Inside Michael Fassbender’s Fish Tank
Posted January 13, 2010 | By Aaron Hillis
Michael Fassbender in “Fish Tank,” IFC Films, 2010
Proving to be one of the hottest properties on the world cinema stage, German-born Irish actor Michael Fassbender has quickly filled an impressive résumé of challenging and artistic work. In 2009 alone, he endured a severe crash diet (yet devoured critical praise and awards) as IRA prisoner on strike Bobby Sands in director Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” faced down Nazis as the first known undercover film critic in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and collaborated with Gallic auteur François Ozon in the Edwardian epic “Angel.” Not too shabby for one of the greased-up Spartans from “300,” eh?
In “Red Road” director Andrea Arnold’s magnificent second feature “Fish Tank,” Fassbender again gives a crackling performance in an uneasy role. Young newcomer Katie Jarvis stars as Mia, a feisty 15-year-old who lives with her promiscuous mother and cruel little sister in a British housing project. When her mum brings home handsome new boyfriend Connor (Fassbender), Mia undergoes a sexual awakening, if in part because this much older man is a positive influence who encourages her secret passion for hip-hop dancing. Temptation lingers between Mia and Connor, but “Fish Tank” is not a story of a calculated predator (such as in “An Education”), nor are its lower-class heartbreaks insincere (ahem, “Precious”), which makes it the first early contender for 2010 year-end polls. I met up with Fassbender at the Soho Grand Hotel lounge in lower Manhattan, where we discussed happy accidents, filming uncomfortable scenes, and the joys of both champagne and cooking.
The relationship between Connor and Mia got me wondering, have you ever had a May-December fling?
What do you mean, have I had sex with a minor? [laughs]
No, no, I just mean with someone much older or younger, but definitely of legal consent.
I’ve had a few of those, for sure. But that’s love, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense, but you’re just following blindly. Nothing that would compare with what Connor is doing in “Fish Tank,” no.
I read that you weren’t allowed to look at the script before you agreed to take the role. What inspired your leap of faith with Andrea Arnold?
It was on the basis of seeing “Red Road.” What always interested me about Andrea was the ambiguity she has in her characters. You’re not being spoon-fed as an audience — like, here’s your bad guy and your good guy. They do good and bad things, and that goes for Connor, for sure. He brings a lot of nourishment into Mia’s life. He’s the only one who gives her some belief in herself, actually tells her to follow her dreams, that she has talent and should follow it. That’s something she’s not getting from anyone else — certainly not her mother.
Unfortunately, he crosses the line later on in the film, breaches her trust and takes advantage of her. Connor’s not this pedophile, he’s just a regular, ordinary guy. I think it was important for Andrea to portray him that way, because then you have the possibility of doing something like that. We have it in us to do these things — then it’s a little more uncomfortable for an audience. They leave the theater scratching their heads for a while, which is what you want.
[Fassbender is handed a glass of champagne.]
I like how you roll, a little bubbly in the afternoon.
Thanks. My mum told me that one glass of champagne apparently increases brain activity. I don’t know what happens after two. [laughs]
The film and performances are so naturalistic, making the slow-burning sexual tension between Connor and Mia all the more palpable. Was it ever uncomfortable to film some of those scenes with Katie Jarvis, especially since she isn’t a trained actor?
It was weird for me, absolutely. It was up to me, I think, to make sure that she was as relaxed as she could be. I did that by making an ass of myself, telling jokes, trying to keep the atmosphere as light as possible. That’s all you can really do. To her credit, we just got on with it. You try to get it right so you don’t have to do too many takes. She’s got a real natural gift, as you can see in the film, bringing real honesty to her acting. She’s like a laser beam, just straight through to the truth, no frills or flower added. It’s very raw and pure. All I could do was try to keep up, you know? [laughs] She did feel a bit vulnerable, which is good because it adds to the scene, but you try to be as funny as one can.
How would you describe Andrea Arnold’s working style compared to some of the other filmmakers you’ve recently collaborated with, like McQueen, Tarantino and Ozon?
Hmm. It’s hard because they’re all very individual, strong personalities. Andrea likes to create some form of chaos. Not that it’s chaos on set, but she likes to find the mistakes during the day, the things that are unexpected. She’s very interested in capturing, like you said earlier, real moments. So in terms of, like, doing a scene in the kitchen, when I meet Mia for the first time, we’ll do it scripted. Then she’ll go, “Okay, now do the scene, and say whatever you want,” and we’ll do it without any dialogue. She’s got a real feel for the moment-to-moment life of a scene. She’s also very good at creating an intimate, safe environment where you can really feel free to explore and create. I really didn’t know what was going to turn out, what I was doing with Connor. I guess she works well in that way, destabilizing the situation and seeing what happens.
