Michael Fassbender is remembering his days as an altar boy at Prince of Peace Church in Fossa, near Killarney. “I was head altar boy, actually, and I was quite good at it,” he says when we meet in London. “I was always interested in religion. But to be honest, when I was a small boy I did find going to church kind of boring. So when I became an altar boy I had stuff to do during Mass, which made it more interesting. And who knows, but maybe, in some ways, I got the first idea of being on stage there.”
He recalls that, at the time, “There were four of us, and we’d each have a month when we’d have the keys of the church, meaning that we would be the ones to open it in the morning and lock it up at night, which seems a crazy responsibility for a 12-year-old. But that’s the way it was.
“I remember one time I actually slept in when there were these priests over visiting from America who were going to do a service in the church. And the first I knew of it was when Danny O’Brien, who was the other altar boy at the service, came running across the field to our house, and he knocked on the door.
“‘Michael! The priests are waiting!’
“‘What? Oh, no!’
“And I ended up running back across the field with the keys and all the congregation were there with these two American priests, and I could see they were thinking, ‘OK – this is Ireland, huh?’”
He’s a genial sort is Michael. He was born in 1977 in Heidelberg, which was then in West Germany. The son of a German father and a Northern Irish mother, he was raised mostly in Killarney, where the family moved when he was two, and where his father owned a restaurant, West End House.
Fassbender has been an actor all his adult life, hitting the big time six years ago playing Magneto in the X-Men franchise. He is currently to be seen taking not one but two roles in Ridley Scott’s new science fiction horror film Alien: Covenant, where he plays an eerily lifelike robot, David, and the robot’s newer, similar but not quite the same model, Walter.
He’s enjoying his success, he says, but admits that the glare of publicity can grow tiresome. “Fame is the tricky part for sure,” he says. “I kind of like being a private person. I used to be able to fly under the radar and do my own thing, but not so much these days. The payoff is very good, of course, but I don’t know if the being famous ever gets easier. I think you just have to make your peace with it.”
He remains close to both his parents and his older sister, Catherine, a neuropsychologist. “I’m definitely like my Mum in that I love stories and music, which are both very Irish things to love. But my Dad’s side of the family also always instilled into me the idea of ‘if you’re going to do something, do it properly, or don’t bother doing it at all’. So I’d say I’m a mixture of the two of them there.
“And I’m really happy I had a sister, too, because I learned so much from her about women when we were growing up, to see them not just as the opposite sex, but as someone I can have friendships with too. She and I are still very close. She just threw me a surprise party for my 40th birthday. But it couldn’t be a real surprise because I travel so much that I had to promise to be in the country for it.”
Although he no longer goes to Mass regularly, he says he still retains a significant part of his Catholic upbringing. “I go to Mass at Christmas and sometimes, if I’m visiting certain places, I will go into a church and light a candle for relatives or friends who have passed away. I definitely feel that those people are still around.
“I consider myself as a spiritual person and I do believe in a higher power that connects us all together. I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Jesus. That story has always made a huge impression on me, and even at the age of five, I remember thinking, ‘Whoa, this guy was obviously pretty special.’ And I still think that. I think the good stuff of ‘love your neighbour’ is a great rule to live by.’’
His own rule for life, he says, is directly related to that. “It’s a very simple rule and it’s kind of a cliché but I think it works – which is just, basically, treating others as I would like to be treated. I think these days we’ve become a bit too much obsessed with the individual. ‘How can I become a more successful person? How can I achieve happiness?’
“I think we need to start looking to each other more and wondering how we can take care of each other, not just of ourselves. I think we need to start working together and loving each other more.’’
He stops. “Does that sound corny?” he asks.
Not in the least, Michael. Not in the least.
Gabrielle Donnelly is a freelance journalist