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Brendan Gleeson on Calvary, Harry Potter, Martin Scorsese, and dying in movies

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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Some actors get into showbiz early, reaching for the spotlight before they’ve even reached maturity. Not Brendan Gleeson. The stocky Irishman with the instantly recognizable brogue spent most of his 20s teaching English to Dublin schoolchildren and moonlighting as a semi-professional stage actor. He was 34 when he nabbed his first film gig, an uncredited appearance in the 1989 Dolph Lundgren comic-book vehicle The Punisher. Gleeson’s big break was probably the plum part of Hamish, William Wallace’s right-hand man, in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. From there, he slowly transformed into one of the most reliable supporting players in English-language cinema—a reputation that netted him roles in acclaimed indies, Hollywood blockbusters, and the work of major filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and Danny Boyle. He’s also proved himself a versatile leading man, most recently as a Catholic priest marked for death in John Michael McDonagh’s seriocomic Calvary.


Calvary (2014)—“Father James”

I think [Calvary] is probably the most deeply, personally affecting film I’ve done in terms of my relationship with the character. I remember doing The General years ago, and [director] John Boorman, after a screen test, said I had done a very good impersonation, but that I needed to go deeper than that. And that’s when I first began to understand the nature of inhabiting a character. And this one draws it to a length that I wasn’t quite prepared for. Because it was about a personal, spiritual journey and humanity—and about maintaining that notion that human beings are worth it and that there’s a future in some way that can be beautiful. Because everybody feels so disillusioned and betrayed. And so it had personal consequences. I found it very trying to absorb that amount of pain in the making of it. And afterwards, too, I couldn’t fully recover from it.


The A.V. Club: Did you model this character on any real holy men you’ve known?

Brendan Gleeson: Not particularly. Afterwards, I thought about—there was a Christian brother who I often reference. He was in primary school when I was very young and he understood creativity. He had a whole bunch of us and he did all sorts of stuff—putting us onstage and bringing us up the mountains. He was one of those mentoring people that you just really get a break when they’re part of your life. He seemed very strange and odd in that particular school and took the brunt of it. So afterwards, I’ve felt like maybe I’m carrying the flame for him. But that was kind of in retrospect. Part of [the inspiration] was feuding with my parents about the difference between good and evil. As a child, I felt a certainty about what was good and what was evil, but that gets mucked up when you figure out that the truth is grayer.


AVC: You have a scene with your son, Domhnall. That’s not a first.

BG: No. He announced my death in Harry Potter. And I did a short with him with Martin McDonagh, John’s brother, and we got the Oscar for that—“Six Shooter.” He was selling Pringles on a train in that. It was very funny. He also directed myself and Brian, his brother, in a short, so I’ve worked with him on a number of occasions. It’s good. It’s a bonus. I couldn’t have dared hope that I’d be able to work with my sons in that way, because you don’t know how that’s going to work out, mixing the professional and the personal. But we found a way of not undermining each other and of valuing each other’s opinion, which has been fantastic. A real bonus.


The one thing that was slightly… I think John was a little bit reluctant to cast him [in Calvary] in case there were people taken out of the film, but nobody recognizes him. Even at home, people don’t know it’s him. And so, thankfully, it didn’t become an issue. I’m very proud of the way we operated together. But I was glad to go back to reality at the end of the day. There’s a lot of anger in that room. It was a nasty scene, and I think the most difficult one to stay positive about for my character, for Father James. It’s tough.

The Guard (2011)—“Gerry Boyle”
In Bruges (2008)—“Ken”

AVC: You play a very different character in John Michael McDonagh’s previous film, The Guard.


