Brendan Gleeson: The Good, the Bad and the Funny
The dynamic Irish actor talks about his latest role in The Guard, working with the brothers McDonagh and his upcoming directorial debut with Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds.
It’s a Thursday morning in late June, and I am sitting at a table in the empty ballroom of the opulent Beverly Wilshire hotel, waiting for Brendan Gleeson. The press conference scheduled prior to our interview is running a bit long, and I feel as though I’m waiting for someone at a grand, abandoned café.
Then I hear a booming yet mild Dublin accent working its way down the hallway and Brendan Gleeson, grinning and wearing all black, walks into the ballroom.
“Not very L.A., is it?” he asks with a laugh when our photographer, Kit, compliments him on his jacket, and he settles himself cheerfully at our impromptu table for two.
Well, you wouldn’t really describe Gleeson himself as “very L.A.,” either. He is incredibly tall, with broad shoulders and a build that has worked equally well for his work as criminals both thuggish and smart in films like John Boorman’s The General and Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges; his turn as the vigilant and eccentric Mad Eye Moody in the Harry Potter films; and his Emmy Award-winning portrayal of Winston Churchill in the 2009 HBO mini-series Into The Storm. His floppy ginger hair is tinged with white at the temples, and his expressive face shifts quickly from thoughtful and serious to wonderfully devilish. At fifty-six, after twenty-two busy years in film, Gleeson and his wife, Mary, still live in Ireland – in Malahide, not far from Artane, the Dublin suburb where he grew up. He’s here in L.A. for just a few days as part of a promotional tour for The Guard.
The first feature film by John Michael McDonagh (older brother of playwright and In Bruges director Martin), The Guard is a razor-sharp, at times uncomfortably dark comedy. It’s also a western of sorts, complete with good guys and bad guys, a final showdown, justice taken outside the realm of the law, and a soundtrack by Calexico. But, rather than Monument Valley or a dusty stretch of central Italy, it takes place in Co. Galway, along the verdant, rainy and totally desolate Connemara coastline.
And instead of John Wayne on horseback or a forbidding, gun-slinging Clint Eastwood, its hero is a burly police sergeant named Gerry Boyle, with a little too much time on his hands and a great talent for pushing people’s buttons.
This is, needless to say, Gleeson’s role, and his performance is a triumph.
“Boyle was a brilliant creation from the start,” says Gleeson, fondly. “I just looked at the script and said ‘God, this has to happen.’”
Gleeson’s Sergeant Boyle is a small-town enigma. As Don Cheadle’s character, American FBI Agent Wendell Everett, sums it up, he is either the dumbest person or the smartest. He is snarky to his co-workers and irreverent in the face of authority, but sweet and caring towards both his ailing mother (played by the always-wonderful Fionnula Flanagan) and the hookers from Dublin who visit him on his days off. There’s a sense of loneliness about him, but it’s something neither he nor the film spends too much time dwelling on. Mostly, he seems wryly fed up with the ennui he’s resigned himself to.
“He’s really bored, let’s be honest about it, and he just wants something to happen; he wants somebody to lose their temper,” Gleeson explains.
Fortunately, perhaps, things get more exciting for Gerry and the Connemara police force when it turns out that a strange murder in the area might be connected to a large shipment of drugs worth either €500 million or maybe €100 million – nobody is quite sure – en route from Colombia to Ireland and set to dock in Spiddal, or Cork, or…somewhere else. As all of his colleagues are either inept, corrupt or both, Boyle is forced to team up with the no-nonsense Agent Everett, who is totally mystified by his surroundings and the uncooperative Irish locals.
Everett is equally mystified by Boyle – by his penchant for breaking the law and his incendiary, sometimes racist remarks.
“It’s not unknown at home, people will kind of get up your nose a bit just to see how you react,” Gleeson says, raising a bushy orange eyebrow.
This is something, he admits, he’s a bit worried about: will American audiences get that Gerry doesn’t always mean what he says? That the aim of many of his cracks is to get himself through the ridiculousness going on around him?
“I mean, he actually says it,” Gleeson points out, quoting the script in Gerry’s defense: “I don’t mean anything by it, I’m only having a bit of fun, like.”
Even if viewers don’t quite get Gerry, they will definitely get the chemistry between Gleeson and Cheadle, who was also the film’s executive producer.
“I stayed in [for the screening] last night,” he discloses. “I wanted to see what an L.A. audience would make of it since it’s so removed from L.A. Don is fantastic. You see, he takes the American audience by the hand and leads them through it. He’s equally as appalled as they are and he can guide them through the maze that is Connemara.”
GLEESON didn’t begin acting professionally until he was 34, after a decade of teaching English and Irish. “I felt pretty much there as a teacher,” he reflects, “and I was prepared to do it for the rest of my life.”
But a love of acting was also there, right from his “messing around” days, when he and his friends did amateur productions; through his time in college, when he started working with playwright Paul Mercier; and into his years as a teacher, when he acted, directed and wrote for Mercier’s Passion Machine theater company.
At a certain point it became impossible to juggle everything, so he made a choice.
