By Junsui Films | March 2012
The award winning actor talks exclusively to Junsui Films about his work on Markus Schleinzer’s controversial feature debut, MICHAEL…
Junsui Films: How did you come to be involved in Michael?
Michael Fuith: [Director] Markus Schleinzer saw me in the tragicomedy, The Big Bliss as it Were, in which I played a very complicated character. I received the Jury Award at the International Film Festival Film Academy Vienna in Austria for the performance and soon after that Markus offered me the lead in Michael.
JF: What was your initial reaction to the script?
Initially I was afraid to play the part. But Markus’ script was a very intelligent approach to a very difficult topic. Soon afterwards I read up on various real life cases and realised the anxiety and silence that exists in our society creates almost a shield of protection for these perpetrators. It was a realisation that provoked an angry response in me and so I pulled myself together and readied to start work.
JF: The character of Michael is essentially a man striving to live and maintain a normal life despite having a ten-year-old boy imprisoned in his basement. Tell us about your approach, how difficult was it preparing for such an emotionally taxing role?
Our psychological advisor Dr. Heidi Kastner helped me a lot. One of the first things she told me was these individuals are often ‘terrifyingly normal’. As an actor I always have distance to the characters I’m portraying. I work and focus on what I have to do as a performer, which is to make the audience believe the characters I’m portraying are experiencing genuine thoughts and emotions. The worst thing during preparations for Michael, and even during shooting, was gaining the knowledge of what these certain individuals are capable of and the fact that they exist in reality, all over the globe and have done for centuries.
JF: Were you ever worried taking the role might harm your career?
Yes, of course, but I think that’s natural when dealing with a character such as Michael. But I’ve played a variety of different and challenging characters throughout my career and have many completely different projects to come.
JF: How did you find it working with Markus Schleinzer? It was certainly a brave film for a first time director to take on.
Absolutely great. Like me, Markus likes to delve into the very essence of the story. His working style is very precise, very concentrated. In pre-production we had a lot of discussions together about the movie, the subject, the character. We also read a lot of books, watched documentaries and had various meetings with Dr Kastner.
Besides that I had to lose weight in order to look more ‘average’. I also read up on various torture methods because I wanted to know as much as possible about what techniques are used to dominate others when creating authority. I even had meetings with a military tutor to work on the body language of the character.
Because there isn’t much dialogue in the film we also worked very close with our DOP Gerald Kerkletz. We had to get as much information as possible across to the audience simply through pictures. On the other hand they had to look as authentic as possible. For me this was a great challenge. I always had very specific positions in front of the camera but it all had to look natural. We did about twenty takes every time. It was exhausting.
JF: How involved was Markus in the shaping of your character? Did he provide you with any specific notes or leave you to create your own interpretation of Michael?
It was pure teamwork from the beginning. We started with the creation of the character about a year before shooting and in between we’d meet with our advisor Dr Kastner. We singled out the similarities that many real life cases had in common and the most obvious thing we found was that the perpetrators often wanted to imitate the life they spotted around them.
Therefore they often appear very average, very normal. Some viewers had problems with that which I can understand. In the film you see a man you hate so much but you watch him living and going about his life without anyone even suspecting him. That is a hard thing to deal with. In film we are used to seeing the good guys defeating the bad guys. Some may think that we wanted to defend the character, and yet I’m always thinking, you can’t defend an individual like Michael, no way! Watch more carefully.
The fact is they don’t think of themselves as criminals or even bad people. They have built themselves a complex construction of moral perception and they become captivated, trapped in this construction. If they had the power to think outside the box they likely wouldn’t do the terrible things they do. So in many ways the theme of our movie was about “being captivated”. Physically and psychologically. We had to show Michael like this because it’s a reflection of what is really happening in our world. Situations like this are rarely black and white.
JF: Though there are no explicit scenes of abuse in the film the tension between yourself and David Rauchenberger is incredibly tense throughout. How did you and David approach your scenes together?
David was a great colleague and he helped me a lot. He was never afraid of me during rehearsals and shooting and encouraged me to play it better in order to make the scene right. Of course, other scenes were simply faked; like the infamous “knife” scene (split-screen) or in the basement after cleaning up when Michael wants him to come into the bed. We weren’t even in the same room then. All that was done in editing.
JF: What was the biggest challenge for you?
Without question the sequence in which the boy is sick and Michael tucks him into the bed with absolutely no empathy for the child. He does it only out of fear to lose the world he has created for himself. There was no way to get around it or fake it. It was the scene with the closest contact between us actors.
Because David had to play sick and weak and all defenceless, it was at that point I was strongly reminded of all the cases I read about and again realised that in reality there are certain people out there who really do lack any natural instinct of protection towards children.
JF: How difficult was it switching off when not on set?
In my opinion you are an actor 24/7. As said, even though I don’t necessarily slip into characters, you are always brainstorming about all the tiny details. And for the work on this movie, I will never forget the things I learned during my research for the rest of my life, that’s for sure.
JF: It can be argued that the film’s subject matter limits its appeal. In your opinion who do you think Michael is for?
It’s difficult to say, but I’d imagine anyone who is willing to think and talk about the topic.
JF: Tell us about your experiences at Cannes last year?
A big media circus. We had a very tight schedule so there certainly wasn’t any time for the beach. The reactions during the screening were very positive. Some even included a few laughs. Hard to imagine on this topic but it emerges out of the absurd reality of the character we are showing. I found it very interesting that after the first screening the audience were applauding and there were also standing ovations. Just at the end there where a few “boos” And of course that’s what some people wrote about. I thought to myself, ok maybe a “scandal” is more interesting for the press. But all in all the press reactions were very positive so there’s nothing to complain about.
JF: What next for Michael Fuith?
A big TV production placed in the middle-ages where I’ll play a knight. A horror movie and after that hopefully a comedy.