On Movies: ‘Frank’ gave Fassbender a big head

Michael Fassbender in FRANK, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Michael Fassbender in FRANK, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Posted: August 25, 2014

'It was the maddest thing I'd ever read," Michael Fassbender says of the screenplay for Frank, in which an aloof, avant-garde rock singer spends his entire waking life (perhaps his sleeping life, too) encased in a big, cartoonish, papier-mâché head.

"The whole story was so bizarre. . . . It was engaging and funny and had some really touching moments. How could I not do it?"

And so Fassbender - Magneto in the X-Men's First Class and Days of Future Past and a supporting-actor Oscar nominee for his chilling turn as slave owner Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave - agreed to try on the giant orb with the blank, sad visage, working opposite Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Scoot McNairy in the Lenny Abrahamson-directed film. Frank opened Friday at the Ritz Bourse.

"It was actually pretty liberating to have the head on," Fassbender says, on the phone from New York recently. "It made me concentrate on the physicality, how the body language might be amped up a little more - more awareness of expression through movement.

"But the rest of it was kind of fun. I could just play with my castmates and throw different things at them. It was like one of those trust exercises, where you fall backwards and you're depending on the team to catch you before you hit the ground."

The role of Frank, and the face of Frank, were inspired by real-life comedian/musician Chris Sievey, who introduced his spheroid-noggined alter ego, Frank Sidebottom, in the mid-1980s. Sievey, who toured as the character, died in 2010 from complications of cancer. Jon Ronson, one of Frank's two writers, drew from his experiences playing in Sievey's Oh Blimey Big Band. But as Fassbender notes, the film departs from Sievey's concept.

"There's one key thing - this anarchic streak to his character - that we've incorporated, but other than that, it's very different," says the actor. "Obviously, Chris Sievey was playing a character, but this Frank, our Frank, has a mental-health issue which the original guy did not. There's a lot of damage in there, as it were."

Fassbender has a handful of films coming up, including Trespass Against Us, a tale of gypsy life set in the U.K., opposite his Frank costar's dad, Brendan Gleeson; Slow West, a 19th-century road movie teaming him with The Road's Kodi Smit-McPhee; and The Light Between Oceans, based on the M.L. Stedman novel, with The Place Beyond the Pines' Derek Cianfrance directing.

Then there's an untitled Terrence Malick project, a film Fassbender made in Texas with the suddenly prolific Tree of Life auteur, just before shooting Frank. Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, and Natalie Portman are also said to be onboard.

"I don't know if I'm allowed to talk about it," Fassbender says of the film and its famously secretive director, who has been known to reshape movies in postproduction, leaving characters who seemed key in the screenplay on the cutting-room floor.

"I don't know what the film is going to be - or if I'm actually in it," he adds, laughing. "Not much help there, I'm afraid."

Chloë in the afterlife. In If I Stay, which opened this weekend, Chloë Grace Moretz stars as a teenager whose world is mapping out quite nicely: she's a cello prodigy, up for an audition with the Juilliard School. An outsider at school, she's caught the eye of a budding rocker (English actor Jamie Blackley), and their relationship is turning serious, even soulful. Her parents ( Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard) are totally supportive, totally cool.

What could go wrong?

Try a spur-of-the-moment family outing - on a day when, in Portland, Oregon, it decides to snow. Next thing you know, Moretz's Mia Hall is being wheeled into the emergency room, comatose, her parents DOA.

The big question in If I Stay, directed by R.J. Cutler, from the YA bestseller by Gayle Forman, is whether this young woman will fight back to consciousness and go on with life, or slip into whatever waits - if anything does - in the beyond. To help with her decision, Moretz's Mia gets to step out of her body and watch as loved ones come and go, and she gets to flash back to the good times, and bad, in her life thus far.

"What I like about this movie is that it encompasses all forms of religion and everything else. Whether you believe in a religion or you don't, there's room there," says Moretz, on the phone from Dallas. "What you perceive is what you perceive, and if you perceive nothing, then you perceive nothing. And if you want to believe it's about one religion, then you can do that, too."

Moretz, all of 17, has been acting since she was 5. With two turns as Hit Girl in Kick-Ass 1 and 2, the title character in a Carrie remake, and roles in Martin Scorsese'sHugo and Tim Burton's Dark Shadows, she's kept busy. Her character in If I Stay takes to her art and inspiration - classical music, the cello - with the same certainty and purpose.

"It was easy to understand her and to become close to her right off the bat - to be in her psyche - because it was super-close to mine," Moretz explains. "I never had any doubt. If I did, I wouldn't be doing it now for 13 years."

Moretz spends some time in a hospital bed in her next movie, too - The Equalizer, opening Sept. 26. Denzel Washington owns the title role in the guns-a-blazin' rethink of the 1980s TV series starring Edward Woodward as an ex-intelligence officer who helps people in trouble. Moretz's underage hooker, under the thumb of a Russian pimp, is one of those folks.

"Denzel Washington is such an amazing guy, and I learned so much from just working with him and being around him," she says. "And I learned a lot about myself, and about my acting ability."


srea@phillynews.com

215-854-5629

@Steven_Rea

www.inquirer.com/onmovies

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