With his combination of fearless physicality and intense intellect, Michael Fassbender is poised to become the next Daniel Day-Lewis. Not surprisingly, he also turned out to be the most engaging and humble interview subject that one could hope for. We spoke at length about the differences between working with Fish Tank director Andrea Arnold versus Steve McQueen (Hunger) and Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds); about applying theatrical training to film; and, yes, even about that highly disturbing centerpiece of Fish Tank.
I reviewed Hunger during the New York Film Festival and for weeks I raved that I’d just seen the next Daniel Day-Lewis. I’m sure you’ve heard that before though.
Oh my gosh, no. Jesus. Thank you very much. That’s a compliment.
Well, I truly mean that. You’ve also recently worked with Tarantino on the epic Inglourious Basterds. And here you’re working with a director who takes a very opposite, Mike Leigh-type approach to filmmaking—where no one gets a script until a few days before shooting and the film is shot in sequence so that the actors don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Yeah, Andrea [Arnold] had a script before we started, but she didn’t want any of the actors to have a complete script. She wanted us to do it on a day-to-day basis. But I was like, uh, I’m kind of slow at learning lines, so I asked if she could give it to me on a Friday so then I could work over the weekend.
But this must have been like night and day especially compared to working with Steve McQueen. Can you talk a bit about both the similarities and the differences between working with her and with McQueen and with Tarantino? To me—and I could be completely wrong—it seems like she’s working in a very different way than they are.
She is. With Andrea it’s totally sort of a different way than I usually work anyways. I’ll do a lot of prep and I read the script an awful lot of times, and just sort of make sure I know it inside and out. That way I can go any direction with it. But Andrea just wanted to see what happens in the moment. She doesn’t like to rehearse. She likes to go straight in there and film it and the mistakes that happen she finds them interesting. When she called me up and asked if I’d be interested I’d already seen Red Road and I was very impressed with the way she portrays her characters. As a director she doesn’t judge them. They’re just sort of presented. She’s got a really good take on the human condition. She likes the ambiguous. She doesn’t make it too easy on an audience by going, “Okay, here’s your villain, here’s your hero.” The characters are a mix of both. And I find that very, very interesting.
But how does that experience compare to working with McQueen and Tarantino?
They’re very different personalities. But the common link is they love working with actors, they all create a very safe environment to work in, and they’re all very clear about what they want.
As you said, Andrea is kind of open to mistakes. To me, it didn’t seem like McQueen would leave a lot of room for mistakes.
No, he does!
Oh, he does? Okay!
It would be very rare that Steve would come up and say, “Don’t do it like that.” He would like to see things happen organically like Andrea. The difference with Hunger is when you’re dealing with that piece there’s no way you can go in there and freewheel. A lot of work had to go into that scene with Liam Cunningham and me because it was such a complex piece of dialogue.
A tremendous scene too!
That was the real crux of Hunger. If we got that scene right then we felt we had the film in good stead, but if we failed I think at that point the film would have fallen apart. As for Tarantino, he’s more precise; he would give you a line reading. Which is fine by me. What I look for most in a director is clarity. Tarantino’s also very passionate. He expects you to do your homework because he does it. He gives you a lot of ammunition to work with before you get on set.
To create the character of Bobby Sands in Hunger you obviously had a wealth of biographical material to tap into. Yet there’s such specificity to the role of Connor I wondered if you’d also based him on someone real. Do you feel more pressure playing a historical figure or are you more concerned with just staying true to whichever character you inhabit?
Sure, there was a lot of pressure on me with the Bobby Sands character. My mum comes from Northern Ireland and I spent a lot of my childhood up there so, yeah, I was very nervous about approaching it. But when playing real people I’m not really that interested in being a spitting image of somebody. I try to sort of gather up as much information on him and get an essence of the man—and then essentially throw it all away, stick with what’s in the script and the story to be told. With Connor I just sort of…pretty much it’s as close to me as any performance really, because I didn’t have a lot of reference points in the script. So I just thought, I’ll be myself and try to keep it as light and positive as possible, and just allow things to happen.
So was there less pressure with Connor then? Was there more pressure while shooting Hunger?
They’re different pressures. It’s kind of nice to have a lot of things to deal with like an accent or a period you can slip into, whereas with Connor there was nothing really. It was sort of just almost naked, you know?
Which is a different type of fear.
Yeah, exactly. It’s like, “Jeez, I don’t think I’m that interesting!” But I just knew that was the only way to go with it. Andrea was like, “I want you to use your own accent,” so I just decided to go all out. I knew he had to be a very strong male presence and that I wanted to keep it light.
It’s always obvious to me when I see a theatrically trained actor on screen. Like with Hunger, I knew there’s no way anyone could pull off a character like that without theatrical training. There’s usually just more of a gravitas to the performance. Can you talk a bit about how your theatrical background related to Fish Tank, especially with regard to acting with a novice lead? Did improv technique play a role?
Yeah. We did it according to the script—like four or five takes according to the script. Then Andrea would tell us to go off and do what we want, say whatever we want, and then we might do the scene totally silent. It was almost like you’re doing the rehearsal process for the film. So the inspiration is happening as the scene delivers. The great thing about doing theater and getting that training is that it teaches you to do a play for an hour and a half. But what’s great with theater is you have a four- or five-week rehearsal period. That’s why I try to take that same ethos for film. When things click it’s with the long takes, that’s when you’re excited, you’re scared, that’s when things get the most interesting.