Drawn from true-life events, A Dangerous Method – directed by David Cronenberg from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton – looks into the relationships between psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), the troubled young woman who comes between them. When the unbalanced yet beautiful Sabina is sent to Burgholzli hospital, Dr. Jung tries Freud’s experimental treatment known as “the talking cure,” in order to help her hysteria. Although they enter into a sexual trust, violating the doctor/patient relationship, Sabina’s treatment is ultimately successful, and she, herself, goes on to pursue a career as a psychiatrist.
During a press conference to promote the film, actor Michael Fassbender talked about researching Dr. Carl Jung, whether he agrees with Jung’s theory that there is no real coincidence but only synchronicity, how Jung might have diagnosed and treated his sex addict character in Shame, and what it was like to work with Viggo Mortensen. He also talked about the possibility of signing on for Robocop and wearing the metal suit, and his desire to work with Brendan Gleeson for a film version of At Swim-Two Birds. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: Not a great deal. When I started looking into it and researching it, I realized just how much of his teachings, philosophies, ideas are intrinsic in our vocabulary, and how it’s in everyday use now – with the idea of introvert, extrovert, personality types. That was quite cool to find out. But, other than that, it was pretty basic. So, I had some work to do there, and then it’s a matter of digesting all the information, and throwing it away and going back to the script. Whatever else you gather, you’ve got a hundred and whatever pages to be told, in that story.
I realized there was various stages to his life, and different Jungs, in different times of his life. So, the guy that I was trying to portray was somebody who was young and still felt like he had a lot to prove, in his profession. I wanted to have an element of unsurity there and insecurity, if you like, so he’s very much representing the time that he lives in, with the stiff collar and everything being controlled. He’s conforming to the social etiquette of play, at the time. You’re dealing with Europe in the early 1900’s. They believed that they were like this hyper-civilization, at that point. And then, of course, World War I was right around the corner and proved that theory totally wrong.
So, I looked at various stages of his life. The Red Book was interesting for me to take a look at because that was the Jung that comes right after the movie. He has his breakdown, comes through that, and then comes up with The Red Book. There’s also footage of him, and YouTube. I watched some interviews with him in his 60’s or 70’s. There was an old man that seemed very self-assured and very confident in his life work, and he was very charming. Also, I got a feeling of sensuality through his physicality. So, you gather all that information, and then try to find where it applies best in the story.
FASSBENDER: I know that hysteria is to do with the womb. It comes from Latin. I think they used to actually take wombs out because they believed it was linked to the madness. But, what I think was pretty amazing with the Burgholzli was that it used a forward way of thinking, and it was actually a good place to go to, if at that point in history, you were deemed to be insane or a little bit cuckoo. As we see with Sabina, what’s fascinating about that is she goes into the Burgholzli as a patient and she comes out as a doctor. These were very forward-thinking people, for the time, especially to have the patience and to have the interest in these various cases, and also different approaches. They allowed this idea of the talking cure, and that’s what really binds Jung and Sabina together. He’s trying out this method of dealing with hysteria through the talking cure, which is this new method. He hasn’t tried it out yet, and she’s suffering and gets cured by it, and he also gets this validation of his beliefs. That forms a really strong relationship between them.
Do you agree with Jung’s theory about how there is no real coincidence, but only synchronicity?
FASSBENDER: I was actually talking about that with a friend. I’m not sure. I don’t really know that I have any set beliefs in anything. I’m just open to anything. I don’t rule anything out. It’s funny, sometimes. You think that something greater is at play, when you take a look at a series of events that lead you to get to here from there, but I don’t know. Why would I be born into relative comfort and wealth, and then somebody else is born in the Congo or Sierra Leone, and gets their hands chopped off. I don’t know. Those questions are will remain unanswered for me.
Both A Dangerous Method and Shame have the common thread of sexual dysfunction. What was it like to play a psychoanalyst, and then a character who’s spiraling out of control?
FASSBENDER: I didn’t really relate the two together at all. It’s only in hindsight. I did A Dangerous Method, and then X-Men, and then Shame. I work very sort of intensely on the project, when I’m running up to it and during it, and then I flush it pretty quickly. I was jumping from one to the next, so I had to get rid of them pretty quickly. It’s only in hindsight that you see that. You have the information there with Jung, so your biography is taken care of. In a lot of respects, it can be easier. You have the information there, so the character is available. Whereas, when you’re doing a fictional character, from what I do anyways, I go away and write that biography out of the information that’s given to me in the script, logically. What would a child go through, in order to create this motivation? What did the parents do? Are they popular in school? Are they a loner? Are they sporty? Are they academic? All those sorts of things.
