Friday 21 June 2019

How Brendan Gleeson proved the critics wrong

A Hollywood agent once said he was 'Too fat, too old and not good-looking enough'...

Brendan as Mad Eye Moody in the 'Harry Potter' films.
Brendan as Mad Eye Moody in the 'Harry Potter' films.

Stephen Milton

A well-known actor will always cling to at least one of these three ludicrous claims during an interview: they never think of winning an Oscar; their implausibly youthful appearance is down to good diet and positive thoughts.

And then comes my personal favourite: they never, ever Google themselves.

Brendan in 'The Guard' which earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
Brendan in 'The Guard' which earned him a Golden Globe nomination.


In an industry built upon egocentrism, this one can't help but raise a guffaw or two.

So when Brendan Gleeson coolly maintains an abstinence from perusing the internet for mentions of his own name, I naturally struggle to believe him. But listing off the brilliantly preposterous stories circulating online about the Dubliner, judging by his reaction, he's speaking the truth.

"C'mon," he eggs, "hit me with them."

According to some very dubious online reports, he was once in consideration for James Bond.

"For God's sake," he splutters, much of his response muffled by bellowing laughter.

Between June 2012 and June 2013, he earned in excess of €35m.

"Right," with a deadpan response, "that's another laugh there. Go on, give me more. I'm enjoying these."

Just recently, he managed to hoodwink us all by secretly tying the knot with a new love after splitting from mother of his four sons and wife of 31 years, Mary.

"Well, I can't wait to meet her," Brendan cries, clearly enjoying this expose. "Who is she, eh? When was that meant to have been written? 1984?"

It's a clear indicator that Gleeson's decision to quit secondary education for Hollywood at the mature age of 34 was bang on the money.

The internet doesn't make up bogus rumours about just anyone, y'know.

A patron saint for late starters, the 58-year-old is arguably our busiest big-screen export, exercising an extraordinary versatility in a hectic near quarter-century career.

Noted highs include 'Braveheart', '28 Days Later' and immortality as Mad Eye Moody in the 'Harry Potter' films.

There was an astounding portrayal of Churchill for HBO's 'Into the Storm' and he's worked with directorial heavyweights – Scorsese in 'Gangs of New York' and Spielberg on 'AI: Artificial Intelligence'.

"I remember with Steven Spielberg, I was in his office right before he started on 'AI' and he says to me, 'I'm thinking about offering you this one'. And I reply, 'Well, I suppose I might accept it then'," Gleeson recalls.

Following a Best Actor nomination at the Golden Globes – his third nod – in 2012 for 'The Guard', the past 18 months have been a hectic affair.

He shot medical thriller 'Eliza Graves' with Michael Caine in Bulgaria, shortly after 'Calvary', John Michael McDonagh's examination of the Catholic Church. And before both, he voiced an over-zealous duck in this weekend's big release, 'The Smurfs 2'.

It's a diversity experienced only by Hollywood's truly established artistes, but Gleeson's yet to enjoy a professional complacency.

"You never relax," the actor replies, chatting to 'Weekend' from his home outside Malahide. "You always feel like you're never going to work again.

"I took off last month, which was the first time in 25 years I'd scheduled any downtime for myself since I was teaching, simply because I worked so hard last year.

"I still ended up working, something always crops up. But I love what I do. It's not a hardship to work hard."

Growing up in Artane, young Gleeson discovered a flair for the dramatic while attending St Joseph's CBS in Fairview. He went on to graduate from UCD, where he met his future wife, Mary Weldon, and started as an English, Irish and PE teacher at Raheny's Belcamp College.

Heavily involved in the school's drama department, the lanky twentysomething with an unmistakable thatch of red hair channelled his spare hours into local theatre group, Passion Machine.

It took 10 years for the courage to build to make that fateful decision.

"There's this perception that one day I walked out of the classroom and hopped on a flight to LA," Gleeson tells me, chuckling at the notion, "which is a nice story, I'll admit."

Along with founder Paul Mercier and little-known scribe Roddy Doyle, Gleeson honed his theatrical prowess with Passion Machine, initially staging productions at the SFX City Theatre before graduating to runs at the Olympia.

"It was at a semi-professional level. We'd pack out the Olympia for 10 weeks on the trot. So I didn't exactly start from scratch," he explains. "But I didn't have enough hours in the day. I had school, I was acting, I was writing. Something had to give."

With four young sons, Domhnall, Fergus, Brian and Ruairi, aged between six and six months, making the transition to professional actor was primed with impracticalities.

"It wasn't just me by myself," he says, "I had the family to consider and I was more rattled than my wife, but she supported me. Her thinking was, 'I can't look at you like this, doing your head in'."

Gleeson had the right attitude from the beginning. "I never wanted to be the couch potato waiting for the phone to ring," he says. "I got fierce in terms of making work, making things happen."

Early stints in the Abbey and Gate led to a small role in Jim Sheridan's imagining of 'The Field'. The breakthrough came shortly after with 'The Treaty', RTE and BBC's joint small-screen vision of Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Using his commanding 6ft 2in stature, there was an uncanny likeness to the Big Fella and Gleeson received a universal round of critical approval.

On the initial success, supporting work in 'The Snapper' and 'The Butcher Boy' led to the big leagues with 'Mission Impossible 2', 'Lake Placid' and 'Cold Mountain'.

