Please note that this interview is made up of a few quotes from a press conference held by Fox Searchlight at the Toronto International Film Fesitval, while the rest of it is from our discussion with the actor when we caught up with him afterwards.
Throughout the history of cinema there have always been directors who favour collaboration with certain actors, making them a staple of their work: Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant; Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro; Tim Burton and Johnny Depp; and since 2008, Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender.
In trying to communicate just why he opted to feature Fassbender in a prominent supporting role in his latest film, 12 Years a Slave, after also having him star in his first two features, Hunger and Shame, McQueen explains, “I think he’s become the most influential actor of his generation. He’s like a pop star. Kids want to be him just the way it was with Gary Oldman or Mickey Rourke. People wanted to work with them and now that person is Michael Fassbender.”
For his part, Fassbender is bashful about the praise, but his charming, shark-like grin returns quickly enough when McQueen mischievously adds with an eye roll, “Also, he asked if he could come aboard and I said ‘Okaayyyy…’”
In 12 Years a Slave, Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, a slave owner who runs his plantation with an iron fist and has a penchant for beating his slaves into submission. Although Epps is one of the most brutal characters that Fassbender has ever had to portray, he’s hopeful that the audience won’t simply see him as being a two-dimensional villain. “It’s important to look at him as a person. I had to find that human being in there and not just play him as the evil slave owner,” he says. “A lot of people are likely to say ‘oh my God Epps is so evil’ and I don’t understand that. He’s a human being who’s caught up in something so complicated and so unjust, but definitely not evil – I don’t even understand that word.”
Fassbender does indeed manage to give the malevolent man a sympathetic slant, both in his clear confusion about his lustful feelings towards a slave girl, and his misunderstanding of how his religion supports the horrific treatment of the slaves. “Epps is not the sharpest tool in the box. He doesn’t understand the Bible, I think it’s just his way of keeping everyone suppressed and controlled.” He shrugs and continues, “Besides, how many people are holding the Bible in one hand and trying to launch missiles with the other? Religion and pain go hand in hand sometimes.”