When I interviewed Michael Fassbender (in person, in Toronto) and Carey Mulligan (by phone, from London) about their new film, Shame, which opens in select cities on Friday, they both kept stressing that their characters – siblings named Brandon and Sissy – are ordinary people. Not unusual, not especially damaged, not victims or outcasts or exceptions.
"They're meant to be everyday people, like people you know but not very well, that you meet in the street occasionally," Mulligan said.
"I wanted to make Brandon as everyday as possible," Fassbender said, "so there's something in there that people will recognize in themselves."
They're stressing the ordinariness because they know viewers are going to resist it. And they also know that acknowledging it is essential to fully engage with the story. Shame, one of the most confrontational films of the year – and also one of the best, in my opinion – takes a raw, intimate, uncompromising look at what happens when a person becomes disconnected from his or her emotions. The vehicle through which this is explored is sex.
Brandon has a lot of sex – with strangers, with hookers, with the anonymous women who appear on his computer screen – but it's as far from prettified movie sex as you can get. It's naked, unadorned, vigorous, unsettling. The last time Fassbender worked with Shame's director and co-writer Steve McQueen, on 2008's Hunger, the actor proved he was willing to push himself to physical extremes. (To play Irish Republican Army hunger striker Bobby Sands, he dropped 30 pounds so quickly that his body fell into starvation mode.) In this film, he does it again, contorting himself into poses and expressions that most of us would shudder to catch a glimpse of in a mirror.
"I knew that, in the more intimate scenes – or lack-of-intimacy scenes – I wanted Brandon to be repulsive," Fassbender said, sprawled in a hotel-room chair. Tall and chiselled, at 34 he speaks in an accent that's a hybrid of his German roots and Irish upbringing; when he's playing posh, as in Inglorious Basterds, Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class and the upcoming A Dangerous Method, his voice goes slightly nasal.
"I also wanted him to be very vulnerable and human," he continued. "My job is to take the viewer to a place that they recognize but perhaps won't go themselves. So I have to go all the way. I never understand [the idea of]worrying about whether what I do onscreen will affect the way people look at me off it. My job is to go there. It was important for these sexual acts that are so visceral, but without any emotional content or nourishment, to be quite ugly. But more powerful for it, I think."
And also, he reminded me, not rare. "I did some research, and I don't know how many articles I came across where guys were indoors for 72 hours straight, no interest in making love to their wives any more, just hooked on that [masturbation to the Internet]" he said. "People think sexual addiction means having sex with people, when in fact, a lot of the time, it's this singular, isolated experience. What's shocking is, it's widespread, something like 24 million people in America.
"It's not just addicts, either – ordinary people at work are surfing the Internet for porn," he continued. "You used to have to reach to the top shelf to get it, then look around, see who's watching, go to the desk, buy it from a person. There's none of that any more. The immediacy is profound. Steve and I thought it was something people weren't talking about and needed to."
"Steve kept saying that he wanted us all to get naked in rehearsal. Get it out of the way," said Mulligan, 26, laughing. Her voice is deep and rich, and her intelligence radiates, even over the phone. Her work in Shame and the recent Drive exceed the promise she showed in An Education, and she's currently shooting The Great Gatsby with Baz Luhrmann, playing Daisy to Leonardo DiCaprio's Jay.
"But we ended up not doing that, and all that stuff became sort of easy anyway," she continued. "We spent some time rehearsing, and became comfortable improvising, so we lost our inhibitions. Then the work in the movie was just exciting. Michael just falls into a scene; he's so present and truthful. He doesn't allow for any silly acting moments. He would do something different every take, so I never knew what was going to happen. Then Steve would encourage me to match him, to provoke him. He'd never let me become subservient."
Modestly, Mulligan claimed that she had to "plead with" McQueen to hire her. "I thought he'd cast someone sexier or grittier," she said. "Sissy's an extrovert, an exhibitionist, someone who's damaged, who lives life without a safety net, and has very few boundaries. She's liberated, but she's also not. The closest character I've played was Nina, when I did The Seagull a couple of years ago." (That acclaimed stage production, which played London and New York, co-starred Peter Sarsgaard and Kristen Scott Thomas.)
She and Fassbender did develop a back story for the characters, but only to get themselves on the same page. "It wasn't interesting to victimize them by delving into their past," she said. "We were interested in their present." And they tacitly decided not to hang out off-set "We both thought it was best to not become too chummy. Our scenes are combustible, and we wanted to keep them like that."
Mulligan and Fassbender share some sibling-like similarities. First, they're both red hot: She's set to work with the Coen brothers and Spike Jonze; he's garnering Oscar buzz for Shame, working with Ridley Scott and Jim Jarmusch, and has attained full leading-man status. "Officially, that is correct," he agreed, laughing. "I've noticed it, just in terms of working with brilliant directors, one after the next. Going flat out for the last 20 months. It's pretty apparent that I'm in a lucky position."
Second, they both pour so much into their work that, in their downtime, they like to collapse. "That's my dream day: when I've finished a job, and I can come back to my parents' house and sit in my pyjamas on the sofa and watch television, and not feel I have to dress or shower all day," Mulligan said. And Fassbender's patchy, furry face clearly hadn't seen a razor in a while. "This is me not working," he said, grinning. "In more ways than one."
He's devilish enough to joke about Shame, too. When asked what he would do at the end of a shooting day to shake off Brandon's malaise, he replied, deadpan, "Go home and watch porn on the Internet." But he's also keenly aware that, if he were serious, he would be far from alone in that.