A few weeks ago SHAME director Steve McQueen and lead actor Michael Fassbender (Brandon) visited Dallas, TX for a sit down about the buzzworthy exhaustive drama. While I can confirm that I did not die on the spot, I should also mention that I did position myself directly across from the slight, charismatic Irishman who, along with McQueen’s well-intentioned intensity, charmed the pants off (not literally, we have some journalistic integrity, gosh!) everyone in the room.
Mr. Fassbender, you’ve done a bunch of mainstream films recently that have really just put you on the fast track to being a huge mega star, so doing a film like this is a real ballsy thing…
Fassbender: Excuse the pun…
Was there ever any hesitation?
Fassbender: Never. You know, I’m in the business of storytelling. I’m there to facilitate a story, and whether that story involves mutants or real-life people, the sort of respect I bring to it doesn’t really vary. And in terms of me thinking, it’s exactly what I don’t think. I don’t think “is this going to damage Michael Fassbender” I’m thinking about my job as an actor. It’s not to sort of worry how an image is portrayed or anything like that. It’s how do I facilitate the story?
Now would I have done this film if it had been in anybody else’s hands? I don’t know. I knew I was going to be in the best hands possible and the trust between us is really beyond a hundred percent. So it’s really just about ‘am I going to hold up my end of the bargain?’ and that’s really where the nerves come in, and the fear. It’s like ‘am I going to be able to represent Brandon the correct way? Am I going to be able to bring to the table something that is going to help Steve and Abi (Morgan, writer)?’ They’ve written this beautiful story and my part is to facilitate it in my area. All the other stuff is just distraction, and you just keep it really simple.
McQueen: Just to jump on that. There are always actors around. But Michael is an artist. What I mean by that is he’s looking for something to facilitate that—as all artists are. So it may be high and it may be low, but where the goal is you’ll go. Oh that was a rhyme wasn’t it? (laughs)
What do you make of all the attention towards you personally?
Fassbender: Eh, well you know. I mean, really nothing changes. Obviously you’re doing circuits like this and going to festivals. It’s exciting and it’s nice. But my day to day routines and activities haven’t changed at all. And whatever has happened in the last five year…
Well, what has changed and what is amazing is the choice. You know? You have filmmakers who are interested in working with me that I hold in high regard, who are very talented people. So that is the pinnacle. That’s the dream. At one point you’re just happy to be a jobbing actor, that’s good enough. So to be in this position, it’s like the one percentile. It’s crazy.
Mr. McQueen, can you talk a little bit about getting the project off the ground? What the origin of it was?
McQueen: It kind of started, in fact I was reminded of it today, with a conversation I had with Michael in 2008. But previously before that I saw a Pasolini movie, I can’t remember the title of it now. But I had read about this Pasolini movie where this character slept with a whole, entire family. He was sort of this visitor who came into the house and slept with the mother, father, sister, and the brother. And I kept thinking ‘this is kind of interesting.’ Interesting in the whole idea of having intimacy or sex with this guy who had had sex with all these other people.
So I put it away and talked to Michael about my idea, which wasn’t really an idea because it was so vague, and fast forward two and half years later and I had this conversation with Abi Morgan. And we started to talking about the internet and pornography, and we got onto the idea of sex addiction. And we thought ‘this is it,’ alarm bells started going off in my head. This is what I want to do, this is the subject I want to investigate. And from there we actually tried to interview people in London to help us find out more about it. We were interested. It was kind of like Miss Marple and Colombo, you know? Two sort of fumbling detectives on the trail of sex addiction. Unfortunately we hit a bit of a dead end because at that time no one wanted to speak to us.
It was strange. At that time sex addiction was very much in the public eye of the media so it closed a lot of doors and no one wanted to speak to us. It was very, very difficult. So then I said ‘I need to talk to experts in the field.’ And the two experts we found were ones who were pretty high regarded were in New York. And we went over there and had conversation with them and they in turn introduced us to sex addicts and people who were suffering with the affliction and people who were recovering. And that was the sort of seed and that was it. So I said ‘let’s shoot this in New York’ and that was it.
In the film, Brandon is very well put together. He’s got an immaculate apartment, he’s got an immaculate look, he’s got a great job. From the outside, he looks like everything is together. And on the inside, obviously he’s breaking. Was that your experience with your research, where these people had that facade?
McQueen: I think most people with addictions are pretty…I mean most of them could get into the CIA, meaning that there’s a situation where they hide it even from themselves. “I don’t have a problem!” and if they do have a problem, they’re very careful about hiding their tracks. It just one of those things that comes along with being involved in addiction in general. Yes, Brandon is this person who has everything in a way but within that he is putting himself into prison by his actions. He can’t help it. And, again, sex addiction is not about being promiscuous…a lot of people are promiscuous…this is about an all encompassing. This is a situation where the addiction dictates the person…it controls the person. So it becomes a certain situation where the habit or the person that has this affliction has no choice. He has to facilitate the addiction.
You show his spiral and, in the end, Brandon accepts that he has this addiction but Brandon doesn’t really seek help…
Fassbender: We don’t know that.
McQueen: Yeah, we have no idea.
Fassbender: We see him later on the train after time has passed and you don’t know what’s happened in that period of time.
McQueen: Life is much more complicated than happy endings. And we hope to have a happy ending, absolutely, but it’s just one of those things where he has to find it in himself or how he’s going to do it, I don’t know. Does he stay on the train? Does he get off the train? We don’t know. And what Michael says quite well, as an audience we go into the movie in a way as if the movie has already been playing and when we leave the movie, it will continue to play. So we don’t know. It’s difficult…it’s just difficult.
Brandon’s a character whose life really depends on the secrets that he keeps. What did you learn about yourself while you were kind of playing that character?
Fassbender: Um, I learned that I feel lucky, I suppose. That I have a healthy relationship to sex. And also just relationships in general. I supposed I’m a pretty open person and I enjoy the sort of intimacy of relationships. And I feel very blessed. Whether that’s down to the family that I grew up with, my parents and my sister. They’ve given me an awful lot of grounding and that sort of nurturing. I experienced it. And Brandon’s sort of… phew. I mean it’s dark. It was very sort of exhausting. This job was definitely the hardest because you have somebody who doesn’t like himself in a very deep way and then goes about sort of abusing himself because of it. So that’s what you take from it. You feel lucky.
SHAME is out now in limited release.