Brendan Gleeson

Moving fluidly between Hollywood blockbusters and idiosyncratic smaller films in his native Ireland, Brendan Gleeson has something approaching the ideal career. The Guard, a bloody black comedy in which Gleeson plays the leading role of a cynical small-town policeman, fits into the latter category, but it also bears the mark of the character-actor chops he’s honed in movies like Troy and the Harry Potter franchise. Given that The Guard’s writer-director, John Michael McDonagh, is the brother of In Bruges’ Martin McDonagh, it’s no surprise the films’ dark sensibilities are closely related; but The Guard is a warmer, more resonant work, fully centered on Gleeson’s richly drawn character. When suspicions arise that a trio of violent drug importers may have set up shop in Connemara, Gleeson’s Gerry Boyle is on the case, but that doesn’t mean he’s inclined to make it easy for the out-of-towners who want in on the action, from a big-city new recruit to an FBI agent (Don Cheadle) who comes late to the party. It’s a rare chance for Gleeson to spread his wings in a leading role, his best since 1998’s The General, and he digs into it like a starving man, leaving no opportunity wasted. In that spirit, The A.V. Club seized the chance to talk to Gleeson about preserving Irish culture, teaching Gaelic, and his feelings on The Quiet Man.

The A.V. Club: The Guard seems to fit into the venerable Irish tradition of morbid humor, going to a point where things are so bad you have no choice but to laugh.

Brendan Gleeson: [Laughs.] Irish miserableness. I don’t know what the darkness is.  Maybe it’s the weather. You’ve got to do something to keep yourself amused. Slitting your throat is probably the best option. [Laughs.] There is an edge to it, that’s for sure. People do like to tell you stories, and send you up complete blind alleys, and create fantasies that they can perpetuate for a long time, where you’re blissfully unaware that you’re being taken for a ride. Yeah, there is a tradition of it. The whole Flann O’Brien thing, going back, there’s always been a satiric thing. It comes from a colonial past where if you’re satiric you can be saying one thing and sending another message out. But I think it’s just fun a lot of the time, and possibly has heavy doses of begrudgery and things like that.

AVC: Your character is fond of making jokes that aren’t funny to outsiders like Don Cheadle’s character, because they’re...

BG: Incredibly crass. 

AVC: Yes.

BG: I think that’s part of Gerry Boyle’s thing. I think it’s partly to amuse himself, partly because he has no faith in this kind of process. He’s been standing on piers waiting for ships that didn’t arrive with loads of drugs too many times to believe in this. If you look at the lecture they’re listening to by [Don Cheadle’s] Wendell Everett, he’s saying that this drug boat might land in Cork, it might land in Galway, it might land in the North, and it mightn’t land there at all. So the thing is, they’ve lost the boat, they don’t know where it’s going to land, their information is rubbish, but it’s being done with tremendous gravitas. There’s guys writing down things that maybe don’t need to be written down at all. Gerry is partially amusing himself, but also he wants to puncture it all, so he more or less says that he thought all drug dealers were black lads or Mexicans, just to throw the dishes off the table a bit. 

AVC: The defining moment for Gerry seems to be when everyone believes the bad guys have left Connemara and he realizes they’re still there. Cheadle’s character doesn’t believe him, and Gerry just says, “You know best.” He knows Cheadle’s wrong, but he doesn’t force the issue.

BG: [Laughs.] He’s used to being disappointed, and he feels abandoned at that particular time anyway. He’s at a pretty low ebb at that point. Wendell is gone, and his mom has passed on. He doesn’t really have anybody left at that point. I think he’s always felt a little bit abandoned; he’s felt abandoned by his superiors, and he’s felt judged by pretty much everybody. He doesn’t give himself very good press, mind you. I think he does have that feeling that he’s ultimately going to be disappointed, and at the same time, somewhere in his psyche, he’s hoping for his High Noon moment when he can actually test his mettle against the bad guys one-to-one or one-to-four, that he can take on forces in a straight fight. Mostly he doesn’t find that the straight fight is available to him.

AVC: He does go down to the dock at the end on the off-chance they’ll be there.

