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Interview: Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen on "Shame"

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Interview: Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen on "Shame"

Post by Admin on Sat Dec 10, 2011 4:06 am

http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3333

Interview: Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen on "Shame"

by Peter Sobczynski

The star and director of the controversial drama "Shame" talk about their film and the risks and rewards of depicting sexual addiction in a serious manner on the big screen.

Over the last few years, Irish actor Michael Fassbender has become one of the busiest and most acclaimed new actors working today. After appearing in supporting roles in such projects as "Band of Brothers" and "300," he began to attract a lot of attention for his leading roles in the U.K. imports "Fish Tank" and "Hunger" (in which he gave an agonizing portrayal of IRA leader Bobby Seale undergoing his infamous prison hunger strike) and "Inglourious Basterds" (where he played the undercover British agent who was undone by his inability to order drinks in the proper German manner) and 2011 proved to be his breakthrough year. In the spring, he appeared as Rochester in the latest screen version of the warhorse "Jane Eyre" and had a box-office smash a couple of months later as Magneto in "X-Men: First Class," the latest (and the best, to these eyes) entry in the superhero franchise. Later on this month, he can be seen playing Karl Jung opposite Keira Knightley and Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg's brilliant "A Dangerous Method" and he has already filmed role in two of 2012's more eagerly anticipated releases--the Steven Soderbergh action film "Haywire" and "Prometheus," the top-secret Ridley Scott sci-fi epic that may or may not be a prequel to no less of a film than the classic "Alien."

Fassbender can now be seen--and how--in the controversial drama "Shame." In this film, which reunites him with "Hunger" director Steven McQueen, he plays Brandon, an outwardly normal-seeming person who is, in fact, caught in the throes of sexual addiction, a compulsion that he is able to feed via such outlets as one-night stands, prostitutes and an enormous array of pornographic material hidde from view in his home and work computers and in his seemingly austere apartment. His carefully cultivated and compartmentalized existence is threatened with the unexpected arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), an equally neurotic type whose neediness and clinginess are things that Brandon is simply unable to cope with and the ensuing clash of personalities threaten to upend both of their lives. On the whole, "Shame" is not a complete success--although certainly brave and serious and refreshingly adult in a way that most films today simply aren't, it doesn't really seem to have much to say about the subject of sexual addiction and the final scenes have a melodramatic lurch that is at odds with the rest of the material--but Fassbender is simply mesmerizing throughout in a performance that has him baring body and soul in ways that most actors today would not even dare to attempt, let alone pull it off as well as he does. "Shame" isn't a great film but thanks to Fassbender's work (not to mention an equally strong turn from Mulligan), it is one worth watching.

Recently, Fassbender and McQueen came to Chicago to promote "Shame" and, along with a couple of fellow journalists, I sat down to talk with them about the film and the issues that it raises about sexuality and its presentation on the big screen. Any worries that the conversation might be too grim or self-serious were dissipated the moment I stepped into the hotel room and was treated to the singular experience of Fassbender, resplendent in bright red socks, singing along to a radio blaring the Pet Shops Boys hit "West End Girls." After that brief musical interlude, he sat down and our chat began. (Author's note: Due to schedule constraints, there wasn't enough time to pick his brain about "Prometheus," so don't write in crabbing to me about the omission, okay?)

Sexual addiction is a subject that generally isn't discussed in the media and on the rare occasions when it is, it is usually done in a kind of joking tone. "Shame," on the other hand, treats it in a serious and straightforward manner and I was curious as to how the two of you chose to approach the material as an actor and as a filmmaker.

Fassbender: I suppose our relationship with sex is not a clear one. As a society. How much is our own free will, and how much is being sold to us? We grow up in a world in which there is so much information and manipulation, at all times. It’s like [sex addiction] is something that is happening; it’s not something that we’re trying to stir up here. We’re trying to stir and investigate and really treat it respectfully. Because it happens. And yes, in the beginning, I was thinking, “Sex addiction, well … is it a real thing?” And then you start to look into it, and it’s very real. And we can choose to repress it, hide it, or we can start to take a look at it, and take a look at ourselves, our relationship to it, how much we are involved in it, and not sort of treat it as a dissociated thing. It’s a parcel of all of us, and the world we are living in.

Me personally, I tried to keep Brandon as close to me as possible, instead of isolating him from me. And treating it as somebody else’s issues and problems. His actions will speak for himself, but his inner life doesn’t have to be associated with the act. It’s not about a dude in a rain coat with sweaty hands. It’s about an everyday guy, that we all know, and in some ways, we are all a part of him. That was important to me, and to Steve as well.

McQueen: We may not understand sex, but we damn know how to sell it, that’s for sure. How can we negotiate our way through it? Brandon’s sexual addiction has as much to do with alcohol as to being thirsty. It’s how you stay above water. And unfortunately, addiction does come about. Sex is one of those places that hasn’t been looked at in a serious manner. It needs to be looked at, because it’s as familiar to us as everything else we do. And again, I’ve never held a gun, or shot someone in the head. But apparently that is more normal in movies more than anything else.

"Shame" is a very New York story. What do you think Brandon as a character says about New York, and how do you feel Shame responds to other New York films?

McQueen: Brandon is indicative of us, he’s indicative of you. He is us. He’s not a freak. He’s not a player, but he’s absolutely going beyond being just promiscuous. He can’t survive a day without having more than a few sexual encounters. Some guys relieve themselves twenty times a day, I don’t know. Brandon is on his computer, trying to pick up women, he’s constantly thinking about sex – his computer is full of it. He’s more removed than just a player, because it takes over his life.