However, after a stealing turn as Hamish, Mel Gibson's close confidante in 'Braveheart', he received some unwelcome advice from a Hollywood agent who rather classily stated that Gleeson would never be a star because he was, 'too fat, too old and not good-looking enough'.

"He more or less told me I didn't have a future," the two-time IFTA winner snorts. "Everyone has their opinion, I suppose."

In 'The Smurfs 2', he plays Victor, eternally optimistic stepfather to surly lead Neil Patrick Harris, who once again is recruited by the little CGI'd blue folk as they rally to rescue Smurfette – voiced by an audibly unrecognisable Katy Perry – from the clutches of dastardly buck-toothed wizard Gargamel (an amusing turn from Hank Azaria).

So far, so safe for Gleeson's character. Until he winds up turned into a duck.

"I get to play a talking duck – that's just one script you simply can't let go," Gleeson dryly remarks. "He's a big gobaloon with a good heart. The unwelcome stepfather, he's a good character to jump at.

"And working with the effects and getting into that mindset of being opposite the Smurfs when nothing was there was a nice challenge. And it was great acting with little Jacob [Tremblay, who plays young Blue].

"I don't have grandkids and I haven't had ones that young for a long time, so it was nice to get into that space again."

While he's previously revealed his sons' delight over their father's portrayal of Potter's Mad Eye Moody, was there equal excitement for his Smurf involvement?

"They were never really in our house, we didn't make that connection," says Gleeson. "They went mad when they heard there was an opportunity to do [Potter].

"To be honest, 'The Smurfs' didn't really hit my radar. I know one of my sons' girlfriends was a big fan; they played a massive part of her childhood. I think she was traumatised by Gargamel himself.

"It's great when you meet real Smurf fans. Their eyes light up when you tell them."

Must be nice to appear in a film that the future grandchildren can ultimately enjoy?

"There's a possibility at some stage that they might come, but it's such a magical thing to work on something like this," he says. "There's such an easy threshold between reality and the imagination for kids.

"I always remember bringing Brian to a film I was in when he was maybe three. And he was looking at the screen, and then looking at me, and back and forth, and said, 'but Dad, you're up there. How come you're here beside me?'"

While all four Gleeson boys have toyed with acting, Fergus (28) ultimately pursued music while youngest Ruairi (24) went after a career in psychology.

It was eldest Domhnall (30) and Brian (26) who were bitten by the bug and, with rising careers of their own, surely papa is proud?

"Initially it looked like Domhnall was heading for the other side of the camera, while Brian was always sort of a natural actor. I couldn't ever imagine him doing anything else," says Gleeson.

"The other lads, that's not where they went and it didn't matter to me either way. I didn't want a legacy or any of that carry-on."

After starring in 'True Grit' and Joe Wright's 'Anna Karenina', Domhnall will soon earn his leading-man stripes in romcom 'About Time', the latest from 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' stable Working Title.

Brian, meanwhile, is sneaking round the inside lane with last year's 'Snow White and the Huntsman' and new comedy, 'Life's A Breeze', which faces off against his father's 'Smurfs 2' at the multiplexes this weekend.

"I'm inspired by my sons' work now – how wonderful a position is that to be in? I'm mad to see what they do next," says Gleeson. "I'm at the stage where I'm learning stuff off them and that's pretty brilliant."

And jealous, it would seem.

"Well, I've always wanted to do a Coen film and Domhnall's already done it [with 'True Grit']. I was quite envious of that."

This being his game for the past 25 years, surely a little advice was doled?

"Sometimes parental advice gets in the way and horsing all this advice can be counterproductive. I was there as a resource more than anything," he says.

Facing a challenging year ahead, production has already started on 'An Ordinary Man', based on a fictitious war criminal in hiding who forms a relationship with his maid, played by Abbie Cornish.

After that, it's an intense shoot in Lanzarote for Ron Howard's 'Into The Heart of The Sea', recounting the true events that inspired Melville's 'Moby Dick'.

There's also the ever presence of his much-delayed directorial enterprise of Flann O'Brien's 'At Swim-Two-Birds'. Despite a cast of our starriest A-list, from Farrell to Fassbender, the project has languished in development purgatory and it seems the unfilmable classic has remained true to its reputation.

"We were very close last year. I thought it was going to happen but a couple of glitches got in the way," says Gleeson. "My metaphor for that project now is, 'I'm not shaking the tree anymore. I'm waiting for the apple to fall'."

He pauses before adding: "I'm ready to jump, put it that way."

Gleeson has carved out a career that is continuously evolving, diversifying and always charting new territory. As he inches closer to his 60th, does he want to keep progressing at this juggernaut velocity, or ease it back a little?

"Because I started so late and I understand what it is to be privileged enough to do something that you love so much, I want to keep going and build and grow and see where it takes me," he says.

"I'd like to be continually aware of the opportunities around me and follow my own advice by making new steps, new connections. Being aware is very important."

So will this include an awareness of his ever-growing presence on Google and the entertaining stories at the click of a mouse?

"After the tall tales you told me earlier, I don't think that'll be happening," he laughs. "I think ignorance is bliss in that regard."

'The Smurfs 2' is in cinemas this weekend

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top