You probably won’t recognize Michael Fassbender in his new movie. The actor, recently Oscar-nominated in 12 Years a Slave and exercising mutant superpowers in X-Men: Days of Future Past, didn’t starve himself for the role, grow a ton of facial hair, or contort his body at all. He just put on a giant plaster head, playing a fictionalized version of Frank Sidebottom, a performance-art creation of British musician Chris Sievey.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, Frank is a version of what happened when journalist Jon Ronson joined the band led by Sievey, who performed punk songs while wearing the giant papier-mâché head. In real life, Sievey usually took the mask off when he wasn’t performing. In Frank, Fassbender’s character never takes the mask off—at least not voluntarily. As such, Fassbender’s face is rarely glimpsed in the movie, but as he told Krista Smith, it’s the kind of acting challenge he’s been preparing for his whole life. And as evidenced by his busy upcoming slate, including a take on one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, a challenge has never been something Michael Fassbender is afraid of.
Krista Smith: Frank is the most deliberately strange movie. Were you familiar with Frank Sidebottom, the character who inspired it?
Michael Fassbender: No, not until I read the script.
What was it about the script that drew you in?
When I got it and read it, I was just like, what is this? It is just so strange and wonderful. It’s my kind of sense of humor, and it also had some really poignant and touching moments in there as well.
How did you adjust to acting without a face?
It wasn’t difficult at all. I had done a bit of commedia dell’arte at drama school, and we learned a bit about using a mask and about working from the outside in as opposed to the other way around. So then it was just about finding what was most effective—where to be animated and expressive physically, and when to just be still. Because then there is a lot of ambiguity and it is kind of eerie. You don’t know what he’s thinking, where he’s coming from. Is he falling asleep in there? What’s happening? It was fun to play around with that.
About 20 minutes into the movie, I was seeing expressions in the face, which I know isn’t possible.
I think that is what happens. People start to project whatever they want onto the mask. We were hoping that after 5 or 10 minutes people would start looking at Frank and forget that it is a head. It’s kind of like Team America: World Police; after a while, you are looking at these characters and you forget they are puppets.
Your character, Frank, sings in an art-rock band alongside Maggie Gyllenhaal and Domhnall Gleeson. What was it like playing with them—with a mask on, no less?
It was kind of like a trust exercise, where I was basically falling backwards and they either catch me or they don’t. And they were always there to catch me, thankfully, so it was great.
Are you a musician yourself?
Yeah, music has always been important to me and I played different instruments when I was younger. Not very well, but I could get by with a bit of guitar. A friend of mine and I both played guitar, but we could never find a drummer or a bass player, so it never really materialized into a band.
You recently performed with the band on The Colbert Report. What was that like?
The one thing that is tricky about the mask is the sound. Hearing my voice inside the head is sort of like being in a box that is reverberating. I got into the swing of it, but it had been a while since I had it on.
The film has a lot to say about social media, both good and bad. You’re a holdout in that department, aren’t you?
I have a Twitter account just to prevent someone from putting up a fake one, but I don’t really use it. And it’s not any kind of protest. I just find it difficult to find the time. You know, I have enough trouble keeping up with e-mails and phone calls. I just think it would take up so much more of the day for me.
You’re too busy making movies. Did you finish the Western you were shooting? [Slow West, co-starring Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn].
It is being cut as we speak.
And what else do you have in the pipeline?
I finished Macbeth [opposite Marion Cotillard] and Trespass Against Us[with Brendan Gleeson]. There is still the Malick movie [filmed amid the music scene in Austin, Texas, co-starring Natalie Portman, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Rooney Mara, and Cate Blanchett] and the Western. That’s it, I think.
That’s it? You’re like the hardest working man in show business!
Yeah, maybe I should take a break.