Wednesday 29 January 2020

Domhnall Gleeson and the long road to Hollywood: I didn't handle my first day on Harry Potter very well'

Domhnall Gleeson talks to our film critic about fame, family - and how to avoid being star-struck while working opposite Tom Cruise

A chastening experience: Domhnall Gleeson felt he would drift into directing, not acting
A chastening experience: Domhnall Gleeson felt he would drift into directing, not acting
Blockbuster: Gleeson and Cruise in American Made
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

The last time I interviewed Domhnall Gleeson he was promoting a low-budget Irish film called Sensation, in which he played a bored young countryman who becomes an amateur pimp. Six years later, rather a lot has changed. In 2013, Richard Curtis cast him in his charming romantic comedy, About Time; a year later, he shone opposite Michael Fassbender in Lenny Abrahamson's Frank. Then, his film career quite literally took off.

Unbroken, Ex Machina, Brooklyn, The Revenant, two Star Wars films - Domhnall's recent CV is breathtaking, and overnight he's become one of the most sought-after character actors in Hollywood. Now he's starring opposite Tom Cruise.

Directed by Doug Liman, American Made is set in the 1980s and tells the true story of Barry Seal, a devil-may-care airline pilot who began smuggling cocaine into the US for the Medellin cartel while acting as a mole for the CIA. Cruise is Seal, whose flashing smile makes you wonder if he ever fully realises the mortal danger his life choices have placed him in, and Gleeson is Monty Schafer, his sphinx-like CIA handler.

In the film's version of events, it's Schafer who persuades Seal to leave a steady job in TWA and begin skimming the skies of Central America taking surveillance photos of the Sandinistas and anyone else Ronald Reagan's White House considers undesirable. Soon he's running guns to the Contras, and flying drugs back into America for a Colombian cartel led by Jorge Ochoa and Pablo Escobar, all under the watchful eye of his CIA handler, who always seems a step ahead of poor Barry.

Blockbuster: Gleeson and Cruise in American Made
Blockbuster: Gleeson and Cruise in American Made

Gleeson (34) plays Schafer as an affable everyman who makes everything sound like a harmless jape: for him, no problem is too big to solve, but his eyes don't smile and Barry Seal realises too late that this will-o'-the-wisp agent is not his friend. Domhnall was three years old in the year the film is set, so getting inside the character's mind required a lot of research.

"I read a lot about the Reagan administration, the war against drugs, Iran-Contra and Ollie North," he tells me. "But I found this one book that was very helpful - I had to photocopy it in a [US book retailer] Barnes & Noble because it was out of print. It was written by this guy who'd been in the CIA, and it was really useful because he just had this total America-rules-the-world attitude, and that any country challenging America's might should be prepared to deal with the consequences.

"Originally, the character I was playing was more just a guy who spewed out lines that drove the action, 'you need to go here, you need to go there', but we were talking about ways of making him more interesting, and then I remembered the CIA guy in the book. And we thought, what if the most important thing to Schafer is not how is America doing abroad or what's the deal in Nicaragua, but that I need to move from a cubicle to my own office? If that is more important to him than all the geopolitical stuff, suddenly he's an interesting character."

All this background work feeds into an intriguing and detailed portrayal of a character a lesser actor might have phoned in. "I think it's just the way you present him as well," says Gleeson. "You know, isn't this great, we're having fun here, but underneath, he doesn't care about anything."

Other actors who've worked with Tom Cruise have talked about having these 'Cruise' moments where they suddenly realise who they're in a scene with, and become hopelessly overawed. "He very generously helps you through the first 20 seconds," Domhnall explains. "I think he understands that when you're meeting him you're meeting 'Tom Cruise' and it's going to take a second to understand that you're talking to a man whose name is Tom, who is an actor you'll be working with. And he bridges those 20 seconds very well.

"There are moments - if you see him running, you go, oh my God, that's Tom Cruise running; the moment he puts on aviators, you think, oh my God, that's Tom Cruise in aviators. There are those little things, but he was really generous to me, incredibly nice. He's really good in it I think, and in this film he and Doug [Liman] spark off each other in very interesting ways - they both like pushing it and making themselves uncomfortable, and that made for a better film."

American Made marks the start of a hectic 12 months or so for Domhnall Gleeson. Later this year, he'll play AA Milne opposite Margot Robbie in Simon Curtis's eagerly-awaited period drama Goodbye Christopher Robin, and one of the founders of National Lampoon in David Wain's A Futile and Stupid Gesture: he's currently working with Lenny Abrahamson on his next film, The Little Stranger; then there's the small matter of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Not bad for a man who thought twice about following his father, Brendan, and younger brother, Brian, into the family business. "I did enjoy acting at school," he says. "Miss Keogh at the Malahide Community School put on Grease when we were in fourth year, and I signed up for that. We did King Lear in fifth year - I played The Fool! So it was something I liked, but I never really considered it something I might do for a living.

