The role of the brooding, romantic, secretive Jane Eyre hero Edward Rochester has been essayed in the past by a veritable hall of fame of great actors and/or leading men: Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, George C. Scott and William Hurt, to name but a handful. Now, in a version of the Charlotte Bronte literary classic directed by Sin Nombre helmer Cary Fukunaga and costarring Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids Are All Right) Michael Fassbender takes a stab at the role. He impressed cinephiles with his turns in the likes of Steve McQueen's Hunger (playing Bobby Sands) and Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank and made an impact with larger audiences in the far-ranging ensemble of Quentin Tarantino's crazed and very revisionist-history treatment of World War II, Inglourious Basterds.
On the eve of the release of Jane Eyre, which opens on March 11, he talked about his filmography, his approach to character, and the exciting roller-coaster ride that's been his career over the past few years.
WIDE SCREEN: In the films you've worked on, there have frequently been some very interesting narrative and/or directorial strategies coming in to play. In Steve McQueen’s Hunger, the Bobby Sands character really isn't introduced as the lead character until almost a third of the way into the film. When you're working with someone like McQueen, or the idiosyncratic French director Francois Ozon on Angel, or Andrea Arnold on Fish Tank, all of whom also make unusual choices in their films, do you feel coming in that you're more of a creative collaborator, that you're in on what they're about, as you're going through the process? I know it varies with each director, but working on Hunger, for instance, how acutely did you realize that the Sands character was going to be oozed into the film, as opposed to being introduced in a more conventional way as the subject of the film?
Michael: I was aware, because it was it was explicitly that way in the script, you know! We didn't get to meet [Sands] till I don't know what page it was, but it was quite well into the story. And that's fine. It doesn't bother me one way or the other really. I mean, my job kind of entails getting the character and learning my lines and hitting my marks and all of that. So what sort of style a director wants to shoot it or what sort of way he or she is going to present it, it doesn't really figure in to what I do; I don't know that we discussed that.
I was very lucky to work with Francois [Ozon]. He was the first guy that gave me a leading role in a film when nobody knew who I was at all.
So I just turned up with the character, did my work on the character, and tried to sort of get inside his head and figure that out. And that's the sort of conversation that I would have with [Ozon]. He'd be saying, "Oh, why don't you do X?" And I'd be like, "Oh, well would we do X when we do something like..." — or, you know, "Wouldn't you rather do Y?"
But in terms of the style of the film, or what [Ozon] was trying to do, that's kind of not really my department. So it keeps everything nice and clean if I need to take care of what I need to take care of, and the director does his thing. That's what I love about film. You said it's a collaborative thing. It's like, I'll approach the prop guy, I'll say, "Oh, I've got this lighter, do you think that's interesting for the character?" Or costume or hair, make-up, they create a look for you, and you're like, "Oh, I didn't see it like that myself." There are all sorts of eyes on the piece, all sorts of input. It's like, if you read a story and I read a story, you'll read it one way and I'll read it a different way, and we'll have different ideas of it. So then when we come together and try and work on putting it across, I might think, "Oh, wow, I didn't think of that at all," or "I didn't see that." And then you put it all together with lots of people; like the DP's, and the art department; the heads of all the departments. That's what's interesting. Does it come together and does it jell, or not?
WS: With Jane Eyre, it's, like Angel, another period piece; Rochester is a character who's, of course, been played rather famously in other films. Was that something you were particularly conscious of, or did you want to ignore the other film versions and go back to the literary source?
Michael: Well, no, I watched pretty much I think all of them. As much as I could get my hands on. I watched Orson Welles; I'm a big fan of Orson Welles. But, while I thought I'd find some things for the character with what he did, what was going on in the  film played in a very dated way. Very sort of over-dramatic, for the purposes of where we wanted to go with the piece.
That was the same feeling I had, when at one point I thought I was doing Wuthering Heights, and I watched Laurence Olivier's version and again, it was like wow, the particular approach here just dates big-time. And again, very dramatic, emphatic style. So I did dial it back to what I thought I could bring. I just studied the character as is in the book and the script, and what I found him to be... obviously he's like this Byronic hero, there's a little trace of that.
But I also thought there's something quite bipolar about him, and I just didn't want him, I don't know, to fall into total moodiness. I didn't want to play him with large brush strokes, I wanted to find all the little fine, strange details about him.
I think that's what the director, Cary Fukunaga, had in mind. That's what interested me as well. Number one, of course, is that my mom and my sister love the story! So I kind of thought, well, it would be nice to see if I can give them a Rochester they like; let's see what they think of my Rochester, sort of give it a go. So that was attractive to me from the beginning.
And then once Cary got on board I thought, well, this is really interesting now. And then Mia, I was like, oh, even more impressed. I had seen her on In Treatment, and I was blown away. She's got so much maturity and makes really original choices. I don't feel like she's ever lying in her performances. She's amazing as Jane. She comes on set and like wow, it's Jane. And then you see Mia as she herself is, and she's totally different.
