Michael Fassbender again teams with Steve McQueen for an obsessive portrait

The ordeal of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a story with little public exposure, something the filmmakers were eager to change.
The ordeal of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a story with little public exposure, something the filmmakers were eager to change.
Posted: October 25, 2013

IN THE harrowing "12 Years a Slave," Michael Fassbender portrays a slave master who is jealous of the formerly free man forced to work as a slave on his plantation (Chiwetel Ejiofor), jealous of his wife (Sarah Paulson) and angry at himself. The only person he has any affection for is Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), one of his female slaves.

And he beats her.

Conflicted much?

How does an actor of Fassbender's ability even play such a monster?

Not see him as a monster.

The Daily News spoke with Fassbender last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, where "Slave" got a hero's welcome.

It is the third collaboration between the actor and director Steve McQueen, a partnership which started in 2008's "Hunger," with the German-born, Ireland-raised Fassbender re-creating the 1981 prison hunger strike of Bobby Sands, to 2011's "Shame," in which he played a sex addict, and now to "Slave," where Fassbender plays an antebellum cauldron of hatred and self-loathing.

Q: How do you find the anger to play a brutal man like Epps?

A: I think about the things that lead up to that emotional outlet - the anger comes about because of frustration, insecurity, feelings of inadequacy. So, finding the root to it sort of helps sprout the plant, as it were.

Q: McQueen said that your character was as much of a victim as his slaves, but he wasn't getting whipped . . .

A: I said to Steve early on that I sort of saw the character as a manifestation of the ugliness of the time. Of slavery. And I always approached him as a victim - a product - of the time. He doesn't have the intellect to deal with the fact that he's in love with one of his slaves. It's kind of eating him up, so he sets about trying to destroy her. He beats her in order to beat out of himself these feelings, but we know that love can't be dealt with in such a way, so it just intensifies his feelings for her.

So, I always approached him with that in mind, instead of trying to play an evil slave owner. I just didn't think there was anything I could do with that information, whereas there was a lot I could do with the fact that this guy's in love with Patsey, he's not the most intelligent character, he's perhaps married above his station, he drinks too much, and how do you deal with the boredom of the plantation - although, obviously, if you're a slave, boredom is not a word that you ever enter into.

Whereas with the plantation owner, what do you do with your whole day? Your next neighbor is miles away. Epps also had this necessity to have his slaves around him. Even on their time off, he would have them into his house to dance, to play music.

It's this emotional attachment that he had to them that I felt was a really interesting launching pad into the character.

Q: The harsh reality of the film, however, also makes it tough to watch, don't you agree?

A: With Steve's films, as an audience member you end up participating in the experience instead of just sitting there safely in your seat, removed from what's happening on the screen. I think that's what makes it difficult, and rightly so. When I saw the film, it took a couple of hours to digest . . . and I knew what was coming.

Steve said to me one day, "I'm going to make a film about slavery," and I said, "Of course. Yeah." That makes total sense, in the way he said to me he was making a film about Bobby Sands. Well, that didn't really make sense to me at the time, but now, having known Steve, it makes perfect sense. And with "Shame," it was sex addiction. He deals with the elephant in the room. We don't want to face these areas, but Steve wants to, and [he] goes about getting in there, investigating it, provoking thought and conversation.

Q: Is there anything as an actor you wouldn't do for him?

A: Probably not. He brought me to the ball, changed my life, gave me the opportunity in "Hunger." And the chemistry we have in our working relationship is second to none. He's so aware of what it takes to create and create in a safe environment and to demand the most of you in that environment. He gives you the confidence to follow your instincts, and he guides you in a way that they're your real instincts and not the bulls--t ones - those tricks that actors will accumulate over the years. He's got a real bulls--t detector.

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