Edinburgh Festival: Domhnall Gleeson talks Star Wars, Harry Potter and returning to the stage

Domhnall Gleeson talks Star Wars, Harry Potter and returning to the stage at the Edinburgh Festival

Domhnall Gleeson stars in Enda Walsh's Medicine at the Edinburgh International Festival.
Domhnall Gleeson stars in Enda Walsh's Medicine at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Talk about a sense of occasion. After a year of lockdowns and closed theatres, the EIFF is back with a world-class line up of shows including the international premiere of Medicine, Irish playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh’s latest work, starring Domhnall Gleeson.

The Ex Machina, Brooklyn, The Revenant, Star Wars VIII and IX, Harry Potter and Unbroken actor will be joined by actors Clare Barrett and Aoifa Duffen and musician Sean Carpio in the play which looks at how we treat the mentally ill. Billed as funny and moving, Medicine has been delayed for a year by Covid and couldn’t be more relevant with themes that are surely on everyone’s mind right now. We’ve all learned to live with uncertainty, and become more careful around mental health issues, more aware of our own and those of others.

As Gleeson appears on Zoom, all ginger hair and Cheshire cat grin, I don’t know who’s more excited about the prospect of live theatre with a real life audience, him to be on stage performing, or me at the idea of Edinburgh becoming a festival city once more.

“I cannot wait to be back in a room, and in a theatre again,” he says, beaming.

“When Enda contacted me about Medicine, and sent me an early version, it was the only thing I wanted to do. And now we get to bring it to Edinburgh and be part of the experience of theatre reopening which is very exciting.”

Gleeson is just back from the US where he went to see A Quiet Place 2 starring his friend and colleague Cillian Murphy, his first time back in the cinema.

“It was just magic, so I look forward to being able to do that with theatre. You can feel it when people are invested, just being in a room which is built only for that.”

Domhnall Gleeson rehearsing Medicine by Enda Walsh with Clare Barrett, Aoife Duffin and Sean Carpio for this year's Edinburgh International Festival.

Now 38, Domhnall (pronounced Donal to rhyme with tonal) has a varied CV, playing baddies like General Hux in Star Wars and Thomas McGregor in Peter Rabbit, good guys in Ex Machina and Harry Potter, was in the musical drama Frank with Michael Fassbender, Brooklyn with Saoirse Ronan, Angelina Jolie’s World War Two drama Unbroken and touched on mental health issues in The Little Stranger in 2018 and Goodbye Christopher Robin.

From a talented and creative family and the eldest of four boys, he’s acted with his father Brendan and brother Brian in another Enda Walsh play, The Walworth Farce, back in 2014 and co-wrote and starred in the TV comedy Frank of Ireland - while brother Rory is a novelist, playwright and screenwriter and brother Fergus, an actor and composer.

Since it’s the world premier very little is known about Medicine, which is produced by Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival, and Gleeson is wary of giving too much away. There’s talk of ‘a man sitting on a hospital gurney, a jazz percussionist, two women called Mary, a very old man and a giant lobster’, of a ‘dark and frequently absurdist work that shatters the boundary between cast and audience’ and the word ‘bleak’ crops up a bit.

Intriguing, but what CAN Gleeson tell us about Medicine? First off he qualifies the need to know, and questions the desire for certainty.

Domhnall Gleeson at the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker film premiere in London, 2019. Gleeson plays General Hux.

“It's an interesting thing because my experience of Enda’s plays is that as a younger man my subconscious would demand detail and order to be able to understand why his stuff in particular was making me feel a certain way.

“Ballyturk and Misterman, I wanted him to tell me where this is happening, is this the real world, did this really happen, what's going on there? Then as I've gotten older I’ve come to realise part of the joy of his stuff is sometimes not understanding; it’s feeling something and not knowing exactly why. I think he's the only playwright whose stuff I regularly kind of cry at, in a very nice way, in a release way, not like I’m upset.”

On top of this Gleeson is reluctant to indulge in spoilers.

“I don't want to give away Enda’s secrets ahead of the show but I think it takes place in a more concrete setting than some of his other work. You know where you are. Basically, this man gets to tell his story once a year and this is him telling it in real time on one of those years. As it goes on it becomes clear why he is telling it, and you understand more about it as it goes along.”

Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Thomas McGregor, at the Peter Rabbit premiere in London, 2018.

Amenable and charming, he’s apologetic, and smiles, saying: “Is any of that usable at all?”

He continues: “I think Enda has something important to say about the way we treat people who are suffering with mental illness. And about the different kinds of medicine.”

“The big thing is to go in with an open heart. I had to learn that. I had to learn to go in and let the play be itself as opposed to trying to understand what it was.

“So for the people like me out there, I would say go and let the play be itself. The big thing, all that matters is that we're going to be in a room with people in Edinburgh, and that has not been the case for a long time. I don't know what's more exciting than that. I cannot wait to be back in a room, and in a theatre again.”

“All of Enda’s plays, and all the good plays, are about love in some way, and I think this is no different. Also, the best plays, you can't explain, or at least I can't, why they do something to you.”

If this all sounds a little heavy, fear not for Gleeson assures me when he read it it made him “laugh a lot”.

Merritt Wever as Ruby Richardson and Domhnall Gleeson as Billy Johnson in the 2020 comedy thriller TV series Run.

Plus, there’s a lobster.

“Yeah, it's definitely funny,” he says. “It's got a really light touch. It’s also strange and exists in its own way, and in terms of bleakness that's an essential element when you're talking about a condition which essentially has bleakness built in. But I think there’s also hope and love and all the important things.”

It’s a dream come true for Gleeson to be in another Walsh play, after reading them all when he was younger and watching the film version of Disco Pigs starring Cillian Murphy when he was 19.

“I love his plays. They mean more to me all the time. I love the way they work, don't understand how they work and that's part of what makes me love them.”

Medicine is also a welcome return to the stage after a series of award-winning blockbusters, and the delay has only heightened his enthusiasm.

“Some actors have this thing where they say I need to be on stage every two years to keep the flame lit, but for me it's the right play coming along at the right time as opposed to there being a schedule.”

In the meantime, Gleeson has been making a name for himself in film and TV but which of his prodigious output make him most recognised by people in the street?

“Obviously Harry Potter a lot and Star Wars are huge machines, just the size of them would mean that that would happen a reasonable amount. But also, About Time it’s bizarre how often that comes up, and the Irish TV comedy sketch show was more than ten years ago, but there were a couple of sketches in that that really seem to last and do the rounds.”

And on Gleeson himself, which had the most impact? Black Mirror, Ex Machina, Star Wars, Harry Potter?

“The ones you’ve mentioned loom very large in my life because of what they were and because of the quality of work and the effect they had. And they found an audience, that really helps,” he says.

“I would say the work I've done with Lenny Abrahamsson has had a huge effect on me as an actor but also is work I'm incredibly proud of. Frank [2014 with Michael Fassbender and The Little Stranger [2018], I'm very very proud of. I feel those two films stand up.

“Also I did a film called About Time with Richard Curtis which has rippled long after I did it and it’s surprising how many people come up to me and say how much that film meant to them, how it affected their relationship with their father or their partner, so that’s great.”

Gleeson also credits 2012’s Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley and directed by Joe Wright as being seminal to his development as an actor.

“I think it changed my process as an actor in a good way. The way Joe directed me changed my confidence in myself to be able to occupy a certain space I'd never thought of before, so that had a big impact on me.”

What was different for Gleeson about Anna Karenina is that it was the first time he had played a romantic character.

“I'd never done that before. My father always said to me, if you decide you can't be romantic, say that’s not where your strength lies, then no one else will be able to see you in that light.

“But Joe just talked to me about love and about really looking at somebody, really taking somebody in, and about my relationship with the camera and how to let it in. It was very, very instructive and helpful in terms of enjoying the experience of being an actor.”

Gleeson has made a habit of working with the same people more than once, having worked with Lenny Abrahamsson twice and Alex Garland three times.

“I've worked with a good few of the same people a few times and a lot of the people I’ve worked with I will be in conversation with back and forth about what the next thing will be. If you find somebody that's really good at their job, f***ing hold on with both hands. Every job’s a gamble but if you go in knowing one of the pieces is in place, that you can really rely on that, then of course you will do it again and again.”

“And like I say, The Walworth Farce may be the best work experience in my life, working with my father and my brother and Enda. That was a very important piece of work for me. And Martin McDonagh, f*** I wouldn't be an actor if it wasn’t for Martin McDonagh, so that's another one.”

