Interview: Brendan Gleeson
HE MAY be one of Ireland's finest living actors, but for the next month Brendan Gleeson plans to take no liberties with the law until he finds out how The Guard has been received by the local police.
The opening film at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival is a boisterous, profane black comedy which stars Gleeson as a small-town cop, first seen picking through the car wreck of a local drug dealer and appropriating the stash. Scabrously funny, The Guard may do for the Irish police force what Father Ted did for the priesthood.
"I suppose I'll find out what the Garda make of the film when I get a parking ticket, and there's not a double yellow line in sight," jokes Gleeson.
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, The Guard is a sly combination of In Bruges – coincidentally written by McDonagh's little brother Martin – and Lethal Weapon III. Sergeant Gerry Doyle has a confrontational personality, a dying mother, a penchant for cheery hookers, and absolutely no interest in the international cocaine-smuggling ring that has brought an FBI agent (Don Cheadle, of Crash and Hotel Rwanda) to his neck of the woods.
However it does give him the chance to flex his gift for outrage, interrupting Cheadle in full flow to say, "I thought all drug dealers were black or Mexicans," followed by, "I thought black people couldn't ski, or is that swimming?"
"I don't think Gerry is racist for a second, not in any way, shape or form," says Gleeson. "But he knows people around him are, and he exploits the point for devilment. He's a man whose sense of purpose dribbled away from him over the years. He's very empty and very bored so he tries to make something happen by winding people up with outrageous statements that upset their bogus and borrowed thought processes."
The Guard is about a flawed man who reveals unexpected depths when he finally decides a man has to do whatever he's supposed to in the face of villainy embodied by Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot, a trio of bad guys who are just as bored with the grind of their crime routine.
Shot around Irish-speaking Connemara during the freezing winter of 2009 and 2010, the film needed no post-production flourishes to underscore the bleakness of its setting. "The weather was apocalyptic," laughs Gleeson. "When Don Cheadle arrived, it was clear he'd no idea what he was going into. He said he'd never seen rain that was horizontal before."
Cheadle and Gleeson have a nice rapport on screen, but this is very much Gleeson's film, showcasing his comedic and dramatic chops. There's particular poignancy to Gleeson's scenes with his screen mother Fionnula Flanagan, who is slowly dying in a hospice but rallies to banter with her son about amyl nitrate. Gleeson's own mother Pat died shortly before filming began: "So I knew how to act it," he says simply. In the film they share jokes about Dostoevsky, just as Gleeson and his mother shared a love of theatre and music, and a moment where Gerry tenderly pulls his mother into a hug mirrors a day Gleeson and his mother spent shortly before her death listening to Il Trovatore together.
The first time Gleeson came to the Edinburgh International Film Festival was for I Went Down In 1998, a raucous road movie about two inept Irish convicts. I saw the movie at the Filmhouse ahead of its official premiere and my chat with its two stars, and then as I headed back to my Edinburgh flat for dinner and a bit of preparation, I spotted my interviewees doing some research of their own; tall, burly with a thatch of red hair, Gleeson is instantly recognisable even at a distance; co-star Peter McDonald was by his side. They were at the top of Rose Street and their purposeful stride did not suggest two men about to go window shopping.
"God, I remember that," laughs Gleeson, although he doesn't seem to remember much of what followed. "But I don't think we were in too bad shape the next day were we?" He's half right: Gleeson was bright eyed and bushy-tailed at 9am. McDonald was wrecked, and left Gleeson to do most of the talking.
At this point, Scottish audiences chiefly recognised him as a red-haired warrior in Braveheart. According to Gleeson, winning the role as jovial, axe-swinging Hamish proved to be the easiest part of filming. "I got a call to go meet Mel Gibson informally – just to chat with him. I was doing a play in Dublin at the time, and later on, just before I went on stage, he rang up and said, 'So Brendan, do you want to do this?' So I said OK, and went on with my performance and a few months later I was in the Scottish Highlands getting my face eaten off by your midges." Long days of shooting in Ireland and Scotland took their toll on the actors and the army of extras. "There was one big battle scene where we were all exhausted and really just not sure how we would get through it. But Mel said, 'I'm not worried – just put the cameras on them.' And when he turned the camera on us, everyone was up and ramrod straight. He knew if you put a camera on an actor they will do it. Then they called cut – and all of us were slumped over our horses, hanging on to their manes."
Gleeson now makes about four films a year, in a variety of hues from period epics, such as Braveheart, to science fiction (AI), Boston underworld (The Departed), tourist hitman (In Bruges), eccentric Irish gangster (The General), and so many others that it's hard to keep track. "And of course, I've played a womble," he adds. I'm stumped. Harry Potter? One of the disguises for Mission Impossible II? No – Neil Jordan's oddball Breakfast On Pluto, where his character works in a theme park and takes a transvestite (played by Cillian Murphy) under his wing. "I made up that womble dance myself," he says with theatrical pride.
When he's not Ireland's Great Uncle Bulgaria, he's been called the Irish Gerard Depardieu. But maybe he's closer to Gene Hackman; the kind of actor whose appearance guarantees that whatever happens, a Gleeson film will not be a waste of your eyes. Now 55, he met and married Mary 30 years ago when he was still a secondary school teacher who dabbled in acting but feared a leap of faith would strand him "in a dark room, in a dark mood waiting for the phone to ring". In fact, the phone hasn't stopped ringing and two of his children have now followed Gleeson into acting. Brian, his youngest, played his son in John Boorman's The Tiger's Tail, while Domhnall had a long run in the Harry Potter films as Bill Weasley. Gleeson also signed up for the Potterthon as Mad-Eye Moody, pitching up at Hogwarts for Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire with a CGI eye gyrating crazily in a brass socket. As "a gunslinger with a wand," he says his first point of reference were teachers who taught him in a Catholic school in Artane, a working-class area of Dublin.
"I only signed up for the fourth film and that was with some trepidation," he admits. "Maybe the kids would be brats, or spoilt or messed up by the industry. But that wasn't the case at all. Literally it was the magic of all these people working so hard, and the kids were allowed to be kids and the set was allowed to be fun. Everything I feared would happen didn't."
Mad-Eye met a noble, sensitively off-screen demise in the last Potter film, but Gleeson still gets eyeballed by Potter fans. "Robbie Coltrane tried to warn me. He said, 'You can forget about getting through an airport because you can't really. You can't browse without someone pulling at you.' But it's not the kids, it's the parents who spot me and drag their poor kids over. You can see it in their faces – 'why am I being introduced to this middle-aged, overweight, very ordinary man? Why is mother making me do what she always told me never to do, which is go and talk to strangers.' And, of course, without the eye thing on me, I'm a complete disappointment to them." Gleeson a disappointment? I can't see that one.
The Guard screens at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 15 June, the opening night of this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival. For more on the Film Festival read next week's Review, or visit
This article was originally published in Scotland on Sunday on June 5th 2011
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