BG: He knows they’re there. What Gerry does a lot of the time is to allow people to think that they are looking down on him, that he is ignorant and crass and stupid, but in fact he’s incredibly well-read, he’s a film buff. He’s highly educated, very smart, but he comes out in the kind Colombo way as if he knows nothing, so people spill stuff to him thinking that he won’t be able to use it.

AVC: In the U.S., particularly in the South, they call that playing “country dumb.”

BG: That’s exactly it. It’s still very much alive at home. People get away with it all the time, particularly cops. They’re kinda bumbling around, like “Look at the head on that,” and then suddenly they come up, “I saw your car over there. Suddenly they have whole thing tweaked, and they’ve got inside the skin of what’s going on. I think Gerry does say really crass things just to make something happen, but it also is a pretty good smokescreen. 

AVC: Is it fun or liberating as an actor to play someone who enjoys provoking people that much?

BG: Yeah, it’s fantastically liberating when you don’t give a damn what anybody thinks about it. Actors will always tell you it’s more fun playing bad guys. A lot of the time, it’s criminals who are the people who don’t care. There’s something extraordinarily seductive about the guy who doesn’t care, and to play that guy is terribly empowering, because you don’t have to worry about the consequences of your actions. The interesting thing with Gerry is that he appears to be that way, but the fact is that he does have something else going on.  Ultimately people who don’t care are very dull people. In the end, if that’s all that’s going on, they have a certain fascination for a certain length of time, but ultimately they’re really, really dull. Gerry has a lot more soul than that. So the great thing is that you get to do the whole not-caring thing, but then there’s a heart beating inside somewhere.

AVC: That’s like John Wayne at the end of dozens of different movies.

BG: I think it’s a very male thing that Gerry subscribes to. My own theory is that he didn’t have a father in the house growing up and his mother was a hard ticket, and it was just the two of them. He really puts women on a pedestal. He’s very soft with them. Even with the prostitutes, it’s a fun time they’re having; there’s no feeling of abuse. I think his notion of being a man, as happens in a lot of these things, he takes something like John Ford...

AVC: Who was Irish.

BG: Yeah. People have taken versions of maleness from going to movies. I like the notion that [The Guard] itself is kind of a Western. But it’s partly that within the film, Gerry Boyle has obviously watched a lot of John Ford. And then I think he joined the police force thinking that he would be pushed into situations of that type of clarity, where you’d be up against certain evil, up with the forces that would defeat it, and all he got was compromise and petty corruption and guys sitting on barstools not caring if something went wrong, and turning the other way, and everything fudged, so he just lashes out in his witty way at pretty much any target he can find. Wendell is very strait-laced, and he’s due a ribbing, but actually he steps up to the mark, and I think Gerry is fantastically pleased that at last he has someone who steps up to the mark.

AVC: When he was a child, John Michael McDonagh and his family spent summers in the area where the film takes place. Is there something specific about the kind of character that’s inherent in Galway, or in a small town like Connemara?

BG: I think there is an attitude. They’re a people of themselves. It’s not a surprise that the language [Gaelic] has lasted out there. It was fantastic to be there on the inside, working. When you’re working in the place, it feels so different from visiting it, driving through, or even just having a drink in it, or listening to music, or trying to learn Irish in it, all of which I’ve done. But to actually be working in the place for six or eight weeks, it was a different dynamic. You were of the area. You can feel it in the film. You can feel the sense of place. It was very real. I do think the attitude’s there. John calls himself South London Irish or whatever, so there’s a duality in his writing as well. I do think the sense of place is complete. It’s a huge benefit to a movie if you can say, “This is a world I don’t really know, but it’s amazing.” You can feel the authenticity of it. So yeah, I think he is rooted in that particular place.

AVC: You used to teach Irish, didn’t you? What was that experience like, as someone who grew up in Dublin?  

BG: I went over to Connemara. I started hitching when I was about 15, I think. I went over to meet guys who were learning Irish over in Connemara, but I wasn’t a part of that thing, I was just hitching over. [Laughs.] Terrified of course. It’s funny, I’ll never forget coming into Galway. It was starting to get dark on my first day hitching, and I had to get out the other side through the city and then all the way out to the West, and I didn’t know where I was going to sleep. It was kind of an adventure. I remember a long night, and walking out at some point across a bridge, like a Quiet Man-type bridge, and saying, “Suddenly the uilleann pipes are starting to make sense to me. Suddenly there’s something in the ether with all this. I can understand it a little bit.” I became, from that, into traditional music. 

So I went back to college to learn Irish in the hope of maybe tapping into that whole area. It’s ancient you know? It’s 2,000 years old, that language, minimum. So when you lose it, you’re losing a connection that’s been going back that long. I did want to access it. But unfortunately, having come from Dublin and learning school Irish, I went back to college and continued to have school Irish, and maybe the Irish I was learning was more Kerry, more Southern anyway. I never got a chance to be down there enough for it to be a natural thing. Even though I taught it for 10 years, and I could do it from books and my grammar would be pretty good and my vocabulary would be fine, it’s a totally different thing out there. It’s an everyday language; it has a particular rhythm and dialect that I still find really difficult. I feel such a sham, you know? Teaching it to kids when my own Irish was... I mean, it was adequate for what I had learned, but it wasn’t natural. I still keep thinking at some point I’ll going to go down for six months and get into a place where it’s not so quite impenetrable. 

It’s funny, they like it out there, they like the fact that very few people can do that thing. Some of them resented it who had to go to England, because they didn’t have English, but that’s all gone now, everyone has English. Somebody when I was at college said, “You’re going to be asked why on earth you’re learning a dying language,” and his only answer was that if your mother was dying, you wouldn’t want her to die alone. I took that as great. It took all the pressure off. It’s not that you want the whole country speaking Irish again. It’s not about that. It’s that you have access to something that’s an absolute jewel. And young people continue to get fascinated by it. So maybe it’s going to endure longer than we think. But just to be able to access that whole thread going back is pretty special.

AVC: Since you mentioned it, where do you come down on The Quiet Man?

BG: On The Quiet Man? I think it’s a fantastically funny, brilliant piece of work. I think we got very defensive about it, because people at home were saying, [leprechaun voice] “Oh, the Irish have The Quiet Man,” and it was becoming a stereotype. People actually believed that people were going around and saying, “Here’s a stick to beat the good lady with.” That is not the limit of our intelligence. But I keep saying all the time, “It’s a romantic comedy. It’s supposed to be funny.” When he kicks her in the bum, I thought I would die laughing. He’s dragging her by the hair at the head through this gap like a caveman, and he actually kicks her in the butt. I remember watching John Ford being interviewed, and he said, “I thought I was funny, didn’t you think it was funny?” Of course it’s funny. I mean, you’ve got to laugh. I think it’s a fantastic film. I’ve watched it about a hundred times. I just think it’s also kind of a romantic thing that John Ford did. It was a love song to Ireland. But it was done tongue-in-cheek. He lived there. He knew we weren’t running around like Barry Fitzgerald all day. But no, I thought it was hilarious. 

AVC: It’s a deliberate attempt on Ford’s part to create a synthetic, more peaceful past for the country. When they’re in the cottage and there’s that storm raging outside, it’s as if the real history is trying to get in. 

BG: Yeah. The tempest is still there, but he has a cottage that looks like an Irish cottage should look. That’s what he’s told. There was still that John Ford thing about facing off. That you have to step up to the plate, you have to have the fight with the brother, you have to confront this wild Irish woman that would hit you as soon as look at you. That’s Pegeen Mike from The Playboy Of The Western World. Exactly the same character, that fiery, west of Ireland woman. There’s a touch of a South American thing in that, that kind of wildcat woman that has to be tamed and all that stuff. It’s kind of great fun. There’s always an element of truth in all these stereotypes, always—but only an element.

AVC: With Maureen O’Hara, it sounds as if she was pretty close to that herself.

BG: She was pretty out there herself. [Laughs.] It is something to behold when they lose their temper like that, some of these women. But who doesn’t lose their temper? It’s kind of refreshing. As you say, it was creating a very deliberate, romantic notion of a people very peculiar, but at home with themselves. Sure of their own status in a way. There was a time when we had to grow up as a nation, at a time when people were dismissing us. There were all sorts of Paddy jokes, and at some point it gets a little bit wearying if there’s malice behind it. It’s a bit like Gerry Boyle’s stuff. If there is hate and malice behind what Gerry is saying, then it is racist and crass and ignorant. There isn’t any. He’s entrusting his mother to a black doctor. There isn’t a scintilla of racism in him, except when he wants to say [about Barack Obama], “Geez, those ears are big, aren’t they?” He just wants to rattle somebody’s cage. And similarly, Irish jokes and all this stuff—because I’ve had it said to me at different times with a real conviction that Irish people actually are dumb, or any of these stereotypes that people draw—if it’s said in a joke, you’ve got to laugh. John Ford has not a shred of real mocking or anything about it, not a shred of it. I think the reason he got sensitive about it because at that time, for a long time, people who were going to England, they were getting real malice, and it didn’t help when they could say, “Look at y’all running around like The Quiet Man.” But we’ve grown up since then.

AVC: Speaking of the country growing up, you were very disappointed in the reception The Tiger’s Tail got at home, but a lot of the movie’s skepticism about the strength of the Irish economic boom has since been fulfilled. I gather the reviews at home weren’t kind.

BG: No, they weren’t. They went out of their way. They got so insulted by it. I’m unsure whether the film actually works properly, in the sense that maybe we got the tone wrong, maybe we got the story wrong, maybe I didn’t play it right, maybe I could have gone one way or another. When it doesn’t happen with an audience, you’re always inclined to say, “How could we have done it differently?” But there was such a gut reaction of, “How dare you bring us down like that? How dare you come out and say people are puking on the pavements in Temple Bar?” It was all brought to extremes to emphasize a point. It was brought to extremes, but it wasn’t a hundred miles away from the truth. Practically everything that we portrayed in that was 80 percent of what was happening. 

AVC: Except for the part about identical twins on opposite sides of the economic divide.

BG: Maybe the twin part, maybe. Maybe that was a push. But [director] John [Boorman] was very fascinated by it. I don’t know how we could have done that differently, really. It is truth being stranger than fiction with regard to twins, people being brought up in different parts of the world, and then all these similarities happening. So it wasn’t a million miles away from what could happen. The social reaction to what happened was that as soon as [the Irish] had stood up for ourselves and we were doing this Celtic Tiger thing, we were trying to bring it down. Whereas what we were trying to do was say, “You’re throwing all the babies out with the bathwater. You’re missing the point of decency.” Our health service was a mess, even though they were throwing loads of money at it. There were dreadful things happening in the health service. People being left on trolleys for five days, people in their 80s waiting on a plastic chair because there weren’t beds, but they could have two $100,000 cars outside the consultant’s room. It was nonsense! We were losing our whole soul completely, and that was what Tiger’s Tail was trying to address. 

We were trying to do it in a way that would show, okay, here’s a guy who’s a developer, he’s not a bad man, but he’s losing his priorities. He’s lost his priorities. Then we tried to bring him on a journey where he crashed and reversed. It was a way of trying to go from the top to the bottom and get back into some place where you can see what’s important. And it was, “No, we didn’t want to know about it.” I hated the way people did not want to engage in the debate, whatever the merits or demerits of the film as a film, which okay, you’ve got to take onboard if there’s something that didn’t work, take it onboard and listen to what people are saying. But there was a real social thing.

Then, of course, it was so prescient, because the whole house of cards came tumbling down. You really get fed up. “I told you so” is a really, really boring sort of a phrase, but it’s very frustrating when you’re banging on the door saying, “Will you please have a look at what we’re doing,” and it all going to tumbling down. John is extraordinarily intelligent and well-read. He was predicting that crash for, I’d say, eight years before that. He said, “They’re going to have to bail out, we don’t actually have the money in the country to cover this kind of money if it goes bang.” And it went bang. It wasn’t only there. 

