Director Steve McQueen on Michael Fassbender's Shame
The British filmmaker discusses sex addiction, the importance of trusting the audience, and why he originally thought his star was a cocky bastard.
Acclaimed visual artist (and tough guy namesake) Steve McQueen made an astonishing feature film debut with 2008's uncompromising prison piece Hunger, a movie that also drew attention to a daring performance from its emerging star, Michael Fassbender. This week, the pair reunite for their second collaboration, Shame, in which Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, a New York yuppie trapped in an emotionally crippling labyrinth of sex addiction. The movie, which co-stars Carey Mulligan as Brandon's wayward sister Sissy, finds McQueen trading one form of incarceration for another -- and has placed Fassbender squarely in the acting race for Oscar prognosticators. We had the opportunity to chat with the ever-lively director in Los Angeles recently, where he shared some thoughts on the film.
Hunger was such an audacious debut. How did you go about choosing a follow-up?
Steve McQueen: It was a situation where, for me, it's not a second film -- it's a continuation. It was just a continuation from where we left off in Hunger, in a way. [Co-screenwriter] Abi [Morgan] wanted to meet me and I wanted to meet her, and we ended up speaking for three-and-a-half hours. We started talking about internet pornography and then we got on to sex addiction, and that was it -- the seed was planted. And I thought, "Wow, that would be amazing." Previously, I'd wanted to put down the gun -- I wanted to make a love story -- that's what I really wanted to do, and then having this conversation with Abi I thought, "This was it." In a comparison with Hunger, again, it's about someone who's using their body. Bobby Sands [played by Fassbender in Hunger] has a situation where he's in a maximum security prison, and in order to create his own freedom he doesn't eat -- he stops from eating, which liberates him -- whereas Brandon is in a completely different, opposite situation where he's in New York and he's a very attractive man with a very good job and well-paid, in an ultra-capitalist Mecca where you can access anything you want -- so-called "freedom" -- and in many ways what he's doing is putting himself in a sort of prison through his sexual activities.
Do you see his life as a prison, or his addiction as the prison?
He's imprisoning himself with his addiction, of course. He's trapped. I would imagine, like anyone who's addicted to anything, that they would love not to be addicted to it. When something's taking up your time and ruining your life, in a way, and mucking up your head, you would prefer to stop. And that's his prison. So the opposites -- of Bobby Sands and Brandon Sullivan -- is interesting for me. And also the performance of Michael, what he has to do. Because with Bobby Sands, as an IRA prisoner, his organization has pushed violence to the ultimate limit, and what you do then is you push language to its ultimate limit, and that's what Bobby Sands did. Michael's a very verbal, physical character, and pushing himself on language, and the limits of reason within language. On the flipside you've got Brandon, who's not a big talker at all. He's very insular: everything is happening inside; he's imploding. You see everything on his face but nothing verbally is coming out -- nothing real, verbally, is coming out.
Was it always going to be a film made with Michael?
What is it about Michael that originally drew you to him as an actor?
Well at first I couldn't stand him; I thought he was a cocky bastard. [Laughs] In the audition [for Hunger] I thought, "F--k, where's he at?" Then he came back and, of course, it was love at second sight. I think that it was, with Michael, it's a way to work with someone who gets you -- and I get him, so it's all second nature. What he has is that he's a very masculine man, but there's a huge femininity in him. There's a huge female quality in Michael, of vulnerability, which I think is extraordinary, because most actors would not be that vulnerable. Everyone likes to be the hero or whatever, but in his vulnerability and his femininity there is strength, and I think, for me, that's his appeal. Basically he's not removed from you, the audience -- he is you. You see yourself in him, and that's genius. Not a lot of actors can do that.
He's also willing to push himself to physical extremes for the role.
That's a part of it, I suppose, but that's not the biggest part of it. I mean, any guy can starve and not eat; that's not the point. What he does is that he transcends that -- that's the point. He transcends the physicality. That's the thing.
What brought Carey to the role of Sissy?
Well, Carey found the script. I don't know how she did it, but she found the script and she asked to be introduced to me, to have the part of Sissy. I met her for the first time and we spoke, and I thought there's a desperation to her that I quite liked. I thought that's interesting for the character, and I offered her the role on the spot. It was very simple. And a lot of people say now, "Well she's not the first person you would normally have as the first choice," but I don't buy that. I don't buy that at all. Because I think people have these ideas about who you think you are rather than who you actually are. And she had this kind of desperate, real need to do this part, and I liked that.
So apart from Michael, you don't have any preconception of who you want for roles?
I don't think you can. I think as a director you've got to be open. I mean, just in the research of the film I didn't know what we would come across. This whole film is because of the research. I didn't know, in the planning of the script. I wouldn't be arrogant enough to think "Okay, this is what's gonna happen" before I actually researched it. The actual research, the interviews that we had with people who were sex addicts, they had to sort of give us the story. That's what this is about: You're following the situation to where it wants to lead you, rather than you putting your stencil on something. I don't wanna do that. I never want to put my stencil on to something -- I want it to inform me.