The year 2011 has been a major breakthrough for Michael Fassbender. Not only does he have four feature films released this year, but he has also gotten critical acclaim for all of them: a remake of “Jane Eyre,” the international blockbuster “X-Men: First Class,” the period biopic “A Dangerous Method,” and the dark contemporary drama “Shame.” Fassbender is so in demand that he had been scheduled to be at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for the North American premiere of “A Dangerous Method,” but he had to cancel those plans when he got the news that he won the Best Actor award for “Shame” at the 2011 Venice Film Festival in Italy, where “Shame” and “A Dangerous Method” had their European premieres.
“A Dangerous Method,” based on real events in the early 1900s, tells the interconnected story of famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung (played by Fassbender); Sigmund Freud, Jung’s onetime mentor (played by Viggo Mortensen); and Sabina Spielrien (played by Keira Knightley), who is starts off as Jung’s patient and then becomes Jung’s apprentice and masochistic mistress. Fassbender couldn’t be at the 2011 TIFF premiere and press junket for “A Dangerous Method” because he was in Venice at the time, but he was available to promote the movie when it had its New York premiere at the 2011 New York Film Festival. While he was in New York City for the festival, I caught up with Fassbender for this interview in which he talked about his whirlwind year; the psychology of Jung; and Fassbender’s 2012 sci-fi extravaganza film “Prometheus,” which is director Ridley Scott’s prequel to “Alien” and Scott’s first 3-D movie.
Between all the movies you’ve been promoting or working on in 2011, it must be exhausting. What has 2011 been like for you?
The last 20 months leading up to the end of July  was pretty much non-stop for me, really. I took a break after that. I’ve sort have been off for the last two months. And then just doing festivals and a little bit of press here and there. Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. I got an opportunity there to make five films back-to-back with just really good filmmakers. I’m lucky.
Carl Jung grew up in a family of pastors, but he obviously chose to take a different career path. Can you talk about how his religious upbringing affected him as an adult?
It was his father and all of his uncles. There were six uncles. So in those formative years in religious surroundings, at a certain point, when he was a child, he challenged God, and he didn’t get struck down by lightning. And that was sort of a revelation for him, and in some respects, to move away from religion.
But what was interesting in Switzerland back in the late 1800s, there was a trend where people were sort of into mysticism as well, so that came from his mother as well. She was quite superstitious, from what I can remember. And so I think all of those elements, he kind of made full circle and sort of headed more in a spiritual direction anyway, after World War I and the writing of the “The Red Book.” And I think from then on, spiritualism and mysticism played more and more of a part in his philosophy of psychoanalysis.
How would you describe the opposing viewpoints of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, when it came to psychoanalysis?
I think what you had here were two guys who were heavyweights in the field of psychoanalysis. Obviously, Freud was the daddy. Jung looked up to him. He was in awe of him so much before the meeting. In the early part of the relationship, he definitely looked up to him as a father figure and inspiration.
There were so many things at play: Freud definitely wanted to stay away from any religious connotation, any mysticism or any superstitious kind of behavior, because he was already paranoid — and rightly so, perhaps because the community out there was saying, “This is a Jewish thing. Psychoanalysis, it’s got nothing to do with Aryans or whatever class you want to put them in.” So there was very much that divide.
So they already think there’s an element of hocus pocus. “You can’t go down any of those routes.” And, of course, Freud very much believed in the science of it and the physical element of it and the body: talking about things like the penis and vagina, anus, excrement and mouth — all these phases through childhood as something that happens in those formative years, then it’s going to ripple through in adult life.
And Jung was much more of the idea that there were other influences at work. So for instance, like the sword in a dream doesn’t always have to be a penis. It could be relating back to the mysticism of Arthurian legends, which is sort of in our psyche. It’s been passed down from generation to generation. We grow up there, and it’s almost like an … instinct. It’s an instinctual thing, it the DNA, if you like.
And so that’s kind of where they [Freud and Jung] start to break. It’s a classic scenario: the master and the pupil. At a certain point, the pupil, in order to go in his own direction, has to break free from the master’s control. And so you have that inevitable moment, where they’re going to stay together or they’re going to break. And also, in both of their camps, anyone who really questioned their teachings was sort of set aside. And so there were two big egos at work here as well.
