Sunday 18 August 2019

A master at work: Brendan Gleeson's voyage

Prolific actor Gleeson talks to Paul Whitington about 'Paddington 2' and working with his sons

Family affair: Brendan Gleeson's sons have followed in his acting footsteps. Photo: Earl Gibson III/Getty
Family affair: Brendan Gleeson's sons have followed in his acting footsteps. Photo: Earl Gibson III/Getty

Brendan Gleeson has been working so long and so successfully as a top-flight film actor that it's easy to miss his excellence, and take him for granted. He makes things look so natural that you almost forget he's acting: his facility and range are obscured somewhat by his unforgettable screen presence, and face. He turned 62 last spring, but seems to be busier than ever, and is enjoying a real purple patch.

Over the last 12 months or so, he's given storming performances as domineering dads in the English indie drama Trespass Against Us and Ben Affleck's Live By Night, stolen the show playing a homeless man opposite Diane Keaton in Hampstead, and fronted up an acclaimed TV series created by Stephen King. And then there's his hilarious turn in what promises to be the feel-good family film of the year.

In Paddington 2, Brendan plays the wonderfully-named Knuckles McGinty, a fearsome prison cook whose hardened heart is melted by the wrongly incarcerated Paddington. His performance is big, deliberately cartoonish, and giving it, he tells me, involved "a leap of faith".

"When I took the job I looked at the first one, because I hadn't seen it, and I could immediately see it was very good. And Paul King [the director and co-writer] is a very safe pair of hands, he's very meticulous in the way that he crafts the comic moments. So with someone like that you feel like you have a safety net, and if you get an opportunity like this to go over the top you've got to go there."

Most of his scenes are one on one with Paddington, a Cgi bear who wasn't always there. "It's not something I mind too much," he says, "it is really about getting your sight lines right so you're not just staring vacantly at something off in the distance, so it's about focus. There are more takes than normal because you have to go through a certain procedure, and trying to maintain the mayhem and the spontaneity of it is probably the biggest challenge. But I think the actual bear itself is just amazing. Ben Whishaw is great with the voice - he inhabits a real space, that bear."

Brendan's co-star, Hugh Grant, has been garnering much praise for his supremely fruity turn as the film's villain, a condescending has-been actor. "When you're going for it in a film, you really hope you're not the only one, so it was really a relief to see Hugh getting so far out there.

"I came into the trailer one day, and Hugh had come in and got ready for his number at the end, and he was in that suit, and all painted up and so on, and it was my first time meeting him, and I just laughed for about 30 seconds solid, I just said 'that's brilliant'.

WATCH: Brendan Gleeson talks Paddington 2, Mr Mercedes, the Coens and watching himself on the big screen

"And it was great to see him really going for it, but you do have to push yourself into that place, like he was giving me a typical Hugh Grant look, as in 'mortified, is this a good idea' type of thing. It really is like jumping off a cliff."

Brendan Gleeson has jumped off a fair few cliffs in his time, and perhaps the biggest was his decision to become a full-time actor in the first place. Born in Dublin in 1955, he worked as a secondary schoolteacher for more than a decade before deciding to commit to acting at the age of almost 35. He initially made his name on the stage, thanks to his involvement with Paul Mercier and his experimental theatre group, Passion Machine.

"But when I went full-time with four young kids, I knew that I wouldn't be able to make a living just working in Andrew's Lane," he tells me. He began edging into film work, playing Michael Collins in the 1991 film The Treaty, and catching the eye opposite Gabriel Byrne in Mike Newell's Into the West. Then came a career-making performance in Mel Gibson's 1995 smash Braveheart, an important film for Brendan, because "it allowed me to get an American agent".

The more movies he did, the more gripped he was by the process of making them. "I became really interested in the intimacy of film, and the technical challenges of it from an actor's point of view. I figured out that my own face, left to its own devices, is naturally doing too much, but on the other hand if you're going around wooden it's really dull, you're staying safe, but what's safe? You can tell the story, but if you want people to really invest in it you've got to take risks, so there's that whole balancing act."

Paddington 2 movie review: Paddington enchants in this thoroughly winning family comedy

His CV is littered with big, dense, detailed performances, in films like Michael Collins, The General, Lake Placid, I Went Down, Gangs of New York, Cold Mountain, In Bruges, The Guard and Calvary. And this year TV audiences got a rare chance to see him inhabit a complex character over an entire 10-part drama series.

Created by David E Kelley and based on a novel by Stephen King, Mr Mercedes stars Gleason as Bill Hodges, a retired police detective who's haunted by a mass killing case he never managed to solve. He's superb in the chilling drama, which has been renewed for a second season.

"I hadn't done any television for quite a while," he tells me, "and I was a little suspicious of it, to be honest. I've done pilots now and then, but you never know what's going to happen with them, and you always wonder will they be able to sustain the quality over an entire run.

"But the good thing about Mr Mercedes is that David Kelley assured us that he would be there, and you know he's a brilliant showrunner and writer, and I've wanted to work with him again since Lake Placid. So once I knew he'd be around, I was fine. It is a luxury to spend that much time developing a character, but it's also quite a dark place to be in, I mean, it's a very dark series. But I really enjoyed the process of it."

During the year he also fulfilled a lifelong ambition by working with the Coen brothers. "I did about three or four days shooting with them in Santa Fe, I'm not sure what they're going to call it, it's five or six stories hooched together, it's kind of a Netflix set up I think. So I was delighted to finally work with them, but yeah, I was beaten to it by Domhnall."

Domhnall, the elder of his two acting sons, endured a memorable death in the Coens' 2010 remake of True Grit before rising to fame in everything from The Revenant and Ex Machina to the Star Wars films. Brian Gleeson has also been making a name for himself, most recently in Steven Soderbergh's Logan Lucky.

Brendan has just collaborated with Brian, Domhnall and his other sons Rory and Fergus on a short film. "It was my first time directing," he says, "and part of the reason for doing it was to see if I'd have a panic attack, and hate it. But I actually enjoyed it. Rory wrote it, and Fergus is doing the music, so it's been really interesting working with them all. I was possibly a little over-controlling!"

Did he worry at all when it became obvious that Domhnall and Brian were going to follow him into acting?

"Well, I thought Domhnall was going to be on the other side of the camera, and so did he, so when the other thing happened I said 'well, OK, let's see where this goes', so that was an eye-opener as it was happening, I wasn't expecting it and he wasn't really expecting it. We always thought Brian would, and the only thing I was anxious about with them both was if the toll was too great, because you have to be able to deal with the toll that it takes on your morale and everything else.

"You have to persist through a lot, and all you can do to keep yourself going is the self-perpetuating stuff, make your own work, keep working, and you will get better."


French Film Festival

IFI, November 15-26

The IFI French Film Festival gets under way this Wednesday with a screening of Clare Deins' Let the Sunshine In. Highlights over the coming week-and-a-half include Robin Campillo's 120 BPM, which won the Grand Prix earlier this year at Cannes, Agnes Varda's winningly eccentric arthouse documentary Faces, Places, and veteran director Philippe Garrel's moving drama Lover for a Day.

I'm really looking forward to seeing Michel Hazanavicius's affectionately irreverent Jean-Luc Godard biopic Redoubtable, and can warmly recommend Michael Haneke's typically bleak comic drama Happy End, which features stunning performances from Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant.

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