Originally wishing to become a writer and director and studying that at college in Dublin, Gleeson changed tack when McDonagh cast the 19-year-old in his production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a role that won him a Tony Award nomination.

“I doubt that I would be an actor were it not for getting that part. It changed my whole view of what theatre could be, and what being an actor could be. Martin McDonagh changed my angle on it ever so slightly. He was my first and remains a hero in terms of theatre and film making; he looms large. I had not planned on acting, it’s just happenstance really.”

Has his dad, with his long career and last seen playing Knuckles McGinty in Paddington 2, ever given him any advice on acting?

“He gives me lots of advice but it changes all the time, you know, depending on what you need. The acting advice obviously I cherish and pay attention to, but it’s more the setting an example by being a good person who lives in the world that I would say is the bigger, more valuable thing.”

Gleeson senior wasn’t always an actor, working as a teacher before changing careers, while Domhnall’s mother Mary was a community welfare officer for many years until she gave up her job when her husband’s career took off.

“Dad’s work started taking him away from home a lot and my mam decided she wanted one parent to be around, so gave up her job which was a wrench, because she loved it and was very good at it, but she made sacrifices for the family.”

For Gleeson Medicine’s appeal also lies in its lighter side, as comedy is something he has been drawn to since his childhood love of sitcom, ranging from Alan Partridge, Fawlty Towers and Father Ted through its evolution to more contemporary iterations such as Fleabag. He did a comedy sketch show, Your Bad Self, which was shown on Irish TV in 2008, and it was a sitcom he sat down to write with brother Brian and long-time writing partner Michael Maloney, in this year’s Frank of Ireland, which was produced by Sharon Horgan and saw him act with his father and brother again.

“It was my first time writing with Brian and he's just wonderful,” says Gleeson. “The whole idea was to make something that brought smart and stupid together. We wanted good structure under the stupidest people imaginable, and living in that world for a while was amazing.

“I love all that. It gives me the most joy and I think having our own weird version of that in Ireland and getting to do it with my brother and my dad, and all these amazing Irish actors and actresses was a wonderful experience.”

It was also a bonus in that it required editing during lockdown.

“There was a lot of work to be done so I'm glad I wasn't doing anything else. And it was fantastic and working with Sharon Horgan, seeing how she does things was fabulous.”

Which of his roles, if any, left something of his character behind in him? Was it Kostya in Anna Karenina, or Doofus from Frank of Ireland (we mean that in a good way.)

He laughs.

“I think Anna Karenina paid attention to love and I think that’s a great thing to take from a job. And The Little Stranger paid attention to desire and obsession so that hung around and I needed a big long rest after that to try and shake that out of my system, but it was great. He was a wonder character to play and I loved that. And Ex Machina, there were ripples of that for a good amount of time afterwards. Those maybe were the three that stuck around.”

More tangible souvenirs from his work are dotted around his Dublin home in the form of the little Lego figure of General Hux he was given that sits on a shelf nearby as he Zooms and he has his keycard from Ex Machina, his character’s card from The Little Stranger and a T-shirt from Frank.

“I always try and take a little thing but it’s very hard. I wasn’t able to get anything from Star Wars or Harry Potter and I’m really sad about that, I would love to have taken something from both of those. Yeah, I have little bits and pieces around the place,” he says.

As for the future, he’s tipped to play a Watergate figure opposite Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux in HBO's The White House Plumbers from the team that made Veep and in the meantime there’s Medicine in Edinburgh, an experience he likens to rediscovering theatre all over again.

“It’s an extra special time to be doing it,” says Gleeson. “When you are reminded of how clearly you might have missed it completely. I would love people to let it wash over them and I hope it gives them a good night out as well. I hope they get ups and downs and all the things that make theatre great.

“We’re hoping to put on a show and we’re hoping that people enjoy it. It’s f***ing great! It’s been so long. So long.

“And I really hope what we do ends up meaning something to some of the people who see it.”

He doesn’t need to convince me. He had me at lobster.

Domhnall Gleeson stars in Medicine at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival, 4-29 August, 2021.

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Domhnall Gleeson with Ruth Wilson in The Little Stranger, 2018.