Slant Magazine Interview: Michael Fassbender
Posted January 13, 2010 | By Lauren Wissot
With his combination of fearless physicality and intense intellect, Michael Fassbender is poised to become the next Daniel Day-Lewis. Not surprisingly, he also turned out to be the most engaging and humble interview subject that one could hope for. We spoke at length about the differences between working with Fish Tank director Andrea Arnold versus Steve McQueen (Hunger) and Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds); about applying theatrical training to film; and, yes, even about that highly disturbing centerpiece of Fish Tank.
Slant: I reviewed Hunger during the New York Film Festival and for weeks I raved that I’d just seen the next Daniel Day-Lewis. I’m sure you’ve heard that before though.
Michael Fassbender: Oh my gosh, no. Jesus. Thank you very much. That’s a compliment.
Slant: Well, I truly mean that. You’ve also recently worked with Tarantino on the epic Inglourious Basterds. And here you’re working with a director who takes a very opposite, Mike Leigh-type approach to filmmaking—where no one gets a script until a few days before shooting and the film is shot in sequence so that the actors don’t know what’s going to happen next.
MF: Yeah, Andrea [Arnold] had a script before we started, but she didn’t want any of the actors to have a complete script. She wanted us to do it on a day-to-day basis. But I was like, uh, I’m kind of slow at learning lines, so I asked if she could give it to me on a Friday so then I could work over the weekend.
Slant: But this must have been like night and day especially compared to working with Steve McQueen. Can you talk a bit about both the similarities and the differences between working with her and with McQueen and with Tarantino? To me—and I could be completely wrong—it seems like she’s working in a very different way than they are.
MF: She is. With Andrea it’s totally sort of a different way than I usually work anyways. I’ll do a lot of prep and I read the script an awful lot of times, and just sort of make sure I know it inside and out. That way I can go any direction with it. But Andrea just wanted to see what happens in the moment. She doesn’t like to rehearse. She likes to go straight in there and film it and the mistakes that happen she finds them interesting. When she called me up and asked if I’d be interested I’d already seen Red Road and I was very impressed with the way she portrays her characters. As a director she doesn’t judge them. They’re just sort of presented. She’s got a really good take on the human condition. She likes the ambiguous. She doesn’t make it too easy on an audience by going, “Okay, here’s your villain, here’s your hero.” The characters are a mix of both. And I find that very, very interesting.
Slant: But how does that experience compare to working with McQueen and Tarantino?
MF: They’re very different personalities. But the common link is they love working with actors, they all create a very safe environment to work in, and they’re all very clear about what they want.
Slant: As you said, Andrea is kind of open to mistakes. To me, it didn’t seem like McQueen would leave a lot of room for mistakes.
MF: No, he does!
Slant: Oh, he does? Okay!
MF: It would be very rare that Steve would come up and say, “Don’t do it like that.” He would like to see things happen organically like Andrea. The difference with Hunger is when you’re dealing with that piece there’s no way you can go in there and freewheel. A lot of work had to go into that scene with Liam Cunningham and me because it was such a complex piece of dialogue.
Slant: A tremendous scene too!
MF: That was the real crux of Hunger. If we got that scene right then we felt we had the film in good stead, but if we failed I think at that point the film would have fallen apart. As for Tarantino, he’s more precise; he would give you a line reading. Which is fine by me. What I look for most in a director is clarity. Tarantino’s also very passionate. He expects you to do your homework because he does it. He gives you a lot of ammunition to work with before you get on set.
Slant: To create the character of Bobby Sands in Hunger you obviously had a wealth of biographical material to tap into. Yet there’s such specificity to the role of Connor I wondered if you’d also based him on someone real. Do you feel more pressure playing a historical figure or are you more concerned with just staying true to whichever character you inhabit?