WS: You bring a lot of physicality to certain roles, from the emaciated hunger-striking prisoner in Hunger to the object of desire for both mother and daughter in Fish Tank. What did you try to do for that side of Rochester?
Michael: I thought that he should have a weight to him. People of that era, I think, were used to riding horses and being in the saddle for hours and working out in the countryside. Obviously they're landowners, so they have to maintain the land. I really like the idea that he's a hands-on sort of guy around the land when he's there, when he's home.
I wanted this feeling that he's got this weight on him, Bertha in the attic. I wanted that with him everywhere he goes, this shadow sort of hovering over him. And he had that in his physical life as well. But yeah, I didn't... it didn't require me to put on weight or go the gym or anything like that.
WS: In Fish Tank, which is just out on DVD in the States, yours is an interesting role in a lot of ways. Your character is kind of the lust object, for both the camera itself and a couple of the female characters. Also, your character seems kind of on the ball; he's got interests, intriguing musical tastes and so on. And it's almost as if the viewer can view him as a surrogate. Then it turns out he's really not that good of a guy at all.
In a sense the film sort of pulls the rug out from under the viewer. How much of this were you juggling as a performer during the making of the film? Because you do keep the character sympathetic in a certain respect, despite the fact that he's doing bad things.
Michael: Yeah. Well I think it's more interesting, because it's just like if you have somebody sitting in the audience and they go, wow, that guy's actually kind of a normal sort of guy. And normal people do things that aren't so cool. But, you know, this was a case where I never got a script. Andrea didn't want to give us a script. But when she gave me the breakdown of the story, I knew what was coming, I knew how it was going to be, and I knew the reason she didn't give me a script was because she didn't want me to load it with anything.
So I knew that I just had to play [Connor] like really kind of easy and free and encouraging and charming. And that's what's kind of interesting, because when the people leave the cinema, they'll have an uncomfortable feeling about the character, because it's closer to them.
We all have the capabilities of doing all these things, like killing somebody, or taking advantage of somebody like that. And when you make it very real in embodying a person that you can relate to and understand or say, 'Oh, I know that guy,' then I think it makes the whole experience more real for people and therefore they have to question things, morals and principles.
WS: Is that kind of stuff you look for when you're looking for parts?
Michael: I think ambiguity is something that I do like to try and find within characters, yeah.
WS: In Fish Tank, you worked with Katie Jarvis, who's brand new, not a very experienced actor. And in the upcoming Haywire, you worked with Gina Carano, who's not an experienced actor but is well versed in mixed martial arts. What's it like to work with people who aren't as well-trained or well-versed in performing?
Michael: Well, Katie's amazing. When you see it on the screen, she's completely vivid and there. It was great working with her because we did an improvisation and she was game. No fear. She's not really interested in acting. So it gives her that extra something, I suppose, that she doesn't care. I think in the hands of the right director, like Andrea Arnold, who did Fish Tank, or Steven Soderbergh with Haywire, it works.
Anyway I think acting, it's 90 percent intuition. Training is good. I think you learn most out there in the field, practically. But I do think, having had training — I went to drama school — when things go wrong and when you sort of get the fear or lose focus, I do have a structure that I can fall back on. It's like, "Where am I coming from? Where am I going? What do I want from this person? How does this person make me feel?" There's a drill that I can go back into that will get me so that I can focus. And that's a great thing to have.
But with dealing with non-actors, it's always interesting, because they're bringing something fresh. It's interesting when you bring in somebody that hasn't learned from the same rule book, so they're just bringing whatever they want from their world into the mix.
WS: You've been working an awful lot, and you have worked and are preparing to work with some really world-class directors, including some of the people we.ve talked about, and also David Cronenberg with the upcoming A Dangerous Method, and a Ridley Scott project coming up...
Michael: It's been kind of crazy! It's like I'm in a dream, really. When I realized that I wanted to do acting, I was 17, and when I was 18, I put on a play of [Quentin Tarantino’s] Reservoir Dogs. So Quentin was a massive influence right at the beginning for me. But to be on set, being directed by him and working, and to be in a new scene that was a classic Tarantino Mexican stand-off... it was really just sort of a dream. I couldn't believe it. And he is everything that you would imagine him to be. Full of energy, full of enthusiasm, full of information and just — he just lives, sleeps, breathes film.
And then Cronenberg is like an engineer. He's like a scientist. He's just so precise, so gentle and so easy. His films can be quite different, but the energy on set is very pleasant and bright. He's just so super bright. And very non-taxing on his actors. And similar to Steven Soderbergh in that precision and intelligence and pleasantness; you can see it in both of them, the way they size everything up the minute they walk on to the set. It’s fantastic to work with people who are so creative and have such a grasp of the situation on a film set.
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