TIFF 2013: McQueen and Fassbender happily push each other to extremes
Director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender have already tested their limits in Hunger and Shame, and go ever further in Oscar-buzzed 12 Years a Slave
It’s a sunny Sunday morning in a Toronto hotel room, TIFFtime, and Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen are not acting at all like tough guys.
“I like your look, Steve, nice jumper!” actor Fassbender says with a smirk, commenting on McQueen’s sweater as the 12 Years a Slavedirector makes a belated arrival to the interview room.
“Thank you, darling!” McQueen says, smiling back.
The moment of levity quickly establishes the off-screen friendship and genuine rapport between the two men, who have a habit of driving each other near the breaking point when the camera starts rolling.
In three films the two have made together, it’s as if the English director has gone out of his way to push the Irish actor to ever new extremes. Maybe that’s because he’s done just that — and Fassbender has encouraged him.
First there was Hunger in 2008, in which Fassbender played IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, a role that required him to lose 33 pounds in 10 weeks. Then came Shame in 2011, in which Fassbender played a sex addict who nakedly exposes both his manhood and his brutal downward spiral — so much so that he was relieved when his mother was unable to attend the premiere.
“He’s very demanding, that’s for sure,” Fassbender, 36, says of McQueen, 43. “He expects everything of everyone, not just the actors, but the crew as well and also himself. But I want to do it because I just know that working with him is always a very special experience and a very great learning experience.”
McQueen says he’s only trying to get the best out of people and, with Fassbender, he knows he has the best. He lavishes praise on him.
“With Michael, he’s the most influential actor of his generation. People want to be an actor because of him. People want to be in movies because he’s in the movie. It’s incredible, that. That’s the influence he has and it’s because he doesn’t hold back. He’s committed. He’s an artist and there are hardly any artists out there.”
Now comes the greatest challenge yet for both of them: 12 Years a Slave, a fact-based account of 19th-century freeborn African-American Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a genteel family man who was duped and then abducted from New York state to the Deep South, where he was sold for servitude.
Fassbender plays a slave owner named Edwin Epps, a man for whom the words “brutal” and “despicable” barely suffice.
The film has been enjoying audience and critical raves during its official premiere at TIFF, with serious talk of Oscar contention in many categories that would include not just Best Picture, but also Best Director for McQueen and Best Supporting Actor for Fassbender.
Epps comes on like a malevolent hurricane, abusing his slaves both physically and mentally, never sparing the stick, lash or noose — just as McQueen doesn’t hold back on showing it. Epps is a character bereft of redeeming qualities, something many actors would want to steer clear of, fearing an audience backlash.
But not Fassbender, who doesn’t care if the audience loves him.
“I’ve always found that so confusing (when actors want love) because it goes against the nature of the job,” he says.
“I really think if I can be the character that Epps is, then I’m lending something to this story, which I think is a beautiful story. I just have to play the ugly parts, but somebody’s got to . . . I’ve never got that idea of maintaining an image or a brand.”
12 Years a Slave follows the recent Django Unchained and Lee Daniels’ The Butler in depicting the realities of slavery, a confluence McQueen attributes to public interest sparked by the “perfect storm” of such developments as the first black U.S. president and the recent Trayvon Martin shooting.
“Because of those events, Americans are willing to reflect on their recent pasts. It’s because of fortunate situations and also unfortunate ones.”
But 12 Years also speaks to universal truths about personal freedom, dignity and humanity, he adds, and at its core it’s a love story of a man fighting to get back to the family he was torn away from.
McQueen compares Northup’s situation to a particularly nasty fairy tale for its almost surreal depiction of character under adversity.
“It’s like Hansel and Gretel or Pinocchio,” McQueen says.
“It’s almost like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about the fact that it starts off with this man who gets seduced into service and therefore all he has is this love for his family that’s keeping him alive. Love! And it’s been tested to the limits of his humanity, so it’s all about love and how he can hold on somehow.”
This is the third time the men have brought a film to TIFF together, and it’s been quite the marvel to see them having arrived as unknowns in 2008 and now risen to the heights of awards season excitement.
Neither of them is taking the Oscar talk too seriously, at least for the moment.
“To be honest I’m just really proud of the film,” Fassbender says. “I think it’s a beautiful piece of work. What happens now is a bonus.”
“I can’t be bothered about anything like that, it’s just great if it happens,” chips in McQueen.
“I’m just happy to have made the film because it’s an impossible movie, as many people have said to me. Every barrier, every obstacle was put up. But we made it and now we’re here in Toronto. It’s just been incredible. I’m just really happy, appreciative.”
Fassbender has also been busy on projects without McQueen, in such films asInglourious Basterds, X-Men: First Class, Prometheus and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method.
But he’s always ready to go wherever McQueen wants to push him.
“Yeah, that’s the sort of thing I was looking for as an actor when I started when I was 17, trying to find a director that I could work with, and that would draw out the best of me and take me to places that I wouldn’t be able to discover on my own.
“And so when Steve came along and we worked together on Hunger, there was chemistry there and I knew it was something special and rare. And then again onShame, which was very tough . . . and then I realized that it wasn’t just a fluke, we did have this shorthand, this working relationship that was difficult but easy at the same time.
“And so when 12 Years came about I said to Steve, ‘Any part that you can give me in this, even if it’s just a couple of days, I want to be a part of it.’ I felt it was a very beautiful story when I read it and an important one.”