Michael Fassbender - W Magazine Art Issue - December 2013
'12 Years a Slave' Leads 2014 Spirit Award Nominations
Best Feature: 12 Years a Slave
Best Director: Steve McQueen
Best Screenplay: John Ridley
Best Male Lead: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Best Supporting Female: Lupita Nyong’o
Best Supporting Male: Michael Fassbender
Best Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt
The Bent Bullet: JFK and the Mutant Conspiracy
X-Men: DOFP Viral Video
James McAvoy on Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps in “12 Years a Slave”
I’m trying to get to the bottom of why my friend, someone I know and love, put terror in me. Perhaps the answer is obvious: He plays a bad man during a time in history where a person was deemed inferior due to the color of their skin.
The inferiority was often felt through slavery, where these people would be tortured, humiliated and punished among many other atrocities. It is a terrifying truth that this happened in the past and continues to happen today in differing circumstances on our planet.
So why did Michael Fassbender terrify me so much?
I think it’s because when I watch his unflinching work in this film, I not only believe in his hatred of those he enslaves (perhaps even of himself and his own family) but I also believe that anything could happen. Many actors can portray “darkness” and there is no doubt he has done that with great skill. But with Michael’s performance in “12 Years a Slave” he does something that few actors are able to pull off — he makes us believe at all times while he is on screen that anything could happen, that we the audience are not safe to trust that our hero will prevail.
History has taught us that anything could happen to this slave, but Michael’s performance makes us understand the helplessness felt in the face of such animal irrationality in that place and time.
Unpredictable, irrational, ruled by his instincts and possibly entirely by his fears, Michael’s performance as the slave-owning Epps terrifies me. Not just because he’s good at “playing dark” but because it suggests to me that the animal within is never far away and that it will constantly be on the lookout for a society in which to nest.
Michael Fassbender - Life in the fass lane
Michael Fassbender is famous for his, er, appendages, but with this Killarney native, talent is what has seen him skyrocket to the top of the pile. Following on from their collaboration on Prometheus, Fassbender and Ridley Scott are reunited for The Counsellor alongside Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt,Cameron Diaz and Javier Bardem. After that, Oscar glory could be within his reach, thanks to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Here he talks nerves, down-time and a foray into comedy.
Q: Your part in The Counsellor seems like a gift. A Cormac McCarthy script directed by Ridley Scott and some amazing dialogue – that must be incredible for an actor to chew over.
A: Absolutely, although the Counsellor is pretty sparse with his dialogue. He seems to be getting counselled by everybody else around him, and yet he’s called the Counsellor, so that’s pretty interesting. I always like to do long takes because it’s fun and there’s more at stake – for everybody, the entire crew. I think an energy is created and it’s palpable. I always like that – you know, a nine-page scene with Brad and Ridley drops down to three cameras and off he goes. The writing is so exquisite and sophisticated that you just don’t get that opportunity very often. This is one script where you just don’t know what is going to happen next and how these characters are going to progress or regress or what is going to happen to them.
Cormac is a master; just as you get into one scenario and you start to invest in a character, it slides off and you are somewhere else. In the third act, everything gels together and everything becomes clear – what all the components were about and how they all have a domino effect on each other. It’s rare to get a script like that.
Q: Ridley Scott described it as “savage and rude”. Would you go along with that?
A: Yes, I think it’s brutal and beautiful. For my own character, obviously there’s the relationship with Penelope’s character and that’s real. Some of the things they say to one another could be seen as quite vulgar if it weren’t two people in love and being honest and being totally dizzy with one another.
Q: They’re intoxicated with each other?
A: Yes, and that’s got to be there, because if that’s not there then there’s nothing at stake for the characters and the audience won’t feel it. There is honesty about the writing, I would say. Brutal and beautiful is how I would put it.
Q: How different an experience is it from Prometheus? Is it a common experience because it’s Ridley?
A: We’re moving faster. Obviously when you are doing something like Prometheus you are dealing with 3D imagery, all that set-up, and it’s time-costly. There’s a real fluidity to this, a flow, and there’s just a confidence with the whole crew. Ridley is loyal, and his team works like a well-oiled machine.
