Michael Fassbender on “Shame,” sadism, playing a Jewish supervillain and why he’s not in therapy
“Shame, shame, shame, shame,” Michael Fassbender, who very much seems to be the actor of the moment, sang in a goofy baritone recently. His impromptu ditty was unexpected, given that he was in the middle of an intense discussion about his two latest films: Steve McQueen’s NC-17 “Shame” and David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” both involving excruciating (if very different) dissections of sexual shame.
But then again, the 34-year-old Fassbender in person is far less intense than he appears onscreen: Lithe and rather boyish, he punctuates a conversation with levity—which is understandable given that he’s been talking all day about two films in which his characters practically implode. Dressed casually in jeans while sitting on a throne-like chair at the Four Seasons Hotel, he’s also not above a bit of self-deprecating humor, lamenting, “My brain is s—-t today” when he’s unable to name a character in a Wagnerian opera; or “God, that was a rant, wasn’t it,” after a discussion about his turn as a Holocaust survivor turned supervillain in the blockbuster, “X-Men: First Class.”
Fassbender was born in Germany to a German father and an Irish mother, but grew up in the Irish countryside, where he was raised Catholic and served as an alter boy. He discovered acting in high school and studied at the Drama Centre in London before landing a role in the Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks World War II HBO mini-series, “Band of Brothers.” Until recently he was perhaps best known for portraying the Jewish mutant Magneto in “X-Men: First Class;” an Irish republican hunger striker in Steve McQueen’s “Hunger;” and the British Lt. Archie Hicox in Quentin Tarantino’s Holocaust fantasy, “Inglourious Basterds.” Fassbender speaks fluent German but had to brush up to play Hicox, who blows the Basterds’ cover in that film’s outrageous tavern shootout sequence.
In “Shame,” Fassbender gives a haunting (and Oscar-worthy) performance as Brandon, a Manhattan yuppie whose sleek life begins to unravel after his sister (Carey Mulligan) arrives for a visit – escalating his addiction to anonymous sex, pornography and prostitutes.
Then there’s Fassbender’s portrayal of a youngish Carl Jung in “A Dangerous Method,” an “intellectual ménage a trios” between Jung, Sigmund Freud and their brilliant but troubled Russian-Jewish patient, Sabina Spielrein.
Early on in that movie, Jung cures the 18-year-old Spielrein (Keira Knightley) by causing her to realize that her hysteria stems from guilt over the erotic pleasure she experienced when her father beat her naked bottom. As she and Jung become lovers, he fulfills her masochistic desires (some having to do with their respective stations as an Aryan and a Jew in early 20th century Europe) with his belt in hand.
In “Shame,” Fassbender simulates explicit carnal acts and appears fully naked as his face hints of the addict’s tormented psyche. It’s not the first time he’s played a tortured soul with a devastating past: Fassbender’s turn as Magneto transformed what could have been yet another comics-inspired film into a compelling character study.
When the conversation turned back to “Shame” and “A Dangerous Method,” I asked Fassbender if he perceives parallels between how these films explore issues of sexual guilt. “Definitely,” he replied, without hesitation. “What my character experiences in ‘Shame’ is something that came up a lot in conversations I had with people who suffer from this affliction: It’s the sense that you’re no longer in control of your physical self or your impulses; that your addiction has taken over and that you have no control over your own actions. So immediately after the sexual act, the first thing that strikes you is this overwhelming feeling of shame and self-loathing.
“Keira’s character in ‘A Dangerous Method’ is very similar because her shame is also of a sexual nature. Things happened to her as a child, which she translated into a sexual sort of spark,” he added, snapping his fingers. “When her father began sending her into a special room to take her clothes off and to be beaten, she began to experience wetness, and to get excited by that. That was the first sexual trigger in her formative years, which would carry through into her adulthood.”
The S & M sequences between Jung and Spielrein map well over Aryan-Jewish tensions of the time.
