt] or Steve down.' And he's been in the business for 35 years and believe you me, he's not getting paid a lot of money to do Shame. But it's that passion because Steve's a very inclusive person. Everybody believes ... right down to catering that they're part of something together. So then you have a force that's collectively really, really effective and powerful and we work fast. Steve, can you talk a little bit about getting this project off the ground and what the origin of it was?
McQueen: Well, it kind of started in fact with a conversation I had with Michael in 2008 ... just previously before that I had seen this Pasolini movie ... I can't remember the title of the film ... but I had read about this Pasolini movie where his character slept with the whole entire family.
He was this visitor who came to the house and slept with the mother, the father, the sister, and the brother. It was interesting in that whole idea of having intimacy or sex with this guy who just had sex with these people. So I put it away. Talked to Michael about an idea that was very vague because it wasn't really an idea. Fast forward two and a half years later and I had a conversation with Abi Morgan [Shame's co-writer] and within that conversation we started to talk about the Internet and pornography and we got onto the idea of sex addiction. I thought "This is it!" Alarm bells went off in my head.
I thought, "This is a subject. This is what I want to investigate." And from there we tried to actually interview people in London to help us find out more about it because that's what we were interested in. It was almost like Ms. Marple and Colombo. Two sort of fumbling detectives on the trail of sex addiction. Unfortunately, we came across a dead end because no one at that time wanted to speak to us. It's kind of strange because at that time in the media it was very much in the public eye, sex addiction. And what it did was it closed a lot of doors so no one wanted to speak to us.
It was very, very difficult. And so I needed to talk to experts in the field and the two experts we found, the ones who were pretty highly regarded, were in New York. We went over there. We had conversations with them and they in turn introduced us to sex addicts and people who were suffering with the affliction and people who were recovering. And that was the sort of seed and that was it. And I thought "OK, let's shoot this in New York." And that was it.
In the film, Brandon is very well put together. He's got an immaculate apartment, he's got an immaculate look, he's got a great job. From the outside, he looks like everything is together. And on the inside, obviously he's breaking. Was that your experience with your research, where these people had that facade?
McQueen: I think most people with addictions are pretty ... I mean most of them could get into the CIA, meaning that there's a situation where they hide it even from themselves. "I don't have a problem!" and if they do have a problem, they're very careful about hiding their tracks. It just one of those things that comes along with being involved in addiction in general. Yes, Brandon is this person who has everything in a way but within that he is putting himself into prison by his actions. He can't help it. And, again, sex addiction is not about being promiscuous ... a lot of people are promiscuous ... this is about an all-encompassing. This is a situation where the addiction dictates the person ... it controls the person. So it becomes a certain situation where the habit or the person that has this affliction has no choice. He has to facilitate the addiction.
It's a very raw yet beautiful film and I think it took a lot of courage to bring it to the screen. Due to the heavy subject matter, it probably received a lot of resistance from day one. Were you prepared, no matter what, to make this film?
McQueen: It was kind of easy. There was no problem at all. Everyone talks about NC-17 and was it easy or was it difficult? Actually, it was like "I want to make this film" and everyone way very helpful and supportive and it got made. Maybe I shouldn't say that actually. ... "It was terrible! It was hard!"
Fassbender: Also, like the film coming out through Fox Searchlight ... you realize there's really passionate, intelligent people that enjoy films that are challenging. And this sort of idea that's being portrayed, that Americans are not comfortable going into those sort of scenarios that's just absolute bullshit. You know, the '70s movies that came out of this country that really inspired me to start doing this were all about that. Films where people would actually have conversations days later about it.
McQueen: Provocative and challenging movies. And I imagine a majority of the people in the movie business now came out of that era of seeing movies like that. And I think that's why were fortunately enough getting a lot of attention, because I think it reminds people of those times.
How soon did you know the film was going to be rated NC-17?
McQueen: I didn't know what NC-17 was before this! I thought it was a rap group! I thought someone was going to give me a CD ... "I love it! Thank you very much." In all seriousness, we're artists and what I mean by that is we're trying to make something that portrays reality. Sometimes we don't necessarily want to see what reality looks like. We want to turn away from ourselves. And often people put their heads in the sand like an ostrich. I think what the cinema screen is in some ways is a place that we can actually see ourselves and have an idea or gauge ourselves in someways of where we are and how we've got to go. In on way, shape, form or the other.
So, what you're saying is, as filmmakers, you don't really care as much as the people who sit around and worry about these things?
Fassbender: Well, it's job descriptions, isn't it? I mean, you guys do your job ... I can't do your job, which is sort of represent an impression of what you see. My job is to go in and act.
McQueen: We don't go into the situation without responsibility ... this is a responsible film. This is a very responsible film so it's not to say that we don't care in any way. Because I wouldn't necessarily do a horror movie where people get chopped up in several pieces and put in a frying pan. I find that very irresponsible filmmaking but apparently that doesn't get an NC-17 rating.
Fassbender: It's more normal than a penis on screen!
McQueen: And if I'd made this film set in 1951 he'd be walking around in his pajamas. But he's in the privacy of his own apartment and a lot of people these days don't wear pajamas. So it's just normal. There's no shock. Two clicks on your iPhone and you can see the most explicit pornography you can think of, so it's just ridiculous. But that's how it is.
It says a lot about our culture too that were more concerned with that than the other.
McQueen: For me, I understand why they did it. All I care about is that people are allowed to see the film. If that's the rules, fine. I respect the rules. But as long as it doesn't prevent people from going to see it, that's all.
There's so many layers to the film. So much that it says about sex and relationships and modern society. Is there something in particular you want people to take away from Shame?
McQueen: Popcorn. [laughs] I don't dictate or what people should feel or think after they see the movie. I'm just happy that they buy a ticket and go, really.
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