If only I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard or read an actor say some version of, “It’s all about the work.” But when Michael Fassbender says it during our conversation in a Chicago hotel room, it seems irrefutable: This guy is all about the work. Wearing a faded greenish T-shirt, faded brownish pants with frayed hems, and bright-red socks (his white sneakers to the side), the 34-year-old lies sideways on the couch, sits up, leans forward, reclines again, sits up again. All the while, he’s talking rapidly about his new film, Shame, with his fiercely intent gaze—which he effectively deploys in his second movie with British artist-director Steve McQueen, following 2008’s Hunger. In an Oscar-buzzy performance, the German-Irish actor plays Brandon, a New York yuppie with a bad case of sex addiction.
Did you talk with sex-addiction experts or people with sex addiction?
Yes, I did, and I was very grateful for the opportunity, and one man in particular, his honesty gave me great insight into the gravity of the situation. When you’re imprisoned by these compulsions, what makes it different to the other addictions, it’s part and parcel of us. Alcohol is an extremity you’re adding into your life. But sex is something that most of us do. It’s a very strong primal instinct.
What did you learn from the sex addict?
The crux of the issue for him was this intimacy problem, and getting an insight into that, how terrifying it can be for Brandon to open himself up emotionally.
What do you tap into in yourself to understand Brandon’s addiction? Is there anything you could allow to subsume you in that way?
No, what I try and do is, like, the actions of the character will define his personality, but I don’t want to make his personality all about the action. It’s, like, if I’m a serial killer, it doesn’t mean that I have to walk around looking evil all the time.
But what helps you sympathize with—
Of course I sympathize. I don’t suffer from addiction, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t understand elements of it. We’re all the same, so there is an addict inside me somewhere. The essence of this piece is: We’re all looking to connect with one another, but how does it happen in reality? There’s so much information being thrown at us all the time, we’re sold so much, we’re being manipulated so much. Where is the free will? I don’t know if you’ve got a boyfriend or a girlfriend. The choice that you made to be with that person, is that really your own choice or is it through years of being manipulated by the information being streamed at you all the time? It creates anxiety and confusion, which I can relate to. Now, do I go as far as addiction? No, but this character does.
Boyfriend, actually, and along those lines: The scene where your character enters the gay bathhouse—the way it’s shot and lit and its ominous music seem to signal his complete descent into depravity. How did you read that moment?
It doesn’t become about homosexuality or heterosexuality, it becomes about a fix, and where can I get my fix? People think, Wow, this is his descent into hell, and it’s not the case. I mean, we shot in a real club. That is a real scenario for many addicts that are predominantly heterosexual and they end up with a guy. You put yourself into a scenario that you wouldn’t do in a normal situation because your choice is gone.
Brandon’s not the only character with an unhappy sex life; there are also his boss, his sister. Do you think Shame goes from looking critically at sex addiction to becoming anti-sex or anti-promiscuity?
No, I don’t think so. It’s, like, do we masturbate? I mean, yes. [Laughs] But do you masturbate 20 times a day? People can be promiscuous or sexually active, but the major thing here for me is addiction and what is that. [The film] doesn’t mean that people going out and having sex are not getting anything beneficial out of it.
But sex doesn’t work for anybody in the film.
It’s not condemning modern-day society. It’s just investigating it.
How do you prepare for scenes where you’re naked and simulating sex?
The most important thing is that the other person involved feels safe and doesn’t feel like you’re taking advantage of them in the scene, ’cause you’re revealing a lot, you’re going to places where you’re vulnerable, and that requires an awful lot of trust. You talk with your partner and say, “What are you comfortable with? What are you not comfortable with?” And then you go for it. You try and throw away the safety nets and not worry where the camera’s gonna be or how you’re gonna look or worry about looking ugly.
How is it, becoming an actor in such demand?
It’s great. At a certain point in my career it would’ve been a massive thing to be doing what I like to do and getting paid for it, and so this position is the most I could’ve ever dreamed for—especially with the recession that hit us in 2008, and this industry suffered as much as any other.
Is that driving you? You’ve got this film, then David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, then films by Steven Soderbergh, Ridley Scott, Jim Jarmusch.
I don’t take anything for granted. I realize I’m in a very blessed position, so I want to push myself, take risks, learn from these great people as much as I can for as long as I can. It’s all about the work.
Shame opens December 2.