Michael Fassbender is a two-time Academy Award nominee who trained at the Drama Centre London before touring with the Oxford Stage Company; he’s performed Chekov and Shakespeare and worked a veritable who’s who of greatest living directors. Rookie actor Kaimana had never even considered trying to be an actor, noting she avoided school plays “like the plague.” Yet the two form a winning pair in “Next Goal Wins,” the funny, touching, uplifting new film from “Jojo Rabbit” filmmaker Taika Waititi, hitting theaters Nov. 17.
Based on the 2014 documentary of the same name, “Next Goal Wins” finds Fassbender playing Thomas Rongen, a coach whose anger management and alcohol issues finds him shipped off to American Samoa to lead the national football team to qualify for the FIFA World Cup. He is set up to fail — the team is widely regarded as a punchline in the sport. But, fortunately, the team and its tight-knit island community have modest ambitions — they would just like to score one goal.
Kaimana plays their star athlete Jaiyah Saelua, who is fa’afafine, a name the community uses for someone regarded as a third gender, or non-binary. (The real Saelua currently plays for center back for the American Samoa national team.) In addition to being the team’s captain, Jaiyah becomes Rongen’s guide and confidante and it’s a star turn for the new actor, who brings an honesty and charisma that no amount of acting experience can teach. As with their film characters, Fassbender may have the knowledge and experience of the craft but Kaimana more than holds her own — and together, they are a delight.
It’s the first lead in an all-out comedy for Fassbender, who is known for his dramatic turns in films like “12 Years a Slave” and “Steve Jobs.” And Fassbender proves an adept comedian as Rongen — he’s also bringing a dark humor to his current role as an assassin in David Fincher’s “The Killer.” Variety spoke to the pair about the importance of comedy — even in the darkest moments — and how they found their way to this very unique story.
Kaimana, how did you come to be cast as Jaiyah?
Kaimana: A lot of my family and friends had been sending the casting call that was floating around the Polynesian community. I looked at it and thought, “Oh yeah, that sounds a lot like me. Except that I don’t act.” But they kept bugging me about it so I said I would audition, just to get them off my back.
It started with an email and then I ended up on a phone call with casting director Katie Doyle. Though I’m from Oahu, I was in Chicago at the time and had to fly back to Hawaii for an in-person audition. Then I went back and met Taika. I went back to Chicago and there was another audition with Mary Vernieu, through Zoom. That’s when I think it started to feel real to me.
So much of the movie hinges on this relationship — did you ever do a chemistry read or audition together?
Fassbender: Not at all. Sometimes you come across someone who has no experience in the business — it was like this when I did “Fish Tank” with Katie Jarvis — who just has an honesty and a truth to them. That’s what Kaimana has in every scene, she’s just so simple and honest. It struck me when we were doing scenes that she’s so disarming and engaging and has that ability to be truthful on screen.
OK, but be honest, is there any part of you that’s a little irritated it comes so naturally to her?
Fassbender: Of course! My God, I spent so many years of my life doing this thing that comes to her for free. Typical.
Kaimana: Not free, I’m going to pay you 50 bucks after saying all that.
Fassbender: I keep telling you, it’s 100. Cheapskate.
Kaimana, was it still daunting to show up on a set and star in a movie with these great actors?
Kaimana: Absolutely. The most intimidating aspect, honestly, was having to have Michael Fassbender as a screen partner. Because I only knew him from “X-Men.” All I knew was Magneto. So, in my head, I’m like, “What did I get myself into?” But honestly, he’s so much different than that character.
Fassbender: He’s not a mutant…
He doesn’t float.
Fassbender: You were like, “Aw, zero superpowers.”
Kaimana: No, I was relieved. He was just a cool, chill, regular guy. And a great scene partner — he was always encouraging and supporting me and giving me permission to play around.
Also, they were on your home turf shooting in Oahu. Did you let them know the good places to go?
Kaimana: I did not. Honestly, being from Hawaii, usually the tourists know far more than you do!
Fassbender: One of the great things about shooting on location is you always have the experience of really tapping into a culture because you’re working with the locals. It’s a great way to experience different places, cities and cultures. It’s always a privilege when you work on location.
So maybe I should ask if you have any recommendations of where to go?
Fassbender: We were all over the place. There was a karaoke bar, Taika likes karaoke.
What’s his go-to song?
Fassbender: Prince. You probably could have guessed that. My go-to is Frank Sinatra — boring, I know. [To Kaimana] You didn’t sing, did you?
Kaimana: Oh no, I did not. I was there just watching.
Fassbender: If you had to do it again, if you had to sing karaoke, what would have been the song?
Kaimana: Probably “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.”
I wasn’t familiar with the story of Thomas Rongen and this team. What drew you to the film?
Kaimana: I knew nothing about the story, I found out by watching the documentary. And it was such a good story, I was excited to be a part of it.
Fassbender: The idea of working with Taika was very exciting to me. I’ve been wanting to work with him for some time.
Had you discussed other roles, were you looking for the right project?
Fassbender: Well, I’d been leaving a lot of messages on his answering machine but he wasn’t getting back to me. It was actually my wife who bullied him into giving me the part.
How did she do that?
Fassbender: By saying, “Give my husband the part.” (Laughs.) The idea of working on this story was so exciting because the spirit of this team is something you walk away from thinking: I wish I had that positive outlook in life. It’s so encouraging.
So it was meetings — you never had a formal audition?
Fassbender: He could have been auditioning me in those meetings. I thought we were just playing around rehearsing, but maybe was an audition probably in there. I made a mess of so many auditions, starting out — like, just awful. I think the really cool thing about today is with the technology you have, you can have a friend that records you and do it in a space where you feel comfortable and send it in. Because auditioning is tough.
Kaimana, this was your first time auditioning for anything. What was it like?
Kaimana: Honestly, I was just like, “I don’t know what I’m doing anyways, so they’re gonna get what they’re gonna get.”
Fassbender: That’s the right attitude.
Kaimana: had no idea. I do remember wondering at one point during the process, “How many times do you have to audition?”
This movie is uplifting and has some heartrending moments but it’s also very, very funny. I know you can do comedy but you’re probably best-known for dramatic roles. Had you been looking to do more comedy?
Fassbender: I’m always trying to bring comedy to my parts. I guess there’s been some dark characters, but I tried to be funny. I love the realm of comedy and it’s such a hard thing to do. Because if you say it’s a comedy and people aren’t laughing … well, it’s not a comedy. But I knew I’d be in good hands with Taika.
Kaimana: I feel like if people didn’t know he was funny, they will find out this Friday.
Even in something like “12 Years a Slave,” there’s a scene where your character is chasing Solomon Northup around and it’s actually funny because he’s such a buffoon.
Fassbender: You know, when you said comedy, I was actually thinking of that scene. It’s obviously so disturbing but he’s also slipping in the mud in the pigpen. That was intentional, it was about finding moments where you can break the disturbing scenes and just let the air out a little bit and get relief. It also makes it more disturbing to know this person has so much power that doesn’t have a lot of intelligence. There’s a lot of tragic humor in there.
About a week ago I was looking at the script and it actually describes the moment as: “in what should be quite comical…”
Fassbender: Oh does it? And I was taking credit for that! It was in the script, Michael (laughs). But comedy is such a useful tool. Sometimes you’re doing something so heavy and if you don’t allow the audience to escape through laughter, it becomes too much and you can dissociate from the subject matter. But if you allow people to laugh, they’re so much more open and vulnerable to take whatever’s coming next.
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