MF: Sure, there was a lot of pressure on me with the Bobby Sands character. My mum comes from Northern Ireland and I spent a lot of my childhood up there so, yeah, I was very nervous about approaching it. But when playing real people I’m not really that interested in being a spitting image of somebody. I try to sort of gather up as much information on him and get an essence of the man—and then essentially throw it all away, stick with what’s in the script and the story to be told. With Connor I just sort of…pretty much it’s as close to me as any performance really, because I didn’t have a lot of reference points in the script. So I just thought, I’ll be myself and try to keep it as light and positive as possible, and just allow things to happen.
Slant: So was there less pressure with Connor then? Was there more pressure while shooting Hunger?
MF: They’re different pressures. It’s kind of nice to have a lot of things to deal with like an accent or a period you can slip into, whereas with Connor there was nothing really. It was sort of just almost naked, you know?
Slant: Which is a different type of fear.
MF: Yeah, exactly. It’s like, “Jeez, I don’t think I’m that interesting!” But I just knew that was the only way to go with it. Andrea was like, “I want you to use your own accent,” so I just decided to go all out. I knew he had to be a very strong male presence and that I wanted to keep it light.
Slant: It’s always obvious to me when I see a theatrically trained actor on screen. Like with Hunger, I knew there’s no way anyone could pull off a character like that without theatrical training. There’s usually just more of a gravitas to the performance. Can you talk a bit about how your theatrical background related to Fish Tank, especially with regard to acting with a novice lead? Did improv technique play a role?
MF: Yeah. We did it according to the script—like four or five takes according to the script. Then Andrea would tell us to go off and do what we want, say whatever we want, and then we might do the scene totally silent. It was almost like you’re doing the rehearsal process for the film. So the inspiration is happening as the scene delivers. The great thing about doing theater and getting that training is that it teaches you to do a play for an hour and a half. But what’s great with theater is you have a four- or five-week rehearsal period. That’s why I try to take that same ethos for film. When things click it’s with the long takes, that’s when you’re excited, you’re scared, that’s when things get the most interesting.
Slant: What’s interesting to me—well, one of my pet peeves is when I see actors on screen who don’t seem to have a reverence for acting as a craft. So it always makes me a little bit happier when I see performers who come from a theatrically trained background because at least they have a reverence for what they’re doing.
MF: Yeah, yeah.
Slant: It’s a craft like anything else, so it needs to be developed.
MF: Sure, you have to work at it. I think sometimes in the industry people think it’s talent and you have it for free, but I think it’s like anything else. It’s very simple—you just have to really work.
Slant: Theater does that. Night after night you’re honing your craft.
MF: And the rehearsal period. I think that’s the one thing I really take from my theater training. You do your prep in the kitchen at home.
Slant: So what was that like working with Katie Jarvis then? I mean, you’re working with someone who has absolutely no acting training whatsoever. Was that the first time you’ve done something like that?
MF: Yeah, but I don’t think you need to be trained. I think the good thing about being trained is—well, most of the time acting is pretty intuitive. But sometimes with the intuition you lose it or you get nervous. Or you lose focus or get distracted. What’s great about having the training is there’s a structure in place that you can fall back on. You can go, “Okay, wait a second, where am I coming from? Where am I going? How does this person make me feel? What do I want from them? How do I go about getting it?” All those little things then take you back into being centered and ready to go. And that’s the one reason why I’m thankful for training, you know, because that could happen at any time. It’s like a writer’s block thing.
Slant: And yet Katie is great.
MF: Oh, she’s amazing.
Slant: I guess a lot of times with acting it’s about getting rid of all those masks we wear on an everyday basis, and with someone like Katie she doesn’t have all that baggage piled on top of her to dig through.
MF: Well, yeah, what she’s got for free is this ability to find truth and a lack of vanity. When I was acting with her it was like, “Wow, she’s powerful.” She’s like a laser beam. She cuts right through you. And it’s about sort of just keeping up. You know what I mean?
Slant: Sure, it’s what you have when you’re a kid. And then as you grow up you start piling crap on top of you.
MF: Yeah, that’s why a lot of kids are great. Because they can throw themselves into an imaginary world like that [snaps fingers] and believe it.
