The Byronic Man: Michael Fassbender Reinvents Rochester for Contemporary Audiences

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 Signature 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."

Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska

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."

Images of Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska © Focus Features

  • Kristine

    The 2005 BBC version is the best. There isn't anything this version can do better. I went to school for 18th and 19th British Literature, they will no doubt ruin it like the Keira Knightley "Pride & Prejudice".

  • Carlables

    I doubt "Pride & Prejudice" has been ruined forever because of one interpretation of the piece. One always finds something to like if he/she goes into the experience with an open mind. Pessimism won't make you happy in the long run. I'm excited to see what they do with it.

  • Jaki

    I find it amazing that we are still defining characters like Rochester & Heathcliff as icons of romantic heroes. Both were cruel to the women they professed to love. Darcy & Archer I can defend, but neither Rochester nor Heathcliff.

    Rochester torments & teases Jane with Blanche Ingram (we will not discuss his treatment of his mad wife in the attic). Heathcliff was equally unkind to the women in his life - exacting his revenge at their expense. Even Cathy's death did not stop him.

    Perhaps if people actually read the original novels, rather than fall in love with the film versions, they might reassess the definition of romantic hero.

    • Vika

      I am 3/4 done with the book, and I can say that while I understand Rochester, I do not like him at all. I think he was playing with Jane all along. Early on in the meeting, he understood that she was new to love and romance, and he took advantage of her. Playing with her so she would develop feelings for him despite the logic of the situation. I think he was misserable and wanted someone else to suffer loving what they cannot have. And I am also frustrated with Jane since she fell in love with the first man available. It's pathetic, really.

      • Carrie

        Vika - the thing I love about Rochester is his redemption - and that you do not see until the very end of the book; so I hope you continue to read, because Rochester's spiritual redemption is beautiful to witness. Jane also goes through a spiritual transformation, coming to realize that in falling in love with Rochester, she loved the creature more than the Creator. Both of them come to find redemption, and right-minded balance in the final chapters of the novel.

    • Katie

      These are classics. The idea of these men being romantic heroes happened long before film. A majority of people have read the novels that we're pulling the iconic characters from. They're taught about in high school English class through both page and VCR. It never started with the silver screen, the written word has shaped our perceptions. There are plenty of other dark men in literature besides Rochester and Heathcliff that we idolize as romantic figures. People like to fix the broken and tormented. That's just the way it is.

      • Tess

        A caveat before one objects to the word "romantic" being applied to Rochester and Heathcliff.: I think a good study of the literary definition of the word "romantic" is in order here. Today, the word is automatically assumed as meaning related to love or passion, but the literary definition harkens back to the Romantic Period in literature. Its iconic figure, the Byronic hero (so-coined after Byron's persona), was dark, mysterious, possibly dangerous to women, like a fire to moths. Byron is thought to have engaged in an incestuous relationship with his half-sister and certainly was adulterous, maybe even bi-sexual. He flaunted his lifestyle in the face of polite society. When one describes a nineteenth (or modern) hero as "romantic," more than one definition may come into play with its use. At least, I am willing to give the writer of such articles as the one above, a nod that he/she remembers his/her college British literature course.

  • jassy

    Newland Archer is a lightweight in comparison to the rest of these guys. He's outsmarted by his wife and his clan and then takes it because he lacks the gumption to do otherwise. Not that I thing that he ought to have left his wife and unborn child. He just isn't made of the same stuff that carries hauteur, attempted bigamy and relentless revenge and still captures some imaginations.

  • Teri

    I am fascinated and fearful whenever a new film version of "Jane Eyre" comes out. No one has quite gotten it right. It has been my favourite book since I was about 9 or 10. I loved it so much that my first copy was held together with a rubber band. I read it so many times. This may be very superficial but I think these characters reflect human nature through out the ages. Rochester acts like quite a few men, hiding their feelings, toying with the object of their desire, showing interest in someone who is totally wrong for them, justifying actions that are morally distasteful, and generally feeling that they have the right to do what they want. Jane is like any young girl who is learning to maneuver love. She is tentative and cautious but oh so wants to immerse herself in love. Throw in the period's mores and she is charged with protecting her honor. Because honesty is her most outstanding feature she has to be honest with herself and her beliefs. Is that not a reflection of every human being here on earth? That is what makes them so appealing. I will wait until I see this version to give my opinion but I always hope that it will capture the heart and essence of the book. I agree with Kristine that the BBC version has been the best. I am very pleased it is coming to the big screen, the story deserves such exposure.

  • Rose

    I loved Rochester in this version of Jane Eyre. His fire and torment are all over him, and he may have a streak of cruelty but it is very obvious that Jane saves him, from the very beginning. With Miss Ingram, there are dual messages coming from Rochester, but truth wins in the end. I have seen such relationships in real life.