In Terrence Malick’s Song to Song, set amid the Austin music scene, Michael Fassbender plays one point of a very good-looking love rhombus that also includes Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, and Rooney Mara. But his character, Cook, isn’t exactly trying to Keep Austin Weird: He’s a music mogul who wants to ensnare Gosling’s BV, Mara’s Faye, and Portman’s Rhonda, and just about everyone else who comes across his path. From the very not-Texas location of England, Fassbender talked to Vulture about drawing inspiration from Satan and Bob Fosse, mingling with rock-and-roll legends, and working with a very energetic Val Kilmer — but not what happened in Mexico.
You looked like you were having a lot of fun in Song to Song, especially in the scenes with you and Ryan and Rooney.
Absolutely, yeah. You sort of have this freedom to be uninhibited — it’s a very nonstructured way of working in terms of the script that you use and how you go about filming and the lack of continuity. But it’s something that requires a lot of concentration, because so much of it is improvisational, and you have to be alive to so many things. It’s fun, for sure, but it’s challenging.
Natalie said you guys would improvise for 30 minutes at a time. How do you keep a take like that going?
I don’t know. I think you try to take an attitude onboard and try to communicate physically, try to have an objective or desire and try to communicate that to the person in the scene. You just try to keep things alive. But also trying to sit back and be comfortable with doing nothing. You could think of it a little bit like jazz, you’re devising a loose structure and trying to keep a ball up in the air.
Your relationship with Ryan’s character in the movie is really interesting — there’s this Faustian dynamic where you’re offering him this deal, and the audience has this sense that it’s not necessarily in Ryan’s best interests to work with you.
Terrence told me before shooting that my character would be like Satan in Paradise Lost, someone who would seduce and manipulate. And then I thought of Bob Fosse, and a video that I saw of him on the internet, in The Little Prince, I think it is, where he’s a snake and he transforms into a human being and he has this dance. And I used that dance and that character as well as an inspiration for Cook.
When you guys went down to Mexico, Terrence said that it got pretty rowdy. What did he mean?
What happens in Mexico stays in Mexico. You know this, Kevin.
The Austin music element is a rich backdrop for the film. What was interacting with that like for you? You get tackled by the Red Hot Chili Peppers at one point, I believe, so you had an intimate experience of it.
Yeah, it was pretty intimate. First of all, you pay your respects to these legends, and then you say, “I’m going to be a bit of an asshole” in the scene [laughs], and try to stay in character for the scene.
Did you feel keyed in to the more modern musicians before you shot in Austin, or did you learn more about the artists like the Black Lips and Lykke Li who factor into the film?
I’d definitely heard of them, but my music catalogue really starts to thin out after about 1997, ’98 [laughs]. I’m not totally up to speed. But I felt like it didn’t matter with Cook, he’s listening to artists and realizing where there’s a hit but there’s also an indifference about the whole thing to him.
Right, it’s a currency for power and money, not necessarily …
That’s right. And maybe it started off as a passion, and I think that’s why his relationship to BV, Ryan’s character, has that element of jealousy, because he’s an artist and he wants to go for the pure form of what he does, and there’s that element of jealousy also in his relationship with [Rooney Mara’s] Faye. He’s numbed that side out.
Did you come away from shooting the movie having discovered any bands you really liked?
Nope. But I did enjoy watching Iggy Pop, and Neil Young was playing, Jack White, so I definitely got to experience a lot of cool live performances. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and John Lydon at Fun Fun Fun. And it was great to work with Val Kilmer — he did some fantastic stuff in the film. I felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails doing scenes with him — he’s a fantastic force of nature in the film.
He really shows up like a lightning bolt and disappears just as fast, gets carried off into a police car or a car or whatever.[Laughs.] I think it was a taxi.
It had the feel of a police car.
By the way they were putting him into it, yeah.
What do you take from an experience like this that’s so different from your other work? You have Alien: Covenant coming out this year, which is obviously a very different type of acting.
Maybe not having too many preconceptions going into scenes, and allowing things to develop, and allowing things to happen instead of trying to instigate all the time. Getting comfortable in certain patterns within the scene.
This interview has been edited and condensed.