The Hollywood Interview : Michael Fassbender
Posted January 14, 2010 | By Terry Keefe
2009 will likely be remembered by Irish actor Michael Fassbender as the year he truly started to break in the United States. With roles in Band of Brothers, Zack Snyder’s 300, and Francois Ozon’s Angel, Fassbender has been bubbling under the surface of stardom for a number of years, but now he is really catapulting up the rungs of the studio casting lists. This is partially because of his high-profile role as Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino, and released to big box office success this summer. But he also threw down the acting gauntlet in a role that far fewer saw him in, but for those who did, it’s pretty hard to forget: as IRA prisoner Bobby Sands in Hunger, directed by British artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen. The film centers around a real-life hunger strike which took place in 1981 at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. Fassbender himself lost a tremendous amount of weight to play the role, and in shirtless scenes, he looks deathly gaunt, the definition of skin and bones. It’s not just a stunt performance, though, as Fassbender and actor Liam Cunningham hold the screen in a 17 1/2 minute take, which is all dialogue and in a locked-down two-shot of the actors. This was something else that was hard not to take notice of. We interviewed Steve McQueen back in April, and asked if there was hesitation on Fassbender’s part in taking the role due to the physical demands. McQueen indicated that it didn’t even come up and said, somewhat nonchalantly, “The film is called Hunger. It was part of the job and he’s a professional. We shot for 2 weeks, broke for 6 weeks (for Fassbender to lose weight), and then we shot again.”
Fassbender closed out the year with Fish Tank, a film which was released in the U.K. already, as well as numerous European countries, but is just hitting theaters in the U.S. this month. Directed by Andrea Arnold, who previously won the Prix du Jury at Cannes for her feature Red Road, Fish Tank is a searing coming-of-age story about a 15-year old girl named Mia (Katie Jarvis), who lives in a housing project in Essex with her single mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), and her younger, hilariously foul-mouthed sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Fassbender plays a mysterious new boyfriend of Mia’s mother named Connor, who moves into the apartment with them for a short time, and at first seems like he might be the person who can help turn their lives around. But (and there are some SPOILERS here)…he becomes briefly involved with young Mia as well, during a drunken night of very bad judgment.
Although I greatly enjoyed An Education, another 2009 British release about an age-inappropriate romance, Fish Tank is the real-life version of the older man-teenage girl portion of that story, stripped of any sentimentality. The sex scene in question is difficult to watch, not because it is graphic (it isn’t), but because Connor is stealing the remaining innocence from the already pretty broken Mia, and this is heartbreaking to witness. Fassbender’s Connor is both creepy and charming at once, and in most of his life, Connor probably doesn’t behave like a bad guy. However, he is highly reckless and likely has harmed a lot of people along the way because of it. As Fassbender will mention in the interview that follows, Connor, and the other characters in Fish Tank, are good and bad at once, by both his design and that of director Arnold. Or more simply put, they are painfully human.
Katie Jarvis, who had never acted prior to Fish Tank, deserves strong notice for her work here. Her lack of acting experience works for her in a naturalistic way, as she rarely seems to be aware of the camera, but she also has a strong screen presence which lifts her a notch above what one might expect from a neorealistic casting approach. (Jarvis herself was living in Essex at the time of shooting and was discovered at a train station while arguing with her boyfriend.) Director Arnold shoots in a style reminiscent at times of the working-class world universe of Ken Loach, but she also finds quite a bit of visual soulfulness in unlikely places, breaking away from “slice-of-life” for slices of lyricism. Of particular note is a scene near the end where Jarvis, her mother, and her little sister, dance to Nas’ “Life’s a Bitch. This is the first time I think I will use the term “poetic” to describe a film scene set to a curse-strewn rap song. Jarvis and her mother sort of face-off and dance in the living room, with the little sister behind Jarvis, almost hiding. Although there is no real dialogue during the scene, the following things are conveyed by the combination of the dance moves and lyrics: these people love each other, they can’t live together without fighting, and this is going to be the end of their relationship, for awhile at least. The scene has a unique life and beauty that I haven’t witnessed on screen before.
Fassbender will next be seen in Jonah Hex, the western based on the DC Comic, also starring Josh Brolin and Megan Fox.
How hard a character was Connor, in Fish Tank, to define for you? Because it seems pretty clear that even he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing when he sort of gets into trouble with this young girl.
