Michael Fassbender wrestles the evil in 12 Years a Slave
TORONTO—Michael Fassbender is a bit of an anomaly. As one of the more prolific rising actors of his generation, the German-born thespian has been able to blend roles in character-driven, boundary-pushing films like Hunger and Shame with parts in big-budget movies like X Men: First Class and Prometheus. And although even his more popular films have garnered critical acclaim (his Rotten Tomatoes page is a sea of red), the upcoming 12 Years a Slave—which opens Friday (November 1)—represents a coming together of the two sides of Fassbender like no film has before.
Directed by Steve McQueen, who oversaw Fassbender previously in both Hunger and Shame, 12 Years tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man who was captured and forced into slavery in the 1800s. The film, like McQueen’s other entries, is intense and captivating, but it’s also the director’s largest-scale work by far and features an all-star cast, with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Paul Dano playing alongside Fassbender’s slave-owning Edwin Epps. As the de facto villain in a film full of bad guys, Fassbender steals every scene he’s in with an honest portrayal of a very misguided man, bringing humanity to a character who commits unspeakably evil acts.
It’s not the first time Fassbender has played the villain. As Magneto in X-Men, he brought one of the most famous comic-book baddies to life, and it’s not the first time he’s played a complicated character: Brandon in Shame was about as conflicted as they get. But those characters have stated reasons for their malevolence. It was a bit harder to dig into the heart of Epps.
“I just tried to find a human being there as opposed to some evil plantation owner,” Fassbender said at a Toronto International Film Festival news conference in September. “This is complex, this sort of relationship. Obviously, being a slave is the worst deal. You get whipped and beaten and suppressed every day, but the suppressor is also going to be affected by that, so how does that affect the person administering all that pain and suffering? He’s a human being who’s caught up in something so complicated and so unjust. I always thought of Epps as a boil on the skin of society, representing how damaged the whole society was.”
The character of Epps tries to justify his acts with religion, a crutch that Fassbender found important both in rounding out Epps as a character and because it explains how people were able to validate committing horrific acts in the slavery era. “I think that was sort of part and parcel of the day,” he said. “How many people are sort of holding the Bible up with one hand [and] trying to launch a missile with the other? I almost think religion and pain go hand in hand sometimes, and I think that was sort of the way to just keep everyone in check. So I think that was another way of keeping people suppressed and controlled.”
McQueen, speaking at the same conference, expressed that there was no doubt in his mind that his frequent collaborator was the right choice for the role. “Epps, Michael Fassbender, do I have to say anything more?” he offered. “I think he’s the most influential actor of this generation. He’s like a pop star. Kids want to be that person. I think of how Gary Oldman was and how Mickey Rourke was, people who can influence acting in that way and make people want to be actors just to want to work with them. That’s Michael Fassbender.”
There are a couple of hard-to-watch scenes in 12 Years, as torture is administered numerous times in the film. And although getting into the mindset of Epps was one thing, actually carrying out the work was another for the actor, who admitted to being exhausted after days on set. “You just have to do justice to the piece and honour the piece,” Fassbender said. “And, yeah, at the end of the day, we’re all pretty tired, because it is such a high level of focus all day. You’re just zoned in. You’re working the entire day, you sit down, have lunch, and then go back in.
“But I think for any actor, the worse thing to do is to leave and go, ‘Oh, shit.’ But it happens anyway. At the end of the day, you go, ‘Oh, shit, that’s what I should have done.’ To minimize that feeling, you really sort of put everything into the day so at the end of the day, it’s all left on the floor; it’s all there left on-set. Then you can go home and relax somewhat. You’re always sort of living with the character, but as much as possible you exorcise the demons on-set that day.”