The long and sometimes rocky road to Hollywood began in simple schoolboy settings for actor Michael Fassbender, 36, nominated for an Oscar tomorrow night for his role in 12 Years a Slave.
First, there were productions in his primary school at Fossa, outside Killarney, Co Kerry, but the thespian seed was truly planted in his teenage years at St Brendan’s College, also in Killarney.
It was in St Brendan’s that he first encountered theatre guru Donie Courtney, now a teacher in the Gaiety School of Acting, who came back to run comedy and drama workshops.
“I did one or two of these [workshops] and it was like ‘God, this feels right’. I really felt like this was a medium that I could express myself in and all these people in my head could finally find a place,” Fassbender recalled years later.
The former altar boy’s dream of becoming a musician and lead singer in a heavy metal band was now cast aside. He had played tin whistle, guitar, and piano accordion.
Describing himself as “very average’’ at school, he didn’t really know what to do with himself. There were thoughts of doing law (because he was attracted to showmanship), architecture and journalism. All until Courtney came along.
Fassbender produced and played in an adaptation of the extremely violent 1992 American crime film, Reservoir Dogs, which was banned at the time, with some fellow students, including Eoin O’Shea, now a documentary-maker with the BBC, in London.
“All of us were really into film, but I don’t know how Michael got his hands on the screenplay. Anyway, we packed Revelles Nightclub on both nights,’’ said O’Shea.
Fassbender is still proud of the seminal Reservoir Dogs experience. He was also involved in the local Bric Rua theatre company, founded by Courtney.
Importantly, through performing with the company before local audiences, he learnt a key lesson — there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes while learning your craft.
Born in Heidelberg, in 1977, his father, Josef, is German, and his mother, Adele, hails from Larne, Co Antrim.
In 1979, the family moved to Killarney, where Josef found work as a chef in the Europe and Dunloe Castle hotels, before the Fassbenders started their own business, the West End House Restaurant.
Michael worked in the restaurant where he became known for his ability to charm tips from diners.
On first meeting the young Fassbender, Courtney was struck by his “energy and charisma” and, above all, his willingness to learn. “There was a presence about him and he definitely made an impression on me.
“I had no hesitation in putting him into plays. He told me early on — he must have been about 17 — that he wanted to train in acting,’’ Courtney said.
“He instinctively showed a keen interest in the craft of acting. That is something which has remained with him to this day — he is focused on his craft and is not really into the celebrity side of the business at all.’’
Given Fassbender’s desire to reach the highest level of perfection possible, his first coach is not surprised at his success and they have remained in contact.
“He’s a most down-to-earth person, very loyal to anyone he knows or has worked with. He’s the same kind of guy I first got to know 20 years ago, great craic and not a bit affected by fame,’’ said Courtney, who is currently doing his one-man show, God Has No Country, based on the life heroic priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty.
After taking an acting course at Coláiste Stíofáin Naofa, in Cork, Fassbender moved to London for further drama studies and worked in theatre and commercials, including a 2004 Guinness ad which had him swimming from the Cliffs of Moher to Manhattan.
While awaiting a break in his struggling days, he worked in bars and nightclubs and, at one stage, unloading trucks at night.
He got smaller parts in a number of films, including Band of Brothers, before landing a breakthrough role in 2008 film, Hunger, based on the story of H-Block hunger striker, Bobby Sands.
There were tough times during a decade spent in London — where he still lives — but he doggedly persevered.
O’Shea is not in the least surprised at his old friend’s success. “He’s a very talented man but, more than that, he’s very, very focused and thinking ahead all the time. Remember he comes from a hard-working family.
“He was always a very intense performer and when you combine that with talent and work ethic, you can see how he grafted himself into the position he’s now in.
“In his business, you can enjoy the ride or call the tune yourself and Michael is calling the tune. He has an extraordinary presence on screen and I don’t think there’s a more serious, successful actor working today. He’s at the very top.’’
Retired teacher Mary Murphy, who had Fassbender in her junior and senior infants classes at Fossa NS, described him as a very capable pupil who never looked for any notoriety, or distinction, while in her charge.
“I would love to be able to say that I spotted something in him to indicate his future fame as an actor, but have to say I didn’t,” she confessed.
“I’m very proud of what he has achieved and have no doubt he’ll achieve much more.”
Ms Murphy remembers him as a “lovely, smiling and happy little boy who never caused any trouble”.
Acknowledging the stiff competition he is facing in the best supporting actor category for the Academy Awards, she won’t be too disappointed if he doesn’t get a coveted statuette.
“I’ve no doubt he will yet win an Oscar. Now that he has made his name, he will be able to choose his parts and get good offers. His career can only get better,” Ms Murphy predicted.
How does Fassbender himself cope with celebrity?
“None of the trappings of fame really interest me. Ten years ago I would have been very impressed and seduced by all the things that come with it, but it doesn’t interest me now.”
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