What do you think was the primary motive for Sabina Spielrein to align herself with Freud after Jung dumped her as a lover? Did she seek Freud out because he was a leader in his field or because she wanted to do something to spite Jung or make him jealous?
Certainly, in the story, it sort of plays on both. I think she’s definitely somebody matured through this process from being a patient to being a psychoanalyst herself. And so when she got to that point, she was a smart woman — and knowledge was power. And she wanted to learn as much about this field as possible.
So she had gotten Jung’s teachings, and now she wanted to see the flip side. But you could use both elements of it: that she was trying to get in a dig in at Jung as well. But I think there was definitely an educational element to it.
Freud and Jung wrote a lot of letters to each other. Did they ever discuss Jung’s wife, Emma, in those letters?
Not in any that I came across. I concentrated on the correspondence between Freud and the Sabina scenario. There is a whole other world with Emma Jung. She was an analyst of her own right. And she also was into the Arthurian legends and myths. She wrote her own papers and theses on that.
But for the purpose of this story, we wanted to keep that concentrated dynamic: the triangle between Freud and Spielrein and Jung. And to go into that whole other side to it [with Emma Jung, played by Sarah Gadon in “A Dangerous Method”], what a fascinating character she was. The fact that without her financial support, Jung wouldn’t have been able to do what he did and have the confidence when he broke from the Burgholzlian set-up [referring to the Burgholzli Hospital where Spielrein was treated] from home.
And also later, as far as I know, Toni Wolff, his mistress after Spielrein, lived on the [Jung] property. So there’s a very interesting character in Emma Jung. In this particular story, we don’t really delve into it at all.
Otto Gross was a drug-addicted patient of Jung’s who influenced Jung to be hedonistic. Why do you think Jug was so susceptible to Gross having that kind of power over him?
I think at that point, he’s looking for somebody to give him the OK. I think Otto Gross’ argument is a very seductive one. He was an intelligent guy and a very charismatic character. And so the idea of abandoning this discipline and restraint at that point was sort of bubbling under the surface of Jung. In this story in particular, that’s how I went about playing it as well.
So [Otto Gross] comes at a pivotal point [in Jung’s life]. [Jung] is very much tempted by Sabina. And sometimes the lid wants to blow off. It’s like a pressure cooker. So in the story, for sure, [Otto Gross] comes at that pivotal time to give [Jung] that sort of nudge in the right direction.
But Otto Gross’ theory is a bit reckless. And he died in , after the war, of starvation. But he also had Freud fooled. Not fooled, but he sort of lured him in. Obviously, he was a very intelligent, charismatic character.
Can you talk about how you think the class difference between Freud and Jung affected their relationship with each other? And Jung’s personality could be considered dull, so why do you think he was able to attract all of these mistresses and have simultaneous affairs?
Well, number one: You’ve got Freud, who’s Austrian. You’ve got Jung, who’s Swiss. So already, there’s a difference in culture. Like I said, there’s a mysticism coming in from the Swiss/Ayran [culture], whatever that means, that Jung belonged to.
And so then you’ve got the Jewish perspective of Freud. He’s got a big family, a lot of mouths to feed, and doesn’t have the affluence. And we played a little bit with that.
On the cruise ship, Jung played it with a sort of an abandon. I didn’t feel like he felt much responsibility toward Emma and the amount of wealth that she brought his way. I think he just felt not a sense of entitlement but that he was doing revolutionary stuff, which he was.
And it was a new form of science … then whole idea of the human psyche. And so that, I think, is attractive to people. A doctor is attractive anyway, because we have the idea that they can heal us and keep us alive — and that’s a powerful thing. And so that is already an attraction.
And, of course, in the cases of Sabina and Toni, they were both sort of students of his, so you have the dynamic as well. And we all know what can happen between a student and teacher. So there is an element of authority there. And somebody would look up to that sort of character and would find him attractive. That’s the best way I can describe it.
