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Michael Fassbender: ‘I’m glad fame came to me at a later stage’

The Kerry actor’s professionalism and discerning eye have kept him on the big screen

Michael Fassbender practically bounds into the room. He shakes hands vigorously and focuses a friendly eye on a mildly familiar face.

“When did we last meet?” he asks.

I think it may have been outside a wooden hut in Wicklow, during the shoot for Lenny Abrahamson's Frank.

“Oh, that place with all the barns? The German guy who built these holiday things 50 years ago.”

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Yes, that’s it. Of course there are a lot of Germans in Wicklow. More than a few hippies arrived there in the 1960s, did they not? “Ha ha. Excellent. Hooray for German hippies,” he cackles in that characteristic nasal fashion.

Oh, hang on. Michael's father, Josef Fassbender, moved the family from Germany to Killarney in the late 1970s. I'm not calling that distinguished restaurateur a hippie. Is that a diss?

“No. He wasn’t that. Mind you, he does look a little like a hippie in the early photographs.”

Michael Fassbender has excellent manners. He is cautious in his conversation, but shuts off no avenues of investigation.

Of course, he is not some irresponsible youth. It is only eight years since, following a decade of struggle, he broke through properly with his gut-clenching turn as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen's Hunger.

He will, nonetheless, reach his 40th birthday next April. (He volunteers the information so he won’t object to me pointing it out.)

“I am pretty grounded. I think the fame coming to me at a later stage matters.”

So might he have gone off the rails if he’d become famous at 21? “I might have been a bit of a twat,” he chortles.

“It’s too hard to say. It’s a strange scenario to be in. But I’m glad it happened the way it did. It gave me a sense of value when success did come. I understood how rare that was.

“I grasped what a privileged position I was in. I knew to have a really good work ethic when the job did come. You do not take it for granted. The early years ingrained that respect into me.”

That professional attitude has paid off. Fassbender has cleverly balanced more outré projects such as McQueen's Shame and Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank with noisy conflagrations such as the X-Men films and Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

He is about to be everywhere. This month he appears alongside Alicia Vikander – also his romantic partner – in Derek Cianfrance's hankie-moistening adaptation of ML Stedman's novel The Light Between Oceans.

In December, he turns up in the video game adaptation Assassin's Creed. He shares the screen with Brendan Gleeson in the crime drama Trespass Against Us. He has just finished Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant. The man needs a break.

“Yes, definitely,” he sighs. “I am developing stuff with [his production company] DMC, so it won’t quite be down tools. But I won’t be acting. I will be surfing as much as I can and I will do as much carting or racing as I can when I have time off. It’s hard to do that when I am working. It’s hard to book a track day or whatever.”

I don’t imagine the insurers much like the idea either.

“I don’t really care about that so much. Ha ha.”

He and Vikander, recent Oscar winner for The Danish Girl, first hooked up on The Light Between the Oceans so we imagine he has happy memories of the experience.

Detailing the travails of a lighthouse keeper and his wife, who raise an abandoned baby as their own, the film was shot in remote and windy corners of New Zealand.

Cianfrance, keen to have the cast connect with the landscape, insisted that they spend the whole shoot living close to the land.

“Yeah, I was a bit reluctant at the beginning,” he says. “Derek wanted us all to live out on set. First he wanted us to live in the actual house. I was glad we didn’t do that. There’s an energy left in that sort of space and I wanted to sleep in a space that was clean. So we lived in caravans.

“They were pretty simple ones that we had in New Zealand. It was a unique opportunity to spend time in such a remote place. We went into town at the weekends. But I missed the caravan.”

Still, it seems like an attractive enough place to go for a caravanning trip. The Light Between Oceans takes place in a landscape of frightening charm. A squall comes off the screen.

"The beauty is outstanding. It's similar to Ireland. We were right on this peninsular head with howling wind coming off the sea. I also shot Alien there recently. We were on Milford Sound. Apparently they get 13 metres of rain a year. Metres! Usually you deal in inches. You don't even get that in Kerry – and you get some there. It comes in from the Atlantic over Macgillycuddy's Reeks."

We'll get back to Kerry. A million science fiction enthusiasts will, however, be eager to hear gossip about Alien: Covenant.

Following the peculiar Prometheus, a near prequel to Scott's original Alien, the new film sees Fassbender once again playing a mechanical man (or two). I presume he's allowed to say nothing.

"Oh, I don't know. I am allowed to say I am playing two robots – Walter and David. I think what's great about it is that Ridley has gone back to the original DNA of Alien, the horror element of that. But it also has the scope and the scale of Prometheus.

“Ridley has cut it already. He is a machine. He is an incredible human being and he was in such good form. He is such an imaginative, mischievous figure.”

Fassbender seems to have had an enviably happy childhood. He spent time working in his dad’s restaurant. He admits without shame to an early passion for heavy metal. He did a bit of acting. He pondered becoming an architect or a journalist. Ireland was, however, a significantly less diverse place in those years.

Born in Heidelberg, transplanted to the western reaches of the continent at the age of two, he must have felt a little different to his classmates. Steve McQueen put it thus: ‘’Look, he wasn’t a McQueen! Or an O’Reilly. He was a Fassbender. He was the odd one out. I think that’s an important part of who he is.’’

“You’re from the city, right?” he wonders.

From Belfast.

“Oh, of course you are. I can hear it in your accent now. I should have known that. My mum’s from Larne. She never had a very strong accent, but it’s still there. When she says ‘situation’ you get it. I’ll say ‘sityooeeshun’ back to her. Ha ha. Yeah, I grew up in the countryside, so at times I feel best suited to that.’

The Kerry accent is unmistakable, but there is now an urban punch to the Fassbender syllables. All this emerges from a head that can be placed convincingly in any number of cinematic environments.

