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James McAvoy on Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps in “12 Years a Slave”

James McAvoy Michael Fassbender

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.

(McAvoy starred in “X-Men: First Class” with Fassbender; other credits include “Atonement” and “Trance.”)

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