Exclusive: Michael Fassbender in the Fish Tank

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Most movie fans will probably know actor Michael Fassbender from his role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s 300 or as Lt. Archie Hicox from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but in 2008, he started to get more attention for his amazing performance as IRA leader Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, a role for which Fassbender starved himself for two months in order to replicate the deterioration to Sands’ body during his fatal hunger strike. That unforgettable performance has kept Fassbender heavily in demand and quite busy ever since.

First up this year for the Irish actor is Fish Tank, the dramatic follow-up to Red Road from filmmaker Andrea Arnold. It features a remarkable performance by newcomer Katie Jarvis as Mia, a feisty 15-year-old whose troubles at home are escalated when Fassbender shows up as Connor, her mother’s new boyfriend who moves into the house with the family. While Connor does bring a positive influence to Mia’s life, helping to boost her self-esteem, it’s not long before his presence starts to create other problems. Fish Tank is a distinctive coming-of-age tale utilizing the same stark realism Arnold brought to Red Road with a unique set of characters representing the film’s environment. While it’s clearly Katie Jarvis’ movie, following Mia’s journey, there’s no denying that it’s great seeing Fassbender doing something more contemporary that allows us to see more of his own personality.

ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with the actor to talk about the movie when he came to New York City last week:

ComingSoon.net: What was the timeframe for making this movie? I think people see how thin you are in the movie and assume you made it right after “Hunger.”
Michael Fassbender: How long was the gap there now? “Hunger” was… yeah, I guess I finished up “Hunger” in February of that year and then did “Fish Tank” in August 2008, because I started “Hunger” in September of 2007 and then I took the 10 weeks off to lose the weight, came back in the New Year. They were editing everything that we filmed before Christmas and then just had the last bits to do then when we finished in February.

CS: I was just trying to figure that out, because we’ve see you in so many movies that came out over the last year, but some of them must have been filmed years ago.
Fassbender: Yeah, they were all kind of back-to-back, you know? It was pretty busy. Like I did “Fish Tank” and then straight on to “Inglourious Basterds” so they were back to back, and that’s why they both ended up premiering at Cannes.

CS: How did Andrea approach you for this? I assume you’d already seen “Red Road” already and knew her work…
Fassbender: Yeah.

CS: Did you just find out through your agent that she had another movie or did she contact them?
Fassbender: Yeah, I was in South Africa doing something for Channel 4, “Devil’s Whore,” it’s a four-part mini-series, and Andrea got in contact with my agent in London and she said she’d be interested in me to play this part in her new film. She had a script but she didn’t want to reveal it to the actors as such, and she wanted to give it scene-by-scene as we went, and that she would be willing to fly to Capetown and see me for the day. Well, I thought that’s just ridiculous. “Just tell her to give me a phone call and we’ll have a chat.” I loved “Red Road” and I loved the way she paints her characters and the ambiguity in her work. She doesn’t spoon-feed her audience like, “This is the good guy and this is the bad guy.” They’re all sort of meshed in to one another.

CS: Just like life…
Fassbender: Yeah, exactly, and I was just very keen to work with her. I knew I was going to learn stuff from her, and that it would be a real proper experience.

CS: Did she tell you anything about Connor beyond the fact that he’s the boyfriend of her mother?
Fassbender: Well, basically she said it’s a film that follows this 15-year-old girl and my character ends up having a fling with her single mother, and I end up moving into their council flat, and the effect that a male influence has on these three women… er… two girls and one woman. And that was pretty much the brief I got.

CS: You didn’t know any of the stuff that happens in the last act or what happened later. You might have had some idea?
Fassbender: Yeah, I kind of had a feeling what was going to happen. In terms of Connor’s own history, I didn’t know that. That started to reveal itself to me as we were filming it, and it was a funny thing that this guy was always sort of upbeat, and on the surface, he’s always a very positive character, but I thought to myself, “He seems to be very eager to jump into this family immediately,” and I thought he must be running away from something or there is some sort of secret there that he’s hiding. But as to exactly what it was, I wasn’t sure.

CS: How excited were you to do a modern-day film? You’ve been doing so many period pieces and been all over history.
Fassbender: I know, know, yeah. It’s nice, yeah, absolutely. It’s always nice to do something contemporary, and it’s nice to have a fresh contemporary piece, a new writer, a fresh topic and something that’s taking place in the hear and now for sure. That’s always nice. It’s nice to mix it up.

