My first encounter with Michael Fassbender was at a hot dog stand.
It’s 1:30 a.m. in tiny Telluride, Colorado. Hours earlier, I’d attended the first screening of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave at the town's film festival. The movie tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who, in 1841, was captured and sold to a brutal slave master, Edwin Epps (Fassbender), in the antebellum South. It is so wholly immersive and powerful that even its stars were left speechless—during the post-screening Q&A, Brad Pitt, the film’s producer, suggested the audience “walk around the block” to get some air and recover from the screening, while Fassbender admitted to being "taken aback."
Anyways, I’m starving, and at this hour, the only real option in this bucolic ex-silver mining town is the Diggity Dogg hot dog stand. So I mosey on over. I’ll have the Bratwurst. As soon as those words leave my mouth, I turn around and am staring at a tipsy-looking Fassbender. A huge smile is spread across his face. He notices my Knicks hat and asks if I’m from New York, making polite small talk while we wait for our dogs. He doesn’t know I’m a journalist. I neglect to crack a Shame joke.
A few weeks later, we’re both in New York discussing 12 Years A Slave.
“Did you go for the Fire Dog, or the Bratwurst?” he asks.
And, after exchanging a few pleasantries about Telluride—“It’s a very special place,” says Fassbender—we discuss the actor’s magnetic, Oscar-caliber performance as Epps.
What was the most important part, for you, in portraying this grotesque character?
It was grueling to find the inner workings of a human being in the character of Epps. I wanted to create someone that was, at times, sympathetic to the audience—despite the cruelty he displays. I wanted the audience to catch glimpses of themselves in Epps, even for a millisecond, and not have the luxury of keeping themselves at an arm’s distance from him. He’s a terrible slave-owner, but also a human being filled with complexity.
I spoke with Tom Hardy awhile back, who was two years below you at Drama Centre London, and he said you were the best actor in the school, and were very method in terms of preparation. He shared a story with me about how you were playing a man in a wheelchair and spent all day at school in the wheelchair, even during lunch.
Yeah, that’s true. That was Sean O’Casey’s play The Silver Tassie. I was playing a football player who loses his legs and ends up in a wheelchair. I felt like I needed to bring the physicality of being a football player into the wheelchair, so I spent a lot of time in it and learned how to do wheelies, and spin around. That was a technique that, at that time, I was very much into. But since, I’ve developed my own sort of style, as it were.
I heard you’re a big fan of heavy metal, and once wanted to be a metal guitarist. I read a story once about how Daniel Day-Lewis listened to a lot of Eminem to help him get into character for Gangs of New York. Did you listen to any music to prepare you for Epps?
Hmm … I had a BB gun in my trailer and I remember I’d do target practice a lot. At times I do use music to get into character, but I don’t think I did on this one.
Steve McQueen has had you play a hunger striker, a sex addict, and now, a slave owner. Do you ever ask him, “What do you think of me?”
[Laughs] I think Steve has a knack for understanding human beings and trying to explore their behavior. You see that with Solomon Northup, who maintains his dignity amid such extreme circumstances, and you also saw that with Bobby Sands [in Hunger]. That requires an actor to go to certain extremities, and I’m happy to do that.
Epps is, in many ways, a false prophet who uses religion as a means to dehumanize what he calls his “property.” He is the living embodiment of religious hypocrisy.
Definitely. That’s the first clue to the audience when he’s reading scripture [to the slaves], but he doesn’t even understand what he’s saying himself, and his delivery and vocabulary aren’t so eloquent. It says in the book that he’s not the sharpest tool in the box. He uses religion as a way to control his workers, which is not an unusual thing to see.
You grew up an altar boy, but what’s your attitude towards religion these days?
I’m a lapsed Catholic. I don’t really go to church—only on special occasions like a wedding, or Christmastime. I think it can be a powerful influence, and it can be the flipside. Religion is very powerful and it depends on whose hands it sits in.
Edwin does so many horrifying things during the film—mostly to his teen slave whom he’s fixated on, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). What was the toughest scene for you to film?
The rape scene was the most upsetting and disturbing one to film, for sure. Lupita and I hugged after doing a scene like that. We were very close in terms of supporting one another as colleagues. It was a night shoot and I had a drink after and took a moment to flush it out, and got ready for the next day.
Why did it take a British director in 2013 to make the first Hollywood film to expose the brutality of slavery?
That’s really down to Brad Pitt and Plan B [the producers]. We’re working in the movie business, and it is very much that, so there are people that go out to malls and gauge demographics, what sort of endings people want to see, and that sort of thing, and this doesn’t tick the right boxes. It’s a money thing, that’s number one. And it’s difficult to see this sort of stuff and deal with it because maybe there’s some shame involved. It’s something that is 150 years old, but that’s not too far away. It took Oliver Hirschbiegel until 2004 to make Downfall in Germany about the last days of Hitler, so perhaps it hit a little too close to the bone. We wouldn’t be having this conversation without Brad Pitt and Plan B.
Did you bear witness to any racism or prejudice growing up?
Living in Ireland, we had The Troubles there and saw prejudice towards certain people because of their religion, so I definitely grew up seeing that. But nothing nearly as bad as what Solomon went through.
You’re one of the few actors that’s managed to strike a nice balance between big studio projects like X-Men, and more intimate character studies like 12 Years. Do you have a “one for you, one for me” mentality?
Around the time I decided to do X-Men, there were other big studio projects coming my way, and for me, it was the right character and the right script, and doing that film allowed me to get other films financed. I have my production company now [Finn McCool Films], and the more difficult subject matter that doesn’t tick the right boxes can get made thanks to films like X-Men and Prometheus. And as a fan, I love an entertainment piece as much as something that has an element of social commentary to it. It keeps me on my toes, keeps me flexible, and allows me to stretch whatever range I’ve got.
I heard that you’re doing a film based on the video game Assassin’s Creed. What’s the status on that?
That’s definitely happening. We’re just developing the script at the moment. I’d heard of it but had never played the game. I don’t have a video game player … that’s not what they’re called. [Laughs] I met up with the guys from Ubisoft and they told me the story behind it, and I thought it was very interesting—the idea of reliving memories.
Back to 12 Years. You and Steve McQueen really seem to get the best out of each other. It’s one of those rare director-star relationships, like Scorsese and De Niro. Why do you think that is?
We inspire one another. We both like to take risks and aren’t afraid of failure.