Can you think of any specific instances in which she played off a “mistake”?
Let’s just say, for example, I’m talking to you, I drop the cup, and the cup breaks. Rather than me going, “Stop, let’s go again,” maybe I could start to clean up the cup, you know what I mean? Like, if you drop something, especially on stage, don’t pretend that you haven’t. React to it.
It sounds like a wanky thing to say, but it really is that organic process of allowing anything to happen. Andrea doesn’t hold her script sacred, and she’ll allow you to take it any way you want.
Ozon’s like that in a way, but not as extreme. He used to always say to me, “I have an idea what I want to film, but I don’t really know [how to]. It unfolds as I’m doing it.” The film also unfolds that way. It’s not like some directors who have a very specific idea exactly how the film’s going to look, like Hitchcock. Others discover it as they’re going.
You’re on a hell of a career streak, working with all these first-rate filmmakers.
You know, it fell the way it fell. I was always interested in playing more character-driven parts, and it just so happened that I managed to get them. What interests me is discovering different personalities and the study of the human condition.
To do something like Hicox [in “Inglourious Basterds”] — which is sort of staid and a period, and has a very specific way of speaking — then something that’s more guttural, down and dirty like Bobby Sands or Connor, more working class characters, that’s what I enjoy doing. But it wasn’t like I was planning a trajectory — I just read things and go by my gut, and then obviously, whoever the director is… I mean, I do two days’ work on a Tarantino film if it’s offered to me. [laughs] So they’re how I make the choices: the script, then the director and the other actors attached.
Do you ever get screenplays attempting to pigeonhole you, like as “the Irish guy” or whatnot?
Not too much. Villain roles come in quite regularly. Especially having done [the upcoming] “Jonah Hex,” I play quite a nasty villain in that. Things like the European coming over to play the villain, stuff like that can happen, but not too much pigeonholing, really. I have to say, there’s a wide variety of stuff coming in, which is nice. I suppose it’s because the characters before have been all over the place and diverse.
You’ve made all these art films, and yet I hear you were almost up for the rom-com “Leap Year.”
Oh, yeah. I met Matthew [Goode] out last night, actually. He got the part that I auditioned for. I had a lovely audition with Amy Adams, and fortunately for Matthew, unfortunately for me, he ended up doing the job.
Do you get tired of being asked about your dietary habits after losing so much weight for “Hunger”?
Not too much, actually. It was obviously one of those things that people are going to take note on because you go down in the “actor’s diet book.” You get compared to Robert De Niro putting weight on and Christian Bale taking weight off. That was just something that had to be done. Obviously, it was difficult, but the real difficult part was the [20-minute centerpiece] scene with Liam Cunningham, who played the priest. That was the crux of the film. If we got that right, we all knew we’d be in good stead for the rest of it. If we didn’t, the whole film would’ve fallen apart. That was the real challenge in “Hunger,” to deal with that Rubik’s Cube of a scene. The weight was just a lot of blueberries and blackberries and sardines. [laughs]
Speaking of food, your father is a chef in Ireland. Do you cook much?
I do a bit, yeah. My rack of lamb is pretty good, which I got from my dad’s recipe. Growing up around a chef, you pick things up. I’m definitely not afraid to get stuck into a bit of cooking. The main thing is getting the right ingredients. If you get fresh produce, you don’t really have to do that much to anything, especially fish. It’s best not to interfere with it too much. I enjoy cooking for a few people, but cooking for myself is kind of boring.
I hear you’re a big film buff. Did you get a chance to see anything great last year?
Yeah, I liked “Thirst,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Sin Nombre.” Those ones stick out right now in my mind. I used to be an absolute geek, but I have slowed down quite a bit in the last couple of years. I haven’t gone to see films as much as I used to. Like a lot of people, the ’70s American film period is the whole inspiration for me, why I wanted to become an actor.
Then if you could have been in any ’70s Hollywood film, which would it be?
It would be cool to be in “The Godfather.” I’d take any of the brothers. I love “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico,” “The French Connection,” and I just watched “The Conversation” again recently, it’s flawless. “Apocalypse Now,” “Raging Bull,” they’re all wonderful films, I could go on forever.
“Fish Tank” opens in New York on January 15th before expanding into limited release on January 29th; it will also be available on demand starting January 27th.
Source | IFC