Halfway through filming Jane Eyre last spring, temperamental weather was causing delays and exacerbating myriad niggling production problems.
'Everyone was exhausted,’ the film’s director, Cary Fukunaga, says, 'and there was a dip in morale.’
One evening, his lead actor, Michael Fassbender, invited Fukunaga, Mia Wasikowska (who plays Jane Eyre) and the producer Alison Owen for supper, where he cooked and served a splendid dish of lamb.
'We all just sat around and enjoyed one of the small, perfect things in life, a good meal,’ Fukunaga says. 'And I remembered exactly why you make movies: it’s not just about the project, but about the process, and I think one thing that makes Michael special is his ability to stop and pause for a second.’
Certainly Fukunaga had only Michael in mind when it came to casting Jane Eyre, his performance in Hunger having made a deep impression.
'I hadn’t seen that sort of fierceness in an actor in a long time,’ Fukunaga says. 'There was an intelligence, an intensity and a masculinity that is very difficult to find in a leading man.’
For Michael, Jane Eyre is a book that he grew up with; his mother and older sister are 'massive fans’ and he says rather touchingly that he wanted to be in the film 'for them, really, to see what they would make of my Rochester’.
There have been 18 previous films of Jane Eyre, and this one is heartfelt, beautifully filmed and acted, and undeniably moving. Fukunaga mines all the gothic elements of the novel, combining the bleak beauty of the surrounding moors with the darkly awe-inspiring setting of Thornfield Hall to provide the perfect backdrop for the intense romance between Rochester and Jane Eyre.
Fassbender’s Rochester and Wasikowska’s Jane are the perfect foil for each other; her grave features come alive in his presence, while his black moods are lifted into a teasing playfulness. She is a fiercely independent young woman who disregards convention and status, while he hates the society he is forced to be part of. 'These characters are real equals to each other,’ Fassbender says. 'He’s very untrusting of the world and Jane actually melts away his defences.’
Wasikowska originally trained as a dancer, and consequently brings to the role 'a beautiful physicality and a discipline that comes with that profession,’ Fassbender says. 'People are going to see she’s the perfect Jane.’
It is Fukunaga’s follow-up to his debut film, Sin Nombre, which dealt with the realities and suffering of Central American immigrants trying to find a foothold in the US, and though they might seem like two very different films, both essentially deal with loss and the search for a better life.
Because Fukunaga is American, Fassbender says, 'he hadn’t grown up with the book, and this meant he brought a fresh eye, he wasn’t as reverent and he has the confidence to make bold decisions. He’s a real academic, he does his research and he knows how to frame a shot so beautifully.’
Moira Buffini wrote the script, and turned the structure of the novel on its head. The film begins with Jane’s frantic escape from Thornfield, after discovering the appalling reality of Rochester’s marriage to Bertha, hidden away for so many years in an attic. Taken in by the Rivers family, her miserable childhood is shown through flashbacks, until she lands the job of governess to Rochester’s ward, Adele. At Thornfield she is taken under the wing of Mrs Fairfax (a scene-stealing performance from Judi Dench), and quietly, gratefully lives for several months before the whirlwind arrival of Rochester.
Fassbender’s Rochester is a tormented soul, constantly on the move, either outside in the grounds or on his horse, his moods switching in a moment; one minute playing the piano, the next shouting and storming out into the garden with his shotgun, firing indiscriminately. 'I almost thought of him as bipolar,’ Fassbender says.
He wanted to show Rochester as 'a Byronic hero, somebody who is carrying the past with him. I wanted that attic room on his shoulders all the time. I wanted to show somebody who had a lot of guards and defences and tricks. I had this feeling that he had been to some very decadent places in his life, and his guilt and bitterness and his lost youth is there in flashes. It’s through Jane that he becomes healed, so I wanted to show a sick person in some respect, and by the end he’s found a peace and a reconciliation.’
Fukunaga is keen to point out the playfulness that Fassbender brings to the character. 'Michael can be tortured and still be intelligent and communicate through his eyes and his emotions all the stress of the life Rochester’s lived,’ he says, 'but also still have that sense of humour, which is key to their attraction to each other.’
Michael first took to the stage in a pub theatre aged 17, as one of the Ugly Sisters in a rather surreal-sounding production called Fairytales Fairytales 123 – 'it was an amalgamation of Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Cinderella’ – written and directed by his school’s drama teacher, Donie Courtney.
'I just watched him like a hawk,’ Fassbender says now, 'and thought, OK, I’ll give this a go.’ It resulted in him directing his own production of Reservoir Dogs, based on 'nothing more than pure naivety and passion’. But he was hooked, and 'once I realised perhaps I could be quite good I committed to it 100 per cent, it was my one and only priority.’
