Interview With Michael Fassbender, Thinking Man's Star

Michael Fassbender, it's fair to say, has become the breakout actor of the year. This is cause to celebrate. While hugely charismatic, Fassbender does not trade on personality, presenting an Everyman who resonates with the public and stays recognizable from film to film. Think George Clooney and Tom Hanks. Rather, Fassbender manages the feat of disappearing his own person into a character. In the words of Steve Mcqueen, who directed him in the forthcoming provocation Shame, "Michael is an artist."

Currently, he can be seen in A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg's intellectual thriller set during the birth of pyschoanalysis. Fassbender brings a steely brilliance to his portrayal of Carl Jung, an ambitious young doctor and a disciple of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen in a droll casting choice). After treating the troubled but gifted Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) with the new "talking cure," Jung eventually becomes her lover, delivering the thrashings that turn her on. On the scientific front, he crosses swords with the more cautious Freud by insisting that the burgeoning science delve into myth and religion, while his S&M-tinged affair with Sabina also contributes to the breach with his mentor.

A few years ago, I interviewed Fassbender about Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold, in which he plays a hunky low life who moves into his girlfriend's flat in a Brit version of the projects and seduces her under-age daughter. So we're old buddies, he and I. He has a leonine head, mischievous greenish eyes that keep a secret, and an unexpected Irish accent. He's also as unassuming as when he was not quite on the radar. From the Fish Tank interview I remember him reflecting that fame is fickle and the hot boy on the block can quickly fade from view.

Erica Abeel: Wow, you've made six films in twenty months: Haywire, Jane Eyre, X Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method, Shame, Prometheus, a Ridley Scott tentpole. Since Fish Tank you've come a ways.

Michael Fassbender: Yet early on I was still very privileged to be working with great people. I seemed to be on movie makers' radar, if not the public's. I've always been very lucky to continue to work with great filmmakers and to learn as much as I can from them.

EA: With his chilly, cerebral demeanor, Jung is almost the opposite exteme from some of the virile rogues you've played. How did you build such a reined-in character?

MF: It was just an element of Jung, so you respect it and embody it. It's always nice to take something on board physically. Like the way you move as a character. Remember, they were wearing clothes with starched collars. Europe at that time was super civilized. Of course WWI on the doorstep proved that was wrong. Jung also had a sensual side. Jung is always eating a lot, when he's at Freud's place he loads his plate with food. I tried to bring in some humor. Viggo and I played around with that. When we pick Jung up in this portion of his life, he was very ambitious, determined, and insecure. Like anyone who's starting off with a belief system. But Freud and Jung also both had massive egos. Anyone who questioned their work was dismissed.

EA: How do you explain the rift between them?

MF: Freud wanted to establish boundaries for psychoanalysis. Jung believed there should be no boundaries, anything goes, any type of idea. Freud, who's coming from a Jewish background, from Austria, had an element of paranoia, which was there for a reason. Already people were saying psychoanalysis is a Jewish thing, not relevant to the Aryans. And Freud was wary of anything outside the realm of science.

EA: Were you bothered by the spanking scenes with Sabina?

MF: No

EA: Some viewers will be,

MF: I think it's part of the story. People do it. Whatever you think of, somebody somewhere is interested in it and into it, whether you're it's a foot fetish or spanking or being tied up. The Sabina we see comes to recognize what her desires are, what stimulates her sexually. Before, she found that dirty or something she needed to hide; it wasn't socially acceptable for a woman to be feeling those things. There's a very deep bond between Jung and Sabina: she's the patient, he's the doctor, and together they're trying out this new talking cure. That she was such an intelligent person intrigued him even more. He also feels he's really fulfilling her desires by spanking her. I think he's turned on by her getting turned on.

EA: Over the course of the film there's an intriguing power shift between Jung and Sabina. How would you describe it?

MF: Well, she arrives as this hysteric and Jung is very much the doctor who's in control. By the end of the film, though, when he has somewhat unraveled, the roles have sort of reversed. She's become an analyst in her own right, which is such a cool thing, that someone can come in as a patient and leave as a doctor.

EA: At the end, it's implied that Jung feels he missed out on the great passion of his life. Why did he remain with his wife?

MF: Well, she was super-wealthy. Without her he couldn't pursue his teaching. Besides, it was not uncommon in Europe for men to be married and have mistresses. Though of course the whole thing blew up in his face: Sabina was a patient and there were ethical codes he had to follow. Jung later had a mistress who was a student and lived in the house with the Jung family.

EA: That's another movie.

MF: That's the sequel. I see a franchise here! The Jung Trilogy!

EA: What was it like playing against Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley?

MF: These are people at the top of their game. Everyone came to work prepared. Did their homework. We had fun, played around with things. When you're working with such people, you get to heights you wouldn't reach on your own. They pull you up, it's like a little dance. They take risks but don't bring you into their process. Everyone just comes and does their thing. And Cronenberg has a great sense of humor. He's very light and nurturing. His method is like carpentry: you do little sections of a table and then at the end put the table together. As he works, he's putting the pieces together in his head.

EA: What do you do to stay in shape?

MF: I'm lucky I take after my mum's side of the family and have a really fast metabolism. When I do get into the gym whenever possible, I tend to do boxing training. Jump rope, focus mitts, heavy bag, push ups, reps, high intensity. I love to dance. I was obsessed with Michael Jackson at a young age.

EA: Who's at the top of your wish list among directors to work with?

MF: I've always been a big fan of the Coen brothers. The Big Lebowski is one of my all time faves. And Steve McQueen -- he's family to me now. We're so close on and off set. He changed my life, giving me the opportunity in Hunger. If I didn't get that break ... We were heading into a recession. There were fewer roles for fewer actors. For me, a thirty year old unknown to get a leading role, and somebody willing to take a risk -- that was a big deal and allowed me to show potential within the craft. I'm forever indebted.