“When I first was able to fill in A-C-T-O-R for the occupation line on my passport,” he says quietly, “that was the first time I really felt ‘Wow, I’m home.’
“One of the benefits of starting out so late,” he offers, “was that I never had to do soap commercials.” After frequent stage work and smaller roles in films like The Field and Into the West, Gleeson’s blockbuster breakthrough came in 1995 when Mel Gibson asked him to join the cast of Braveheart as Hamish. Since then, he’s appeared in more than his fair share of Hollywood hits, including Mission Impossible II, 28 Days Later, Gangs of New York, Cold Mountain and Troy.
At the same time, he has remained fiercely committed to Irish cinema. He first starred as gangster Bunny Kelly in I Went Down, and later received acclaim for his portrayal of real-life Dublin crime boss Martin Cahill in John Boorman’s The General. He more recently played two estranged brothers in Boorman’s Tiger’s Tail, gave voice to Abbott Cellach in The Secret of Kells, and hunted down Cillian Murphy in Perrier’s Bounty.
Does Gleeson think he plays a certain type? He tells me of a recent conversation with director Daniel Espinoza on the set of Safe House, a CIA action film co-starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, set to be released in 2012. Espinoza remarked that Gleeson never seems to play good guys, to which Gleeson replied “‘Eh, that’s not true, hang on a second.’ And then everybody I [mentioned] to him that I’ve played who I figured was a good guy, Daniel said ‘Yeah, but he was a tough dude,’ or ‘he was a hard man.’ So then I was asking myself ‘Do I never play any good people? What’s wrong with me?’”
He realized, after the fact, that he just doesn’t think about characters in that way.
“I tend to look for the good in bad people and the bad in good people, to make them human. ’Cause I don’t think that people generally are that black and white. Maybe in movie-land they can be…but that isn’t necessarily all there is.”
No matter how improbable they may sound on paper, all of Gleeson’s characters share a human quality rooted in a place other than “movie-land.” This makes him perfectly suited (and, in a way, vital) for the grim, not quite real but not quite absurd worlds created by both of the McDonagh brothers, who grew up in London but spent every summer in the West of Ireland.
It’s almost irresistible to compare The Guard to In Bruges, so similarly dark are their plots and so related are their directors. If anybody is in a position to speak to what connects the brothers and what distinguishes them, it’s Gleeson. He did, after all, star in both of their first features: In In Bruges he played Ken, the older of two hit men laying low for a while in Belgium’s comically peaceful medieval city.
“I keep trying to emphasize the difference because I know it must be irritating at some point to always be mentioned in the same breath as the brother,” he says. But he does concede to some similarities. “They’re very fierce; there’s kind of a savage commitment to the quality of the writing. They aren’t easy on themselves or on anybody else…Their stuff is always economic, it’s always bright.”
On set, “they’re both very calm, quite painstaking,” he explains. “John in particular insists he’s OCD. I keep telling him that he’s just fussy, but right before a scene he’ll go up to you and just –” to illustrate, Gleeson carefully shifts my recorder a millimeter towards the left on the table between us and nods as though it made all the difference in the world. “But there’s an assuredness too. They’re very filmicly aware – encyclopedic, actually, in terms of film.”
The difference, he says, is between their voices and the worlds they create with them. “The only way I’ve been explaining it is, when I was working with John on The Guard there was nothing of In Bruges that ever came to mind. It’s a very odd thing. Even though there is that similarity of attack in terms of the humor, it was completely different.” Even for an actor who looks for the good in bad people and vice versa, the darkness of the work can be hard to grapple with.
He recalls a discussion he had with Martin before filming Six Shooter, which won the Oscar for best live action short film in 2006.
“There was a part about a cot death and I was saying ‘Martin…there’s stuff you have to be careful about in terms of pushing envelopes, some stuff you just don’t mess with,’ and all that. But we had a long discussion about what he was trying to do and in the end I was reassured.
“But then I remember, at some point after we wrapped, he said something about how in the end it’s all about love. And actually, when you take any of Martin’s characters, no matter what they do, no matter how appalling their behavior – and some of them are seriously appalling – you find it very hard to hate any of them. You don’t do it. So in a way, what’s frightening is that you’re understanding, you have some sympathy or empathy for people who are doing the most appalling things. And that to me is very singular.”
And does the same thing go for John Michael McDonagh, who Gleeson describes as a bit of a Gerry Boyle himself? “I’m not sure if with John it works the same way,” he muses. “I think John is prepared for you to hate some of his characters…With Gerry at least you kind of have to take it, you know? Whatever his flaws.”
AS WE TALK about In Bruges, Gleeson tells me about a radio interview he gave in Ireland with the other stars of the film. At some point, the host put the question of musical tastes to the group but added “Ah, I’m not going to ask you, Gleeson, you only go for this diddle-i-ay stuff.”
Gleeson, who did the majority of his own fiddle playing in Cold Mountain and appears on the traditional group Atlan’s 2009 live album, replied that he was into more than diddle-i-ay. Later, he took some heat from his trad-playing friends.
“You didn’t give us much good press,” they told him, “and I said ‘D’you know what, you’re actually right. I didn’t stand up for it very well.’”