Up until that point, Fassbender says he felt 'like I was always a Jack of all trades, and not even a Jack, probably a Jim’, as he meandered between different potential career options, with initial dreams of being a lawyer ('I liked the drama of it, I guess’), then an architect ('I failed my technical drawing’), and at one point a war journalist ('I thought that might be interesting’).
Born in Heidelberg, Germany, Fassbender was two when his parents, Josef, who is German, and Adele, who is from Northern Ireland, moved to Killarney in Co Kerry. He describes his childhood in curiously disparaging terms: 'I guess I was quiet and sort of stupid.’
It was his older sister, Catherine, now a neuropsychologist, who was 'super-bright, she was reading books since she came out of the womb’. He preferred to 'play with things as opposed to reading, and actually I think I was embarrassed to read, especially out loud’.
Music was his saviour in his early teenage years. 'I had heavy metal, that was a great help to me. Banging your head,’ he laughs, 'kills so many brain cells you don’t think too much.’ He was in a band of sorts, with a friend called Mike, but they managed only one gig in Dingle. 'We tried to busk but it was raining, so we persuaded this guy to let us play in his pub, but we were playing heavy metal and it was lunchtime, so it was like “turn it down guys, turn it down”. In the end we were playing on unplugged electric guitars, so we said, let’s just give it up.’
His parents ran a restaurant – they are now retired, 'so hopefully they can go on some adventures’ – in which Fassbender worked from the age of 12, at weekends and in the summer. 'I always had to put half the money away.’ He credits his father with giving him a strong work ethic. 'He always instilled the idea of don’t do it at all unless you’re going to do it properly.’
His mother introduced him to her favourite films, specifically those made in America in the 1970s: 'Early Scorsese, Sidney Lumet… she was a big fan of Al Pacino and De Niro, and they were the beginnings of my inspiration.’
Michael moved to London aged 19, to study at the Drama Centre. He secured an agent and dropped out in the last year, and almost immediately went on tour with the Oxford Stage Company in a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
His first major television role was the 2001 Steven Spielberg-produced Second World War drama Band of Brothers, and he was convinced, at 24, that his time had come. He remembers one of his best friends telling him that they believed he was going to do really well as an actor, but that it might take him another five years. 'And I was like, what are you talking about? Don’t tell me that shit, man, I’m on a roll here.’ He laughs. 'And sure enough he was right: it was only when I was 27, when I stopped working behind a bar, where I could actually sustain a living from doing this.’
During the years that followed Band of Brothers Fassbender was sporadically employed, turning up in television series including Holby City, Murphy’s Law and Poirot. He admits to reaching the point of considering an alternative career. 'I was thinking, what if this doesn’t work out? I haven’t been to university, I’m not the most academic person… but then I thought, well, I do know the catering industry, so I’m going to learn as much about making cocktails and running a bar. So I started managing a bar, and then suddenly I was getting auditions.’
In 2006 he played a Spartan warrior in the gloriously 300, and the following year a frustrated artist married to Romola Garai’s romantic novelist in Francois Ozon’s melodrama Angel. But the recession hit, fewer films were being made, and so to be cast as the lead in Hunger was a huge vote of confidence for Fassbender. 'It literally changed my life,’ he says. 'For somebody to take such a risk and give me the opportunity to do that was massive.’
Hunger was the Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen’s first feature film, and it told of the 1981 protests in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland, culminating with Bobby Sands’ hunger strike and death aged 27. The horror of the filthy cells, the beatings, strip searches, the intense determination of the prisoners and the brutal desperation of the warders are shown without comment, filmed with a stark beauty and lacerating emotional impact. 'Steve managed to tell a human story,’ Fassbender says. 'It avoids politics, it’s about what human beings are capable of doing to each other.’
The film won 30 awards, including the Camera d’Or at Cannes. Michael describes McQueen as a 'genius. I know that word gets thrown around an awful lot, but he is. He expects the very best of you, and he’s got such a great bullshit radar. When you work with Steve there’s definitely no safety net; it’s scary, it’s challenging and it’s totally rewarding.’
For the episode where a priest (played by Liam Cunningham) visits Sands in jail to try to persuade him to forgo his hunger strike, Cunningham moved into Fassbender’s flat in Belfast and they rehearsed the 23-minute scene over and over again for days, in order to film it in one uninterrupted take. 'On take three the boom guy collapsed as he had been holding that thing up there for so long,’ Michael remembers.