Slant: What was it exactly about Andrea’s filmmaking that drew you to Fish Tank?
MF: Well, like I said, the characterization—the characters being very ambiguous and complex. She makes the audience work a bit. Her films make you leave the theater still thinking about them, they kind of get under your skin.
Slant: But that was enough for you to work with a director without seeing a script? Did you feel like you were taking a big risk—or not so much?
MF: No, not so much, because I’d seen what she did with Red Road and that really impressed me. I just knew I was going to learn something by working with her.
Slant: She’s also got what a lot of my favorite younger British directors have, what I call a post-punk sensibility. I find Shane Meadows exciting in a similar way.
MF: I love Shane Meadows. There’s such a rebel element to his films.
Slant: Also, and this is what separates the British filmmakers from a lot of Americans, perhaps because of the history of kitchen-sink realism, they seem to be drawing from life, from experience, drawing from real things. Overall, we seem to draw from Hollywood, from the movies that we grew up with, rather than from lives lived. With both Shane and Andrea it feels like they create characters based on people they actually know.
MF: Yeah, she loves all her characters. She loves them so much. And she loves their world, and because of that the characters become real, not stereotypes.
Slant: And she also loves music. Her choices are so specific. Were you thinking about music when you were working on the character of Connor?
MF: Yeah, I always think about music just because I started playing musical instruments at a young age. I always think about the rhythm of the dialogue. And that’s another common link between Steve, Quentin, and Andrea. All of them are very interested in the music side of it. Actually somebody asked an interesting question last night after the screening. This guy asked why did she pick all these old-school songs, like the hip-hop songs, there weren’t any new ones. Well, that’s the songs she loves.
Slant: Let’s talk about my favorite scene in the whole film—the scene in which Connor seduces Mia. It’s just mind-blowing. I think this is the first time I’ve seen on screen the vision of a director who actually “gets” it, the idea of how fast seduction can turn to coercion in, like, half a second.
MF: Yeah, yeah.
Slant: I mean, you don’t see that on screen and yet it’s so real! That’s exciting to me. Was the scene hard to prepare for?
MF: Obviously, yeah, that was on my mind. Even though I didn’t have a script I could see that coming. The main thing was just to make sure that Katie was relaxed and comfortable and didn’t think I was taking advantage of her in any way. So I really just tried to joke with her, keep the atmosphere sort of light and fun. But that’s what Andrea does so well in Red Road. The sex scene in that is very visceral, very real.
Slant: Very female, actually.
Slant: Maybe because there are so many male filmmakers you don’t see that on screen. But how many girls go through that? Tons. It does flip that fast!
MF: Yeah, I figured—well, obviously, you know better than I—but 15 or 16 for a girl is a very important time. Sure, women do mature quicker than men, but probably not as quick as they think they do at that age. They think they can handle things emotionally and sexually when the actual fact is, maybe not. And then they get in a situation where that’s happening.
Slant: That scene just got it so right. For me it was more a revelation of “Why haven’t I seen that before? That should be on screen!” It’s crucial that we have filmmakers like Andrea who are expressing these things from a female perspective. The scene must have been very difficult to work on, but it’s so important.
MF: Yeah, and that was the other thing. I knew I just sort of had to go for it because we didn’t want to end up doing it over and over again—for the benefit of Katie. I think we got it in about two or three takes.
Slant: Was that the hardest scene?
MF: Yeah, for sure.
Slant: It’s so lovingly crafted. And it’s also the most visually stylized scene in the whole film.
MF: Yeah, and again, hats off to her DP and camera operator Robby Ryan who had the camera on his shoulder the entire shoot. He and Andrea just really capture these beautiful moments together.
Slant: Sounds like it was a great film to work on.
MF: Very special.
Slant: Well, I have to say, I’m very excited about your career. I can’t wait till you’re the next Daniel Day Lewis.
MF: Oh, God! [laughs]
Slant: Then I can say I saw him in Hunger first!
Source | Slant Magazine