The best part of attending an actor's career retrospective is getting to see a famous person forced to rewatch his own work in front of an audience, in real time. At last night's TIFF Soirée, the Toronto Film Festival's pre-opening-night fundraising event, honoree Michael Fassbender did not disappoint, particularly when he started cringing and rubbing his face with embarrassment during a clip of himself as Magneto nearly taking down a plane while in a rage against James McAvoy's Professor X in a scene from X-Men: Days of Future Past. "I don’t actually like that performance there, to be honest," Fassbender said as the lights came up. "I just think it’s me shouting. It’s just like" — he made an angry face and flailed his arms around — "some dude shouting."
"Too late now!" said moderator and TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey.
"I know," said Fassbender, laughing and burying his head in his hands. "Tell me about it."
He had a better time watching himself getting screamed at by Charlize Theron as android David in Ridley Scott's Prometheus. "I like the way I finished that sentence," he said, laughing, and explained he'd based his character's androgynous robot physicality on David Bowie and, of all people, Olympic diving great Greg Louganis. "My mom was a fan of Greg Louganis and I just remember watching the Olympics thinking his walk [to the diving platform] was so funny and mesmerizing, the economy of movement."
So why was Fassbender putting himself through this? For one, it's a good cause: TIFF is actually a year-round charitable organization that connects youth in underserved Toronto communities with the film community in a variety of ways, such as providing free transportation to TIFF events, hosting workshops around the city, and bringing screenings and directors to mental hospitals. But the prospect of public humiliation also seems to turn Fassbender on. He admitted that he often doesn't get to see his own movies until their film festival premieres, when he's sitting with an audience and all eyes are on him, and he LOVES it.
"I get off on it a little bit," he said with a grin. "It’s nice when the sort of nerves and excitement are at maximum and you get to experience it with a very passionate audience and they’re usually very honest as well, so you get the full effect, as it were." (Sadly, Bailey didn't ask him what it was like sitting in an audience watching himself pee and have sex against the windows of the Standard Hotel in Shame.)
What else did we learn about Fassy in the nearly two-hour discussion?
If he were a superhero, he'd mostly fall asleep at inopportune times. "I’m a great power napper," Fassbender said when Bailey asked how he conserves his energy on long shoots. "Having been a mutant with superhero powers, that is my real superhero power. I could do it now. I could just lie down on the stage, if it goes that way. There is the downside to it, when I get tired, I have to sleep. I can’t keep awake." If we can have a super-movie featuring a guy who throws boomerangs, surely there's room for a power-napper.
He makes a really bad first impression. When he was a struggling 30-year-old actor ("it wasn't like my door was getting knocked down with offers or anything") and met with Steve McQueen about playing IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands in Hunger, he thought the meeting went great! "Then I later found out that he hated me," said Fassy. "I think he thought I was arrogant. I guess I was a little defensive. I hadn’t been working a lot, and I don’t know how I came across in the room. I thought I came across well, but that just goes to show how much I know." McQueen's impression of Fassbender was so bad, in fact, that he only let him come back to read for the part after a lot of pleading and convincing from people who told him he wouldn't regret it.
If acting doesn't work out, he could always be a mime. Much has been made of Fassbender's unique physicality onscreen, and a lot of it has to do with how, starting at 17, he used to go around to pubs doing pantomime. Fun fact: You can trace his part in Inglourious Basterds back to when he produced, directed, and starred as Mr. Pink in a stage version of Reservoir Dogs he and his friends put on in a nightclub.
Shoes are the most important part of getting into character for him. He's not sure why, but once he has the shoes figured out, everything else falls into place. "It grounds me from the feet up." He went barefoot, and sometimes pants-less, to play sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps, because he thought it helped convey Epps's dangerous lack of smarts and the intense boredom of being in charge of a plantation where your nearest neighbor is miles away.
Somebody offer him a comedy already! He told Bailey he's dying to do one, "but maybe people don't think of me that way," he said, laughing. He actually met Seth Rogen long before they worked together on Jobs because he was a fan of Rogen's work. "I think I threw a blueberry at him at one of these dinners, and he was at a table across the way, so that was our introduction," Fassbender said. "So when we were on Jobs, he said, 'I thought we’d work together at some point.. . on one of my movies!' So maybe at some point."
Hunger is still the film with the most personal resonance for him. "I was just so ... hungry!" he said, "in more ways than one." For one thing, he left the production for ten weeks so he could go off on his own and lose enough weight to look like he was starving ("it was a very solitary and profound experience"), and then came back to shoot the final scene. But he was also hungry to be a real actor, the kind who didn't have to do pantomime in pubs, and this was his first chance to play a lead role onscreen. "I really wanted to do this for a living and I got this opportunity to play a lead role in a film, and I really wanted to make sure that I grabbed that opportunity with both hands," he said.
So he took nearly two months to learn the movie's centerpiece 23-minute, one-take scene between Sands and Father Moran (Liam Cunningham) — now considered one of the classic scenes in cinema history. Fassbender admitted that he's really slow at learning lines, so he likes to show up to set having memorized the entire script; it allows him to be looser on the day. That scene — The Scene, as it's know among those in awe of it — was 27 or 28 pages long, to be filmed all at once. For comparison, Fassbender said that on a Marvel film he might shoot two pages of dialogue a day, and that's considered fast.
McQueen didn't tell them he wanted to shoot the scene in one take until Cunningham arrived on set. Cunningham went into a panic; Fassbender asked his scene partner to move into the two-bedroom flat he was staying in. "We got up every morning, cooked porridge, and we started rehearsing," says Fassbender. "We did it every day for 11 days and had people bring lunch to us. The goal was to do it ten to 15 times a day and then Steve would come in in the evening and watch us, give us some notes, next day same thing."
The morning they shot it, "I remember it very clearly, it was a Wednesday," said Fassbender, "and we ran the whole 23 minutes and in four takes we were done." The producers had wanted McQueen to shoot coverage, or film the scene from each character's perspective, rather than just a two-shot of them sitting at the table, "and we did about two minutes of those and Steve was like, 'I don’t want to do this. It’s a oner. We should all just go home.' It was about 12:30 in the afternoon." Fassbender remembers some objections from the producers, and some unintelligible yelling, and seeing McQueen's hands up in the air, "and that was it. We all went home."
He considered maiming himself to get out of playing Steve Jobs. Asked by an audience member what his most difficult movie had been, Fassbender said Steve Jobs, without hesitation, and blamed Aaron Sorkin for all of it. "He wrote all that stuff!" said Fassbender. "It was so dense! It was such a mountain, and I’m a slow learner, so when the script arrived for me and the opportunity came to play the part, I really thought, This is not me. This should be somebody else. It’s a miscast scenario.”
He only relented after his dad and his agent convinced him to go for it. "But in rehearsals I was trying to find a way to get out of the job," he said. "I remember telling my driver, 'If I put my arm in the door, you should slam it. It should cause a break and it should get me out of this gig.'" Instead, he wound up going back to his hotel and learning more lines. Boring!