Michael Fassbender is no stranger to a challenge on screen: from his sadistic plantation owner in the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, to a sex addict in Shame and IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger, he has built his extraordinary career on tackling psychologically demanding roles with steely determination and intensity. And yet the prospect of playing Shakespeare's best-known killer terrified him. In Justin Kurzel's upcoming film adaptation of Macbeth, he embraces the Witches' advice to a terrified Macbeth to be bloody, bold and resolute by turning in a raw, brave performance that crowns him King. In this interview he discusses working with director Justin Kurzel and co-stars Marion Cotillard, Sean Harris and Paddy Considine.
Q: How did this project come to you?
MF: Iain Canning [producer] came to me at some point, it must have been in 2010 or 2011, fairly soon after we’d done Shame. He was like, ‘I really want to make a film version of Macbeth.’ I couldn’t say no. The opportunity to do Shakespeare was something that I couldn’t turn it down. It’s such a privilege. It’s something I think every actor should do at least once. So that was the opening gambit and it progressed from there.
Q: Was Justin Kurzel involved at that point?
MF: No, definitely not at that point. You know, I was so blown away by Snowtown. I saw it in London at a cinema one afternoon – I had no clue about it. I just came out of there shell-shocked. Then I was talking to Conor, my agent, and I said, ‘I’ve just seen this film Snowtown, and it’s crazy, brilliant.” He said, ‘well, the filmmaker is actually in town at the moment.’ I said I’d love to meet him, and Justin and I got together and I just knew, meeting him. I was like, ‘this guy is going to teach me something, and I need to work with him.’
Q: Did you have him in mind for Macbeth at that point?
MF: I thought he would be perfect for Macbeth and Iain had the same feeling, around the same time. So then Iain and Justin got together, and the rest is sort of history. I’d studied the play initially at school when I was fifteen, and then I’d studied it at drama school. In drama school, you take a certain section and you do it as a showpiece at the end of your term, and I did it then. So I was familiar with it, but Justin’s insight into it was so tangible. It was very sort of practical, and there were things you could actually locate, like [Macbeth’s] madness to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had never thought about that, and actually, Shakespeare writes it in there. That’s how far ahead of the game he was, because even after World War I people didn’t know what it was. In the banquet scene Lady Macbeth says, ‘don’t worry yourselves – we’ve seen these fits from him before.” So you’re like, ‘okay, that’s what it is.’ The hallucinations at the beginning – these witches, are they real? We know from talking to soldiers that come back from the middle east, in Iraq, that you’d be walking down Muswell Hill, and next thing it’s Basra – it literally is Basra for these guys. So that was huge for me.
Q: So did that give you access into the character?
MF: Everything, absolutely. If you look for a key into the character at any time, that was it. I was like, ‘wow, of course.’ And then the idea of the Lady Macbeth character – Marion and Justin’s interpretation of it is wildly more interesting than the traditional idea of her being some crazy, ambition-fuelled woman. It’s the exact opposite – she’s sacrificial. She sacrifices herself. She says, ‘take me’ – she gives herself up in order to try and reconnect with her husband, to try and forge their relationship again, which is totally fragmented, and has drifted so far apart through the loss of at least one child. There’s also the fact that he’s never there – he’s away for a year campaigning for King Duncan who is somewhat of an impotent force, so in a way, it’s the just deserts for Macbeth. He’s the one who is keeping the borders safe. He’s the one who’s fighting the campaigns. So that was beautifully investigated and brought to us by Justin. I had never looked at it through that prism before. It’s something that you can really work with, the idea that it’s about loss. People always go, ‘it’s about ambition,’ but it’s about loss. It’s about what these people have lost, and the damage done.
Q: In school, reading Shakespeare can sometimes capture the imagination, because it’s part of the curriculum. What was your relationship with it?
MF: Pretty similar, I have to say. We have a lot of literature in Ireland and Shakespeare isn’t so integral, but we have it on the curriculum. Obviously Shakespeare is a genius, but that was the one thing I kept saying to Justin – if we can in some way inspire the kids that would be wonderful. It’s an arrogant thing for me to presume that they weren’t already inspired by it, but I’m talking from my own experience. I really hope that fifteen-year-olds who are doing it as a part of their exams are going to see the movie and that they find these fresh and new things, and see that it’s not so far removed. I was very much respectful of the language in allowing it to dictate the performance to a certain degree, but I was also disrespectful of it in a way that I wanted it not to be, ‘oh right, we’re watching Shakespeare.’ I wanted that to be seamless, so that after a while people are just listening, and they forget that it’s an ancient text.
Q: If you were talking to, say, a teenager and trying to persuade him or her to watch your film of Macbeth, what would you say?
MF: Number one, because it’s so epic, I think. Especially this story – there are so many human elements in it. This thing that we talked about, loss, and the idea of ambition, and getting the things that we wished for and when they’re realised, what does that mean to us? I think the idea of supernatural elements is definitely attractive to people. They could ask, ‘the three witches, what’s that all about?’ and then we realise that we’re dealing with a specific time in history, where pagan rituals were starting to be replaced with Christianity. So there is this pagan world that is leaving, but it’s also still there, and the elements are still very much at play. That I think is very attractive to people.
