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A Dangerous Method - Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen interview

A Dangerous Method

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MICHAEL Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen talk about playing, respectively, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method and some of the challenges involved.

They also reflect on their approach to playing historical characters and why the material provided too rich to refuse. They were speaking at a press conference held during the 2011 London Film Festival.

Q. How did you go about portraying such distinguished men as Freud and Jung? Viggo, did it feel daunting?
Viggo Mortensen: This feels daunting. But there’s a lot of material that Freud wrote and a lot of material about him, which made it easier. I was a little hesitant to say ‘yes’ at first because it seemed like kind of a big stretch in terms of my idea of what he was, and of photographs of what he looked like physically. My idea of him, it felt like it was a bit of a leap. If it had been another director, maybe I would have said ‘no’ and I might have been more cowardly about it. But with David I knew I would be in good hands with him and his crew. I’d get to see Vincent Cassel again. And the fact that Michael was going to play Jung and Keira [Knightley] was in it… there were a lot of reasons; many more reasons to say ‘yes’ and take the plunge than not.

It was an education. It was an education in terms of acting, in terms of using different tools… speaking a lot more, speaking really well written words. Christopher’s script is like a very well laid out, well manicured garden with very exotic blooms in the shadows of which are really disturbing little creatures [laughs]. It was a lot of fun to play as an actor. And the fact that the character speaks so much. I don’t usually get a chance to do that even in David’s movies. For once, he couldn’t tell me to shut up all the time! I had to speak [laughs]. So, we had a lot of fun. I mean, David’s sense of humour seems to me not unlike Freud’s and his kind of wit, his intelligence… I think that you could say about David what the New York Times said about Freud shortly after he died, which was he was the most effective disturber of complacency in his time. I would say David is right up there. We had a good time, we had a few laughs along the way.

Q. And Michael, how about you and Mr Jung?
Michael Fassbender: Well, like Viggo said it’s always easier if there’s information available to you. And there’s a lot on both characters. And then that’s the fear element – that there is somebody who has this very passionate, vocal and loyal following. So, you want to do justice to the character, and you want to do justice to David and to Christopher’s script. So, echoing a lot of what Viggo said as well, the main thing for me was to tackle a very eloquent, muscular piece of dialogue. I tried to treat it as a piece of music and so I spent a lot of time with the text trying to sort of get the rhythms and find the different rhythms and just get a real sense of power over the dialogue.

Again, we’re dealing with a period of time when discourse, especially in the academic world, is a weapon. If you’re not in charge of it, then you’re going to get destroyed, so that was an element that needed work. And then you just sort of put it all together and see what you come up with. I think what’s interesting when you’re dealing with real heavyweight characters like this, and really revered characters, is that you find out that they’re really human beings underneath that have egos and have very basic and obvious flaws. So, to play with those elements is also fun.

A Dangerous Method

Q. Michael, this is your second film of the festival but there is a link in that your character in Shame would be a great patient for Freud. What order did you do the films in and did the research for one perhaps help to inform the other?
Michael Fassbender: No [laughs]. The order was A Dangerous Method, X-Men and then Shame. So, I was manipulating metal in between both of them. It’s funny because when I do something I’m sort of in that and it’s a very intense sort of time during the preparation and the filming of it. Then I kind of discard it pretty quickly. And so when I was doing Shame I didn’t even think about the parallels and I didn’t even think about whether I could take some information from what I had gathered on A Dangerous Method. I might have been doing it sub-consciously but I certainly wasn’t aware of it.

Q. Viggo, how much as an actor do you enjoy playing characters who are so revered in history as opposed to, perhaps, using more artistic licence with original characters?
Viggo Mortensen: In the end, no matter how much research you do and how good the script is, and how historically accurate in this case, or how interesting the material is, how well known the character you’re playing is, in the end you’re going to be adding yourself – you’re adding your body, you’re adding your voice, your mind and your feelings to it. So, I never really… people asked me when I was doing Lord of the Rings whether I felt a big responsibility to playing Aragon. But I would say that I was just playing the character, trying to find out as much as I can about it so that I don’t make an arse of myself basically. The same goes for Freud.

I was aware of the fact, just on a practical level, that it was different. I had a lot more dialogue and the challenge that I really enjoyed in this case was something that David and I agreed on just based on the research – that he had a wicked sense of humour. Freud had a lot of wit and he appreciated it. The 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century as well, in Vienna and other places, was pretty straight-laced in a lot of ways… censorship laws were very strict and Freud appreciated word-play and he appreciated wit. Some of his favourite writers were humorists… Viennese humorists who got around the censorship laws by being clever, by making jokes that on many occasions people didn’t realise were jokes. And if you did realise, they were probably on your side anyway, so you were safe. Even though the character in this case doesn’t tell jokes, there was a certain irony to the character.

We were always trying to find a little bit of irony, a little extra humour. But no, I don’t feel differently about a character that I imagine almost completely… I don’t feel a big difference between playing that sort of character and someone who people have a very set idea about.

Read our review of A Dangerous Method

Read our interview with David Cronenberg