“There are different camps of people, some of whom think Jung was anti-Semitic, but I don’t think so,” said Fassbender, who may next be offered the titular role in Darren Aronofsky’s biblical epic, Noah, according to Variety. “What Jung was interested in with Sabina, was the forbidden sort of tale, the taboo relationship, and playing out the Wagnerian myth of the blond hero Siegfried, born out of sin. For sure, there was a level of excitement there, the sense that the two of them were doing something that was socially incorrect.”
The film—and the play upon which it is based, Christopher Hampton’s “The Talking Cure” – repeatedly describes Jung as “godlike” or Aryan. “Jung believed very much in the Aryan idea, in that he had a lineage back to the mythology of old,” the actor said. “That kind of thought was tied into Freud’s struggle as well, because people at the time believed psychoanalysis was a ‘Jewish’ science and thus, didn’t take it seriously. And obviously we know the sort of prejudice against the Jewish community in Europe that was to unfold in the coming years.”
Here are further excerpts from our conversation:
NPM: Have you ever been in psychoanalysis?
MF: I went to therapy once. I was in a relationship, which wasn’t working, so we were attempting to see if it was worth trying to continue. So I went to one session, and that was it. I think therapy is a good thing, for people to vocalize whatever’s going on. But for me, growing up in Ireland, in the Catholic religion, people in my village went to talk to the priest and it wasn’t only for confession.
NPM: Does acting serve as therapy for you?
MF: I’d be very careful to say it is therapy, because then it becomes a very self-indulgent exercise. But for sure it can lead to more understanding, in that maybe one finds out a bit more about oneself, or flaws and those kinds of things.
NPM: In “A Dangerous Method,” Jung begins an extramarital relationsihp with Spielrein – she’s a masochist. How does Jung feel about taking on the role of sadist in the relationship?
MF: I think he’s doing it for her. I think she gets off on it so he’s willing to facilitate that, and he probably gets off on the fact that she’s getting off. She had come to him and said, “I’m terrible, I’m awful,” and he had explained to her that your [masochism] is part and parcel of who you are; just recognize it, try to understand it, and then we can heal it.
NPM: Their physical relationship is almost like sex therapy.
MF: I always thought so, too. That she’s actually going through a physical form of this therapy in a way, and it’s interesting within the film’s landscape and the time we look at their lives.
NPM: What might Sigmund Freud have to say about Sabina’s issues of sexual guilt? And might that apply to your character in “Shame” as well?
MF: Freud said that having a penis and a vagina and an anus and excrement and having a relationship with these things in your childhood will carry through into your adult life and will have manifestations of whatever form. And if we don’t recognize it, it could get really ugly.
NPM: Immediately after playing Jung, you starred as Magneto, who is scarred by the Holocaust and is determined to prevent fellow mutants from suffering a similar fate at the hands of the human race. Did learning about psychoanalysis in “A Dangerous Method” help you to analyze that character?
MF: Psychoanalysis in a lot of ways relates to what I do as an actor. I have an interest in human nature and behavior—what motivates a certain character, where does his moral compass lie. In terms of Magneto, there’s so much rich information within the “X-Men” comic books; I went to the source material, and found so much there. I hadn’t really known much about “X-Men,” because I never really read comics as a child. But one of the first things that drew me in was this idea of outcasts; of people feeling like they didn’t belong, whether because of their religion, their ethnicity, or sexuality. That reflects my feeling that in the end we’re all the same, in that we all want to be loved, we all want to feel accepted and relevant. I thought, this a really interesting world to play with. And then with Magneto, of course, he’s got such a crazy past; he goes through the Holocaust and we see that in the film. There’s another significant story, which ends horribly, where he falls in love with a Gypsy girl during the Holocaust, and he wants to save her…. his house ends up getting burned down and [their] child with it. For me, that was his last relationship, his last attempt to live among humans and to accept humans. He decides they’re inferior, as he has seen their destruction first hand. And you know, history has taught us that yes, we are super destructive and we have been killing each other for thousands of years and it doesn’t seem to be changing much, does it?