CS: I know some actors who just love doing period pieces.
Fassbender: Yeah, I do like dressing up. (laughs)

CS: That might have to be the quote for the piece: “I like dressing up.”
Fassbender: (laughs) Yeah, exactly! Well, it’s like a friend says to me, she’s like, “You play dress-up for a living,” and I think that’s a really good way of putting it. So there is something quite cool about period pieces, because when you do put on all the little bits and pieces, it does give you the feel of a different era, and it gives you a little spring in your step as your character, gives you that little extra layer.

CS: Did you feel like you brought more of yourself to Connor than you’ve been able to bring to some of the other characters?
Fassbender: Yeah, and also I didn’t have a script to work with, so I just kept it as free and easy as possible and tried to just allow it just to happen, and not to impose too many other things on it.

CS: I read that Andrea wanted to have a non-actor in your role. I think she just likes to work with non-actors in general.
Fassbender: ‘Cause actors are a pain in the ass. (laughs)

CS: Do you have any idea why she wanted to have you play Connor since you obviously are very experienced and have been out there in recent years?
Fassbender: She told me she saw me in this thing called “Wedding Belles” which I did, which was an Irving Welsh piece and I play this Scottish character actually who gets out of prison and he has a love interest with one of the lead actresses. It’s basically about four friends, these women, and she saw that character and basically, she said, “Okay, that’s Connor.”

CS: I remember her telling me that she doesn’t like rehearsal either.
Fassbender: No.

CS: So how does that work? You don’t have a script? You’re not rehearsing anything… do you have any sort of time to workshop or time to talk about what’s going to happen?
Fassbender: Not really, no. I think she just likes to work in that sort of form of chaos in some respects. It’s not like chaos, manic crazy, but working from a place of instability maybe and seeing what occurs in that sort of atmosphere. She creates a very safe and intimate environment to work in and allows one to really throw your trust in her, but I think she does like to see what takes place, the accidents that might happen or interesting moments. She’s very good at capturing the moment to moment in a scene. We would do the scene as scripted and then we would improvise it. She’d say, “Okay, go and do whatever you want now” and then we would do the scene without saying anything. While you’re filming, it’s very free and easy and explorative but no, no rehearsal.

CS: So you just give Andrea all these different versions and just leave it in her hands to decide what is going to work for the film?
Fassbender: Well, yeah, and I’m like, “Well I don’t have to do any homework.” She told me not to, the schoolteacher said it was alright. I guess it is quite frightening, yeah, but I do like to do things that scare me.

CS: Did you have a feeling that Katie might have known a little bit more what was going on in the story than you did?
Fassbender: Nope, no.

CS: Everyone was on the same page?
Fassbender: Definitely, yeah.

CS: Maybe not so much for your character, but I would think the other actors would have at least spent some time together to help create the bond of being a family. Most directors would have them do workshops or rehearsals to help get that together. Andrea didn’t do any of that?
Fassbender: Yeah, we’d sort of get together and go for lunch and things like that. When you’re on set as well, it’s a very small crew. We were in that council flat which was a small space for a lot of it, and we all got to know each other pretty quickly. She worked a lot with Katie in terms of hanging out with Katie and talking to her on the phone and just sort of being there for Katie whenever she needed her, just so Katie would really put her trust in her. She was very good with Katie, I have to say.

CS: Did Katie have any acting experience before making this movie?
Fassbender: Nope…

CS: So this was her first thing ever…
Fassbender: Absolutely.

CS: How was that as a trained actor being in that situation where you don’t have other experienced actors to work off of?
Fassbender: I think plenty of cases have proved that you don’t need to go to drama school and sort of get trained. I mean, Katie’s got a wonderful intuition. I’ve said it before that she’s got a real gift for finding the truth in everything. There’s no frills with her acting. She’s just coming from a very raw, guttural place, so she was wonderful to work with, and you just had to try to keep up with her really.

CS: As someone who has been trained, how do you feel when you work with someone who is such a natural without any schooling and can just jump into such dramatic scenes?
Fassbender: It’s great. The thing is that I don’t think you need to do training, but I’m glad I did training, because sometimes you’re intuition does fail you or you get nervous before a scene and then I have a structure that’s in place that gets me back in focus and get my head straight. That is the one good thing about training. There might be that one time, it’s like writer’s block or whatever. You get caught in a funk and you have tools that enable you to do your work.

CS: I don’t… I probably should have some, though.
Fassbender: (laughs)

CS: Besides knowing that Connor lives with them and is in a relationship with the mother, at what point did Andrea tell you that something was going to happen between you and Katie’s character?
Fassbender: I always knew that. From the conversation that I had with her, I actually thought I was going to sleep with the entire family. (laughs) There’s that… now I can’t remember the name of it but I haven’t seen it, but I remember seeing a documentary on Terrence Stamp and there’s that film where he ends up sleeping with the father, the son, the maid, the mother…

CS: Oh, I don’t know that one.
Fassbender: That film just popped into my head for some reason when she gave me this breakdown, so I had a very good idea what was going to happen with the character Mia in the script.

