It's always a unique kind of shock when you see famous people showing off their groceries onscreen. Imagine then, immediately after viewing a film in which a great actor puts it all out there, to have to talk to them — to work through one's own issues about immediacy and intimacy, while carrying on a reasonable interaction with someone you've now seen in as unguarded a way as is possible. When Michael Fassbender emerged to talk about his new film Shame at the New York Film Festival, the entire auditorium fell into a momentary state of sexual paralysis. Fortunately, Fassbender and director Steve McQueen are used to this, having won accolades and awards for Shame at film festivals throughout the world. McQueen and Fassbender spoke with the Scene's Jason Shawhan last fall in New York.
How did the film come together?
Steve McQueen: We started off in London. I didn't want to come to New York to make a film, that was never my desire, but no one wanted to talk to us. No one wanted to have that conversation with us. It was very difficult, and all of a sudden, we started hitting walls. I wanted to speak to a specialist in the field, and the two specialists that we spoke to were here in New York, so I flew over and spoke to them, and that's how we got access to people who were dealing with that affliction. And from there, it just snowballed.
Was there a specific aspect of sexual compulsive disorder that you wanted to explore with this film?
McQueen: You think of films like The Lost Weekend, or The Man With The Golden Arm — and what attracted me about this particular addiction was that in order to facilitate it, you needed another person. I wanted the responsibility of this difficult subject matter, and with that responsibility comes the need for meticulous research, talking to people about what would happen to this character — the ups, the downs — they were the ones who guided us. So it was all about the detail, and all about the research. If people were willing to speak about it ... it was almost like [the film] Freaks: "One of us, one of us." It didn't feel alien at all, or bizarre or absurd. It felt very, extraordinarily human.
(To Fassbender) And at what point did you become involved?
Michael Fassbender: I said to Steve at the end of Hunger — I mean, he changed my life. I was getting to the point, professionally, where I had just turned 30 years old. The recession was just around the corner, which meant, as with many industries, less jobs for fewer actors — and for someone to take a chance on an unknown actor, to take the risk in playing the lead in a film, there was less and less of that happening. I remember when I was 17 and just starting out, and my dream was to meet a director and have a relationship with a director, and what I looked at was Scorsese and De Niro, Lumet and Pacino, and that would be the ultimate, to have a collaboration like that and be on a wavelength that powerful with somebody, and that was what I was so lucky to find with Steve on Hunger. (To McQueen:) You had mentioned this to me in 2008, that you had this idea, and I was like, "Fine. Just tell me when and where." I didn't even need to see a script. It was that simple, really.
How extensively did you have to prepare for this role?
Fassbender: (deadpans) I just went out and had a lot of sex and tried to embrace it as best I could. ... Actually, for preparation, I spent a lot of time reading.
The physical space of the film seems very deliberately depicted. Was there a specific philosophical choice in the layout of how Michael's character interacts with the city?
McQueen: What was fascinating to me is that a lot of New Yorkers live and work in the sky. Going into a New York apartment, they're actually rather small, even with money. And at the same time, this is a guy who hasn't got the time to decorate or furnish, he's rather practical. The whole film is about trying to communicate in an emotional way; it's all about that. It's about human contact, where you can feel real, like you're alive. The homeless guy on the street — if you ignore him, it's like he's not even alive.