He uses an example of McQueen’s notes during one of the takes to try to illustrate his working method. 'He said, “It’s getting a little bit like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. I want you to behave more like God.” I looked at Liam and he was like, ooh f***, and it sounds silly but we were maybe a third into the scene and I swear in Liam’s eye and in my mind I understood what he meant.’
Production was halted for 10 weeks so that Fassbender could lose three stone before filming Sands dying. He consulted a nutritionist, rented a house near Venice Beach in LA and ate 900 calories a day, his diet consisting of nuts, berries and sardines. 'My dad remembers me aged seven giving up everything sweet for Lent,’ he says. 'Lots of people would take a break for St Patrick’s Day, but I didn’t, and I think actually he thought I was a bit of an alien. So I wanted to know if at 30 years old I still had the same discipline.’
He reunited with McQueen earlier this year to film Shame, with Carey Mulligan. McQueen wrote the script with Abi Morgan, an original story about a sister moving in with her brother and how this affects his promiscuity. 'It’s about sexual addiction,’ Fassbender says, 'but it’s also about relationships, and how human beings communicate with each other; how do you really allow yourself to open up and deal responsibly with another person?’ It will be shown at next week’s Venice Film Festival, and already there is huge anticipation. 'I’ve really found my teacher in Steve,’ he says, 'and hopefully he’s found an apprentice in me.’
Michael finds his way into roles by methodically reading and re-reading the script 'until it just sort of settles into me, and it’s almost like putting on a new skin every day’.
This approach was challenged when he worked with Andrea Arnold on Fish Tank after Hunger. It was a film that made a star out of Katie Jarvis, a 17-year-old whom Arnold’s casting director discovered on a railway platform, arguing with her boyfriend. Jarvis played Mia, a solitary, aggressive teenager living on a rundown Essex housing estate, constantly at odds with her mother and 11-year-old sister.
The family’s lives are turned upside down by the mother’s new boyfriend, Connor, a charismatic Irishman played by Fassbender. Arnold wanted to give the actors the pages they were working on only the night before they filmed, 'which made me panic a bit’, Fassbender admits. 'I know why she did it, she didn’t want anyone to preload any scenes, but I like to run things a lot of times before, then let it sit, rot a little, then come back to it.’
He persuaded her to give him the week’s scenes the Friday before, which helped. It was a new way of working, but, he says, 'I just thought I can trust this woman, she’s a brilliant artist, let’s give it a shot.’
He found he enjoyed it. 'Andrea’s one of those directors who can and do work in a chaotic environment, but she’s one of the few and rare people who can actually harness it.’
'I like playing these guys who are human beings. Hopefully the audience is sitting there thinking, I understand that guy, or I’ve got elements of that, and perhaps it makes people think about things a little bit.’
As McQueen comments, 'Apart from being big and strong and bold, there is a fragility to Michael, and certain things are revealed through him that we can see in ourselves, and that’s very rare. He has a heart, you’re never disconnected from him.’
The chance to play a flawed and complicated character was what attracted him to the role of Magneto in X-Men: First Class. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, it is a prequel to the X-Men series. Set in the 1960s against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it tells the genesis of the superhero mutants and the friendship between the scientist Charles Xavier (played by James McAvoy) and Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr. Lehnsherr is blessed with magnetic kinetic powers (he raises submarines out of the water), with which he is determined to avenge his mother’s death in the Holocaust. Xavier and Lehnsherr’s subsequent falling-out leads to Lehnsherr forming his own mutant army and reinventing himself as Magneto.
The film touches on themes of alienation, prejudice and minority rights, and 'I thought within a popcorn film,’ Michael says, 'that could be really cool to explore.’ He saw his opportunity with X-Men.
'It’s an action film,’ he says, 'where the action is actually there to back up the emotional journeys of the characters, as opposed to the other way around.’ Fassbender admirably commits to Magneto, and his performance is the dynamic force of the film.
Away from a film set, Fassbender indulges his obsession with motorbikes, go-karts and cars. He is keen to concentrate on his fledgling production company, which will champion new writers, and after our interview he is off to watch a screening of a short film he has recently produced.
Michael has embraced the trajectory of his career: "'It’s crazy that I’ve worked with the people I have, that I’m actually allowed to earn a living out of it. I’ve always thought you mustn’t live your life where at the end of it you go, oh God, I didn’t do that because I was worried about what other people might think of me."
In fact, he is currently trying to convince his mother to take the plunge and fulfil her childhood dream of acting. 'I’m really going to push her,’ he smiles. 'It’s never too late to do anything.’
Original Source is here