BG: I’m not sure if they’re all that different, really. I think the difference, fundamentally, is Gerry Boyle kind of hides his heart under a stone and you really have to work hard to go peek in and see what’s in there. But you know, when push comes to shove, he has his own moral standards. He can’t stand obfuscation and bullshit, basically. And he cuts through it with a knife. I think Father James does kind of the same thing. The difference is that he opens his heart. It’s a braver thing to do than what Gerry Boyle does, in a way. Hiding your heart and building walls in front of it—everybody does it and they do it for a reason: because people take advantage of it. They dump on you. Gerry Boyle was acerbic and very guarded. He had lots of walls between himself and the softer, more tender part of him. But you can see it in his relationship with Katarina [Cas]’s character, the girl who’s with the cop who was shot. And you can see it in the way he has respect for his mother, for example. You can see that there’s a softer edge to him. But you’re going to find it hard to get in there, whereas Father James is the opposite.

AVC: You’ve worked with both of the McDonagh brothers, as you also starred in In Bruges. How are they different as directors?


BG: Actually, it’s easier to talk about how similar they are, because their worlds are utterly different. The way I explain it best is, I’d find it difficult to put any of John’s characters into In Bruges, or similarly, it would jar me to imagine any of Martin’s characters in any of John’s movies. There are different sensibilities involved, a different kind of worldview, in a way. But as directors? It’s much easier to think about their differences as writers. As directors they both have a firm cinematic sense—they’re very calm on set, very prepared and meticulous. And it’s the same as their writing. It’s very vigorous, the preparation. And they’re collaborative with actors and, at the same time, no word has been unearned in their script. So the language is respected. And you have to fight your case if you have a problem with a particular thing. You need to know why and it has to be very clear. But for the most part, you’re just trying to reach the words. The actual words have such class that, basically, you’re trying to realize them, not fight against them.

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010), Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix (2007), and Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (2005)—“Alastor ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody”
Gangs Of New York (2002)—Walter ‘Monk’ McGinn”

AVC: You appeared in three of the Harry Potter films.

BG: I didn’t want to. I signed up for one. I didn’t really want to do a franchise. That’s not my thing. Because I taught for 10 years. I said if I go on and there’s a bunch of brats here, I’m not going to be able to live with it. So I was kind of slightly terrified about the whole notion. And my kids were really excited about me doing it. But I signed up and I went onto the set, and it was a really positive thing. The kids were really lovely. They were allowed to grow up at a proper pace. They weren’t all ha-has, though I remember being told not to get Dan [Radcliffe] giggling because it’d be really difficult to get him to stop. I played a teacher, and I had been a teacher for 10 years, so all this throwing chalk and dusters at people and stuff—I remember that from my own childhood. But also, I’m sure I was able to exorcise some of the demons from my own teaching career. It was great.


And trying to find the look, trying to find the eye. I assumed [Moody] looked like a cyclops. But the more we talked about it, we wanted something he actually made as a wizard. So the creature effects—all that stuff and working with that eye—were fucking fantastic. Massive respect for the craftsmanship—kind of old-fashioned, in a way. Before the CGI just about took over in number four, particularly, which is my big one. But we kept the eye in-camera. That sort of magic—that’s real magic in cinema.

AVC: Are you disappointed that your death scene happens off-camera?

BG: No, no, no, no, no, it’s great having other people talking about your demises. It’s so much more flattering. I die in a lot of movies, don’t I? I don’t owe anything on the death-scene front. So I was happy enough. And, actually, my son announced it, Domhnall announced it. Also, I think I had the coolest broom. Let’s be honest, it was like a Harley Davidson kind of a broom.


AVC: You do die on-camera in Gangs Of New York.

BG: I do.

AVC: What was it like working with Martin Scorsese?

BG: It was fantastic. I think it was the most dense script I’ve ever read, and it was a brilliant script—brilliant, brilliant script. And I had to read it the night before I met him. The breadth of the ambition was what I loved about it. I remember, it was a description about one of the big fights at the beginning—it could be anywhere, in any war in any century in any city. And really it was about tribalism and about people cutting out a piece for their people. And it was so profound, that film. And working with him was great. I could have done what I did in about three and a half weeks, I’d say, but I was there on-and-off for about four or five months. I singed up for the lot—I didn’t care. I just wanted to work with him. And I would have loved to work with him more, in a sense, but I was very proud of that thing just because there’s an essential kind of a truth about the warrior who becomes a politician. He’s going to pay for it. The first guy who crosses the piece of land is going to pay for it. I just know it was something I was really, really proud of. People slightly underestimate that movie a little bit, I think. I think it’s pretty spectacular. And it was a dream to work with Scorsese. He was wonderful.


