Rising to the challenge - actor Brian Gleeson
With a father and brother both prolific Hollywood actors, Brian Gleeson's time to shine has come, as he takes on a lead role in RTÉ's much anticipated drama Rebellion. He talks work, ambitions and what it's like being part of an acting dynasty
Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30
It's one thing to have to emerge from the shadow of a successful, celebrated actor father. It's quite another to also have a brother who is fast becoming a really big star. But Brian Gleeson insists that he's never felt envious of the remarkable success of father Brendan and brother Domhnall and is content to simply concentrate on his own career, which is certainly going in the right direction.
Still, it wouldn't be unnatural if the 28-year-old Dubliner felt just the tiniest sliver of envy every now and again - not least now that Domhnall's latest movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is smashing all kinds of box office records. And it's Star Wars, for heaven's sake - one of the biggest film franchises in cinema history and a project most actors would dearly love to be part of.
"There was so much work put in before," Brian (pronounced the Irish way, 'Breen') says of his older brother's success. "He was close to a lot of stuff in the past and then it just happened for him. He's carving out a very interesting path. He's keeping it fresh and that's why he's staying on top. Long may it continue."
Brian has a significant project of his own to look forward to: Rebellion - one of the most ambitious drama series ever commissioned by RTÉ - hits our screens tomorrow and essentially kick-starts a year of commemoration for the centenary of the 1916 Rising.
"It follows a group of fictional characters in the lead up to and during the Rising," he explains. "That's what makes it different. Pearse and Connolly and all those guys are in it but they're not really to the foreground. It's about the ordinary men and women from all the different walks of life - middle class, working class, those fighting for the British army, those fighting for the Rebels and so on. So it's trying to get a really rich, broad view of Dublin."
Filmed over 10 weeks this summer, it finds Gleeson taking on one of the key roles - that of socialist Jimmy who finds himself caught up in the fierce fighting in Dublin that Easter.
"He's a socialist revolutionary, who works with Connolly in Liberty Hall. He's from the tenements and he really believes that without economic change the revolution will mean nothing. You see the friction between the Citizen Army [which was established during the Strike and Lockout of 1913] of which he is a part of and the rest of the volunteers."
Gleeson is acutely aware that some will want to pick holes in the series from a historical point of view. "Danny Boyle had a good quote - he was talking about the Steve Jobs movie. He said a historian tries to tell you how it was and a dramatist helps you to feel how it was. And that's what Rebellion is trying to do. We do know what happened, in a broad sense, of course, but what's interesting about this series is that it explores and respects all sides."
When he started voraciously reading about 1916, he was struck by how young the key protagonists were. "It really was a revolution of the young - Michael Collins was 26. These guys and girls were still in their early 20s in so many cases. There was so much change in the air and we're trying to capture that. It's very respectful of all sides but at the same time asking some good questions. There are 70-odd characters in it so it really covers all.
"We shot all around Kilmainham Gaol and Dublin Castle and the GPO - all the places that are indelibly liked with the Rising. You could feel the weight of history a little bit."
Today, he's chatting to Weekend in a coffee shop on Dublin's Middle Abbey Street, a thoroughfare that saw its fair share of fighting and destruction a century ago this April.
Quite what Gleeson himself feels about this most momentous of years in Irish history is difficult to discern. He points out that he's just an actor taking on a role and has little interest in offering his own opinion.
"There were huge complexities back then," is all he will say on the matter. "I think there's a far greater appreciation of that now, compared to, say, 1966 [the year of the jingoistic 50th anniversary celebrations]."
Brian grew up in an artistic family in Malahide, north Co Dublin. His mother Mary is a welfare officer and his father Brendan taught English and Irish at secondary level before leaving to pursue acting. Brian's the spitting image of his father, especially now that he's sporting the sort of short beard that seems to be Brendan's stock-in-trade.
He has a far greater likeness with Brendan than Domhnall does. It certainly did him no harm when he got a part in a big-budget film, Assassin's Creed, due out next year. "I play Brendan's son," he says, with a grin. The seemingly ubiquitous Michael Fassbender is in the starring role.
Two years ago, Brendan told this magazine that of his four sons, it was Brian who looked most likely to follow his footsteps into acting. "I was always goofing around," Brian says sheepishly today. "I suppose having a father who was an actor made you think that it was a real possibility as a career."
His first credit was a minor part in The Tiger's Tail - a widely slated feature, directed by veteran filmmaker John Boorman, that attempted to capture the excesses of the Celtic Tiger.
"I was doing the Leaving Cert that year, and it was great to be involved. And getting to see someone of the stature of John Boorman working was very special." It also meant getting to work alongside Brendan - who had made the much-praised crime biopic The General with Boorman some years before.
Brian admits that the Gleeson name has helped open doors, especially in the early days. "It is advantageous - to a degree," he says. "But it will only do so much and you really have to prove yourself or you won't get very far."