Fassbender: Playing means you’re getting some sort of joy out of it. This is about being all encompassed in something. It’s like he doesn’t want to be going out to the bathroom during his office day. He wants to connect. It’s like his relationship with Marianne. He’s not going through obliviously sleeping with random people. He is very aware that this is an addiction that is taking over his daily life. When you deal with addiction, and a cycle or behavior has developed, and that cycle is tearing about your relationship with others around you …

McQueen: It’s not a problem until someone tells you it’s a problem. Even though you have an idea it’s a problem, it’s not until someone like Sissy comes in and holds the mirror up. What she does is show past and present.

How much of the role was on the page, and what did you bring to it? What challenges were there with the subject matter and character that you didn’t want to do?

Fassbender: Steve told me about the idea in 2008, I got the script in 2010. What struck me immediately was how beautiful the story was – I felt for Brandon and all of the other characters as well. It was sort of like finding him, and allowing him to tell me where to go, and to allow those around me and influence me. And when I mean others around me, I mean Carey and the other cast mates, Steve, David in costume, the props department, the art department. Everyone is informing you; everyone is collaborating. It just sort of represents something, as opposed to closing yourself off to something. I read the script a lot, I live with the guy as much as I can, and then I come to set, put it all out on the floor, and they come with their ideas, and you try to stay open, responsive, and most of all, focused. All of those things are in play. And then you start to go to places where you are shuffling around in the dark a little bit; and you’re trying to find things. And you need a really good team around you to do that. It’s about respecting the characters, and like I said before, I didn’t want to isolate myself from the character.

Michael, you also have "A Dangerous Method" which is coming out this month, which is also a film about sex and psychology. I don't know which project you worked on first but since they deal with similar subject matter, did you find that working on one informed your work on the other?

Fassbender: I didn’t even think about it at the time, but obviously you see there are some parallels, in terms of discussing our relationship to sex, even a hundred years after the characters of "A Dangerous Method." So, at the time I just went from one to the next. I have a pretty good ability of diving into something and then flushing it out, because I went from "A Dangerous Method" to "X-Men: First Class" to this. It’s like I’m trying my best to facilitate what’s on the page. You have people that are sort of sensitive, intelligent people. And I know when you’re working with people like Steve or Abi (Morgan, the co-writer of "Shame") you respect what’s down on the paper, and not really think. The one thing I suppose, in a roundabout way, is that acting is like psychoanalysis. It’s people who are trying to represent human life, and trying to understand what we are doing here, and representing life, and our experiences of life through a storytelling life.

McQueen: One thing I have a feeling about with "A Dangerous Method," though I haven’t seen it, is that it’s about trying to understand it, whereas "Shame" is not about trying to understand it, it’s just trying to negotiate, because it’s all around us. Michael is not Freud, he’s not Jung, he’s just a guy who is trying to deal with something. I think he relates something more to most people.

Does Brandon have limits?

McQueen: I don’t know. It’s a movie. You ask me a question, and I don’t know either. He’s actually Superman. He’s got a cape. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Could Brandon ever go too far?

Fassbender: I think that he’s gone pretty far. The thing is, where do you get the fix? And when you’re looking for the fix … it’s like buying heroin off the street off a guy that you don’t know. And you’re injecting it into your veins. That could be anything. And you’re putting it directly into your veins because you are so desperate to get your fix. And that’s when you put yourself in very dangerous circumstances. And that’s where this idea of “shame” comes from. You no longer are possessed with a choice, you’re not in control of your actions or you decisions. It’s the addiction and condition that is controlling you. After the act, it is the feeling of self-loathing that you are a slave. It’s not like there’s a line. It’s like, where can I find it? That’s why you see Brandon in the third act of the film, and he’s sort of on the streets of New York, and looking for a fix. One club turns him away, and he turns around and sees someone across the street. That’s the availability to get his fix, and he goes after it.

McQueen: And in this story, the motivations are clear. Why does he get beaten up in the club? He needs to feel something. He doesn’t like himself, so he’s abusing himself.

There isn’t a lot of self-loathing in the performance. When it starts to leak out, Brandon slaps it down with another fix.

Fassbender: Of course, that’s the pattern of addiction. The cycle. That feeling of self loathing, shame, “I need to escape from that, so I do it again.” It continues.

Let’s talk about the introduction of "Shame."

McQueen: Well, music is very important. It has to flow. If it’s not flowing in the first ten minutes, if it doesn’t grab the audience by the balls, you might lose them. You have to give them a situation in which they are finding their way. It’s like putting the audience in a room, with the lights turned off. They have to feel their way through the architecture and the furniture of the room. They familiarize themselves after a while.

The movie is coming out in NC-17, which is a relative rarity in America. Was it at all hard to keep "Shame" as it is, though I cannot imagine what a cut version would be like, or was there any pressure from Fox Searchlight to edit it into a more commercially viable R rating?

McQueen: I never had a conversation with Fox Searchlight regarding NC-17. I never had a conversation with them changing the picture at all. They support the movie. They have taken the movie on its own merit. All we’re asking for is that people have a chance to see the movie.

riginally posted: 12/04/11 07:04:15
last updated: 12/05/11 02:12:20

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