28 Days Later… (2002)—“Frank”

AVC: You get to be this warm, paternal presence in a pretty bleak film.

BG: It was one of the few times I got that chance before this role [in Calvary]. A lot of people just wanted me as a hardass. But this wasn’t a hardass at all, really. He had his little battles with the zombies, but it was really about his heart. And I just loved working with Danny Boyle. I rang him up and I said, “Is this—am I reading too much into this, or is this about more than just a zombie movie?” Because the thing they’re infected with is rage. And so we had a great discussion about all that, about the undercurrents. It was an opportunity—and this is kind of a precursor [to my role in Calvary]—to be a good father. That father-daughter relationship was pretty good and simple and didn’t need to be overstated. But of course, I got to die again. It was a very innovative camera shot. They built a corkscrew, and the camera corkscrews down as though it were the drop of blood coming into my eye. It was pretty spectacular. One of the best shots that I can remember in my career.


The General (1998)— “Martin Cahill”
Into The Storm (2009)—“Winston Churchill”

I met John Boorman at a dinner party. I was doing a film with Mia Farrow, believe it or not, over in the west of Ireland. A very tiny little budget thing, Angela Mooney Dies Again. One of my kids asked me afterwards if it was the sequel to Angela’s Ashes, which I thought was really brilliant. Angela Mooney Dies Again—doesn’t that just work so well? But I was finding my feet at that point, and I met John Boorman for dinner, and he did this thing where he left long silences between what we were talking about. I thought he was the most ignorant man I ever came across. But he had been a documentary maker and that’s what they do, they try to make you fill the pregnant pauses and say something you didn’t mean to say. This was happening to me at the time; I was blushing at the table. “What am I babbling on for? What’s this dude doing, what’s his thing?”


And then he cast me in The General, which was amazing. And he brought me a massive way down the road in terms of my career. I came to it late, so I was prepared to look at my own performances on camera because I had to find out how the hell to do it. It’s a whole new craft. It’s a different thing from stage, to figure out how your face works—or doesn’t work, more to the point. He was completely inclusive. He’d come around and he’d show me the monitors and show me how a different entrance point would work in the narrative. He uses one camera. So there’s a narrative behind the camera, and his camera moves are all story-bent. I got an awful amount of technical knowledge from him.

And also, on a personal level, as an actor, he made me dig deeper. This [character] was a guy who nails someone to a pool table in the film, and he made me go into kind of dark places where I ended up suffering nightmares. You’re going to places you hadn’t thought you need to access again. So he was a huge influence for me. We’ve become very close friends. I did three other movies with him afterwards. And that was a massive thing in my career—in my life, really.


AVC: Do you always get in the emotional space of the characters you’re playing?

BG: Well, you get into their corner and it’s impossible not to. With The General, for example, people said we were romanticizing a guy who was a bad man. And once you’re telling his story, it’s impossible not to battle for him. You’re trying to find his perspective on the world. We talked a lot six weeks beforehand. We had a number of different chats and things about why we’re trying to make a film about this man and if we’d be glorifying what he did and getting cheap laughs out of the fact that he did horrible things to people—or getting cheap thrills out of it, rather. We both felt that humanizing this man was important. These people aren’t inhuman, the way people talk about activities being inhuman. It’s absolutely human. And so it’s part of what the art of cinema can do or what the art of acting can bring out. We get into places that are uncomfortable and say, “Look, this is part of what we are. Being blind to it won’t make it go away.”


And I do, I think, to answer your question, I do try to get into their perspective on the world. True stories are always interesting like that. You say, “How on Earth could you deal with that?” I played Winston Churchill at one point, as well, which is kind of a big leap culturally for me—and a lot of other ways. But there were a lot of things about him that I found unsettling, that he could be quite a bullying presence and then he does this amazing, heroic thing. One of the great things about historical figures is that you don’t have to suspend disbelief because it happened. So you have to figure out kind of one version of how it may have happened and how, humanly, you could have come to that particular place. So, yeah, you’re always going to bat for the guy that you’re playing.

