Michael Fassbender: How He Mastered Terrifying Turn in ’12 Years a Slave’

Michael Fassbender in "12 Years a Slave"
Michael Fassbender in "12 Years a Slave"

What's love got to do with it? Everything, according to Michael Fassbender, who plays a handsome yet hideous plantation owner who sleeps with one of his servants in Steve McQueen’s Oscar-bound drama, "12 Years a Slave."

Fassbender sat down with Yahoo Movies at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about his villainous role in "Slave," the harrowing fact-based story of a free black man from the North (Chiwetel Ejiofor) abducted and sold into slavery in the antebellum South. (Warning: minor spoilers ahead.)

Michael, you play Edwin Epps, a married slave owner that brutalizes Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon Northup and sexually assaults Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong'o. Epps is one mean, evil Southern plantation master – or is he?

Michael Fassbender: Well, I don't understand the word evil. For me to go away and formulate an evil character: I wouldn’t know how to do that. That word doesn’t give me any help. But somebody who's in love with a black slave, him being a plantation owner, somebody who's not the sharpest tool in the box, who's perhaps married above his station in society. Now, those are things I can work with. Those are things that can unravel a character.

Then, of course, his actions are violent. And why is that? It goes back to the fact that he is, well, especially his violence towards Patsey, it’s because he loves her, and he doesn't know what to do with that information.

He doesn't understand how that is, and so he sets about destroying her. Perhaps by destroying her, he will quash these feelings of love that he has for her. But, of course, it does the opposite. It just intensifies them. And that is something interesting that I can work with. That is something that brings a real serious conflict within the character.

The intensity of Epps' racist behavior is truly shocking. Was it hard to get under that skin?

M.F.: We're dealing with a time when black people are slaves, so that's the reality of the world that everyone’s living in. Slavery was all to do with the economy. Solomon starts off in a logging farm, and then he goes on to work in the cotton field, and then he goes on to work in a sugar cane farm, so you see the economy, the industry of the slave market in America. So that's just intrinsic in the way things are.

[Related: '12 Years a Slave' Captures the Toronto Film Festival Audience]

But what's chilling about the movie is the way that societal prejudice runs deeper than the economy. What bothers your character, you seem to be saying, is that Epps has these feelings that are racist, and yet he has passionate feelings for a black woman…

M.F.: He loves her. That's the problem. Racism didn't even exist. It wasn't a time when people understood [that term], it was just a norm. We see the normality of life as a slave, which is totally abnormal. We're sitting here and looking back at history and going, well, that's total racism, but at the time, it was the norm. If you're black and you strike your master or somebody above your station that's white, you’re going to suffer the consequences. That's the norm. And, then for Solomon when he comes to Epps' plantation, it’s the unpredictability within that world that is more terrifying.

[Related: Could It Be a Groundbreaking Year African American Oscar Contenders?]

This is your third film with director Steve McQueen, following lead roles in “Hunger” and “Shame.” What did you discuss on set?

M.F.: All sorts of things. The first key thing was what Epps represented for me in the story. I said to Steve right off the bat, having read the script in the early stages, I felt like he was a manifestation of the ugliness of the time, of slavery, of what was happening in the South. He was a boil on the skin of the society, as opposed to an evil plantation owner. I wasn’t going to approach him that way. I wanted to find a human being in there. The end for me, with the character, was that his relationship with Patsey, the fact that he’s in love with one of his slaves, that was the starting point.

And that he can’t reconcile his love and his hate -- that’s where the irritation begins?

M.F.: It's more than irritation. It's destruction. Any actor of any intelligence will never go, 'I'm going to play an evil character.' It's too muddy a word. There's nothing there to work with.

When you put these ideas into action, were there any specific scenes that were particularly challenging?

M.F.: The challenging scenes are the ones that I think are challenging for the audience as well.

For me, the hardest scene to watch was the one where Epps makes Solomon whip Patsey in front of all the other slaves.

M.F.: That was a difficult scene because it was a technical challenge on top of being emotionally upsetting. All the beats had to be covered because we were doing it in the one take. You don’t cut away so the audience doesn't get a chance to catch their breath. They're almost there with you, and I think that's how it comes across. But, as an actor, you're getting the nuts and bolts, to be in the right place, to do the dance correctly with [director of photography] Sean [Bobbitt] behind the camera, and the other actors. There are so many technical elements to that but then it’s also upsetting. That was a tough scene.

“12 Years a Slave” has generated a huge positive reaction. How does that make you feel, even though your particular part generates so much horror and trepidation?

M.F.: I feel great. I feel very proud, and humbled, to be part of it, privileged. It’s a really important story. And I think it's a beautiful piece, I think it's a masterwork that Steve’s done. This story, and other stories that Steve tells, show you all the power of humanity and also the cruelty. He shows what we’re capable of doing to one another for the positive and the negative, you know?

Do you and Steve have future projects you’re working on?

M.F.: Hopefully I’ll work with Steve again, and again, and again. I just really love working on his sets. He changed my life with "Hunger." That’s something that I was looking for when I started this path in life when I was 17, finding a director that could draw the best out of me, and I feel that Steve does that.

Watch Michael Fassbender in the Trailer for '12 Years a Slave'