Film: The Brendan Gleeson voyage is not yet finished
Published 28/08/2014 | 00:00
He's one of Ireland's most versatile film stars, but Brendan Gleeson is showing no sign of slowing down, especially now his actor sons Domhnall and Brian are snapping at his heels.
It says something about Brendan Gleeson's gifts as an actor that even in the most poorly conceived film, he remains utterly watchable. You find yourself rooting for his character even if your faith in the storyline has long since evaporated.
His latest project, The Grand Seduction, is a hammy comedy centred on a small Newfoundland fishing community and their bid to woo a major firm to the area. It's not the best film ever made, but Gleeson makes it worth the price of admission. Somehow, thanks to his wonderfully warm and believable performance, he just about manages to pull the plot together.
Perhaps the story idea sounded more compelling on paper. "When I read the script, it really grabbed me," the affable Dubliner says. "It's been something I've wanted to do for five years, but it took a long time before it came to fruition when [director] Don McKellar came on board. I had been taken with this idea that an isolated community was trying to pull together in order to get on in a world that's moved on. And Newfoundland is a really special, beautiful place, not least because of the Irish connection."
Those unfamiliar with the large island off the east coast of Canada may be surprised to learn that many residents there can trace their ancestry to Ireland's south east and even today many locals still speak with a curious Irish-sounding dialect. "You go into a little village and you could swear you were in Waterford," Gleeson says. "And yet very few of them have actually been to Ireland."
His character, Murray, is a bear of a man -much like Gleeson himself. "I wanted to capture the essense of someone who was struggling to preserve his way of life but not play him in a way that was twee or condescending. I didn't want the audience to laugh at Murray, but to empathise with him and get a sense of what drives him. So, yes, there's a serious message at the heart of the film but we never wanted to lose sight of the fact that it's a comedy and we wanted to have fun. I loved the fact that Murray is a pathalogical liar and is larger than life and has this inherent 'cuteness' about him."
Immediately after shooting ended in Newfoundland, Gleeson returned to Ireland to play the role of a priest in the IFTA-nominated Calvary. "It's a very different role," he says, "although some people have spotted similarities. There is a lot of humour there, although nobody went into it trying to be funny. For me, Calvary is about absorbing the blows - [as a priest] you're absorbing everybody else's pain."
Gleeson is remarkably prolific. The Internet Movie Database lists 87 film projects that have been made or are in production. "Well, I started late," he says. "There's a certain element of insecurity - the feeling that you'll never work again. Every actor has that. I try to follow the writing and try to follow the people that are serious about their work. I've been lucky in terms of the people I've crossed paths with. I've worked with some amazing talent. I've been lucky not to work with people who are either useless or egotistical.
"I get itchy if I go a certain amount of time without working. But I think I'm going to have to slow down - it's getting ridiculous."
Born in 1955, Gleeson worked as a schoolteacher in Dublin before a latent love of acting nabbed him a blink-and-you'll-miss-him role in the TV film Dear Sarah in 1989. Small parts in The Field and Far and Away soon came his way but it was his performance as Michael Collins in The Treaty in 1992 that made the wider public take notice of him for the first time.
He soon became a character actor of note - with scene-stealing performances in The Butcher Boy and Trojan Eddie - before lead roles in quirky, darkly humourous Irish road movie I Went Down and a biopic of the notorious criminal Martin Cahill, The General, showed he had the goods to carry a movie on his own.
His CV is impressive and includes Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain and Steven Speilberg's AI: Artificial Intelligence as well as a handful of Harry Potter movies.
He cites a quartet of Irish films - The General, In Bruges, The Guard and Calvary - as the ones he's most proud of. "And," he adds, "the experience I had working on [Martin Scorcese's] Gangs of New York was one that I will never forget."
Two of his sons, Domhnall and Brian, have followed in his footsteps, with the former set to move into Hollywood's major league thanks to being signed up to the new Star Wars movie. Brendan is proud of them both. "As actors, I never second-guess them at all," he says. "I'd ask them to have a look at something (a part he was offered) and ask them what their take would be and they would do the same with me. But it's not really about me giving them advice, it's more my take. I would only proffer advice if I was asked. We seem to be able to keep a certain objectivity when it comes to looking at our work."
He says he worries about his boys, as many fathers do. "This [acting] world," he says, hesitantly, "you'd be very afraid. You'd look at [the late] Philip Seymour Hoffman and wonder 'God, does this thing (the movie business) take its toll?' You'd always hope that they could cope with the challenges of this life, rather than the challenges of the craft."
He met Seymour Hoffman once. Both starred in Cold Mountain, and there was a brief window when Gleeson had finished work on the film and the New Yorker was coming in to do his part. "His death was so utterly tragic," he says. "You feel you wanted to tell him to guard himself more. I was talking to a number of different people about him and creative self seemed to be his salvation. But in another way maybe he found it impossible to protect himself.
"It's like the analogy of the oxegen mask in a plane: they always tell you to put yours on first, even when you're with a child. You kind of feel he was so committed, you wonder if he forgot to look after himself." His voice trails off. "He gave us too much in a way."
It's one of Gleeson's regrets that the pair never got to act together. "There were a few cases in which we almost got to make a movie together," he says, "but, as is so often the case in this business, those opportunities never came to pass. It's a shame. He was a fantastic actor."
Outwardly, Gleeson exudes the confidence of a seasoned movie star who lives a gilded life and doesn't have to worry about the future. But scratch below the surface and he will admit to bouts of self-doubt.
"It's attritional," he says. "You're constantly being judged by people. You're constantly being rejected by people. You're constantly being accepted and lauded by people. You might put your heart into something and people say 'that's crap - that doesn't work'. You're trying to reach an audience and if somebody in the audience says 'that's nonsense' you have to take some notice of it and ask yourself 'is that true or is there something I can learn from it?'"
He is not as hard on himself as he used to be. "Bit by bit you begin to believe a little more in your instinct or the fact that 99pc of your audience thought the exact opposite [to the disgruntled critic] and you begin to put things in perspective."
And yet, he says, "you'll always remember the sting rather than the praise - I guess that's just part of the human condition".
Gleeson has long been admired for his ability to absolutely embody a role and his performance of Winston Churchill in the acclaimed TV film Into the Storm attracted the sort of euphoric praise that most actors can only dream of. Gleeson is serious about his craft - and about what not to do. "I would never have consciously mimicked the work done by another actor," he says. "When you're moved by someone, you forget they're acting. It's a bit like being a referee - if you don't notice him, he's doing a good job. If I can see the acting, I don't want to know about it."
He refuses to name names, but a smile creeps onto his face when he talks about the sort of actors he has little time for. "Those showy, look-at-me performances you might sometimes see," he says, distastefully. "They don't appeal to me one bit. It doesn't work if you can see the joins. It defeats the purpose - and it detracts from the film and the storyline.
"As an actor you should always aspire to get to the truth of a character, to be as believeable and true to life as possible. I'm not saying I always manage it, but that's what I aim for."
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent