Thursday 14 December 2017

Brendan Gleeson is busy doing a job he still loves

Brendan Gleeson kicks off another year in his spectacular career by playing Ben Affleck's dad in a new gangster film

Brendan Gleeson as Thomas Coughlin in ‘Live By Night’
Brendan Gleeson as Thomas Coughlin in ‘Live By Night’
Ben Affleck, the writer,director and star of 'Live by Night'

Aine O'Connor

Press screenings for reviewers usually take place before cinemas open to the public. The regular attendance is a motley but small and familiar crew so the impressive presence in the hat, loitering in the foyer, drew my attention.

Hat and unobtrusive loitering notwithstanding the presence was recognisably the reason the motley crew had come for a screening of Ben Affleck's Live By Night. It was Brendan Gleeson, Affleck's dad for the morning, with his wife Mary.

Having registered and recognised you can't help but gawp.

"I'm not here," he says.

Ben Affleck, the writer,director and star of 'Live by Night'
Ben Affleck, the writer,director and star of 'Live by Night'

Oh, OK.

Clattering down the stairs into the screening I am plagued by existential doubts about whether that means his wife isn't there either.

The next day, mercifully, he is definitely in the Merrion Hotel to discuss the film, his own first viewing of which was the day before despite not having been there. He is in great form and his laugh precedes him down the corridor.

The film, which Affleck writes, directs and stars in, is an adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel and it's really enjoyable. Brendan plays Thomas Coughlin, Irish police chief in Boston in the 1930s, whose son Joe (Affleck) works on the other side of the law.

"I was really happy with it, really happy because it was a brave one to make because gangster movies have their own little place where they sit in people's heads," he says. "You have to be respectful of the genre but not be a slave to it. At the same time try to put a degree of naturalism into what's a very stylised genre to allow people to believe in these people."

His role, like indeed most of those in the film, is relatively short but strong.

"A lot of people make the big mistake of neglecting the smaller roles, you never see that with the great filmmakers like the Coen brothers or the Scorsese stuff. Look at all the different characters you have populating those things, they might only be in it for five seconds but they're complex and compromised, it's great!"

He is also full of praise for Affleck as a director. "He was very disciplined and very prepared, he knew what he wanted from the scene."

One of the first big films of Gleeson's career was with a star who was also directing, Mel Gibson in Braveheart. "And I think that worked pretty well," he says, but, despite having directed some plays and the lingering presence of a possible film of At Swim-Two-Birds, something to which many starry names have been attached over time, he has no particular desire to direct cinema.

"I would only direct if I felt that somebody else couldn't do what I wanted to do but that hasn't happened so far and I've no need to knock it off my CV just to say I did it."

He is still very much in love with acting: "I actually love what I do and I have enough challenges with that." The normally eloquent man gets a little tongue-tied trying to put words on quite why and how much he likes what he does. He doesn't get nervous before a film shoot, but he does feel that he is still learning.

"It depends on what I'm doing, how far I have to stretch out of the comfort zone in a way. I've become more explorative and thoughtful in terms of the way I'm looking at things, trying not to take the easy options necessarily but trying not to second guess the obvious for its own sake, trying to find subtle ways of doing things."

He cackles at the memory of being so caught up in the emotion of a scene in Calvary that he wanted to box Aidan Gillen. "But you've got to be careful with too much immersion either. I find sometimes you can become a little self-indulgent if you over-immerse and you forget that it's actually not your therapy, it's the audience's therapy.

"So people get into a thing where they're exuding and emoting all over the place but it's not serving the story properly and it's not serving the emotional journey [of the story/character] properly."

Some actors don't watch their own work but Brendan does, and has done since the beginning: "I had to because I started so late."

Time has made him kinder to his early acting self. "Sometimes I can be a bit more forgiving of stuff that I would have been mortified by years ago. I think 'Ah, it wasn't that bad' and it has its own energy, but it's funny. I also think 'Oh God, that's upsetting', because you start looking like the lads!"

Those lads are his acting sons Domhnall and Brian, both now with growing careers of their own. His other sons, Fergus and Ruairi chose non-thespian paths.

Although sometimes considered the patron saint of late starters, has time also changed his perception of that? "Thirty four is late to be starting from scratch. It's not so bad now because people are going to college through their 20s - but I had four kids and stuff so I was well into a whole life before starting another."

He grew up in Artane and went from St Joseph's CBS in Fairview to UCD where he met his future wife, Mary Weldon. He taught English, Irish and PE in Raheny and in the evenings kept up the interest in drama he had developed in secondary school.

Passion Machine was a semi-professional drama company where he worked alongside the likes of Paul Mercier and Roddy Doyle. Something had to give and although their four boys were aged between six and six months, it was his wife who encouraged Brendan to make the leap to professional acting. He went at it bull-headed, it was considered a great risk at the time:

"The notion that you can do lots of things in a life is a modern phenomenon. I was at the tail end of when people got jobs for life. Like my father would have felt that was the thing to do, get whatever you're going to do for life. But 30 doesn't seem that old now..."

He was 61 in March and has never really stopped working.

"Yeah, I have been busy and the last few years have been a bit crowded. It starts getting a bit much at times but I'm not complaining, it's been great."

So much for the Hollywood agent who told him that he had no real future because he was "too fat, too old and not good looking enough".

Brendan's body of work speaks for itself and he gets called for roles, not for auditions. He laughs at the suggestion that Ben Affleck might have long wanted to be his son.

"I don't know about that, all I know is if I had to audition I didn't hear about it. Sometimes it happens that they go to somebody else, they can't do it, or they don't want to, and then they come to you but you don't hear about the other guy, you hear that they were mad keen to get you from the beginning. But I don't really care. I just love what I do."

'Live By Night' opens on January 13.

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