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Erica Abeel Headshot

Catnip to Women

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With all the awards blather and best-of lists, it's somehow been overlooked that 2009 has been the year of superb male actors. Why must the Academy limit Best Actor to a single person when Ben Foster ("The Messenger"), Colin Firth ("A Single Man"), Jeremy Renner ("The Hurt Locker") and Michael Stuhlbarg ("A Serious Man") have all turned in incomparable performances -- in the sense that because they're splendid in differing ways, they can't and shouldn't be compared? Give 'em all trophies for the art they've brought to this sour year.

And add to the list, in the category of Supporting Actor, charismatic star-on-the-verge, Michael Fassbender. Of mixed German and Irish parentage, he broke through playing Irish rebel Bobby Sands in "Hunger" by Brit director Steven McQueen. Now Fassbender brings his hunky charm to Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank," which took this year's Jury Prize at Cannes.

Set in the U.K.'s version of the projects -- far more palatable than ours, by the way -- "Fish Tank" shadows fifteen-year-old Mia (first timer and non-pro Katie Jarvis), booted out of school and at war with the world, but dreaming of becoming a hip hop dancer. She lives with a boozing mother and little sister with the preternaturally wizened face of a Dickensian bootblack. Into this female household comes studly Connor (Fassbender) -- his male power calling up Marlon Brando in "Streetcar." Theresults are both predictable and surprising -- and always riveting.

With its pairing of an older man and a young girl, "Fish Tank" might be a grittier, downscale version of "An Education," which portrayed a similar couple. But in offering a vision of marginalized people teetering on the abyss, Arnold's film packs more visceral power. For Mia nothing less than survival is at stake. Arnold, who speaks with a pungent Cockney accent, withheld the complete script from the actors, doling out only the scenes to be filmed that day. Whatever her method, she's pulled a mesmerizing turn from Fassbender as a charmer who's pure catnip to women.

I recently had the chance to chat with both Fassbender and Arnold in the Soho Grand prior to the film's screening at BAM.

Erica Abeel: I was intrigued by Connor, all the more as throughout the film he remains mysterious. What's his background? Do we know if he's married?

Michael Fassbender: I think he's married. Obviously I only found that out as we filmed. Andrea had the script written, but the actors were only given the scenes as we went along. I really didn't have a backstory for him. I pretty much kept him close to myself. I did have the feeling he was running away from something because he was very eager to sort of jump into this readymade family. But the phone conversation that Mia overhears -- that's the first indication that he's got someone else, who wants him to come home. I think he's a fairly irrresponsible kind of guy. Whenever there's trouble, he tends to run away from it.

EA: Do you you work out a lot?
MF: I do at times. Haven't done it in a while now. I think I need to get back into it. Exercise helps my head, keeps it in a healthy space

EA: I'm asking because your physical presence is very much a part of the characterization. In our first sight of Connor in the kitchen, he's very flirtatious and sexual.
MF: One thing about Connor that I knew Andrea was looking for was that he was quite a sexual character. He was coming into a house full of women. That's why she had me come downstairs for breakfast with my shirt off and jeans hanging down every low. You just have to go for it.
What Connor does well in terms of Mia is tell her that she has talent and she should have confidence in herself. He's a fairly good hearted person, not a predator.

EA: Katie Jarvis, who's sensational as Mia, had never acted before. What was it like playing against a non pro?
MF: She finds the truth in the scene, with not a lot of vanity. She has a gut instinct and just goes for it, has a special gift for that. I'd put her up there with some of the best actors I've been privileged to work with.

EA: Your career has taken off bigtime. What's coming up?
MF: I'm working with Steven Soderbergh in Dublin on a spy film, where I'm an MI6 operative. I've been very lucky.

EA: You're extremely handsome and gifted. How is that luck?
MF: A lot of gifted people out there, but there's a large portion of luck ... I'm also doing
Jane Eyre directed by Cary Fukunaga ("Sin Nombre"). It will be interesting to see what kind of angle he'll take on it.

EA: Aren't you too young for Mr. Rochester?
MF: I'll grey up a little. Then a film with David Cronenbourg, "The Talking Cure." I'll be working with Christoph Walz and Keira Knightley. It's about the triangle between Freud, Jung and his patient Sabina, a patient of both of theirs, written by Christopher Hampton.

EA: How do you feel about your success?
MF: Grateful, yeah. Cautious. Wary. Y'know the bottom can fall out of these things at any point.

EA: Andrea, "Red Road," your first feature,l was also set among the working class and folks on the dole. Is this your world?

Andrea Arnold: I come from a working class background. It's a world I feel I know. I'm in this amazingly privileged position of being able to make films. It's not like I decided I'd make films about that world. But it seems to be what I keep writing about. David Lynch said, "there's a time in your life when your windows are wide open." He grew up in Philly and when he's writing he goes back to a lot of stuff he remembers from there. It's the time when you receive all the things you want to explore or talk about.

EA: Did you try and show the worst side of Essex [the project] that you could?
AA: It has some sadness, because there used to be a lot of industry. But it has a really big sky and a wilderness. And that estate [project] in particular is not bad. The whole world of film is very middle class. So when people see a film about people who have less than they do they find it grim. But that's how most of the world lives.
I'd love it if next time they saw a girl like Mia they might think about her a little bit and give her a bit more room. If that's the most that could come out of the film I'd be happy.

EA: How do the Brits feel about the view you're giving of the country?
AA: I think people don't like to look in the mirror, do they. There's a big class system in the U.K. Even though people say it isn't there, I think it's alive and well. But there's a lot of spirit and energy too in the film. We should celebrate people like Mia. She's one of many. People asked, did you have a hard time finding her? I said I knew there were lots of them out there.

EA: Connor is one of the most fascinating characters in recent memory -- both delicious and kind of a scumbag. How do you feel about him?

AA: My relation with him is complex. And I found it complex through the whole process, in writing, filming, editing. I tried not to judge him. Or her. People are complicated and do good and bad things. If I started judging them I wouldn't have them do the things they do. You have to let them live.

EA: This was your second Jury Prize in Cannes.
AA: [Laughing] How did that happen? Where did that come from? I was still just as bewildered the 2nd time. I don't quite know how I got to be here. I was in Telluride and I was thinking to myself, I made a film and all these people are watching it! In Colorado! How strange is that?