And then, I just spent a lot of time with the script, really. That’s just the process that I take on for all of the work, regardless of what it is, because through re-reading, I’m spending a lot of time with the character, and I’m spending a lot of time with all the other characters in the world. After awhile, it’s like slipping into a new set of skin. With Shame, I had the opportunity to meet people that were suffering from the condition, and that was a huge insight. I’m very grateful for that, and the honesty and bravery for these people to come forward like that. This one guy in particular, especially, because of this idea of the intimacy problems that Brandon has. That’s really the crux of his problem, and this guy that I met, that was exactly his problem as well, so it made me get something tenable and it made me understand the condition.
FASSBENDER: Well, I think he’d probably tell him it’s all right, you know? The first stage is, “It’s okay. Let’s just talk about it.” I think what’s interesting about these guys is that they were truly very fascinated in human behavior and why we behave in certain ways. I think they realize that there’s a social form that we’re expected to live under, and we’re expected to behave a certain way with one another, socially. But, in actual reality and practice, what way do we really behave? It’s crazy being a human being and trying to all get along. There are all of the complications that we have within ourselves, through the relationship that we have with ourselves, and then the relationships that we have with others. So, I think he would probably tell him that everything’s going to be okay and, “Go see my friend, Siggy Freud.”
Intimacy on a psychological level is what led Sabina and Jung to cross over into the physical realm, which today would be considered out of place for a therapist and patient to do. When you create characters that share intimate relationships or moments in a film, does it help you understand now why relationships happen so often on set?
FASSBENDER: I suppose the doctor-patient relationship has that idea of transference. I think it’s a special thing that doctors have. We all find doctors sexy. That’s why there are so many TV shows about doctors. They have the power to save lives, and there’s something, very attractive about that. Also, it’s a very intimate place. The patient and the doctor go to intimate places together, and that can bleed over, for sure. In terms of working on movie sets, it’s the office affair, isn’t it? It’s just who you see. If you see somebody a lot, and they’re around you a lot, and I suppose people work a lot of the hours of their lives, then relationships happen in the workplace because it’s where you’re spending a lot of your time. But, I don’t think that’s necessarily really any different in acting. What’s impressive, and always gets me as really impressive, is they way that, when you come together on a film, how immediately it becomes a family. It has to. And then, you disband after three months and you might never see the person again for like three or four years, and then you work on another job and you’re like, “Hey, how’s it going?” You have to get tight very quickly. But, in terms of relationships, I don’t know.
As an actor, do you consider yourself a psychoanalyst? Is that an essential part of your job?
FASSBENDER: I think so. The similarities are just that interest in human behavior and trying to understand certain personalities, and where one character’s moral compass lies, as opposed to another. For me, my best reference to that would be myself. I look at myself and try to be really honest and truthful, in answering those questions. I try to find all those elements within myself because I think we’re essentially all pretty much the same. So, trying to identify and understand, as opposed to judging, is very important for me, in approaching characters.
FASSBENDER: I was a fan of his, for sure. I was very envious when they were filming Eastern Promises. I live around Hackney, when they were filming, and I thought, “Oh, god, wouldn’t it be great to be on a David Cronenberg set?” So, the idea and the prospect of working with him was very exciting. And yes, it was different than what I expected because you see his films and they can be quite violent and dark, and he’s the opposite. He’s very sweet and loving, very generous and very humorous. We joked around a lot on set, which is always fun and can also lend to the piece, especially when you’re dealing with something that is very much set in a particular time. It’s a period piece, so there are the social etiquettes, in the way people held themselves and related to one another. It was different to today, but you don’t want to get bogged down in that, so it becomes more about the costumes and everything else. You want to keep it accessible and fresh. So, having that humor was a nice device for that because it keeps you nice and relaxed, and light, going into scenes that can be quite heavy and deal with heavy themes. It certainly was dialogue heavy. But, he’s a joy. He’s really a very collaborative guy. The great directors that I’ve have had a chance to work with all have to be great manipulators, and they do their manipulation in the weeks leading up. It’s a dinner here, when you’re trying on costumes, or picking the props. There are little nudges that they give you, or they drop a phrase, or they ask you certain questions at certain times. And then, once you get on set, there’s very little dialogue. We just get on with it. But, all of that has been discussed, previously.
