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article imageMichael Fassbender talks '12 Years a Slave' Special

By Kristal Cooper     Sep 12, 2013 in Entertainment
Toronto - Throughout the history of cinema there have always been Directors who favour collaboration with certain actors: 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.”
Since taking the indie cinema world by storm a mere 5 years ago with Hunger, Fassbender has become known for his thorough preparation for each part he takes on. When asked about his homework leading up to 12 Years a Slave, he admits to taking a few steps to help get inside the head of Epps and the world he was about to inhabit. “First of all I had to try and find a voice so I worked with tapes and a dialect coach and tried on various accents.” He reveals. “I also went to Louisiana for about 6 weeks before we started filming to try and soak up the atmosphere there and then it’s just about working with the script. I read the book of course, but then just spent time with the script.”
The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery in the South. The film has garnered critical praise and standing ovations at its premiere screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival, as well as a few walk-outs due to the film’s graphic depiction of how the slave owners kept their “property” in line.
It’s not easy subject matter to watch, and Fassbender concedes that it wasn’t always easy having to act it all out, but that the cast and crew’s sheer commitment to doing Northup’s story justice helped them all get through the shoot. “You could almost hear, like, this high-pitched humming because everyone was just so zoned in for the entire working day.” He explains with a laugh and a demonstration of what that hum might have sounded like.
“The worst feeling for an actor,” he continues, “is to finish a day’s work and get halfway home and think, ‘Shit! That’s the way I should have done that!’ and that does happen anyway, but to minimize that feeling, you really put everything into it so that it’s all left on the floor. It’s all there, you left it behind and then you can go home and relax. You exorcise the demons on set that day.”
He’s also quick to credit his fellow actors—the cast also includes Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt—for becoming a sort of safety net and support for one another when things got especially grim. “I don’t think (the film) would have been possible without the real sense of love and connection on set. We were all linked to one another and without one another we wouldn’t have gone to the places that we did. It was total dependence really.”
When asked to sum up how he feels about the 12 Years a Slave experience, the actor thinks for a moment before leaning in and smiling broadly, “It's a masterwork. I’m proud to be a part of it.”
12 Years a Slave opens in theatres on October 18, 2013.
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