CS: It’s interesting because he certainly seems to be a good influence on the family, because it’s pretty chaotic before he gets there between Mia and her mother.
Fassbender: Sure. Yeah, I think he’s a very positive influence in her life. He’s the only one that really tells her that gives her some self-believe and tells her that she has got a talent and she should follow her dreams with the dancing and just gives her a sense of self-worth. I think that’s what Andrea does really well. I think when you display a character like that and what I was trying to do, and I think why Andrea didn’t want to give the script was that I wouldn’t sort of preload it and be this… that he’s sort of this predator and this is all premeditated. I don’t think that was the case at all. What she shows is that we all have this capability inside of us to do these things, and it’s more interesting then, rather than giving an audience an easy option or “Oh, God, here’s the bad guy… he’s trying to do bad here.” No, we leave them scratching their heads when they leave the theater because these are ordinary people that do good and bad towards each other. Positive things towards each other and then destructive things.

CS: As someone without a script, in your head you must have been trying to think ahead about what might happen or where it might go…
Fassbender: Yeah, but I just let that go, and that was the sort of thing. Once I signed up to it, then I really just had to go with it, and then give up… as I say, just put my trust in Andrea.

CS: You’ve been very busy with all the movies out last year and you have a bunch coming up, so do you have any idea what might be next?
Fassbender: I’m not sure when “Jonah Hex” is coming out. I think that’s going to be sometime in the summer, and then I’m going to start filming with Soderbergh beginning of February.

CS: Is that the movie with the mixed martial arts fighter?
Fassbender: Yeah, yeah. I play this MI6 operative that meets up with the lead character, so it should be interesting. I’m very excited to work with him. He’s a legend.

CS: You have a great resume of all the directors you’ve worked with, between Francois Ozon and Tarantino…
Fassbender: I know, I know… I’ve been lucky. (Knocks on wooden table) I say my “Hail Marys” at night. I’m in a very privileged place and even the job itself, it’s just a ridiculous job to have really, and I just thank my lucky stars every day.

CS: Do you know when you’ll start the “Jane Eyre” movie?
Fassbender: “Jane Eyre” is going to be after Soderbergh, and that’s going to be with Cary Fukunaga who did “Sin Nombre”… brilliant. Really nice guy, and then David Cronenberg, “The Talking Cure,” and that will sort of hook me up with Christoph. We never actually had a scene together, so I’m looking forward to that.

CS: When you’re playing a real person like you will in that movie and when you played Bobby Sands, do you have a different process going into that as you do with other roles? Do you have to be a little bit more careful with how you play them?
Fassbender: No, the thing is that something like Bobby Sands, you’ve got a lot of reference points, a lot of books to read. There were people who actually knew him that you could talk to and try to get some sort of essence of the real person, but I don’t try to do a spitting image of the character, just try to grab an essence of it and then essentially, the story is in the script, so it’s almost like you gather all this information and then kind of throw it away once you’ve taken it all on-board and let it seep in, and then you’ve got to do your own thing in the end, I think.

CS: Before we wrap up, I’d like to go back before you even appeared in “Band of Brothers.” I assume you went to dramatic school in Ireland but how did you first get interested in acting?
Fassbender: I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was 17 and this guy Donny Courtney, who was a local lad from Killarney, had gone off to the Gaiety School of Drama in Dublin, and he came back to Killarney and started doing some workshops in our secondary school, high school, and I just did a couple of those workshops and that was it. I really thought this was something I could do. It felt right.

CS: Now that you’ve been doing some Hollywood movies, do you feel you could go back and forth and try to do smaller movies like “Fish Tank” when you can?
Fassbender: Yeah, that’s the ideal thing, to be able to bounce back and forth between the two. As much as anyone, I like to sit down with a big box of popcorn and go and watch something that’s just an entertaining ride, and then it’s nice to do little films or independent films that have more of a social comment, but that’s the ideal, to sort of dance between the two.

CS: Do you think it would be harder to take a role like this one in a movie where you don’t have a script now than when you decided to do this two years ago?
Fassbender: No, it’s all down to the director again. If I’ve got faith in the director, then I’d definitely do it again like that.

Fish Tank opens at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and then in L.A., Boston and San Francisco on Friday, January 29.

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