MICHAEL Fassbender was planning on a well-earned break surfing the Australian waves when Aaron Sorkin’s script for Steve Jobs arrived and radically changed his plans. It was “simply too good to turn down” he says.
What was his first impression when he read the screenplay? “There goes a break!” he says. “I just had to do it. I felt really lucky that it came into my path. It’s genius writing. I thought, ‘This is kind of like a modern day Shakespeare.’ So it was just never an option: I just thought I had to do it, I had to take it on.”
Sorkin’s compelling, brilliantly crafted story is a take on the remarkable life of Steve Jobs, one of the co-founders of Apple and a man who has helped shape the way we live.
Directed by Danny Boyle, Steve Jobs is set over three acts, each one set backstage as Jobs prepares to present his latest technological innovation to the world and each time revealing more about the man some regarded as a monster and most agree was a visionary.
It begins with the unveiling of the revolutionary Macintosh in 1984, switches to the NeXT cube launch in 1988 and ends with the iMac presentation in 1998.
For Fassbender, who is in virtually every scene, it represented a massive challenge of trying to portray Steve Jobs, a global icon as a human being interacting with the most important people in his life — not least learning huge tracts of Sorkin’s razor-sharp dialogue.
“At the beginning, when I got the script in the December (2014), I was in Australia and I would try and get through it,” says Fassbender.
“It was just shy of 200 pages and it would take me about two hours, so I would try to read it three times a day when I was there. We came over to San Francisco (to film) in January, and then I sort of upped it.
“It was about taking it act-by-act, learning 60-page bits at a time. So for example, day one of shooting act one, I had all of act one learned off in my head. Then when we were filming act one, I would come home and start learning act two, and it sort of it went like that, so by the time we were doing act three I had the evenings off,” he says.
He would prefer that the audience make up their own minds about Jobs and whether he was a hero or anti-hero or, perhaps, both. Jobs inspired many of those he worked with but could also be ruthless and, in his personal life, had a complex relationship with his daughter.
“I never really spent much time thinking about it, to be honest,” says Fassbender. “I just think he was somebody that changed the way we live our lives, in so many different levels. That’s the kind of person that I was trying to fill the shoes of. The good and the bad just comes with it. I just treat him like a human being, basically.”
Fassbender grew up in Killarney, Co Kerry, with a German father and Irish mother. After studying at the Drama Centre in London, he worked on TV projects including Band of Brothers, Hearts and Bones and Hex.
His breakout performance came in Steve McQueen’s haunting film Hunger in which he played Bobby Sands, the Irish republican who died after a hunger strike in the Maze Prison in Belfast.
When he’s deciding on a role — whether it’s the sex addict in Shame or the brutal plantation owner in 12 Years A Slave, both directed by his friend Steve McQueen — he’s looking to play a character that will be a ‘provocation’. And Steve Jobs was the same.
“I feel like it’s not up to me to decide whether he’s an antihero. It just doesn’t concern me. I always try to look at the canvas and the story, and where it is that character fits into the story, and how does it serve the story. Then the audience can go, ‘I hated him,’ or, ‘No, I quite liked him,’ and hopefully that’s what happens.
People sit down over dinner and the film lives on, hopefully for a couple of hours and maybe the next day, and maybe the day after that. I think as human beings we’re pretty complicated, and pretty shaded, and we’re not so black and white, so those sorts of characters I find more interesting,” he says.
Before filming in San Francisco started, Fassbender immersed himself with as much material about Jobs as he could find — reading Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs, listening to his speeches and watching footage of the man.
“I just watched whatever was available on YouTube, and just googled interviews. I could just see him giving speeches or seminars or interviews, and I had the script,” he says.
“Really it was those two things. If I wasn’t filming, I was at home learning lines. Then I would go out for a bite to eat at night time and I would have him in my ear on the iPhone, some YouTube clip. I’d just keep playing those sorts of things on repeat.”
Fassbender would be the first to admit that he doesn’t look like Jobs but he was, searching for the essence of the man as revealed in Sorkin’s screenplay. And he stresses that Boyle’s film is not a standard biopic.
“I couldn’t really isolate it,” Fassbender says of his process. “It’s just that everything kind of comes together — the physicality, how he speaks, the sound of the voice that you’re choosing, and the phrasing.
“And really, again, like Shakespeare, the way that Sorkin writes, it sort of dictates a lot for you. Through the cadence and the rhythm, personality traits start to show themselves, and the emotional state, or the state of mind, or the objective, of the character. All those things display themselves for you.
“All I know is that I sit there with the script and I read it over and over again, and then when I go for a walk or for dinner, I’m thinking about it and living with it. It’s there, and slowly after a while I guess it’s just like putting on an outfit, and it starts to just seep into you; it just sort of layers on.
“I can’t really break it down other than just the repetition. Like a musician, for example: they practise their instrument a lot, and I kind of feel the same way about acting. Then you can allow the jazz to happen on the day, hopefully.”
Working with Boyle was a delight, Fassbender says. “Danny is definitely the most energetic, positive — person, perhaps, and definitely director — that I have ever met. He is just infused with positivity, support, patience, and so much energy, so much love.
“He is a very generous man, and I’ve got to say he was a real driving force for everyone. He always had time to listen to everyone, and immense patience, so I found him to be very impressive. It’s quite humbling to be around somebody like that.”