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Friday 24 February 2017

Brendan's voyage: A-list star and outraged citizen

Brendan Gleeson tells Andrea Byrne about his new film, and why, despite the passion he displayed on that Late Late Show, he won't become a politician

THERE are no tears, but Brendan Gleeson is clearly upset. It's not in the league of his very public display of emotion on The Late Late Show, when he delivered a passionate polemic about the health service and the treatment of his loved ones; his angst, on this occasion, stems from remembering the bad reviews for the movie The Tiger's Tail.

"We were generally trying to get across to people that we were losing the run of ourselves and trying to poke a bit of fun at it ... But it was the reaction to it, the insistence that this wasn't the truth. I felt people weren't listening and even trying to make an effort to hear what we were trying to say and what John [Boorman] was trying to point out, which I thought had massive amounts of truth in it."

At odds with his tall, burly stature and tough-guy exterior, Gleeson is a sensitive man, who takes professional criticism to heart.

"I always remember Hugh Leonard talked about when you get a pen in your hand, sometimes you do lose the run of yourself, that you can almost say anything with impunity. You try not to get hurt, you pick around a bit after a bad review and ask 'how much truth is in that'. If I figured that they just didn't get it, that's OK, but if there is something that I feel I could have addressed, it might prey on you a little bit ... In a way, I would prefer to read them, because sometimes you learn more from a slap in the face than you do from a kiss."

Today, Gleeson's wearing a black suit, with a purple scarf draped around his neck, his gingery-brown hair slightly floppier than normal and his eyebrows bushy. When Gleeson laughs, he roars; a regular occurrence when you're in his company.

His face visibly lights up when asked about his new endeavour, The Secret of Kells, an animated movie telling the story of 12-year-old boy, also called Brendan, who must fight Vikings and a serpent to find a crystal and complete the legendary Book of Kells. Gleeson provides the voice of Abbot Cellach, Brendan's strict uncle.

"It's an exquisite cinematic experience. There's nothing overly Irish about it. It's about beautiful things, it's about fear and getting over fear, guarding the things that are beautiful and worth it, and not being unafraid to go and find it, to go and do it."

The film has its educational merits, too, I suggest. "Don't use that word, you're not allowed to use that word," Gleeson counteracts with a smirk, "because if people think it's a history lesson, they're not going to go. They'll say, 'Ah, I might see it on DVD'. It's to be seen in a cinema. Go and get your head blown away by it."

When you read Gleeson's CV, which includes blockbusters such as Troy, Gangs of New York, and Harry Potter, it's easy to forget that he came to the profession very late in life. After college, he taught English and drama. He was 34 when he decided to pursue a career in acting. Since then, he's enjoyed a steady rise up the A-list ladder.

His performance alongside Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes in Martin McDonagh's In Bruges was widely acknowledged as his best performance, which culminated in his recent Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor -- something he was surprised about.

"I didn't even know they were being announced. I just got a text ... I don't go to many awards ceremonies really. It's not something that particularly interests me in one sense, but then, in another way, it's a great honour and you would be an idiot not to be flattered." Despite Gleeson's awards apathy, this year's Golden Globes "renewed his faith" in the industry. "There was a generosity of spirit; you could feel it in the room ... it's not all about knives in backs and politicking."

A few years ago, when Gleeson appeared on The Late Late Show, he spoke out against what was passing for a health service in this country, having seen it first-hand.

"We lost the run of ourselves totally. Somebody was going to say it at some stage. I'm glad it maybe brought it to a head or began a process of trying to re-examine what we're doing. I really don't want to get into a place where people bring me on for a whine, because I don't believe that's the way out of it. I did feel outraged at what was passing for aspiration in this country."

Given his ability to get his message across, it's no wonder many have suggested that he consider a career in politics.

Scoffing loudly, he says: "People should stick to what they know," then, after pausing momentarily, adds: "I was very reluctant to enter that whole arena because my expertise is not in that direction. I know how difficult it is to get things done and how difficult the necessity is to compromise. I understand all that. At the same time, though, I am a citizen."

This promises to be a fruitful year for the star. He plays Winston Churchill in Into the Storm, due to be released in the summer. He's aware of the irony of a proud Paddy playing one of the leading men in British history, particularly given that he previously played Michael Collins in The Treaty.

He's also in the midst of something he holds dear to his heart -- a screen adaptation of Flann O' Brien's classic novel At Swim-Two-Birds. "I am hoping it will happen this year. We haven't anyone signed, but I have commitments from Gabriel [Byrne], Colin [Farrell] and Cillian [Murphy]," he announces with obvious pride.

Gleeson -- a father-of-four who lives in Malahide -- has two sons in the business.

"I feel both of them have the creativity that they need to express, that they will work continuously at doing it, and that they'll improve all the time. I do worry sometimes about the attack on the spirit. It's a difficult road to travel. A lot of the time you're isolated and you're left feeling that you weren't good enough..." but then his expression of concern changes, as he adds: "But it's the price of it. Anyone who gets to work in this business consistently is blessed -- there's no question about it."

'The Secret of Kells' is out now

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