Michael Fassbender: Portraying An Addict's 'Shame' In the past year, actor Michael Fassbender has played a mutant villain in X-Men: First Class, psychoanalyst Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method, Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre and a sex addict in Shame. He discusses several of these roles, as well as his part in Inglourious Basterds.
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Michael Fassbender: Portraying An Addict's 'Shame'

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Michael Fassbender: Portraying An Addict's 'Shame'

Michael Fassbender: Portraying An Addict's 'Shame'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


MICHAEL FASSBENDER: (as Carl Jung) I'm Dr. Jung. I admitted you yesterday. Let me explain what I have in mind. I propose that we meet here most days to talk for an hour or two.

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (as Sabina Spielrein) Talk?

FASSBENDER: (as Carl Jung) Yes. Just talk. See if we can identify what's troubling you. So as to distract you as little as possible I'm going to sit there, behind you. I'm going to ask you to try not to turn around and look at me under any circumstances.

GROSS: That's my guest Michael Fassbender playing Carl Jung in the film "A Dangerous Method," trying out the talking cure on his patient Sabina Spielrein. Fassbender has starred in four movies in the past year, "A Dangerous Method" was about the relationship between Jung and Sigmund Freud. In "Jane Eyre" he was Mr. Rochester. In "X-Men: First Class" he was a mutant villain. Fassbender played a sex addict in "Shame," which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. "Shame" was directed by Steve McQueen, who also directed Fassbender in his starring role in "Hunger," portraying Bobby Sands, the IRA leader who died leading a hunger strike in prison.

Fassbender not only got to co-star in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," he got to do a classic Tarantino Mexican standoff. We'll talk about Tarantino later after we talk about Fassbender's recent films.

Michael Fassbender, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think it's almost funny that back-to-back you did a movie about a sex addict and about Freud and Jung debating about whether the roots of all neuroses are sexual.



GROSS: So did the things - I don't know what the sequence was that you shot it in, but did the research you were doing to Freud and Jung come into play in understanding your character in "Shame," your sex-addicted character?

FASSBENDER: Not really, to be honest. The way that I work is that when I'm involved in something I get so really intensely involved in that. But then I'm pretty good at sort of washing it away once I finish it. And pretty much - well, forgetting it is a bit of an extreme word, but definitely sort of it's no longer in my psyche.

By the time I got to "Shame" I wasn't really thinking at all about Carl Gustav Jung. It was just then about really sort of getting inside the head of the character. And the bulk of my work would come down to the script. I spend a lot of time with the script - reading it, rereading it, rereading, rereading, rereading, rereading until you go kind of a little bit crazy with it and then read some more.

GROSS: If I was interviewing your character of Brandon in "Shame" a question I'd want to ask is do you get any pleasure from sex at all? Because although he's consumed with sex and has as much of it as he can and is on the Internet porn sites all the time, it doesn't seem to actually give him pleasure.

FASSBENDER: You know, I think there is definitely an element of pleasure in there. It would be the similar circumstance if you think, let's sort of make that parallel to an alcoholic, where obviously there, you know, an alcoholic does enjoy a drink. But it gets to a point where when you wake up in the morning you have to get a bottle of liquor in your system just in order to function. For me, looking at it as trying to sort of understand the character and actually trying to reveal what's going on within the character or the psyche of the character, I did take each individual sex scene as a way for me to show the audience what was going on inside the character's head.

When you see Brandon at the beginning engaging with a prostitute you understand that there is an element of control there within his sexual relationships - that he is controlling the scenario, that he paid the prostitute, she performs a ritual for him, he pays her money, she leaves, she takes her baggage with her and that's it. It's clean for him. It's easy. There's no emotional responsibility there, definitely not that emotional intimacy. So that's the first glimpse of that. Skip ahead to the scene with Marianne, his office worker, played by Nicole Beharie, he is desperately trying to find intimacy and that's why he sort of goes and sort of engages in this relationship and does it very clumsily. He takes her to the hotel and essentially can't perform because this is becoming too intimate for him. And immediately after that, we see him very physically engaging with the random woman up against the window and it's almost like he's reaffirming himself.

