Whatever your filmgoing kink, Michael Fassbender has been there for you this year. Jane Eyre freak? He played a brooding, passionate, waistcoated Mr. Rochester seducing Mia Wasikowska. Comic-Con fetishist? His young villain Magneto in X-Men: First Class had a certain sexual attraction in both a leather jacket and a space-age yellow spandex suit. Coming out in the next two weeks are two more explicitly titillating films. In David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, he plays psychologist Carl Jung, who treats a disturbed yet brilliant Russian (Sabina, played by Keira Knightley) with talk therapy, and then treats her roughly in bed, just like she likes it, apparently. The S&M-tinged affair displeases Jung’s mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), whose fatherly affection turns cold as news of young Jung’s escapades threaten to derail the burgeoning profession. And then there’s Shame, Fassbender’s second time working with British artist turned director Steve McQueen, who starved him as an imprisoned IRA soldier in Hunger back in 2008. As Shame’s emotionally shutdown Manhattan sex addict, Fassbender is naked a lot, quite often in full-frontal. The sex scenes take exhibitionistic advantage of New York’s many glass-walled high-rises and are frank enough to have saddled the film with a rare NC-17 rating. Fassbender sees the ratings stigma as a way to draw curious eyes to the film, though his performance, which won the top acting prize at the Venice Film Festival, is engrossing in and of itself.
In A Dangerous Method, transgressive sex is an outlet for self-expression, whereas in Shame it’s presented as what keeps your character trapped in himself. 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 see him eat once in the movie, and it’s just Chinese food while he’s surfing through Internet porn. It’s 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?
Who’s in charge in Jung and Sabina’s relationship, or Jung and Freud’s?
The power plays are shifting all the time. At the beginning of the film, Sabina comes in 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, it’s almost as if 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 A Dangerous Method and Shame, you’re quite experienced at professional faux lovemaking. How do you make the actresses comfortable? Do you tell them, “Don’t worry, I’ve done this before?”
[Laughs] “I’ve done this before! Oh, don’t worry!” But listen, all joking aside, it’s really uncomfortable. 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.” 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!
You’ve acted in very violent films—Inglourious Basterds, 300—and both were R-rated. Meanwhile, Shame got an NC-17 for sex.
Do you quibble with the NC-17, then?
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 to how the rating might 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? 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!