Michael Fassbender: Yeah, I think the most important thing is that I realized was not to tar him with any brush, really. Just have him be an average guy who, for the most part, is quite a good-natured character. I think he’s somebody who does have responsibility issues, and I think that he’s someone who, when faced with his problems, rather runs away than try to deal with them. But I don’t think that what he did was premeditated. I think it was something that happened in the moment. From what I could gather, Andrea wanted, and I what tried to do, was to have him be somebody, like you or I, who finds themselves in this situation, and makes that decision at that point in time. So, as an audience, you’re watching it and thinking, “Wow, this is something that is perhaps in me, and that I’m capable of doing.” And when you do that, I think it’s more powerful for an audience than “Here’s this guy. He’s a villain. He’s premeditated.” Then, they can just say he’s a bad guy. But what’s interesting with Andrea is there is no sort of bad, or good. There’s just human beings, and we have the capability of doing both constructive, and destructive, things to one another. I think Connor is a very positive influence in Mia’s life for most of the first two acts of the film. You know, I think he gives her a self-belief and a confidence that her mother can’t give her, and actually instills in her a belief that she has a talent. I think that a lot of these kids that grow up in projects, here in America and the U.K., can never see a way out of the world that they come from and the world that they exist in. I thought it was interesting in the Tyson documentary where you had him [Tyson] explaining that he had somebody like [former coach and mentor] Cus D’Amato telling him that he was a great man and could do great things, and this was something he had never thought of himself. So, there’s very low self-esteem, and they’re very defensive, and they can be very aggressive because they’re trying to protect themselves. They’ve been let down by society a lot, and, a lot of the time, their immediate family. So I think he brings a lot of positivity into her life, but then, unfortunately, he just abuses that trust scenario and the fact that she is vying for some sort of male influence in her life. And she’s also becoming a woman. It’s a coming of age for her sexually, as well. So, I think the film is a slice of life, as opposed to “Here’s your action and this is the cause. Cause and effect.” Retribution at the end? There is none. It’s for the audience to go home and sort of deliberate amongst themselves, how they feel about it morally and socially.
In working with Katie, what was important to you in regards to making her comfortable during the most difficult scenes?
I’d just sort of make an ass of myself a lot on the set a lot, I suppose, and just sort of keep it as light-humored as possible, and just make sure that she doesn’t feel that I’m taking advantage of her. This is a new world for her, coming into the film industry, and I just wanted to make sure that she was as comfortable as possible. So, we just joked, and even doing the scene itself, I was just throwing jokes as often as I could in-between takes, to just have that level where she feels safe. And Andrea is very good at doing that. She creates a very safe environment, a creative environment for the actors to express themselves where they feel that they’re being looked after, and not manipulated. Of course, every director is going to manipulate, but…Andrea did a terrific job with Katie to make her feel safe. Because Katie kind of comes from this world. Not to say that this is a direct autobiography, but she comes from a council estate, she’s from a working class family, and she’s a tough girl. But she’s very vulnerable as well, you know? And we wanted to make sure that she knew that no one was trying to get one up over on her. You know, a lot of these kids think, “I’m going to f&#! them before they get to me. I’m going to get the better of them before they get the better of me.” So, we wanted to make her feel safe.
How many days before shooting did you get a script?
I was in South Africa at the time that Andrea spoke to my agent [about offering me the part], and said that there wasn’t a script available, and she wanted to do it [give out the script scenes] on sort of a daily basis. I was a bit nervous about that, but I had seen Red Road, and that film impressed me, in the way that she deals, again, with human beings and how they behave towards each other. And how nothing is black and white, very ambiguous. I like that sort of territory. I saw how she executed that film, so I knew that she was a master at her craft.
She was going to fly out to South Africa, and I thought that was kind of extreme, for one day, just to meet. So I said, “Why don’t you just give me a phone call?” She called me up and said that this is the story from your situation: there’s a single mom who you end up having a fling with, and you move into her apartment. She has two daughters, a 15-year old and an 11-year old. Well, immediately, I thought I was going to sleep with the whole family, to be honest [laughs]. For some reason, I thought of that film with Terence Stamp, [Teorema], where he ends up sleeping with the maid, the father, the wife…I don’t know, that popped into my head, so I was expecting the worst, really. She said, “Look, I’ll give you the sides for the next day and we’ll do it on a day-to-day basis.” And I said, “I’d really appreciate it if you could give it [the sides] to me on a Friday, and then I could have the week’s work ahead.” So, that’s the way we did it.
How challenging was that for you?
You know, it’s mainly sort of dialogue for me. I like to read dialogue and then let it rot and then sort of regurgitate it, so it’s sort of inside out. So, that was sort of a concern for me. But Andrea was like, “Look, I have the dialogue, it’s not that heavy in dialogue, trust me.” And there was a sort of freedom to improvise within the dialogue. Rebecca Griffiths, who played Tyler, she was better at improvising than she was at scripted dialogue. So very often than not, I would stick with the script with Katie, and I would throw things at her [Rebecca]. Because we found that she was much freer if we did. She’s a very quick, very sharp, 11-year old girl. So, I would throw something at her, and she’d throw something right back at me, and I’d be, “Oh s$#!.” [laughs] I was keeping up with her. And obviously, Katie is so truthful in her performance. We all had such a great dynamic, with Kierston as well, that we all ended up reacting off each other, as opposed to trying to pull stuff on each other.
The film has a loose visual feel, but the camera also seems to hit very specific, intentional points. That’s a hard dynamic to pull off. Along those lines, how specific were Andrea’s blocking notes?
Well, Andrea was always telling me not to worry about the camera. She doesn’t mind [filming] the backs of heads. As an actor, you’re always kind of worried about shifting around, and sort of dealing with the camera, but none of that was a problem with her. She said, “You move freely. We’ll find you.” So, there was no blocking of any sort. At some point, of course, you come up with the way that scene sort of organically blocks itself, and then, when you’re going in for coverage, you have to stick to that. But, for the most part, it was pretty free.