And then, of course, we have that sort of, you know, the threesome scene or the foursome, because it's almost like the camera and the audience are in there, in the scene with the characters. You kind of see everything combined there - the need for the hit, the desperation, the self-loathing and the lust, you know? And so that kind of helped me sort of, you know, get over the embarrassment about sort of, you know, being naked and sort of, you know, performing these - how would I put it - compromising positions. You know, I really wanted to concentrate on what the character was going through, so it's not about titillation, it's more about sort of investigation.

GROSS: So I don't know if you mind my bringing this up. There seems to be a lot of subtext in "Shame." And what I kind of read into the script is that Brandon, your character, has had some kind of incestuous relationship in the past with his sister, played by Carey Mulligan, because the first time he sees her she's kind of moved into his apartment without his permission. And he opens up the bathroom door and there she is naked in the shower and she doesn't flinch. It's kind of clear he's seen this before. And he is angry with her and makes her put her towel on but you know that they have some kind of history. Do you mind my saying that?


GROSS: And do...

FASSBENDER: No, not at all.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

FASSBENDER: I mean, you know, that's exactly what we wanted to show and the...

GROSS: So you talked about that. You talked about the subtext and the history even though we don't absolutely know it.

FASSBENDER: Yeah, for sure we did, yeah. Absolutely. We had discussions and then we all had our individual, I think, takes on it and we never really, really fixed anything definite on it. And what we didn't want was we didn't want, you know, a scene where they're sitting down going hey, remember that summer when whatever? You know, it's like I'm already checked out when I hear that sort of stuff. It's like let the audience fill in the blanks; they're intelligent enough to do that. And also we didn't want to have any sort of cop-out; you know, well, this is what happened so therefore, this is the behavior. No, what was very clear to me from the beginning was I wanted Brandon to be an everyday guy. I wanted him to be somebody that you would recognize at work or out in a bar or on the tube, the subway, and I wanted to keep him very close to myself and not have any sort of cop-out - oh, wow, look at the, you know, sex addicts - they're the guys in the sort of rain macs with the sweaty palms in the corner. You know, I wanted him very much to be one of us, one of everybody.

GROSS: Yeah, so why don't we hear a clip from "Shame."


GROSS: And this is you and Carey Mulligan, who plays your sister, and you're sitting on the couch together. This is after she's moved in uninvited. This is after you've really tried to get her to leave. She makes you so uncomfortable. You are just incredibly like neat, almost to the point of having like a sterile apartment. She's kind of really messy.

FASSBENDER: Absolutely.

GROSS: You're this like emotionally shut-in. She's really emotionally needy and emotionally big and broad. So you're basically telling her it's time for her to leave and you're sitting on the couch in your living room. So here's my guest Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.


FASSBENDER: (as Brandon) This isn't working out, obviously. You need to find somewhere else to live.

CAREY MULLIGAN: (as Sissy) I don't have anywhere else to go. This isn't about him. I make you angry all the time and I don't know why.

FASSBENDER: (as Brandon) No, you trap me. You force me into a corner and you trap me. I've got nowhere else to go. I mean what the (bleep) is that?

MULLIGAN: (as Sissy) You're my brother.

FASSBENDER: (as Brandon) So what? I'm responsible for you?

MULLIGAN: (as Sissy) Yes.

FASSBENDER: (as Brandon) No I'm not.

MULLIGAN: (as Sissy) Yes you (bleep) are.

FASSBENDER: (as Brandon) No. I didn't give birth to you. I didn't bring you into this world.

MULLIGAN: (as Sissy) You're my brother, I'm your sister, we're family, we're meant to look after each other.

FASSBENDER: (as Brandon) You're not looking after me.

MULLIGAN: (as Sissy) I'm...

FASSBENDER: (as Brandon) I'm looking after myself.

MULLIGAN: (as Sissy) I'm trying. I'm trying to help you.

FASSBENDER: (as Brandon) How are you helping me, huh? How are you helping me? How are you helping me?

GROSS: That's a scene from "Shame" with my guest Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan as his sister. We'll talk more with Michael Fassbender after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Michael Fassbender, the star of "Shame," "A Dangerous Method" and "Jane Eyre." We're going to talk about co-starring in "Inglourious Basterds," the 2009 World War II film, directed by Quentin Tarantino.

I want to play you just a really brief excerpt of the interview I did with him, in which he talked about his dialogue. So here's Quentin Tarantino.


