Michael Fassbender: 'My friends in Kerry still think it's nuts what happened in my career'
He's a bona fide Hollywood superstar with his pick of projects, but as our reporter found out, Michael Fassbender is still a Kerry lad at heart
Given that he binge-watched the grisly Italian mafia series 'Gomorrah' on an 11-hour flight home from Japan only the day before, Michael Fassbender appears in particularly good spirits when I meet him on a wintry, windy evening. Yet there were reasons galore for him to be cheerful this particular weekend.
The 39-year-old was back on home turf to receive an induction into the Order Of Inisfallen, an award bestowed by Killarney upon those who have boosted the Kerry area's worldwide profile. A black-tie gala dinner took place the very next day at the Europe Hotel in his honour. Fassbender's parents Josef and Adele, who still live in the shadow of the hotel, were in attendance, along with a handful of family, friends and local dignitaries and his partner, Oscar-winning actress Alicia Vikander (also his co-star in 'The Light Between Oceans').
Eight years ago, when I first interviewed Fassbender, things were slightly different. He'd just starred in Steve McQueen's film 'Hunger', and the hum of critical buzz was perceptible, if relatively low. Critics - and McQueen himself - had taken to calling Fassbender the next Brando; something that thrilled him at the time.
"I don't see it myself for one second, but I'll take it!" he said, laughing the comparison off good-naturedly.
But that was then, and this is now.
These days, Fassbender enjoys the soporific calm of pure. proper success. The rugged, rogueish charm is still there; blessedly, he's escaped the snooty, detached veneer of the Hollywood media-trained. Does he get back to Kerry very often, I wonder?
"This year I've gotten back a little more," he says. "Christmas of course, and then I got back for a week in August to see Catherine (his older sister, now an associate professor of neuropsychology in California) and her two boys. Usually I get Mum and Dad to come out to where I am filming, and Catherine too, especially if I'm working in the States. But when I can, I get back."
Once at home, he's no different to a typical homecoming Irish son: "I catch up with friends, usually. Lie on the sofa, which is always nice. Eat. Go for walks with my parents. I went for a surf last time and that was amazing. But mainly, it's friends."
The question soon begs to be asked. What do his friends make of… everything?
"They think it's nuts," he laughs. "They don't slag me off too much, no. It's kind of strange - nothing really changes. If they come to a premiere and see that side of it, or if we go to a public event like the IFTAs, that can be quite intense. Other than that, we don't dwell on what is it I'm doing. They have kids and families, and so we just catch up on life together.
"That's the nice thing about it, the positive reaction when I come home. There's often a banner outside Golden Nugget (a restaurant in Fossa) if ever I'm nominated for a (Golden) Globe or Oscar - 'Michael, we're all behind you!'
Turns out that the youngster significantly explains the man. In 1979, when Michael was two, the Fassbenders moved from Heidelberg to Fossa. They were inured from the 'blow-in' status that often befalls families who move to small-town Ireland. A German-Irish community was already in waiting there, as the Liebherr factory had opened in 1958.
At Fossa National School (and later, St Brendan's College, Killarney), Fassbender admits that he was less than studious; the insight into Shakespeare would come much later.
"We did 'Macbeth' for the Leaving Cert and I remember there were elements of it that were really cool and provocative," he recalls. "A lot of it would have been lost on me. It's only when I started to do it in drama school that you start to understand the intricacies of it.
"Was I studious? No. I did the bare minimum. I had to spend a lot of time on maths just to pass it."
Ironically, the strong GAA football tradition at St Brendan's - other alumni include footballers Pat O'Shea, Paidi O'Sé, Pat Spillane, Killian Burns and Tadhg Lynne - pushed him towards acting.
"In our school you either played football on a Wednesday or took a half day, and naturally my friend Emerson and I took the half day," he smiles. "One Wednesday, I bumped into Donie Courtney."
Courtney, himself a former student at Brendan's, had trained at the Gaiety School Of Acting, and returned to Kerry to teach drama. At Courtney's behest he joined Bricriú theatre group and did panto and pub theatre for Killarney's tourists (in case you're wondering, he has played an ugly sister, squeezing into his sister's Debs dress).
And on occasion, the teenage Fassbender would allow himself to wonder what life might be like as a movie star. "I used to fantasise about being famous, sure, but the more I see of the famous side of it, the more clarity I get about the work and what I want to do."
It's already widely known that Fassbender was no overnight success; there were plenty of hard yards at the outset. He was turned down by two drama schools before being accepted by a third, the Drama Centre (with, of all things, an Iago monologue from 'Othello').
"The target was to work at the very highest level, but down the years it became clear to me I was not getting to that place," he laughs. "Then I just thought, 'just get a living out of it'. I always told myself that I was good enough, at least, to be working."
Yet there was the not-inconsiderable hurdle of early auditions; by his own telling, a soul-destroying, low point. By 30, he had not yet broken out. "It's a very common scenario to find yourself in as an actor, thinking it's not going to happen," he admits. "Those rejections can be tough. You'd think, 'what am I doing wrong?' I'd get feedback (in auditions) saying I was a little too eager, and then you think 'should I play it more cool?' But I wasn't that guy. At auditions, you have to do a meet and greet for a few minutes, and I always thought, 'God, just let me do the piece'. If I did a good audition, I didn't mind so much if I didn't get hired.
"When you have no money [London's] a killer of a city," he says. "The excitement of being there would get me over the expensive-ness. I was travelling on the Tube, and I remember, you know, having to dodge it as I didn't have the money to pay."
While eking out a living in a pub in Camden, he began to hear the siren call of home - specifically, that of his father's thriving restaurant.
"I figured if worst came to worst, I knew the catering and hospitality business and could run [his Dad's place] or travel the world with it," he reflects.
Fassbender's first big break - an advert for Guinness - came at a rather fortuitous moment: "I got a credit card and got into debt - just the once, mind. They were calling me, wanting to set up a payment plan, and I said, 'no. I'll pay you in full next month'. Luckily I got an advert and paid them off, but it taught me to deal only with what I had."
With four films on this year's slate and three others now in post-production, Fassbender has been hoping to take an extended break in the coming months. But a parallel career as a movie producer has also been simmering in the background. Acting as executive producer on last year's 'Slow West', 'Assassin's Creed' (out later this year) will be his first credit as a feature film producer. A number of projects, of varying genres and budgets, are also in development through his own production company DMC Productions; among them, a rumoured project on 'Cú Chulainn'.
As to thoughts of that most hallowed of Hollywood trajectories, the actor turned director: "Nowadays, I reckon there are certain areas I'd be fine working with, like actors, but in terms of lenses to use, the difference between the camera being here or there… Dealing with all the different departments on a film, you only realise how difficult that is when the job isn't done well and the wheels fall off."
For Fassbender, it's now a mere question of gentling his career along. He has his pick of roles, yet admits that he wouldn't be averse to working with Christopher Walken or the Coen Brothers. But for now, there's no grand career strategy; no rhyme nor reason as to why he chooses one project over another. Rather, the script's the thing. Rom-coms are reportedly not on the to-do list, but a flat-out physical comedy certainly is.
"I'd love to do a comedy," he enthuses. "Comedy's a hard genre though. If people aren't laughing, it's a hard thing to do. It's just a question of finding one I'd be suited to."
'The Light Between Oceans' is in cinemas now