It sounds like a very collaborative effort. Are you always that involved? Because it seems like you cared that they [the other actors] were good as well.
Yeah, I mean, I think that if they’re good, then I’m obviously going to raise my game. I think it benefits everybody, because, you know, you can have a film that’s alright and there are some brilliant performances in it….but when everybody’s on, it makes much more of a difference. And I think we’re all just trying to tell the story, to facilitate the story. It’s a nice working environment when everyone’s sort of looking out for each other and trying to balance off each other. I think it’s important to have an ego in some sense, to sort of protect yourself, but essentially, it’s much better to work in an environment where there’s little ego involved and everyone just gets on doing their job. It works faster and it’s a more pleasant environment. And, I think most times when an ego is involved, it’s because people are insecure, you know, and I guess the acting profession is rife with insecurity.
It’s interesting that the film presents that this girl is looking either to have a family, or to have some sort of romantic liberation, or find someone who can shepherd her talents so she can escape, but the film is much more understated than that [in its ending]. How important was it for you for this film to have more of an understated payoff at the end?
I think it would have gone against the film if it were all sort of nicely tied up at the end. It’s life. It moves on. I think that her character definitely makes an arc, and she’s a different person at the end of the film, for sure, than when you first are introduced to her. She has matured, and she is starting to deal with her anger issues, and all of that comes from her own insecurity. Once she starts to feel that she has some self-worth, she starts to realize that she deserves more, and for me, I thought it [the ending] left definite hope. That her adventure is just about to begin, really. I thought that was a nice way to finish the film: her life is actually starting, in some respects. We met her at a certain stage in her life, and now she’s going into the next chapter.
As you say, it is her story, but it was interesting how, in the first third, maybe half of the film, Connor is really defined by the encounters with the members of the family. When he really carefully carries the child to bed and tucks her in, you learn something about him there. Does that sort of free you from a certain burden to establish who the character is, because the other characters are going to do it for you?
It does, in a way. I knew that I didn’t have to layer him with anything, and Andrea didn’t want that. It’s almost that he comes from another place, and he’s this stranger that comes into their scenario. I did sort of build up my own autobiography, just sort of for my own piecing together of the character, but not a huge deal, to be honest, because I didn’t know what twists were going to come. So, it was just about me being relaxed, really, and just sort of being myself and not imposing a character onto this guy, and keeping it free and easy, and just responding to the beats and moments in each scene.
Let’s talk about Jonah Hex. This is the first DC release since The Dark Knight.
What I saw at Comic-Con was pretty impressive. Once again, it’s a cast that is amazing. Jimmy [director Jimmy Hayward] brought a lot of enthusiasm, and a lot of knowledge from that comic book world. He sort of has been a fan of the comic book series from a young age. And once again, there wasn’t a lot of money, so everybody had to sort of step up to the plate, and get rid of their egos, and get the job done in the time allotted, and with the money allotted. And, you know, you have the likes of Josh Brolin at the helm, so you’re in pretty good hands. And John Malkovich, and Megan Fox. Everybody just got on with it, once again. It was a fun experience, and a very supportive group.
Who’s more intense, you or Brolin?
In what? [laughs] It depends what we’re doing [laughs]. I guess we’re sort of intense, but there are a lot of fun elements involved. It’s like when we were filming Hunger, it was a fun set, believe it or not. We had fun in-between takes, because if you get bogged down in the intensity in-between takes, and off-camera, then you kind of get bogged down in the scenes as well. It’s nice to kind of keep things light, or [it is] for me personally. Some people like to sit in the corner with a banana for an hour. It’s whatever works, you know? Again, with Josh, it was just very free and innocent. We had a lot of joking. At the beginning, usually, when you start filming, people are more nervous, and less inclined to joke around. But, once you get into the swing of things and find a rhythm, people tend to relax more. It’s not like a method situation is happening in various corners of the room [laughs].
How has life been since doing the very visible Inglorious Basterds in August?
It’s been great, but I haven’t really worked since Jonah Hex. I’ve just been doing a lot of reading, to be honest. It’s been pretty relaxing taking a few holidays and enjoying California hospitality. But I haven’t really been doing a great deal of anything, to be honest. I’m a bit bored, and I need to start working again [laughs].
You say that you’re reading right now. Do you have any itch to do something small and indie again after the big studio stuff you’ve done during the last year?
It turns out that the next thing will be an independent, sort of low-budget. I’m just reading though and whatever strikes a chord. It’s not really a priority to do one or the other at any time. I definitely wanted to do something a little bit more fun after Hunger [laughs], maybe something a bit lighter. But this script just sort of came about when I was reading over the summer, and I just thought, “Wow, this is something different.” It’s not very obvious, and it’s by David Jacobson, who did Down in the Valley and Dahmer, and I’ve just been meeting with him and work-shopping the script. [IMDB.com lists this David Jacobson project as A Single Shot.]
FISH TANK opens Friday, January 15th, in various U.S. cities. For more information on the film, go to http://www.ifcfilms.com/.
Source | The Hollywood Interview