Q: You said that when you first met Justin you instinctively felt that he was the right man to direct Macbeth. But you never really know until you work with somebody…
MF: It’s just great watching him work. It’s wonderful to see someone doing something that they’re meant to be doing. He’s got an incredible sort of strength, loyalty, sensitivity, intelligence, bravery. I never saw him raise his voice at any department, but he commanded so much respect from all of those departments. He’s just a great leader and, you know, in order to get a performance out of actors, that trust element is everything, and you just feel like he’s got you. Also, just as a man, he’s great.
Q: Is that an important characteristic for a director to have?
MF: You know, it’s not essential, but it’s nice. It’s nice when you actually make friends with people that you work with and you can have a laugh, especially when you’re dealing with material that’s pretty heavy. We have a great laugh, the same way that I have with Steve [McQueen], dealing with topics that are very close to the bone. So yeah, I just feel very lucky to have him as a friend.
Q: Were you intimidated by taking the part?
MF: Yes, I was totally intimidated at the prospect of doing Macbeth. Absolutely bloody terrified! (laughs).
Q: But do you think you’re drawn to parts that scare you? You’ve mentioned your work with Steve McQueen and the roles you have played in his films have been challenging to say the least..
MF: I guess so. I find that I really need to learn as much as I can by taking on these very educational things, so it’s not like I’m seeking them out, it’s just that when they present themselves, I can’t say no. It’s the opportunity to do Shakespeare, and this particular play, which is my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays. You just feel like you’re going down the road with this character, and with Justin – like I said, I knew when I met him that I was going to learn something from him. It’s all about learning, just as long as people keep giving me the chance to do it.
Q: Are you able to leave behind a character like this – and indeed the others you have played - at the end of the day?
MF: Yeah, I try to. I work hard to do that, because if I’m meeting up with friends later that day, and they’re like, ‘oh, here he goes again, one of his characters,’ I wouldn’t have any friends (laughs). Listen, there’s always a residue. I always go home and I’m always thinking about what happened that day, like ‘oh, I should have done it like that,’ and what’s coming up the next day, but I have gotten good at not self-obsessing, because it can turn into that, I think. Also I like to sort of leave it and give myself a break – the next day I’m going to go in, and it’s going to be an intense ten hours tomorrow, and I’m going to be all there, and hopefully I’m going to leave everything on the floor. It’s management – it is an intense process, because the four weeks before I come to rehearsal, I’m in it. Like I say, it’s hours and hours every day, so already by the time we get to rehearsal, I’m there. By the time we get to filming, I’m actually hopefully in a place where I can just enjoy the day’s filming and not impose my perspective too much on what I’m doing. I’ve found that that’s a hard thing to do, but each time I go and do a scene, I’m like, ‘let it go, and see what comes to you. See what the scene gives to you and dictates to you. Listen to what the other person is doing,’ and if I do enough preparation, hopefully it gives me that lightness in the doing.
Q: Talk to me about Marion Cotillard’s performance and her interpretation of Lady Macbeth. She plays her in a very different way to the performances we’ve seen in the past..
MF: Well I haven’t seen it yet, but I saw her opposite me. I just saw her in the role immediately. And her being French never bothered me. But also in these times, a French queen would marry to increase the coffers – like, ‘we’ll put this treasury with this treasury, and we’ll boost the economy.’ So it wasn’t something that I ever had any question about, and yeah, she’s so great in displaying those other elements of Lady Macbeth, which can be sort of overlooked. She’s just got this regal-ness about her, and all these elements that seem so effortless, that she’s obviously worked on, but you never have to go through it with her. She’s got a real quality of just being there. I would never discuss things that I would do with her, I just did them, and she totally went with them and took them in another direction. It was an absolute joy to have in a partner.
Q: Let’s talk about the other cast. How was it to work with Sean Harris?
MF: Sean is always quality. He went to the same drama school as me. I knew him – he didn’t know me, but I’d known him because he was already sort of known in the school – sort of legendary, you know, and he would come back to the school every now and again. So I knew of him then and now we’ve done three films together, and will hopefully continue to do more and more. I just love him, again, as a person and as an artist.
Q: Would you say he’s a method actor?
MF: He’s got his method. Before working with him, I thought, “Oh man, maybe I’m supposed to keep a distance from him,” but no, he’s got a great sense of humour. He is very serious about his work – he’s monk-like when he approaches his work.
Q: How was it to work with Paddy Considine?
MF: Oh my God, Paddy has been my hero for years, since A Room for Romeo Brass. That performance just blew me away. Then, of course, he followed it up with Dead Man’s Shoes, and everything he does. I mean I was a huge fan of his, so it was a big deal for me to be working with him. Hopefully one day I’ll get the chance to be directed by him, because he’s a wonderful filmmaker.