From ‘Shame’ to Netflix Films: Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan on Rejection and Being So in Character You Act Without Thinking

Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender Variety
Photographs by Alexi Lubomirski
In “Maestro” and “The Killer,” the characters played by Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender exist in different worlds. Mulligan’s Felicia Montealegre Bernstein, an up-and-coming actress who becomes conductor Leonard Bernstein’s wife and soul mate, breathes rarefied air among East Coast artists from the 1950s through the ’70s. Fassbender’s tightly coiled, mostly silent assassin, meanwhile, travels the world seeking vengeance, while keeping his focus by doing push-ups on his fingertips.

Twelve years ago, though, Fassbender and Mulligan inhabited the same toxic universe, as dysfunctional siblings in 2011’s “Shame.” The film was writer-director Steve McQueen’s bleak, sexually explicit examination of sex addiction through the eyes of Fassbender’s character, Brandon, a New York City executive brought low by his self-destructive desires. Mulligan’s Sissy, a lounge singer, was sorrowful and also boundary-less.

Having shared the “Shame” experience, Fassbender and Mulligan project a familial dynamic. As they begin their conversation for Actors on Actors, Fassbender tells Mulligan that “Shame” was “the darkest — and the one that actually stuck around the longest.”

CAREY MULLIGAN: I saw your film “The Killer” and loved it, as I love all Fincher films.

MICHAEL FASSBENDER: He’s incredible.

MULLIGAN: I wanted to ask you what prep you did for that. We have children and lives and other things going on. Can you do press-ups on your fingertips?

FASSBENDER: Oh, my God. Well, I did say to them, “I think I’ve got about 100 in me here.”

MULLIGAN: 100 press-ups!

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

FASSBENDER: Well, not consecutively. I’d do 10 …

MULLIGAN: You could do 10?!

FASSBENDER: I’m pretty sure I did 260. I can’t remember. I remember regretting telling them that I could.

MULLIGAN: It’s such an extraordinary performance because you have these encounters where there’s these enormous scenes with incredible actors — Tilda Swinton! There’s so little dialogue. Most things we hear from you are from an internal monologue. If you think about breaking down a scene, how do you do that with just silence?

FASSBENDER: I just try to get into a space of not thinking. I’ll have done a lot of work at home beforehand, looking at the scenes, trying to get an inspiration for the character, figuring out what the character is all about, what their backstory would be — all the homework stuff. And then hopefully by the time we get on set, I can just be. I find it hard to do, to get to that place where you’re just not thinking — a person that is nonemotionally engaging in something. Like drama school, I remember we used to have to go to the zoo and pick an animal.

MULLIGAN: What drama school did you go to?

FASSBENDER: I went to a place called Drama Centre.

MULLIGAN: I auditioned for Drama Centre.

FASSBENDER: And how did it go?

MULLIGAN: They said I should be a children’s television presenter.

FASSBENDER: Oh, my God, that’s so mean!

MULLIGAN: They were so mean. But I was devastated.

FASSBENDER: Where did you go?

MULLIGAN: I didn’t get in anywhere.

FASSBENDER: You’re like, “Look how that turned out.”

MULLIGAN: Anyway, so what animal is your character?

FASSBENDER: Oh, I was just looking at animals — like predators; so anything from the cat family to even monkeys. Just the way that animals zone in on something and then focus without any emotional content — pure focus, looking for an opportunity.

I just saw “Maestro” yesterday, and it blew me away. Tell me about being directed by Bradley Cooper. I’ve known him many years.

MULLIGAN: Have you?

FASSBENDER: Yeah. It’s been amazing to watch him evolve. I called him up after seeing the film yesterday morning, and I was like, “I’m a little bit scared of you.” It’s phenomenal. I thought, “How do you go into prosthetics for four hours and then have the energy to direct as well?” What was it like?

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

MULLIGAN: He did so much prep. He prepped to the point where he walked on set and didn’t have to think — like you say. And I think to be able to direct it and write it and star in it and all that stuff, he needed to get everything out of the way. So he was ringing me a year before in full Lenny voice and everything.


MULLIGAN: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I’d be putting the kids to bed, and I’d get a FaceTime with him as Lenny: “OK. Call you back, mate!”

FASSBENDER: You should have got him to do story time in the Leonard Bernstein voice. With yours, there’s a Chilean sort of twist in your accent. Am I wrong in thinking —?

MULLIGAN: There is, there is, 100%. Her accent was so specific because she was born in Costa Rica. She moved to Chile as a child. She did most of her education there, and then she went to New York. Her father was American, but she also wanted to be a New York actress. There was a real kind of mid-Atlantic, kind of Katharine Hepburn thing.


MULLIGAN: We were so lucky because there’s these amazing tapes that exist of the two of them speaking. They were interviewed by this guy called John Gruen who was writing a book about them — about Bernstein, really, but she was interviewed as well. And so there’s a couple of hours of tape of just them talking and being interviewed.

FASSBENDER: You nailed it. It’s one of those things that could really kind of be jarring if you didn’t feel totally comfortable with it. And both of you looked super comfortable.

MULLIGAN: When he first offered me the job, he was like, “I want you to do this, but sort of on the proviso that you go and really give it everything.” Which I immediately thought in my head, “Not all in.”

FASSBENDER: Never all in!

MULLIGAN: No, come on. But there was something about it. I thought, “Oh, crikey, that’s playing a real person.” And playing someone who does have this quite interesting dialect. And there’s a real responsibility to their children who are a big part of this process. It was huge. But that was actually the only way to do it, was just to do the whole thing.

Watching “The Killer,” you’re alone so much, doing so much.

FASSBENDER: Oh, yes, it’s true.

MULLIGAN: It is kind of solitary. And then you have these epic, incredibly written scenes with these brilliant actresses. Also, that actress who plays …

FASSBENDER: Kerry O’Malley, that plays the secretary. Oh, my God, she’s so good! She made me laugh she was so good. When people act really well, it makes me laugh. And she did that scene when we were in the elevator.

MULLIGAN: Oh, that scene in the elevator. Oh, my goodness.

FASSBENDER: Those beautiful moments where you really want to laugh — you feel like you’re at school again or something. And I was trying my best just to hold it in. The guy’s like, “Need any help getting rid of that body?” And she just nailed that nervous laugh.

MULLIGAN: But also, she’s about to scream and cry.

It is funny to be sitting here. I feel like “Shame” was enormous. I really wanted Steve to take me seriously. I had done “An Education,” and I’d done “Miss Marple” and “Doctor Who” and lots of British things, but I felt like that character and this film and working with you was so high-end. And I really remember thinking, I really want for him to think of me as being able to really act. And to be able to be in a thing with you, to try and kind of come up to your level, was …

FASSBENDER: Well, come on!

MULLIGAN: No, but really, really, really, I do. I remember thinking that every day. I was so intimidated. But you were so lovely, I didn’t end up feeling that. But I did think, “Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender — this is as good as it gets.”

FASSBENDER: I was intimidated too. Just scared. But it’s just so cool to see you. It’s so inspiring watching your work and just all the different roles that you challenge yourself with, and deliver on, consistently.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Variety Actors on Actors is presented by “Air.”

From Variety US