QUENTIN TARANTINO: There's a poetic quality to my dialogue. I mean, there's an aspect I've always said that is - it's, you know, it's not poetry but it's kind of like it. It's not song lyrics but it's kind of like song lyrics. It's not rap but it's kind of like rap. And it's not stand-up comedy but it is kind of like stand-up comedy. It's all those things together.

And there's wordplay and there's rhythms and you have to be able to get the poetry out of it. You have to be able to sell my jokes.



GROSS: So that's Quentin Tarantino talking about what he requires in an actor to do his dialogue. So when you worked with Tarantino on "Inglourious Basterds," did he talk to you at all about the rhythms, about selling his jokes, about all the stuff we just heard him discuss?

FASSBENDER: Yeah. I mean that...

GROSS: Or does he expect you to just get it?

FASSBENDER: Well, I think, you know, actors get it because the dialogue, you really just have to follow the dialogue and, you know, 80 percent of the work is done, with Quentin's work for sure. And sometimes he will give you the cadence correctly if you're not getting the rhythms right. But it was something that I luckily came across pretty early when I decided that I wanted to sort of do acting. You know, I put on a play of "Reservoir Dogs" in Killarney, the town that I grew up in, and so, you know, me and - one of my classmates and I, we just, you know, we would work on this script and we all, you know, at the age of 18 we were like this script is amazing, isn't it, the rhythms and the flow. And so you...

GROSS: Were in high school when you did this or college?

FASSBENDER: High school.

GROSS: This is great. So like you're in high school, you're doing a theater adaptation of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," which is about all these guys pulling a heist and getting followed by the police and so on. So it's a really violent film.



GROSS: And in one of the scenes in the movie one of the characters takes a razor, does this little dance and then cuts off the character's ear. And we don't see it being cut off but it hurts a lot anyways, and people think that they saw even though they didn't. So did your teacher think great idea, yes, great scene, guys?


FASSBENDER: Yeah. I can't - I don't know that we disclosed what we were doing but I, you know, they were very supportive because - we started off, I had joined this sort of theater company for the sort of five months before, so I had been doing pantomime and pub theater and various sketch forms of theater. And then I sort of, you know, got together with my friends and we decided to actually film our version of "Reservoir Dogs" in the locker room at school. And so we didn't have a camera so...


FASSBENDER: So one of the teachers, you know, had a camera, he gave us that and - Mr. Leahy, I think that was - and sort of they were like off you go. I think, you know, that my school was always sort of encouraging, you know, if you're being productive and if you're taking on, you know, challenges and, you know, we were trying to create, they were very supportive.

GROSS: So did Quentin Tarantino know about this when he cast you in "Inglourious Basterds?"

FASSBENDER: Well, I told him when I went in for the audition. And I was like look, you know, we gave all the money to charity. He was like, that's cool, man, as long as you're not making any money off my (bleep).


FASSBENDER: So I was like - and so, you know, that was a nice little icebreaker and then we sat down and we, you know, I auditioned for him. And, you know, the great thing about Quentin is, you know, his passion for film and for text and for all his sort of characters no matter how small. You know, there'd be a character that's got two lines in his script but he knows that whole back-story of the character, he loves the character very much and so he reads all the other characters with you. So that was quite surreal.


GROSS: You know, it's really funny, you know, Quentin Tarantino is like such a great writer of dialogue and, you know, he compares it to writing poetry or music or rap. But most of your part in "Inglourious Basterds" is done in German. You're a British film critic who's now in the military, it's World War II, and you're recruited to be in something called Operation Kino. And the idea is that the leadership of the Nazis are going to this Nazi propaganda film debut. So the goal is to kind of kill them while they're all gathered together there. So you're supposed to be meeting a German film star who is actually a spy for the British.


GROSS: And she set up this meeting in a little pub in Occupied France and unfortunately, the pub is filled with German soldiers when you meet her there. And it's a basement pub so they're...

...this meeting in a little pub in occupied France and unfortunately, the pub is filled with German soldiers when you meet her there. And it's a basement pub so there's no easy escape and so you have to fake that you're a German soldier. So the dialogue's all in German. And did Quentin understand a word of German?

FASSBENDER: You know, it's funny. I'll just sort of say, who else would have a film critic heading out as a sort of an undercover spy?

GROSS: Of course. So funny. Yeah.

