Lynn Hirschberg: In Shame, which is out now, you play Sissy, a deeply troubled girl with an almost incestuous attachment to her brother (Michael Fassbender), a sex addict. Both characters are in search of something—anything—that will make them feel whole. Sissy, who works as a singer, is naked even when she’s clothed. She reveals too much, sleeps with the wrong men, and when she turns up unexpectedly in her brother’s spare, pristine New York City apartment, the effect is like a bomb going off: The siblings ignite each other’s self-destructive ways. Shame is unsettling and haunting. Is that why you were attracted to the project?
When I read the script, I found it terrifying. My English agents sent it to me and said, “There’s this amazing part.” For me, as an actor, it was sort of scary. I’d seen Hunger [about Bobby Sands, the IRA leader who starved himself to death in prison to protest the conflict in Northern Ireland], which was done by Steve McQueen, the director of Shame, and I thought it was just incredible. And I’d always wanted to work with Michael Fassbender, who had been cast as the brother. So, I asked to have a meeting with Steve to pitch myself for the job.
What was the meeting like?
I just talked for an hour. Steve was trying to leave, but I kept on: “No, don’t go—I don’t have the job yet!” I thought if I could keep him sitting at the table, I could persuade him to let me have the role. He kept trying to pay the bill, and I said, “No, no, no. Sit down.” He got in a cab, but I wouldn’t leave him—I got in, too. Finally he said, “I’m going to my appointment now.” And I said okay. That afternoon, I got a call saying I had the role.
You have an intense full-frontal nude scene in the film. Did you find that difficult to do?
I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of nudity. I’ve done only seminude, very innocent things in the past, and I’ve always been of the quite British mind-set that I won’t do gratuitous nudity. When it came to this, it just seemed so obvious that she is the sort of person who would have no trouble being naked in front of any family member, especially not her brother. She’s an extrovert and wants to be seen. More than anything, she wants someone to acknowledge and help her. I thought I had a week before the nude scene to go to the gym, but we shot it on my first day of filming.
Oh, my God.
Weirdly, it was fine. You take your clothes off, and you’re like, “Ah—all of you are wearing clothes, and I’m naked, ha, ha, ha.” It’s kind of fun—not that I would continue to do it. The nudity helped me dive into who she was. Once she’d been naked in front of her brother, I could go from there.
You did an Off Broadway play, Through a Glass Darkly, in which you were also nude.
No, I was topless in the play. In the script, she was naked, but I dreaded the idea of being naked onstage. When I’ve seen plays with actors who are nude, I’ve always thought, Gosh, that actor’s naked. I wonder how they feel about being naked. Then two minutes later, you fall back into the play. Through a Glass Darkly is not very long, and I didn’t want the audience to stop and think, Oh, she’s naked—I wonder if she feels funny. So we modified it.
You sing in Shame. That seems scarier to me than being naked.
I’ve never sung in a movie before. The point wasn’t really that Sissy was a great singer—it was more that she attracted people. I sing “New York, New York” in the film, and Steve wanted it live. We did 15 takes—because every time I made a mistake or my voice fell out of tune or I lost my breath, we’d have to cut, and Steve wanted to do the whole thing in one go. At one point he wanted Sissy to sing something else and asked me to make up a song. He said, “You’re an artist, aren’t you? We can’t afford the rights to a famous song, so make one up.” I was walking around the room thinking, How do you write a song?! Eventually I made up this really bluesy song and sang two lines.
See, you’re an artist!
A bullshit artist [laughs].
Were you theatrical as a child?
Somewhat. I would put my earphones on and sing along to soundtracks of musicals like Les Misérables. I’d act it out in the mirror and cry. When I was 11 or 12, I asked my parents about going to a performing arts school, and they said no. Although I did audition to be a presenter on a TV show called Dig It.
Yeah, the producers invited 3,000 kids to audition. They put you in a big inflatable chair, and you had to talk for a minute about something. They said, “Pick any topic.” I talked about my guinea pig, and it was awful. I got 20 seconds in, and then I had nothing left to say, so I just sat there. For some reason, I was still really shocked that I didn’t get the job. Even though I knew I’d been terrible, I thought they might have seen something in me that they could work with.
You had innate optimism.
I did. I thought it was all fate. I thought: I’m here for a reason.
Louis Vuitton’s white embroidered silk organza collar and leather dress. Mikimoto 18k yellow gold and Akoya cultured pearl earrings.Hair by Jimmy Paul for Bumble and bumble; makeup by Aaron de Mey for Lancôme at Art Partner; manicure by Ashlie Johnson at the Wall Group. Prop styling by Ali Gallagher at Jed Root LA Inc. Photography assistants: Christopher Melton, Byce Ward. Fashion assistants: Felicia Garcia-Rivera, Laura Jones. Jewelry assistant: Tina Huynh. Special thanks to Chateau Marmont.