He's had a steady line of work for the past five years - and will star in a stage production of Conor McPherson's The Weir in Edinburgh in January - but one senses he's still waiting for that really big break. He went to Los Angeles to meet with studio executives after completing the filming of Rebellion, but is vague about how well they went. It was then that he did his day's shoot on Assassin's Creed.
At the beginning of last year, the three Gleesons found themselves in the same project for the first time. The Walworth Farce, a revival of the 10-year-old Enda Walsh play, attracted glowing reviews during its short run at Dublin's Olympia.
"It meant a lot to each of us that we were able to work together and in such a good play, and in our home town too," he says. "We had been looking around for something for years and we didn't want to do just anything for the sake of it. Domhnall had seen the play and was blown away by it - the ball got rolling from there."
He insists that the family thing went out the window during rehearsals and performances: "We treated each other as colleagues, as you would with any play, but we are very close-knit and we do talk about the work that each of us is doing with the others. I'm always delighted to get their feedback - we support each other."
He hopes another project will come along that would suit the three of them but adds, with a knowing look, that "some of us are pretty busy".
Brendan is a prolific actor, but even he is relegated to second by the work-rate of Domhnall whose recent credits include Brooklyn, Ex Machina and, of course, Star Wars. Brian's admiration for his brother - some five years his senior - is palpable. He says he has never allowed himself to think of some of Domhnall's recent parts and ask himself, how he would have performed had the opportunity been given to him. "We're different actors, and different people with different takes. I'd never look at something he does and think I could do it - he's so unique and so great."
There's nothing 'actorly' about Brian Gleeson, none of the florid gestures or elaborate talk of craft you get with some of his peers. You get the sense he takes the business of acting seriously when he's on the job, but he doesn't appear to be one to big up his own performances.
He insists he has every confidence in his own ability as an actor but acknowledges he isn't at the place where Brendan and Domhnall are and thus can be selective about what projects they agree to. "Beggars can't be choosy," he says with a shrug.
Despite this and without fanfare, Brian has amassed an impressive body of work. He played a trigger-happy thug in the first season of Love/Hate and he brought understated charm to the lavishly made Quirke series. He also had a part in a big Hollywood film, Snow White and the Huntsman, albeit with his name quite a bit down the bill. He played the lead alongside Mad Men's Jessica Paré in romantic comedy Standby. Then there was the likeable film, The Stag, which saw him act alongside some of the finest young homegrown talent of his generation: Peter McDonald, Hugh O'Conor and Andrew Scott.
"We had a blast making it," he says. "The way the production went, they decided to get the toughest week over first - and that was the one where we were in Wicklow, naked with bits of twigs and leaves covering our nether regions."
He also looks back fondly at his performance in the first season of Love/Hate. "I'm not just saying this, but I knew from the start that the whole thing would be a big success. I remember myself and Ruth Bradley and Aoibheann McGinnity going out for dinner after an early read-through and we all thought we were onto something special."
Even though his character, Hughie, was killed off, he continued to watch the series and believes that if there are to be no more seasons after the explosive finale of the fifth, it will have ended perfectly. "There would be huge interest in another season but Stuart Carolan [Love/Hate's creator] knows when the best ending is and we might just have seen it."
Incidentally, several Love/Hate actors pop up in Rebellion including the aforementioned Ruth Bradley - and Charlie Murphy, who has one of the lead roles.
He says Love/Hate is an example of the sort of quality drama, with high production values, that can be made in Ireland, but insists it should be seen as a catalyst to do more good work. "We shouldn't get complacent and clap ourselves on the back because of Love/Hate.
"I was impressed that when it came to making Rebellion, they sought out Aku Louhimies, a Finnish director who's part of that new wave of Scandinavian realist drama. To me, he was an inspired pick because he was not that familiar with the history as we are and his duty was to tell the story as well as possible. He brought this very visceral realism to the whole thing and that makes me excited because they're not just hiring the standard TV directors that pop up all the time."
Already, Rebellion has been snapped up by international broadcasters and RTÉ will be hoping that should it be well received in its home turf this month it will be sold to yet more territories. Thirty-five years ago, Strumpet City offered a similarly panoramic take on a hugely important year in Irish history [the 1913 Strike and Lockout], and it was a major television success at home and abroad.
"I've read the book," Gleeson says, "but I'm kind of annoyed with myself that I never saw the drama series. I really should rectify that because, from what I've heard about it, the vast scope of Rebellion has much in common with it."
Besides Domhnall, Brian has two other brothers - Fergus and Ruairi - and both have eschewed a career in acting. He politely says he doesn't want to talk about what they're doing because it would be an invasion of their privacy. He also brings the shutters down when asked if there is a significant other in his life. "That's one of those personal things that I don't want to talk about and I think that's fair enough, don't you?"
'Rebellion' starts on RTÉ One tomorrow at 9.30pm
Photographs by Mark Nixon