Q: Did you know Cormac’s work, other than the film adaptations of his books? Did you know his novels?
A: I did. I’ve read Blood Meridian and The Road. I was obviously aware of Cormac’s novels and, of course, No Country for Old Men (the film adaptation), but this is his first feature film screenplay, so I think that’s exciting for everyone, including, hopefully, himself. He’s been here on set every day, so he is definitely part of the team and very much present. That was the interesting thing to see. Writing a novel is one thing, but writing a screenplay is very different. But he makes it look easy (laughs).
Q: He said that it’s about a man who makes a really bad decision. Would you agree with that?
A: Yes. I think the problem with the Counsellor is that he thinks he is smarter than he is. There’s an arrogance to him, which is going to be costly to him. I wanted him to be an everyday guy. I wanted him to be you or I, but he has over-pitched himself. He’s taken a risk without fully taking on board what the consequences of that risk could be and he subsequently finds himself way out of his depth. And he is given plenty of opportunities to pull out.
It’s naive for somebody to think that they can go in and out of a business like that, where it is so lucrative and the pay-off is so high – there has to be another pay-off. You look at the lifestyles of these guys and it’s lavish. These people have to sacrifice a lot to stay in that world and be a part of it. The rewards are very high, but so are the dangers.
Q: Was it good to have Cormac around on set? Did you use him as a resource?
My contact on set is the director. The writer writes the piece and for me it’s the director and the actors that take it and do with it what they choose. That happens in all departments – the director will speak to his DP and the DP will add a flavour of his own personality that will go into that shot. But for specific things, it’s good to have Cormac there because he will say: “This is this and that is that.”
But really, my reference point is Ridley.
Q: It’s your second film with Ridley – does that make it easier on day one?
A: Yes, definitely. I’m always nervous starting any job. Week One is always when the character walks and talks for the first time in front of the crew, in front of an audience, so I always think the first week is a bit of the jitterbugs, but after the experience of Prometheus, it is easier the second time around. I remember my first day on Prometheus, and I thought, “Oh my God, what’s it going to be like?” But immediately on day one, Ridley and I got on so well. And the first thing that surprised me is how actor-friendly he is and how specific he is with actors.
Q: Is he an actor’s director?
A: Most definitely, yes. He is also very collaborative. He is open – it’s not like he has to be the big boss. Of course, he will manipulate you in the right way to get what he wants (laughs). He’s a master manipulator like all great directors are, but he is very open and very collaborative. You will show him something and he will say: “I like that, let’s get that in.”
Q: What about cast? Do you work with all the main leads?
A: I don’t have a scene with Malkina (Cameron Diaz). It’s been great working with a fantastic cast of people and a real mix. It’s been great to play opposite Brad again. I’ve done a few things with him now. We were in Inglorious Basterds, but we didn’t have that much together. But then in 12 Years a Slave we worked together and we did a nine-page scene together. That scene is primarily Brad actually, and it’s great. I feel really privileged to be in this position. It’s one thing to get work; you start working and make a living, and then when you get this kind of opportunity it far exceeds expectations. Of course, I dreamed of this, I did hope for it, but it’s mad to be realising it, it’s pretty crazy. It’s fantastic.
Q: Cormac was saying that this came together very quickly and that they were lucky that all the actors were available. Did you have to push something back for this?
A: No, I took a year off. I ended up doing a lot of press and campaigns and stuff from September all the way running up into Christmas, and that is a different type of work. But I didn’t step in front of a camera until 12 Years a Slave, which was May, and I hadn’t done anything since June (2011). Immediately after my promo duties, I took two months of complete down time. I disappeared.
Q: On a road trip on your motorbike?
A: Yes, it was amazing. I did 5,000 miles over Europe. It was definitely something that I’ll be doing again. I’ll find the next trip.
Q: Did your agent leave you alone?
A: Yes, they didn’t really have a choice, because I didn’t answer my phone anyway (laughs). But they are good like that. I said, “I’m going now, I’ll see you in Venice”, and I met up with them in Venice for the festival. I drove to San Sebastian too.
Q: And when you re-surfaced, how did you hear about The Counsellor?