FASSBENDER: I love it. You know, Quentin doesn't speak German and he doesn't speak French but there were times when, you know, French actors were speaking French and they changed something in his dialogue and he'd be like, wait a second? He was like, what'd you do there?


FASSBENDER: And they were like, nothing. And they were like - he was like, you changed something. And they were like, yeah, just a little bit. And he's like don't do that. You know, and the same with the German. He's got a great - I don't know. He's got a great intuition and ear for rhythms and tone, I think.

And so even if he may not understand it sort of word for word, he's almost sort of tapped into the sort of rhythm and tone of the piece.

GROSS: OK. So this is going to be weird but I'm going to play a clip of you in that pub.


GROSS: Speaking in German and trying to convince this German officer, this, you know, German soldier who kind of knows something's fishy going on and he doesn't really think you have a very believable German accent. And he...

FASSBENDER: Shall I do the subtitles?



GROSS: Well, why don't we hear it and then you could do...

FASSBENDER: No, I'm just kidding.

GROSS: ...the subtitles. Yes. So you're trying to convince him that you're an officer, you're his superior, and it's time for him to leave because he's being intrusive.


GROSS: So here's you and then we hear the German soldier at the very end.


FASSBENDER: (as Lt. Archie Hicox) (Speaks German)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as German soldier) (Speaks German)

GROSS: So what the German soldier is saying at the end is excuse me, captain, but your accent is very unusual. Where are you from?


FASSBENDER: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: So how did you...

FASSBENDER: That's when you go oh, no.

GROSS: Yeah, that's right. Yeah, you know, trouble ahead. And, boy, it gets really bloody after a while. How did you learn to speak German? I know you were born in Germany, lived there till the age of 2 and then moved to Ireland with your family. So your father is German, your mother is Irish. So did you already know German when you shot "Inglourious Basterds"?

FASSBENDER: You know, I sort of, you know, my mum when they moved to Germany, I think all in all they were there for 6 years and so my mum sort of learned German as well. So both of them, you know, obviously fluent in German and they used to try and speak German at home with me but, I don't know, I never really wanted to. I guess I was kind of embarrassed or something silly.

But I can understand the bulk of it, but speaking it I would definitely give away that - it would be obvious immediately that I wasn't German with my accent. And so I just had to sort of - I worked with a fantastic voice coach and we just - I just - you know, she recorded, I recorded, and then I just sort of played it back, you know, over and over again and just, you know, again the sort of repetition thing to really sort of hone in on sort of, you know, the sounds and to get the rhythms right, so that it wouldn't be sort of so obvious to a German public that they'd be like, well, he's obviously not German, you know.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Fassbender. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Michael Fassbender. In the past year he's starred in "Shame," "A Dangerous Method," "X-Men First Class" and "Jane Eyre." So I want to ask you about "Jane Eyre," in which you played Mr. Rochester. I know when I read the book, like, in high school I guess, I really couldn't understand why the young Jane Eyre fell for Mr. Rochester who was so much older.

He seemed an old, like, an old, uptight man to me.

FASSBENDER: An old grumpy git.


GROSS: Yeah. Right. Exactly. Exactly. But in the film, you know, I haven't reread the novel since then so I can't really speak to what's in the novel. I should be able to but I can't. But anyways, in the film I just really felt this, like, intellectual connection that Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester establish with each other; that they're both in their own way outside of the boundaries of conventional society and no one understands either of them but they understand each other.


GROSS: Do you remember what you thought of the novel when you first read it?

FASSBENDER: Yeah. I mean, all those things you were thinking. I was like, well, you know, where does the attraction come here from? You know? And it's funny with the Bronte sisters. You know, it's like I don't know how many times Rochester tells her to sit down and come here and sort of orders her around. It's kind of, I don't know, some sort of power play, I guess.

I really wanted to focus on what you said. You know, the fact that Rochester talks on an equal level with the governess alone would've been not good in that time period, talking about social etiquettes, Victorian England. I mean, that was not the done thing. And, you know, the fact that he is a sort of rebel within that he, does not like, you know, this sort of social class that he's a part of.