AVC: You won an Emmy for the Winston Churchill film. When you’re playing somebody who’s a real person, do you feel that adds a real technical challenge? Do you feel this obligation to master their mannerisms?


BG: Totally. Particularly somebody like him, because he was so iconic. One of my big problems with that was, “How the hell am I going to make these speeches and say these words with that degree of conviction?” Boorman had told me with The General, made me understand the nature of how—like an accent, for example, John Hurt says it has to be part of your DNA. It’s got to be part of the whole package. So one of the big challenges I had with him was, after so many public utterances, I said, “He can’t talk like that to his wife.” There has to be a different voice. So one of the people that I collaborated with—and that was our first time—was Joan Washington, who’s a dialect coach. And she was magnificent in the way that she teased out how to allow that accent to become part of the general thing. And she made me—she said, “I never do this, but I’m going to do it in this case.” She said, “I want you to mimic his voice.” So I mimicked his voice, and she said, “Okay, now we’re going to play that, and we’re going to play him.” And the object of the exercise was that everybody was [In a deep voice.] going deep voice. But once you actually played back what I’d done, and then my own voice, and then Churchill, the pitch of the voice was actually very similar to mine. He wasn’t as growly or deep except in certain circumstances in the way that people would be anyway. So you try to align it with how you speak, and then you have a common ground there. And then the sounds can be kind of kneaded in through it. So that was a huge leap. We went down to the west of Ireland for about two weeks, and the first week, she asked me at the end of it, “Are you looking forward to this at all?” And I said, “Absolutely not. I’m completely terrified.” Which I was! It felt like a bridge too far. And then, by the second week, suddenly, what had drawn me to the thing in the first place, which was a really interesting, good script, fantastically dramatic possibilities—I just started to get really excited about it.

AVC: Does the accent become second-hand at some point? Do you reach a point where you don’t have to think about it?


BG: You try to. And what I normally do is, I try to have a dialect coach like Joan on-set. So it means that she can pick up on stuff that has started to wander a little bit. Or if you become emotionally engaged in the scene, something of your own way of expressing yourself comes through. And if she’s there on set, it means I don’t have to worry about that. She can pick up on it and give a pointer and you can tweak it the next time and you can forget the hell about it. It’s a luxury. You have to be working on a certain level for that to happen.

The Butcher Boy (1997)—“Father Bubbles”

AVC: You had small role in a very unusual, disturbing film called The Butcher Boy.


BG: That just came up this morning. Somebody asked me if I was a priest ever before, and that was the only other time. That was my favorite book when I read it. I was knocked back by that book. Francie Brady I could not get out of my head. Have you ever read the book?

AVC: I’ve never read the book.

BG: Do yourself a favor. The persona of that child is so unsettling. It’s a masterpiece. And maybe it’s just that I’ve made the connections in my head. You never know, it may be just a personal thing. But for me, I couldn’t get over it. So to do anything in that film—I really wanted to be there. And it’s an odd role, kind of a precursor to the one I play [in Calvary]. He’s a figure of fun, this guy I play. He’s pedantic and he’s a little bit too jolly and stuff, but actually, he’s a kind man. And Francie knows it. He can still mess him up so bad the way kids do now to the teachers, who just get eaten alive. When I did my teacher practice, they absolutely ate me alive. If you’re too open and easy—and this man had that, so Francie could really wipe the floor with him. But he did respond to the kindness that was there, in an odd way. Father Bubbles—was it Father Bubbles? And then the blood and the abuse and all the stuff, remember that? But Father Bubbles was a genuine man. So playing a man with a genuine heart and also letting myself become a figure of fun was a kind of interesting challenge. And I thought it really worked. I like the way it turned out. Because Francie was a funny guy and all that, but at the same time, he could have done with a little more kindness like that.