"I wasn't particularly good at it, whereas Brian was clearly - I won't say built for it, because that would imply that acting comes easy to him, and he works very hard - but he's just excellent, it was evident. So Brian, it felt like, was going to be the actor, and I thought that directing might be my thing. Then things changed."

At 19, Domhnall was cast in a West End production of Martin McDonagh's Lieutenant of Inishmore. He worked on it for five months, then came back to Ireland and "didn't get any work at all". It was a chastening experience, and one he hasn't forgotten.

"You move with what's happening," he says, "but I never forget that it's possible for everything to go away really quickly. It doesn't necessarily affect the way you act, but it's good to just, every now and again, say hang on a second, enjoy this. I'm working with Lenny [Abrahamson] at the moment, which is fantastic, and you think 'I may never get to work with him again'."

If Frank, his last outing with Abrahamson, is anything to go by, The Little Stranger should be worth waiting for. The whole world is waiting for The Last Jedi, in which Domhnall will reprise the role of tight-lipped imperial commander General Hux. The scale of the Star Wars films is, he says, daunting, but his experiences on Harry Potter prepared him for these epic productions well.

"I didn't grow up really seeing Star Wars, I didn't see them in the cinema so I kind of missed all that. I was more of a Harry Potter fan, but on my first day on set on Deathly Hallows, I had a horrible day, just a terrible day. There were 300 people on the set, it was absolutely nuts, I went Australian on the accent instead of English, I kind of panicked, you know, I met these amazing people whose work I had watched and loved for years, and the pressure got to me.

"I didn't handle it well, the first day, but after that I got better, and I learnt that I'm going to be under similar pressure in the future but I'm not going to let it get to me."

There are ways, he says, of closing yourself off from the madness around you on a big-budget film. "You concentrate on what you're doing, you block it all out as much as possible and you focus on the other actors. That's much more difficult to do than it sounds, because you can get het up, but if you actually look at Adam Driver and what he's doing, he is brilliant, so let that be the focus and let that bring it out of you."

One of the most interesting films he's worked on recently is Ex Machina, Alex Garland's brilliant sci-fi thriller. Gleeson was a young programmer who thinks his big chance has come when he wins a contest and is flown to the remote subterranean home of his company's reclusive inventor boss.

But he turns out to be a maniac with a god complex who's been experimenting with android women who seem frighteningly real. "I was incredibly lucky on that," Gleeson says, "in that Alex sent me the script early. I'd worked with him before, on Dredd and Never Let Me Go, and he was very honest with me - he said 'I'd like you to play this part but I'm not sure how the finance will go if we cast you'. So he said we'd have to convince the producers, so I did an audition. Everyone was at the top of their game on that film, and Alex is a master - I'd love to work with him again."

Though Domhnall's work takes him around the world, he's still based in Ireland. "My friends, my family, most of the people I want to be around are in Dublin," he says, "so that's home." I ask him something I've always wondered - is there a protocol in the Gleeson family about actors talking shop?

"My siblings who are not actors, Rory and Fergus, are very film-literate, and my mother is the same, so we have great conversations about movies. But when me and Dad and Brian were doing Enda Walsh's play The Walworth Farce a couple of years back, my mother basically said 'you are not talking about this at the dinner table, that's not how we're going to spend our Sundays'. And she was right. I think we're all going to work together again soon, and we'll just have to make sure that doesn't spill over into the Sunday dinners."

In 2014, he shared an extraordinary scene with his father in John Michael McDonagh's controversial drama Calvary. Brendan Gleeson played an Irish country priest who is struggling with his vocation and faith. Domhnall was Freddie Joyce, a monster who killed a string of women before eating bits of them. Freddie's in jail, and has attracted Father James into a visit by claiming he seeks redemption and is prepared to reveal the whereabouts of one of his victim's body.

But he just wants to taunt the priest, and sneer at his fragile faith. "I'm terribly proud of the fact that I'm in that film," Domhnall says, "and that was a real battle with my dad, a proper battle.

"You've got to step up to stand with him. It was a lot of work for a very short scene, because he was such a hard character to get inside, but it was worth it." Was it hard to block out the fact that you're talking to your dad?

"Well, psychologically there was so much you had to park playing that guy anyway, you're already moving into an area which is so different from your understanding of the world to consider what it must be like to be this person, that you're kind of beyond all that stuff. But I loved it - any time I get to work with my dad is special.

"We're going to do a short soon, with Brian, and that will be taken every bit as seriously as working on The Revenant, or Star Wars."

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