While harrowing and raw, the resulting work is also emotionally honest and affecting–making it one of the best films of the year, and generating plenty of Best Actor awards talk for Fassbender.
Shame is rated NC-17 for nudity and sexual scenes, but mostly because of its subject and the unflinching focus McQueen and Fassbender bring to bear on it. The stark, minimalist film marks the pair’s second collaboration–they first grabbed attention and awards in 2008 with Hunger, the equally gripping story of imprisoned IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands.
Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, a handsome, successful New Yorker who’s secretly in the grip of an all-consuming sexual addiction. As with in so much of the German-born Irish actor’s work, his virtuoso performance is both intense and intricately nuanced and layered. Equally good is Carey Mulligan as Brandon’s visiting sister Sissy, whose arrival unravels Brandon attempts to manage his addiction.
(In recent years Fassbender’s made a name for himself playing chilly, intimidating characters in films like Inglourious Basterds and Centurion, not to mention Jane Eyre‘s Rochester and X-Men: First Class‘ Magneto. But I want to note that in person he’s absolutely charming and full of humor and warmth. When we arrived he was jamming out to The Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls,” and during the interview kicked off his shoes to reveal thick, fuzzy red socks.)
Was it tricky approaching the issue of sexual addiction?
Michael Fassbender: At the beginning I thought, “Is sexual addiction a real thing?” And you look into it and realize it’s very real, and it’s happening. It’s part and parcel of all of us and this is the sort of world we’re living in. So in this film we’re trying to observe and investigate and really treat it respectfully.
Steve McQueen: Unfortunately addiction can be drinking coffee all afternoon or eating or the extremes of alcohol and drugs. And sex is one of those places that really hasn’t been looked at properly, not in a serious manner. People usually shun it or turn away from it, but sex is as familiar to us as anything else we do. So I wanted to put the camera on it and take a look.
What challenges did you face with this character, Michael? Were there stereotypes or dangers you made sure to avoid?
Fassbender: Steve had mentioned the idea to me in 2008, and when I got a script in 2010 [written by McQueen and Abi Morgan] what struck me immediately was how beautiful the story was. I really felt for Brandon and all the characters.
From there it was just finding the character and allowing him to tell me where to go and allowing those around me to influence me and surprise me and stir things up inside me. I read the script a lot, I live with the guy for as much as I can, and then I come on set, and everyone comes together with their ideas, and you try to stay open, responsive, awake, aware and relaxed and focused.
Personally, I tried to keep Brandon as close to me as possible, as opposed to isolating him and treating it as someone else’s issue and problem. His actions will speak for themselves, but Brandon’s inner life and who he is as a person doesn’t have to be associated with the act. It was important to me that the film’s not about a dude in a raincoat with sweaty hands, it’s about an everyday guy on the street that we all know, and in some ways we’re all a part of him.
He keeps his self-loathing tamped down and hidden, but when it reappears he turns to sex to numb it—which just leads to more self-loathing.
Fassbender: That’s part of the pattern, that’s addiction. He’s caught in this cycle of self-loathing and shame, so to escape he goes out and engages in it again. He needs to get his fix, he needs to feel something. And he doesn’t like himself, so he’s abusing himself, even putting himself in dangerous situations.
Brandon’s not a “player.” Playing means you’re getting some sort of joy out of it, and this it about being all encompassed by something. He’s very aware that this is a condition that’s taking over his day-to-day life.
The idea behind Shame is that sense you’re no longer in control of your actions or decisions–the addiction is controlling you, and you’re a sort of slave or prisoner to the condition. How do you deal with addiction when a cycle, or a pattern of behavior has developed and it’s tearing apart your workplace, your relationships with others, and yourself?
McQueen: And his sexual addiction has as much to do with sex as alcohol has to do with being thirsty. Instead it has to do with him keeping his head above water, trying to stay afloat above all this stuff. It’s just difficult being a human being. Brandon goes beyond being promiscuous–he cannot survive a day without having more than a few sexual encounters.
And it’s not a problem until someone tells you it’s a problem. So when Sissy [Mulligan] comes into the equation, she holds the mirror up because she brings their past to the present.
Michael, right now you have both Shame and A Dangerous Method [playing Carl Jung to Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud] out in theaters. A Dangerous Method also deals with sex and psychology, so did working on one film inform the other?
Fassbender: I didn’t even think about it at the time. I dive into a film and then flush it out and dive into the next project. So it was just Dangerous, X-Men, and then Shame. In hindsight I see the parallels—we’re still discussing our relationship to sex a hundred years after those guys were.
And I suppose in a roundabout way acting is like psychoanalysis. I think artists are trying to understand human behavior and what we’re doing here and are trying to represent life and our experiences of it and each other in storytelling form.
Steve, was it difficult to convince the studio to release Shame with an NC-17 rating?
McQueen: I’ve never had a conversation with Fox Searchlight about NC-17 or about changing or altering the picture. They’ve seen the movie, they’ve supported the movie, they’ve taken the movie on its own merit, and that’s it. All I’m asking is that people have a chance to see it.
Shame is playing in select theaters across the country.