There’s a rusticity to the tight red hair that sits well above a lighthouse keeper’s furrowed brow. But he can be sleek when occasion demands.

For the past decade, he has inhabited the same flat in now-fashionable Hackney, east London. There’s something cute about that. He must have bought it before he was a movie star.

“I don’t know for how much longer I’ll be there. I bought it in 2006. At that point I could make a living out of acting; I no longer had to do odd jobs. Around 2004 I was able to work just as an actor. The real struggle was over. I wasn’t still working in bars at that point.”

I take it from his answer that he may be about to move. “Yeah, maybe. I always loved the vibe out east. I loved the communities. There was an edge to it that I liked. God, I’m nearing 40. I’ve lived a quarter of my life there.”

Is he been drawn to LA? “No. I will stay in Europe, maybe in the UK. But I am tickled by the idea of moving to the countryside.”

A few weeks ago, in the company of Vikander, he returned to Kerry to receive the prestigious Order of Innisfallen. Pipes skirled. Pints were drunk. The community is justifiably proud of their famous son.

One imagines, however, that Killarney is not the sort of place that would allow fame to go to a fellow’s head. They do not bow and scrape.

“It was amazing. It was pretty moving to see people that I have known since I was tiny. It was a celebration of the luck I’ve had, things I’ve done in my job. And to tie it up with Killarney was important. That meant a lot to me. But, yes, they’re not over the top about it.”

In conversation, Fassbender repeatedly comes back to the people who helped him as a young man.

At St Brendan’s College, he encountered the inspiring acting teacher Donie Courtney and he then went on to take a theatre course at Coláiste Stíofáin Naofa in Cork. Noting an unmistakable charisma and a melodic way with words, mentors pressed him to venture towards London.

He studied for a while at the famously rigorous Drama Centre and settled down for the precarious alternation between pulling pints and carrying spears. Eventually (see how it ties together?) he got to star in a famous Guinness commercial and fling weapons in 300.

“The thing is that generally actors are stubborn in their own minds,” he says. “They have to trick themselves into that belief system. I messed up so many auditions. You pick yourself back up again. But I always had a strong opinion that I was good enough to be working. The gremlins were still there.

“I did sometimes think ‘what am I going to do?’ I haven’t been to university. The catering business was the only other thing I knew.”

It seems obvious to us now. How could the casting directors have failed to spot his talent for so long? He laughs that even his first meeting with Steve McQueen – now a firm friend – left the director with few good impressions. “I thought it went well, but apparently it didn’t.”

The good looks are, perhaps, stirred in with a distracting normality. He is undoubtedly a movie star, but he doesn’t look like many other movie stars you can name.

The partnership with McQueen generated some of the most provocative cinema of the last decade.

In Hunger, Fassbender showed a singular ability to express extreme suffering through just the slightest facial inclinations. He was arguably even better – and even more exposed – as a sex addict in the same director's Shame.

His supporting turn in McQueen's 12 Years a Slave secured him his first Oscar nomination. Hunger always sounded like a risky project: a film on the hunger strikes by a man hitherto known for gallery-based art.

“When that meeting with Steve came along I knew I had to be awake and aware,” he says. “I was aware that once I got in the room I had to grasp something. I would prefer to come in and do the piece without having a conversation, but that’s not how it was. I guess I was protective of the subject matter.

“I didn’t want the film to be an insult to the people involved. I talked to Steve and realised he was hypersensitive. I just knew he was really special and that I needed to work with him.”

The unique intensity will be conspicuous over the next year or so. And it will be much in company with this and that Gleeson. In Assassin's Creed, at different stages of the story, both Brian and Brendan play his dad.

"I've been a fan of Brendan's since I was 16. I went to see him in Juno and the Paycock in Dublin. I remember taping him as Michael Collins in The Treaty on RTÉ for my granddad, who was fascinated by Collins.

"Then we finally met at the Iftas and were able to have a few pints of Guinness. We reached out to Brendan and Brian for Assassin's Creed. I've worked with Domhnall. So I'm getting through the whole family. Ha ha."

The ginger thespians stick together.

“Yeah, we’re keeping the ginger gene alive.”

Rising tide: The rise of the Irish onscreen

We have all got a little blasé about the presence of Irish actors on the big screen. It was, however, not so very long ago that they were few and far between. “There weren’t many of us around then: maybe just me and Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan,” Gabriel Byrne told this writer earlier in the year.

“There was definitely a prejudice against the Irish actor. If they had a choice to choose an English or an Irish actor they’d choose the English one.”

Before that generation there was Richard Harris. Earlier still there were Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald. But there have never before been quite so many Irish voices in commercial cinema.

The names trip off the tongue: Cillian Murphy, Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Brendan Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson. Earlier this year, that last member of the Gleeson clan managed the remarkable feat of appearing in four films nominated for multiple Oscars (reward yourself with a muffin if you can name all without consulting the Internet Movie Database).

Michael Fassbender, Oscar nominated for 12 Years a Slave and Steve Jobs, is among the most admired performers of his generation.

Young stars such as Moe Dunford, so good in Terry McMahon's Patrick's Day, and Seána Kerslake, incandescent in A Date for Mad Mary, are zooming up in the inside straight. What on earth happened? Byrne hinted at one cause.

Hollywood itself has become a little more open to overseas voices. Just observe the parallel rise in prominence of the Australians: Blanchett, Crowe, Pierce, Kidman and so on.

But a new confidence in the Irish film business is just as significant. Most of those names above cut their teeth in modestly budgeted Irish movies.

Such projects were simply not around when Gabriel and Neeson were young. Which makes their achievements all the more remarkable.