The Byronic Man: Michael Fassbender Reinvents Rochester for Contemporary Audiences
February 15, 2011
By Christine Spines
In the pantheon of romantic icons, Edward Rochester occupies the central podium among the other smoldering, wounded nineteenth-century iconoclasts like Heathcliff, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Newland Archer. Put another way: If there were a Lollapalooza-like festival for literary romantic heroes, Edward Rochester would be the headlining act, with his set kicking off sometime after the guys from Arcade Fire and Radiohead had already cleared the stage.
That’s a lot to live up to for any actor who takes on the role of Rochester. Fortunately, Michael Fassbender, the thirty-three-year-old German-born, Irish-bred actor tasked with embodying the brooding aristocrat in the the latest big-screen iteration of “Jane Eyre,” not only embraces the pressure to perform — he seems to thrive on the stuff. “What I liked about Rochester in particular is that he’s not a good guy or a bad guy; there’s ambiguity there,” says Fassbender. “I realized I was taking on the Byronic hero. And once I locked onto that, I had everything I needed for the role. There’s intelligence, there’s self-destructiveness, there’s this idea of a shady past. There’s a flawed personality. There’s someone who doesn’t like the conforms of society. There’s a rebel, really.”
Until recently, Fassbender was best known in the States for his role in “Inglourious Basterds” as the British officer who accompanies Diane Kruger’s character through the epic Tavern scene. But over the past year, his career has detonated, sending him into orbit with a succession of leading roles in high-profile projects. In the months since he shot “Jane Eyre” a year ago, he’s been working nonstop and continues to add coveted lead gigs including playing Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” based on the nonfiction book by John Kerr. These days all eyes are on Fassbender as he brings another pair of iconic characters to life — Magneto in “X-Men: First Class” and the title character in Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus.” “This has been the busiest year for me ever,” says Fassbender, taking a break from the “X-Men” shoot to speak with Word & Film last weekend. “I feel so lucky to have been able to work with this caliber of actors and directors. But I’ve been flat-out going nonstop since February and I just have to make sure the work doesn’t suffer. So I have to keep on top of it.”
There has been a swirl of fascination in fanboy circles surrounding Fassbender’s sudden ascent to Geek God, playing a pair of revered archetypes — Magneto and Prometheus. However, he’s arguably already passed the first and greatest test of his ability to handle mythic figures by creating a very modern humanized version of Rochester, who is equal parts yearning, loneliness, arrogance, and charisma. “Rochester doesn’t have any friends. It’s the classic thing that he doesn’t like himself much. So he does damaging things to himself,” Fassbender says. “He’s got so many layers up when Jane comes along and she just starts peeling them off one by one and starts to heal this guy. I think it’s quite beautiful when two human beings can come together and start to heal each other.”
Fassbender, who was raised in Ireland and schooled at London’s Drama Centre, spent his early career working in British radio, TV, and theater productions, including a stage version of Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” in which he played Mr. Pink (the role immortalized by Steve Buscemi on the big screen). His first big break came courtesy of Steven Spielberg’s WWII HBO miniseries, “Band of Brothers.” Fassbender’s career, however, didn’t click into gear until several years later, with his award-winning performance in 2008’s “Hunger” as Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army volunteer who orchestrated the 1981 hunger strike.
It’s hard to find a common thread connecting Fassbenders’ characters beyond the vaguest thematic similarities. And Fassbender himself has little interest in connecting those dots or any relationship to his own life off screen. He sloughs off the suggestion, for instance, that he’s particularly drawn to stories of tortured love and sexual repression, given that both “Jane Eyre” and “A Dangerous Method,” in which he plays a young Carl Jung who becomes infatuated with his brilliant protege (Keira Knightley) and sends her off to work with his colleague and competitor, Freud (Viggo Mortensen), for fear that the romance would damage his reputation. “One draws from life experiences all the time in whatever way you can,” Fassbender explains. “It might be something parallel or it might be something totally different. Like my connection to these films could be something about when my dog died. So I could be drawing from something that’s not relevant or not the same sort of story but it could create the same type of effect. That’s something one does anyway to try and bring some sort of connection between what you’re doing.”
In other words, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. With Fassbender, what you see on screen is what you get. Fortunately, he more than makes up for his reluctance to indulge in self-analysis with his trenchant insights into contextualizing the characters for their creators. “Jane’s so sure of herself and her morals are very strong, while Rochester’s all over the place,” Fassbender says. “He appears to have all the answers but she actually has a better grasp on things than she does. That’s what’s really cool about it. The Brontë’s wrote these books and the women are strong and there is a real balance between the male and the female. It’s the same with Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. It’s a different sister obviously — Emily Brontë — but in that book as well, he’s weaker in certain areas and she’s stronger. I love that, when you can put two very strong-willed characters together and see what sparks fly.”
Even off screen, Fassbender has discovered the value in maintaining a high level of tension in order to create a more exciting if not satisfying outcome. For instance, he has yet to see “Jane Eyre” and has no plans to do so until he’s sitting in a packed theater on the night of the film’s premiere. “That’s kind of what I do every time,” says the actor, forever in search of his next stress test. “I wait until the premiere and because it’s me being at my peak nervousness I get the full experience.”