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Sex without the safety net

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Sex without the safety net

Post by Admin on Sun Feb 05, 2012 12:08 am

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/sex-without-the-safety-net-20120203-1qwy5.html

Sex without the safety net
Emma Brockes
February 4, 2012

Michael Fassbender in Shame.

WHEN Michael Fassbender's new film, Shame, previewed in Venice last year, a small part of him was relieved his mother couldn't make it. The film, about a New York-based sex addict, is, depending on your point of view, a brilliant exposition of loneliness in the city or a pretentious piece of navel-gazing but, either way, includes a lot of very slappy sex scenes and clenched-arse shots.

''My mum was supposed to be there,'' Fassbender says. ''And in a way, thank god, her back played up. Maybe in her subconscious she developed a back pain on the eve of the screening.''

Even without her, when the lights came up, Fassbender was ''a little bit shell-shocked. Everyone in that movie theatre had seen me in some pretty uncomfortable … ahem, wait a minute! Let me get my clothes back on here.''
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David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method is about the theoretical battles between Freud and Jung.

Fassbender with Keira Knightley in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method.

This is Fassbender's moment. After years of playing relatively minor roles he has, in quick succession, starred in Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, Haywire and Shame. At 34 he is in his leading-man prime: blue-grey eyes, long black lashes, a habit of ducking his chin in a way that acknowledges both how pretty he is and how vaguely embarrassing he finds it, plus there's the Irish accent and then the hair, which comes up off his forehead in waves of auburn.

His parentage is half-German, half-Irish and he grew up in Killarney, where his family ran a restaurant. The film that brought him to prominence was director Steve McQueen's brilliant first feature Hunger, a biopic of the Irish-Republican hunger strikers in which Fassbender played Bobby Sands. (He went on an extreme, 2500-kilojoule-a-day diet to drop the necessary weight.)

Now he has a sense of being ''at the highest point I could ever have imagined arriving at, when I started out at 17''. Fassbender's air of surprise at this, his expectations exceeded, makes him likeable in a way that seeps into his roles. In Shame he plays an executive, externally plausible, highly successful but who is unable to have a real relationship, as opposed to encounters with strangers, prostitutes and porn. His sister, played by Carey Mulligan, throws herself at any passing male as a kind of mirror pathology. It is beautifully shot, a commentary as much on the city that enables them both as on the characters themselves, and the scarcity of dialogue makes it an acting job of real delicacy.

At first, Fassbender tried to do research into sex addiction in Britain but couldn't find enough people willing to talk about it, so transferred to New York. The addiction is, in a way, just a metaphor - ''Scratch the surface of what's socially normal. I suppose in some way all of us have something we display to the public and things we feel too ashamed of or uncomfortable with to reveal to other people'' - but one that required a lot of courage in the performers. Mulligan was, he says, ''brave and willing to throw herself into it. There's no safety net and that makes it exciting and scary; [it] requires the actors to trust each other and test each other and surprise each other.''

Fassbender is not, he says, ''very exhibitionist'' when it comes to taking off his clothes. ''I was self-conscious, for sure, but it was something I had to get over very quickly. Those scenes are really where you get an insight into the guy's psyche. When you see him naked, it's in more ways than one. I had to be on the ball and not thinking about those things. And you try to make sure that your partner in the scene is comfortable. I'd say, 'Let's go for it now and it'll be over soon.' It sounds terrible, like a really bad chat-up line.'' He laughs. ''Quite threatening, actually.''

In a weird coincidence, the film Fassbender made before Shame was David Cronenberg's soon-to-be released A Dangerous Method in which he plays Carl Jung, with Viggo Mortensen as Freud and Keira Knightley as Jung's mistress, Sabina. The storyline explores Jung's pioneering treatment of sexual dysfunction. But no, he says, there were no particular insights to carry over: ''It's funny - once I finish one thing, I dispose of it fairly quickly and then you're getting stuck into the next one.''

It is too good, given all of these studies in repression, that Fassbender was head altar boy as a child, which he thinks of with a wry nod as his first starring role. ''I had the keys to the church and had to open it in the morning and attend all the masses and weddings and funerals and whatever it entailed for that month. And lock the church at night.'' He starts to giggle. ''A couple of times I slept in. And the whole congregation was waiting outside the church.''

His experience of the Catholic church generally was benign thanks to his local priest, Father Galvin, who was, he says, ''very cool. It's not all bad and abuse of boys … He would be there to listen. Obviously the idea of hell and suffering is kind of heavy duty but there was a lot of positivity.''

Fassbender had the advantage, perhaps, of seeing his home from a slight angle thanks to his father's foreignness - his mother is Irish, his father German. At school he was more interested in the ''imaginative world'' as opposed to his ''very brainy'' neuropsychologist sister.

The idea to act came from a workshop he did at school run by a local actor who, when he started the group in town, invited Fassbender to join. Fassbender went to London and enrolled at drama school, which didn't appeal. He is an intuitive performer and resented the drills they were put through.

He lucked out in his first role, being cast in Steven Spielberg's Band of Brothers. He was 24 and sure he was about to hit the big time. Older friends urged caution, one in particular - ''I worked behind a bar for him, and I went back to working behind the bar, and he said to me, 'I believe in you but I reckon it's going to take another six or seven years.' He was right. And it was a good lesson.''

There are more films on the way: a lead in Ridley Scott's Prometheus and a third film with McQueen in development. It is the kind of professional relationship with a director that Fassbender could only have dreamed of. McQueen has informed and amplified his basic philosophy, what he tells himself every time he walks on set.

''The problem is, we feel a lot of pressure about looking silly or appearing weak … I'm trying to tell a story - what's the worst that can happen? You fall flat on your face, then hopefully you get back up again and go for it again and try something else. We're all going to die one day. I'm stealing that off Steve; it's what he'd say when he ordered me to take my clothes off.''

With that in mind he asks if there's time for a cigarette before his next appointment. Yes, says the PR. ''Woo!'' Fassbender says and, grinning, bounces out of the room.

GUARDIAN

■Shame opens on Thursday. A Dangerous Method opens March 29.

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