Michael Fassbender on Simulating Sex in Shame and A Dangerous Method

Michael Fassbender. Photo: (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

Hollywood has been hot for Michael Fassbender over the past year, and the general population is starting to catch on, too: After Fassbender’s performance in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method screened at the New York Film Festival last month, a rep for the Film Society tweeted, “Women in lobby stomping feet, screaming after mtg Michael Fassbender just now,” adding almost as an afterthought, “2 guys escorted out also.” Already in 2011, he’s been seen as both the buttoned-up Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre and the comic book villain Magneto in X-Men: First Class, and this Oscar season, the German-born Fassbender has another pair of movies hitting theaters, these two precisely engineered to exploit his erotic appeal. Method casts him as famed psychologist Carl Jung, who counsels hysterical patient Sabina Spielrein (played by Keira Knightley) before embarking on an S&M-filled affair with her, much to the displeasure of Jung’s mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). After that, Fassbender will shed his period clothes to play sex addict Brandon in Steve McQueen’s drama Shame; in fact, Fassbender is so frequently (and frontally) nude in the movie that it merited a rare NC-17 rating.

In A Dangerous Method, the sex is transgressive, and yet it’s essentially a positive outlet for these characters that lets them be who they actually are. In Shame, the sex is transgressive, but it’s presented as your character’s fatal flaw. How do you reconcile the different attitudes toward sex in each film?
With Jung and Sabina, there’s an element there that he’s really fulfilling her desires by spanking her. I think that he sort of gets off on it because she’s getting off on it. He’s turned on by her getting turned on. The thing is that Jung is a very sensual character, and I wanted to have that within him, but how do I get that across in his personality? Obviously, there’s the sex scenes, but I wanted to show that throughout the film, so I made him somebody who enjoys his food quite a lot and he’s always eating, whether it be biscuits, cake, or all these big portions at Freud’s place. Brandon in Shame is someone who doesn’t eat — I think we seem him eat once in the movie, and it’s just Chinese food while he’s surfing through Internet porn. It’s just purely fuel, and he doesn’t get any enjoyment from it. His senses aren’t alive and awakened like Jung’s are, and the same can be said for his sex life. He has the urge and compulsion to get involved with people, but without any emotional content, and without any sort of real pleasure being taken from it, you know?

The dynamics of power are so important in Jung’s sexual relationship with Sabina, but I found that there was an echo of them in his friendship with Freud.
You’re dead right, the power plays are shifting all the time. At the beginning of the film, Sabina comes in as as the crazy patient, and Jung is very much the doctor who’s in control who seems to have everything going for him. By the end of the film, though, when they get together by the lake, it’s almost as though she’s the one sitting with a patient. She’s become a doctor in her own right, which I think is such a cool thing, that someone can come in as a patient and leave as a doctor. When Jung meets Freud at first, it’s like he’s meeting his hero and he’s overjoyed, but as the master-pupil relationship develops, it becomes like, “I need to break away from this guy if I’m going to develop my own philosophy of psychoanalysis and explore what I believe is the crux of it all.” I think the script is very accessible in the way it shows the petty flaws of these two heavyweights. They’ve got big egos, and research tells us that whenever someone in either of their camps questioned their ideas, that person was kindly asked to leave. It was a “my way or the highway” type deal.

Between your scenes with Keira in A Dangerous Method and all your love scenes with the actresses in Shame, you’ve now had to simulate sex more in the past two years than many actors do in their whole careers.
Yeah, I’m gonna bring out a DVD, and it’ll be my version of Michael Caine’s acting DVD. “Michael Fassbender teaches you how to simulate sex!” [Laughs.]

What have you learned about shooting those scenes? How do you make the actresses comfortable? Are you like, “Listen, I’ve done this before … “
[Wild laughter.] “I’ve done this before! Oh, don’t worry!” But listen, all joking aside, it’s really uncomfortable. It is kind of a stressful thing, to he honest. Thankfully, I’ve had fantastic partners to be working with, all the female leads or even the women with smaller parts have been great. But the most important thing is to say, “Let’s talk about this.” [Singing.] Let’s talk about sex, baby … [Laughs.] But no, you have to say, “What lines do you have that you don’t want me to cross? Do you mind if I touch your breasts? Do you not want me to do that? Can I kiss your breasts? Just so you know, I’m not taking advantage here and taking the piss out of this scenario. You let me know what boundaries you’re comfortable working within.” And of course Steve and David, these are brilliant men, and they’re not making porn films. It’s there for the story, and it’s not exploitative. Yeah, you tell jokes on set and try to make things as relaxed as possible, because to be honest, you want to get in there and go for it immediately. Then it’s going to be over quicker!

When you set those rules, then you can just go in there and get it done.
Yeah, you don’t want it to get to “take fifteen.”

You’ve said that you don’t think the sex and nudity in Shame isn’t as big a deal as the violence in other films, and I agree: Drive and Immortals both had these graphic scenes of heads getting bashed in and got an R rating … meanwhile, Shame got an NC-17 just for showing sex, something we’ve all presumably engaged in more than head-smashing.
Well, absolutely.

Do you quibble with the NC-17, then?
I don’t even think about those guys, man, to be honest with you. I think it’s good. People might go see it because it’s NC-17; seems like it’s working in reverse to what they’re trying to do. But yeah, I don’t understand it, and it’s not in my job description.

Is there an irony in the fact that the rating will make the movie seem more sexually titillating than it actually is?
It’s all good publicity, man. News is news. But like you said, I think it’s a very confusing message to be sending out as a censorship board. It’s like, “Oh, there’s a penis in this film?” Yeah, and some of us have them and most of the rest have seen them, so what’s the big deal? I don’t understand, does that mean that sex is a dirty thing, something that needs to be kept behind closed doors. And as you said, I don’t understand their relationship between sex and violence. You can have someone’s head cut off in the most gruesome way or have someone get riddled with a thousand bullets, but having sex … I don’t know. It seems so bizarre to me.

And nowadays, there’s so much sexually explicit material online that the MPAA seems even more backwards.
I thought, What is it, 2011? Sometimes I even think that the films back in the eighties were more experimental and risqué. We’ve kind of gotten very conventional again, which I find a bit scary.

Cable TV shows like True Blood are filled with sex and nudity, and yet movies seem to be shying away from it.
To be honest with you again, I think it’s the idea of male frontal nudity. It just baffles me: Women can parade around naked all the time, but the guy conveniently has his pants on. I remember my mom always complaining about that to me, saying, “This is such bullshit, it’s always the women who are naked” … so I did this one for you, Mom! [Laughs.]  

Michael Fassbender on Simulating Sex in Shame and A Dangerous Method