He may regret that, but in the minutes that follow Gleeson gives one of the best defenses of diddle-i-ay music I’ve ever heard:
“I remember, years ago, I didn’t get what some old guy was doing that was so special. I asked somebody, ‘It’s all scratchy and everything, what does everybody see in it? I don’t get it.’ And he said ‘Ah, it’s the small print, the small print.’ Irish music is about that. It’s not about the showy stuff, it’s about little, small variations. And once you start reading it, the intricacy of it, it’s like…it’s like lace or something, it’s what people do on the inside.” He pauses. “When I started out at about 19, 20, it took me two years just to tell the difference between a jig and a reel. It does all sound the same, but what you can find once you go in – it’s never-ending. So that’s my love.”
His reverence for Irish music, for the literature, for the landscape, is palpable as he talks. But he also tells me, like many before him, that it’s been harder in the recent past to find motivation and imagination in his home country.
“I’d never had any problem finding inspiration; Ireland was always just there, you know? All this richness of culture was there to tap into. But I kind of felt like we’d been betrayed so utterly and completely by our own people in the last couple of years; we were the authors of our own disaster.” He somewhat ruefully implies that he and John Boorman tried to ring the alarm on the Celtic Tiger with the poorly received 2006 film Tiger’s Tail, but that “nobody wanted to hear it.”
When Gleeson wants to, though, he speaks up. And when he does, people seem to listen.
Recognized for wisely choosing his moments (a thoughtful tirade against the Irish health care system on the Late Late Show in 2006; his staunch defense of the Irish Film Board before the Arts Council and the Dail in 2009), Gleeson agreed to be a part of the Irish celebrity welcoming committee of sorts that greeted President and First Lady Obama during their visit to Dublin in May.
He was asked to speak at College Green about the kindred liberators Daniel O’Connell and Frederick Douglass, which he did – and well – but he also took the speech in his own direction. “Now we’ve had a rough few years here,” he said, speaking plainly to the crowd of a few hundred thousand. “I don’t know about you, but I’m fed up looking at the ground. It’s time to stand up, breathe the air, look around: What a people! What friends we have! I’m bloody sure we can!”
“I want to stick to my job and what I know,” he’s quick to say when I ask about his rousing oratory. “I don’t want to be a pulpit crasher in any way, shape or form. But there comes a time when you’ve just got to nail your colors to the mast, I think.”
Gleeson will be doing just that with his next major project, one that has been a long time coming. He will be directing his own adaptation of At Swim Two Birds, the notoriously un-adaptable novel by Flann O’Brien (a.k.a. Myles na gCopaleen a.k.a. Brian O’Nolan). The book’s layers are more numerous than its author’s pseudonyms, and Gleeson has set himself a definite challenge in translating the books-within-the-book and all the anarchy that reigns between them into film.
“I’m after talking it up so much that the only way is down,” Gleeson says when I first ask him about it. “That’s a very Irish way of looking at it, isn’t it?”
Making At Swim Two Birds has been just out of Gleeson’s reach for a few years now, due to difficulty securing funding and various scheduling conflicts. But it’s been the subject of much hype and speculation, ever since word of the project got out following a star-studded script-reading in Dublin in December, 2006.
“I’ve had everything decided in terms of casting for ages,” he says, sucking air between his teeth excitedly, and proceeds to list a cast that sounds like a who’s who of Irish actors: “Gabriel Byrne, Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy, Michael Fassbender, Eamon Morrissey, Sean McGinley, Marie Mullen –” and so on.
After all of the delays, Gleeson is clearly reluctant to say too much about it. But he does divulge that they will begin shooting in the spring, in Ireland and Luxembourg, and that he will be playing the main character’s hated uncle, who also figures in one of the books within the book. Gabriel Byrne will be playing the mystical Pooka McPhelimy. “You want to hear Gabriel do the Pooka,” Gleeson tells me enthusiastically, describing it as “languid, urbane and wicked.”
Another Irish actor joining the cast of At Swim will be Gleeson’s 28-year-old son, Domhnall, who plays Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films and recently appeared in the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit. Brian, another of Gleeson’s four sons, has also worked with his father a few times – as his son in Tiger’s Tail and as a fellow Garda in Domhnall’s recent short film, the family collaboration Noreen.
“I kind of dealt them one, as in ‘you’re on your own,’” Gleeson says when I ask what advice he’s had for his sons. “But generally it’s just been about how to work with your craft, how to counterbalance instinct and the intellectualization of the piece. How sometimes you can over-think something and then other times you’ve got to plan…Initially I’d go in and say ‘maybe if you took that down there,’ or ‘what are you thinking about here?’ And I enjoyed directing them in that way, I got a real kick out of it. And then they began to not need to ask me.”
He emanates clear pride as he tells me that Domhnall will be working on Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina in the autumn, and as he hints at a part Brian might have landed – “I’d love to tell you about it, but it isn’t exactly sealed and dealed so I don’t want to put a jinx on it. But it looks like it’s going to work out for him, and I’m so proud of that because I had nothing to do with it.
“I mean,” he pauses, “you have to give everything a whack at some stage, don’t you? Just like Gerry Boyle. Try it once.”