And, you know, the intellectual side of him is there but, you know, you said that they sort of understand each other. He really needs her more than she needs him, I think, and that's what I always thought. That she has the capability of saving him from, you know, this sort of - he's such a closed sort of package, you know, because he's like - the times that he has opened himself up he's got burnt, you know? And pretty badly. So he prefers to sort of keep a cold exterior on things and protect himself. But, slowly but surely, she manages to sort of peel away these sort of defenses. And my problem was really, you know, he's locked his wife up in the attic. No wonder she's trying to burn the house down.


FASSBENDER: You know? Again, we're talking about Victorian England and, you know, if a woman was sexually active in that time she would be seen to sort of perhaps have a mental illness. So I kind of had to sort of, you know, just tell myself, no, she's crazy for sure. It runs in the family. He tried his best. You know, but that's pretty dark, that concept alone.

GROSS: So let's hear a scene from "Jane Eyre" and this is, you know, early on when Jane Eyre has just recently become the governess and she's just met Mr. Rochester, the owner of the estate in which she's working. And they're sitting by the fire talking and I think this kind of shows the kind of mix of condescension and respect that Mr. Rochester is demonstrating towards Jane Eyre. So this is my guest Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska.


FASSBENDER: (as Mr. Rochester) Come, speak to me. The fact is, Ms. Eyre, I'd like to draw you out. Rather a look of another world about you. I don't wish to treat you as inferior.

MIA WASIKOWSKA: (as Jane Eyre) Yet you command me to speak.

FASSBENDER: (as Mr. Rochester) You're very hurt by my tone of command.

WASIKOWSKA: (as Jane Eyre) There are few masters who trouble to inquire whether their paid subordinates were hurt by their commands.

FASSBENDER: (as Mr. Rochester) Paid subordinate? I'd forgotten the salary. Well, on that mercenary ground, will you consent to speak as my equal without thinking that the request arises from insolence?

WASIKOWSKA: (as Jane Eyre) I'd never mistake informality for insolence, sir. One I rather like; the other, nothing freeborn should ever submit to.

FASSBENDER: (as Mr. Rochester) Humbug.

WASIKOWSKA: (as Jane Eyre) Even for a salary.

FASSBENDER: (as Mr. Rochester) Most freeborn things would submit to anything for a salary. But I mentally shake hands with you for your answer. Not 3 in 3,000 schoolgirl governesses would've answered me as you've just done.

WASIKOWSKA: (as Jane Eyre) Then you've not spent much time in our company, sir. I'm the same plain kind of bird as all the rest. I have my common tale of woe.

FASSBENDER: (as Mr. Rochester) I envy you.

WASIKOWSKA: (as Jane Eyre) How?

FASSBENDER: (as Mr. Rochester) Your openness, your unpolluted mind. When I was your age, fate dealt me a blow and since happiness is denied me, I have a right to get pleasure in its stead. And I will get it, cost what it may.

GROSS: That's my guest, Michael Fassbender, and Mia Wasikowska in a scene from "Jane Eyre." So you're getting a lot of recognition now. You were nominated for a Golden Globe. Did you ever expect to be in the world of, like, award shows and stuff like that in Hollywood?



FASSBENDER: You know, when you start off you sort of really - I think, because the business is so - you're so dependent on others in terms of sort of getting any work, that you have to have a very strong self-belief system. And, you know, from the beginning when I decided that I wanted to do it, I believed that I could, you know, I could do this job well and that I could - I always said I'm good enough to be working.

That was always the mantra when, you know, when I sort of wasn't working for long periods of time. So I always thought, yes, you know, I had the possibility of achieving great heights within it and to keep that sort of, you know, strong. But essentially, the main thing that I always told myself was that I was good enough to be working.

I'm good enough to be a jobbing actor. And of course, you know, this position now is the dream. You know, you dream about sort of getting to this position. It's a position that you couldn't get to without people helping you enormously along the way and luck and timing. Not so much luck. People always say luck, but I think it's more about timing - being in the right place at the right time. Getting the right role. Having the right director sort of work with you on that role. All those things.

GROSS: So it's been great to talk with you.

FASSBENDER: Likewise, Terry.

GROSS: Thank you very much.

FASSBENDER: Thank you.

GROSS: Good luck in any of the upcoming award ceremonies.


FASSBENDER: Cheers. Thanks a lot.

GROSS: Michael Fassbender stars in the current films "Shame" and "A Dangerous Method." His film "Jane Eyre" is now out on DVD.

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