A: Ridley sent the script to me and said: “This is amazing, let’s have dinner and talk about it.” He asked me: “What do you think?” And I said: “Yeah, let’s do it.” At that point, the only thing that I had scheduled in was Steve(McQueen’s) film, and we were going to do it before, but it worked out that it was after. Everybody fell into place and the dates seemed to work. So Brad came in at the beginning and then he had to shoot off, and then everybody slotted in nicely in and around. And, touch wood, the end result is a good one.
Q: You’re on a roll again, making movies back-to-back.
A: Yeah, and I don’t think I’ll stop for a while; I’ve got a few things. It looks pretty hectic for a while. I said to Cameron: “I did six films and then I took a year off.” And she said: “Wow, I do two films and then I take a year off.” (laughs) I’ve got some catching up to do, I guess.
Q: Are you going to produce?
A: Yes, that’s kind of why I took the time out and what I’ve been doing with the year off. I’ve been working with some writers and trying to develop some stuff. That’s the next challenge, and that’s exciting and rewarding and frustrating and, you know, gives you an appreciation for producers that I might not have had before (laughs).
Q: You’ve already directed a short film.
A: We already did. We did Pitch Black Heist. John (Maclean) is a phenomenal talent. I really like him; he is definitely one to watch. He’s a good writer and I know he is very good visually. So, yeah, fingers crossed.
Q: Obviously it’s great having more choice, but are there times when you have to turn things down because you just can’t do it?
A: They are the good problems (laughs). It’s definitely a better place to be in than waiting for the phone to ring or waiting for a script to arrive – that’s just hell. And it’s very real for a lot of actors, especially over the last few years, the jobs are scarcer. And the opportunity to get a shot if you are not already established is very difficult. So it is definitely a much better place to be. It seems to be famine or feast, but as my agent says, these are good problems to have, and he’s right. I’m in the best position I could hope for, and we’ll see what happens next. Obviously it’s all downhill from here on (laughs).
Q: But is it just instinct that makes you decide when a script comes in?
A: Absolutely. And that’s the one thing I’ve got, my gut instinct on something. For me, I’ve got to take risks. I’ve got to keep learning and keep challenging and that inevitably will lead to one falling flat on your face. It’s about trying new things, keeping myself guessing and keeping everyone else guessing and then really mixing things up. I suppose I’ve got to do a comedy at some point, and I think that could be on the cards next.
Q: Have you been cautious about going down that route?
A: No, it’s really whatever arrives. I did go for Dinner For Schmucks and I didn’t get that part.
Q: Well, I’m allowed to say this: but that’s not a bad thing.
A: I didn’t see it, but I loved The Hangover. I thought it was excellent. I love comedies, and I suppose the scripts haven’t really landed. I suppose people think I’m intense and weird, you know, “Don’t go to him with a comedy.”
Q: Yeah, he has absolutely no sense of humour.
A: (laughs) “Yeah, that guy? Jesus, lighten up!” So, yeah, one of the things I’m trying to develop is also a comedy, so we’ll see. I’d like to try. In Prometheus I tried to inject some humour, and in Inglorious Basterds there was a lot to play with there as well. So, yeah, again, I’d love to mix it up really.
Q: Would you like to get back with Tarantino?
A: Hopefully, yes. The thing with Tarantino is that the way he writes, you just have to obey the script and you’ll be looked after, you won’t have to do anything. The person who tried to re-write Tarantino would be a fool because it’s all about rhythms. And that’s what I’m realising, I love music, and this game for me is all about rhythms. I know when I’ve done scenes and I think, “Wow (snaps fingers), we were on a rhythm there.” And text is like that. I treat it like a piece of music, and Tarantino is totally like that. He’ll actually give you a line if you’re getting the rhythm wrong.
Q: You couldn’t get two more different directors than Tarantino and Steve McQueen. There’s no template for a director, but is there common ground?
A: The common ground is that all of them are passionate as hell about what they are doing, they love their work and all of them are super confident, all of them communicate very clearly. They all expect a lot from everyone on their crew. You come to work prepared for all of those guys. And woe betide the person who comes unprepared because these guys expect the best from people.
I like that: it creates a really strong working environment, and there’s no room for laziness. And I really dislike laziness in any job. I think it’s infectious, it spreads.