FASSBENDER: It was about, “Who is in the room? How does that person make me feel? How do I make them feel? Do they make me feel inadequate? Do I feel powerful?” There are various stages of that with both those characters. Who’s in control, changes all the time. When Sabina comes into the hospital, Jung is definitely the guy who is in control. At the end of the film, she comes to visit him and she definitely has more power, when Jung is about to go into this breakdown. The thing with Freud, at the beginning, is that Jung is like, “Oh, my god, he’s my hero. I can’t believe I get to meet him. This is the most amazing thing.” Then, of course, that master-pupil relationship turns. Jung is like, “In order for me to really grow and explore my philosophy of psychoanalysis, I have to break away from Freud and grow, as an individual.” What’s really interesting about this is that you’ve got these heavyweights, Jung and Freud, but they are very human, with faults. You go, “Wow, they did really petty and stupid things. These two guys have massive egos.” Anybody that went against Jung or Freud, in their camps, was swiftly discarded. You’ve got those two egos to play with. I always found it really funny. I found the script very funny. Viggo and I tried to find the comedy in it, as much as possible. That was fun. I’ve always been a massive fan of his. He’s an impressive human being.
FASSBENDER: First of all, I was nervous about meeting Viggo Mortensen. Then, very quickly, we just got along. He’s very supportive and generous. Obviously, he’s very well prepared. They started filming with Keira and I first. When Viggo arrived, there was nobody at the airport to meet him because nobody knows when he’s going to be there. He got a rental car and turned up on the set. He’s a very interesting guy. He writes poetry. He takes photographs. He’s very artistically rich. I just tried to watch him and learn, as much as I could.
Your characters walk a fine line with issues of social psychological and moral acceptance. What is about those types of roles that seems to repeatedly attract you?
FASSBENDER: I think it’s conflict, first and foremost. What we do is a heightened reality. People go, “It’s not real.” Well, real can be really boring. We’re trying to ask questions and seek out drama, and the best way to have that is to have conflict – conflict between characters, or conflict within the character itself. I think it just makes for more interesting viewing, and it’s more provocative, and it makes us question things a bit more. With something like Fish Tank, it’s like, “I kind of like that guy. Oh, shit, he did that. I don’t know how I feel about him now.” Then, you take a look and you go, “Well, he’s actually the one person in the film that gives me her encouragement and tells her that she is special and she should have her dreams, and not to think that she’s a piece of shit and she’s never get out of this world.” And then, he oversteps the line and abuses his authority and his position because she looks up to him. That’s life. I’m not like, “Here’s the villain. Here’s the good guy.” That’s a bit boring for me. It’s about what happens if you blur the two together?
FASSBENDER: You know, I’m always open. I’ll take a look at the script and sit down with the director and have a conversation. It’s not definitely like, “Oh, I’ve got to play Robocop before I retire.” I don’t have that about anything. I don’t go, “I have to play the Dane one day, or Hamlet.” I don’t really think like that. I just wait and see what comes up, and I’m always open to it. If I react to the script, then I’m up for anything.
Would you dread wearing a metal suit?
FASSBENDER: No. Could be kind of fun. It could be kind of good to have a helmet that I could hide behind, for most of the film, too. That sounds kind of appealing.
Brendan Gleeson has been talking about doing a film of At Swim-Two Birds. Is that something you’ve read and want to do?
FASSBENDER: Yeah, I read it many, many years ago. I thought it was an unusual world, in terms of the writing. It’s my friend’s favorite book, so he keeps asking, “When are you doing that?” I’ve been familiar with Brendan’s work since I was 16, even before I wanted to become an actor, or realized that was a possibility. I saw him in Juno and the Paycock in Dublin and I was like, “Wow, who’s this guy?” And, my grandfather was a big fan of Michael Collins, and there was a TV film with Brendan Gleeson as Michael Collins, and he played an excellent Michael Collins. And, The General was amazing. I always found him, as a viewer, to be super-generous as an actor. He’s always giving to the audience, and to the other actors. We met two years ago, when we first started talking about Two Birds, and I haven’t spoken to him since. But, I’m down for it, whenever he’s ready.