Sex Addiction and the City

Actor Michael Fassbender on the set of the film Shame. Fox Searchlight Pictures

When Steve McQueen first heard of sex addiction as a phenomenon, the British director scoffed at the idea that sexaholics need sympathy, too. "Like most people, I just laughed," McQueen recalled recently over tea in Beverly Hills.

But after speaking with sufferers and attending Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings in the name of research, the Turner Prize–winning visual artist turned filmmaker was convinced otherwise. "The stories we heard were so devastatingly sad," said McQueen. "It's not like alcoholism or drug addiction, where there's some built-in sympathy. It's almost like the AIDS epidemic in the early days. No one wants to deal with you. You're weird. You're a fiend. That stigma is still attached."

McQueen set out to deal with a condition "right under our noses that we don't see" on the big screen with the brilliant psychosexual drama Shame. He cast Michael Fassbender (the star of X-Men: First Class and Inglourious Basterds who also portrayed Irish Republican Army hunger striker Bobby Sands in the director's explosive 2008 debut, Hunger) as Brandon, a corporate Manhattanite tortured by his compulsive pursuit of sex. Wholly incapable of emotional engagement, the character finds his sex-filled existence turned upside down when his younger sister, Sissy (played by Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan)—who, conversely, loves too much—moves in with him.

Shame has been gaining Oscar buzz since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, where the movie earned a 15-minute standing ovation. Fassbender collected the best-actor award for his fearlessly unzipped performance. "I wasn't going into this vain," says Fassbender. "I wanted [Brandon] to be vulnerable, childlike, repulsive in certain moments."

Where Hunger follows an imprisoned man's desperate effort to claim freedom by the only means available to him—starvation—Shame depicts a man with unlimited freedoms, thanks to good looks, money, and a New York that serves as his sexual Disneyland. But liberty ends up imprisoning him. "This movie has as much to do with sex as alcoholism has to do with being thirsty," McQueen, 42, said. "It's just an outlet. We drink or do drugs or have sex as a distraction. That's because it's hard to be a human being. Anything to numb the pain—that's what we do."

Fassbender, 34, says he went to some "dark places" for the role, but feels gratified by the work. "Hopefully we can do something provocative enough to stir people's imaginations, to make them ask more questions."