And I think Freud didn’t have the affluence to have the freedom to try experimental things the way that Jung could. And the religious positioning in Europe. So you have all those elements in play that were there. There were cracks that were there to be fractured in the end, if you like. There were little things, like if the relationship did go south, these things would manifest themselves.
How was your working relationship with “A Dangerous Method” director David Cronenberg?
It was pretty simple, really. We all sort of did our homework. It’s easy when it’s like that. Everybody knows what they have to do. They come to work, and then you’re just there to collaborate, support each other, and have fun.
Viggo [Mortensen] and David, they obviously go back, and they’ve got a great relationship. But I immediately connected with Viggo as I did with David. We’re all on the same sort of page. Everybody is passionate about what they do, but also they’ve prepared. They’ve done their homework, so when we all come to work, then we all can have fun with it, throw it around, and try different things.
Viggo is an amazing guy. I’ve been a fan of his work since “Carlito’s Way.” So to have the opportunity to work with him was a real honor for me. And he’s just a really easygoing, nice guy who cares about what he’s doing. But he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He takes the work seriously. And therefore, it’s a very easy working relationship.
It was a very humorous and playful set — full credit to David and the crew that he hires. It’s important to hire the crew that’s behind the camera as it is to hire the crew in front of it. So everyone was adept at their job, and they just got on with it.
Where were you when you found out that you won the Best Actor prize for “Shame” at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, since they usually tell winners before the ceremony happens? You had to change your travel plans to the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival in order to accept the award at the ceremony.
I was actually with my agent and a few friends. And they said, “Listen, you have to get on a plane to go back to Italy rather than Toronto, because I was leaving the next day for Toronto.
Having seen the reaction of the crowd in Venice to the film was already a wonderful feeling, because you start off doing something, and you think it’s relevant, you think it’s a relevant topic, and you think it’s an important story to tell. And Steve [McQueen, the writer/director of “Shame”] feels the same and obviously the other people involved, but you never know if people are going to accept it or not.
So to see the audience reaction and for people to really embrace a film that s quite difficult in certain respects, and has that honesty to it, to appreciate what was being told and say, “This is the world that we’re living in,” an element of anyway, and it’s there. And to provoke some thought on that mater or ask some questions, I was really pleased that the audience did respond.
So then to win Best Actor was another bonus again. It was an amazing honor to be in that category, against people like Gary Oldman, who was a massive influence on me when I was 17 and decided I wanted to get into this game. So to be in that company was even more humbling. “Humbling” is the best way to put it.
Is there anything that you found out about Carl Jung that surprised you?
The bit that I had to get my head around and figure out about the character was the fact that he did depend so much on his wife and her wealth, and that put him in a privileged position to take the risks that he took and the experiments that he took. And then to have his mistress living in the same house, to try and get inside that aspect of his personality, I found interesting and a bit confusing how he balanced that out … whether he had any sort of guilt there at all or responsibility. And so that, I thought, was an interesting nut to crack and to take a look at.
And also the mysticism. I didn’t realize he was so influenced by the Siegfried and Isolde [story]. You have the Arthurian legends. And also what was an interesting thing was in the film, when he goes, “OK, that was a catalytic exteriorization phenomenon. There’s a crack in the bookcase.”
That came from when he was a kid, and he was in the kitchen with his mother. And something happened, and the knife broke on the headboard and she instilled this idea that there are other things at play in the universe and that there’s a reaction to something that’s going on within us can have an exterior reaction to an outside object. So this idea that everything is inter-connected and part of the same thing and one, I found that really interesting.
What surprised you the most about working with director Ridley Scott on “Prometheus”?
What surprised me was the man’s energy and attention to detail. He’s so precise. You have these sort of “old school” guys, like David Cronenberg, Ridley Scott. They did it by doing; they learned by doing.
And his attention to detail: “The dust that was on set needs to be a different color.” Just little hints that he’ll give you as an actor: “I thought you could have this prop.” And that opens up a whole world of imagination.
He loves coming to work. He’s passionate. He’s got a really good crew in place. And you can see everybody, these just great leaders. And the sets are unreal! I’ll never walk on a set like that again, especially with green screen nowadays. I was walking on the ship.
So everything was built to scale on “Prometheus”?
For more info: “A Dangerous Method” website
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