I think you guys are going to have your own thing, too. What’s good from our point of view is I think there is a change coming at home. Part of the thing is trying to get some honesty in terms of what the problem actually is. They’re still telling lies about the size of the debt. You’ve got to know what the problem is, and then once you know, okay, then you face it. It’s this whole fudging thing of, “Oh no, it’s not really happening.” It took us about three years to actually turn around and say, “All right, okay, here’s how far we’re in.” It’s the whole thing about hitting the bottom before you can even start looking up again. You’ve got to get there.

AVC: As an actor, you’ve got a foot in two different worlds, making huge blockbusters for Hollywood and much smaller movies in Ireland. You’ve talked a lot about the importance of homegrown culture, you play traditional Irish fiddle, and you’ve been working for years on bringing Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds to the screen. What role do you feel you have in keeping that culture alive and vital?

BG: I do it because I don’t want to repeat myself. Also, a lot of the time when I started, if something came into Ireland, as a lot of films started coming in, almost invariably all the interesting parts were gone before they arrived. So part of it is a necessity. If I wanted any roles of any challenge at all, I had to get out. I had to come over [to the U.S.] and start trying to get in at the beginning rather than at the very end, or at least halfway through. The whole point of film for me is that it’s such a joy. It’s such a wonder. The possibilities are literally endless in terms of what you can creatively do. 

I love fronting a film, I love going back [to Ireland] and getting proper writing, and fronting it. It has tended not to come from Hollywood that I get to front films for whatever reasons. I don’t maybe follow the normal star profile, and it’s not something that I particularly want to embrace in terms of the publicity thing, and wanting to be famous and known. I find all stuff to be a pain, to be honest. I find myself really privileged to be able to go in, and look at a set that the likes of Hollywood can provide, and say, “My God, look at the craftsmanship in this, look at the ambition in it, the scale of it.” It’s fantastic to go into a big production and see all this stuff, all this creative influence, and all the top guys. Magnificent cinematographers. Everybody from start to finish at the top of their game. It’s absolutely brilliant. Anybody who doesn’t appreciate it, they’re blind. You’ve got see it and appreciate it. So I always insist I’m not going to become some sort of a grimhead making worthy movies talking about how depressing everything is all the time. It’s got to be fun and entertainment, but at the same time, there has to be an artistic center to what I do, otherwise I don’t feel as if in any way I’m doing what I need to be doing. 

I always remember, at the start, talking to Donal O’Kelly, a friend of mine who writes a lot of his own stuff, does a lot stage work, and we talked about Hollywood and the notion of going through the door. I said, “Look, if you open the door in Hollywood, you talk to millions. You’re never going to reach that amount of people, no matter how long you do a play.” And he goes, “Yeah, but by the time you get there, will you have anything left to say?” In other words, it just becomes about plot. Nothing. Bubbles. So I’ve always been really aware of that. When I committed to film, it was with a view to actually doing work that had artistic integrity. It was ambitious in that regard. I’ve always tried to maintain. If I don’t do a script that I really believe has artistic quality, I feel wrong doing the other entertaining stuff. If I do something of artistic integrity and adventure, I don’t care about going around shooting guns and jumping off buildings. I love it! It’s brilliant! What’s wrong with that? You’ve got to be dumb not to enjoy that. It’s such a fun thing, and people need an escape, and it’s great. 

Storytelling at any level is great. And going and being blissfully taken out of anything for two and three hours, it’s a fantastic thing to be able to do. So I do try to mix it. I love working at home. With Gerry Boyle, from the moment I started reading that script, I knew him. Culturally, I knew him. I love doing Winston Churchill or something that I don’t know. It’s a fascinating journey. But to come back to Gerry Boyle, I know this guy. I just know him. I know everything about him. It’s a fantastic thing. But the standards have to be up. I won’t go and do things back at home if the standard isn’t high enough. I think that’s the only way you can serve it, is that you keep the bar high, and if you serve it, then people will respect the culture at home. We have some greats to remember in terms of our culture at home, and the standards are bloody high. That’s what you’re trying to hold onto. That’s what you take. You can’t go around bragging about Beckett and Joyce and all those people, and then turn out rubbish. It doesn’t work that way.