Sunday 25 March 2018

Growing to love romantic hero Gleeson

Although not convinced of his future as a sex symbol, Brendan Gleeson loves to work with women

Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson in Hampstead
Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson in Hampstead

Aine O'Connor

Whilst waiting to meet him, there is a mini consensus that what the rather endearing film Hampstead highlights more than anything is that Brendan Gleeson has been sorely underused as a romantic lead. This popular interviewee is clever, well-informed, good fun, dapper and has tremendous presence, so why have these qualities not been more exploited? There's also the fact that in a newspaper Q&A - along with nuggets about how his screensaver is his dog, he'd like Marion Cotillard to play him in the film of his life and his guiltiest pleasure is fridge foraging before bed - he also reveals that his favourite way to relax is to have sex. So it's a no-brainer; Gleeson the saucepot, needs to be more celebrated.

The man himself greets the suggestion with what can only be described as a guffaw. "That's the way to go, mess up that career now," he laughs. "But it is nice to be doing it in an unapologetic way. It is supposed to be a love story and that's what it is."

The film is about an American widow (Diane Keaton, who he describes as "fantastic, so alive it's ridiculous") living in the eponymous leafy London suburb who, following her husband's death, finds out all sorts of unsavoury secrets, not least that she doesn't really like her friends. She befriends Donald (Gleeson), a man who has lived self-sufficiently on Hampstead Heath for 17 years and who is not beloved of the leafy neighbours.

Brendan feels that, although he hasn't done much in the way of romantic leads (he argues that The General does qualify, "Why not? He had two of them on the go there"), the dynamic between men and women has featured increasingly in his work. He cites Into The Storm, the HBO series for which he won awards as Churchill, saying: "That was very much about himself and Clemmie. That was really about an old marriage and that relationship." It's something he knows a lot about, since his own marriage to Mary has lasted since 1982, through four sons and her full support of his well-documented career change at 34 from teacher to full-time actor.

"I love working with women who are spectacularly good at what they do, like Diane, Emma Thompson (with whom he made last year's Alone in Berlin), people like that because there is a different sensibility that is just intriguing and really welcome. A lot of the time if you're jumping up and down on horses with swords and shooting fellas, it isn't the same as having intelligence at work, where it is actually built into a proper character and where it isn't just a foil. It sounds as if I'm jumping on the [bandwagon] thing but I do feel that in my career there hasn't been enough of that."

Close character work with women opens a whole different view, he says: "It's the different instinct, I think, which is probably really thrilling. So sometimes what I would think is going to be charming, the actress could well think is ludicrous.

"Now that the women directors are coming through and the playing pitch is being levelled, or whatever the term is, I just hope it doesn't all become navel-gazing with regard to the womanhood of women. There's such richness in what women bring, that it doesn't need to be navel-gazing. Fair enough, obviously there has been so much where women haven't been credited over the years and it is important to mark that, but also creatively we don't want to spend the next 10 or 15 years making up for all the s*** that wasn't shot, instead of shooting new stuff coming from this other way of looking at things. It's thrilling if we are going to get the world viewed in a completely different way."

The belief he expresses is that so much needs to change, that it goes beyond just gender politics; "There has to be a different way of inhabiting the earth than the way we are doing at the moment and I feel it is handing over to young people as part of the deal. It's a humanist thing, we're all in the same fight, people holding on to power [against] everybody else. There is a kickback, there has to be because there is too much of a gap now, it is just getting really silly." He talks about Brexit, adding: "I think it is not a good idea, even though I'm glad about the EU getting a bit of a kick in the a*** because they had become over exclusive and bubble-ised over there." He cites the quotas that have crippled the Irish fishing industry - he narrated Risteard O'Domhnaill's excellent documentary Atlantic - and says "Ray Burke gives away the oil for nothing and then it keeps going on and on and on and something has to give." He feels strongly about housing, adding: "The notion that where people live is a way of making money to me is fundamentally corrupt, it's corrupt. We've been cowed into a place and it's great to see [young people's resistance] emerging."

His character in Hampstead is based on Harry Hallowes, an Irishman who lived on Hampstead Heath on his own terms: "I went down to meet him but he didn't want to talk to me. I just wrote him a note once he was aware that this was happening and asked if he had any objections to it. When I went down to see him, he was unwell, and then he passed away but I got enough to know that he didn't mind us making the film, but he didn't want to have anything to do with it really."

For the movie interpretation, Brendan says: "I didn't want him to be completely inured to the loss of society. He thought himself he was happy in his own skin but the isolation is not necessarily the healthiest of places either. And that's why I think the story is really interesting; it's a kind of an allegory in lots of ways for the straightforward idea that if you isolate yourself away, slowly your world becomes smaller and smaller.

"To be loved is a risk and people feel it isn't worth it. They get stung a couple of times then they know for a fact it isn't worth it, but the isolation is nowhere either, not really. Love is an excitement about maintaining a curiosity.

"As long as you can maintain curiosity, as long as your eyes are alive and interested, then you can put up with the aches and pains. Then being surprised at the beauty you can find in others and continue to have faith in that maybe."

See? Total romantic hero material.

'Hampstead' opens nationwide, June 23, Cert 12A

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