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Keeping it in the family: rise of the Gleeson acting clan


Family affair: Brian, Brendan and Domhnall Gleeson

Family affair: Brian, Brendan and Domhnall Gleeson

Screen presence: Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson in Alone in Berlin.

Screen presence: Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson in Alone in Berlin.


Family affair: Brian, Brendan and Domhnall Gleeson

The Gleesons haven't quite taken over the movie industry yet but it certainly feels that way sometimes.

With father Brendan a revered elder statesman of Irish stage and screen, and sons Domhnall and Brian overachieving to one degree or another, the trio have emerged from the unlikely backdrop of suburban Malahide to become the first family of Irish acting.

To the casual cinemagoer it may, in particular, seem as if eldest scion Domhnall (32) has appeared in every film of note over the past year.

He cheerfully chewed the scenery as a space Nazi in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, was charmingly understated in Brooklyn and very nearly outshone a huffing, overwrought Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant (Leo had his revenge by mangling Domhnall's first name at a recent awards event).

Brendan (60), meanwhile, has just popped up in what promises to be one of the spring's major quality dramas, Alone in Berlin,  a gripping tale of heartache and betrayal set in World War II Germany which this week premièred at Berlin Film ­Festival. He stars alongside ­Oscar-winner Emma Thompson and is generally judged to have delivered by far the more compelling performance.

Not quite as famous yet but still carving a steady reputation is Domhnall's 28-year-old brother Brian (remaining siblings Fergus and Rúairí have stayed away from acting). He was one of the best things about RTÉ's execrable 1916 fandango Rebellion (faint praise to be sure) and impressed in the BBC adaptation of Iain Banks' Stonemouth. His profile is set to rise further as he shares the screen with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in Assassin's Creed later this year.

How to explain the Gleesons' uncanny ubiquity? Without question, Irish actors have been respected internationally for some time now, with casting directors finding their combination of technical accomplishment and roguish exuberance irresistible.

Nonetheless, for one family to produce three performers of note is unprecedented. What's more, none of the trio are in any way carbon copies of the other. Brendan brings a Depardieu-esque physicality; Domhnall is a sly, wiry presence; Brian a more conventionally earnest leading man.

It's just guesswork but perhaps the secret of their success lies in their thoroughly ordinary background. Brendan was in his 30s and working as a teacher when he went into acting full time; both of his thespian sons have taken a similarly peripatetic route. Domhnall's big break, for instance, came as he was approached by an agent who saw him give a witty acceptance speech when collecting an award for his father. For all their accomplishments, they bring the unique perspective of outsiders.

 "People have the notion that, to do serious work, you have to go around with a serious face all the time," Brendan told me last year. "You find a lot of self reverential people in this business - with furrowed brow they insist you have to suffer for your art. Sometimes it's true, sometimes not." 

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His breakthrough was by no means preordained. Casting agents saw a big lumpy man walk through the door and wrote him off as a bouncer or bar-keep. So he had to strategise a way around their prejudices - learn to be light on his feet and flexible as a performer as he progressed from bit parts to major roles in Braveheart and The General. These are lessons that have stayed with him and which he has surely passed on to his acting children.

"They would go 'he's a big bruiser' - you'd be offered the bouncer part," Brendan told me. "It's so easy to be typecast; if you can, you should vary it. I've tried to push through all that. I love the variety of switching around. I've never tried to be exclusively one way or the other. There is a danger of being over serious about something that is supposed to be pure fun."

"Brendan has an extraordinary energy and presence on screen and stage. He makes it look easy and he has a generosity that is a million miles away from the ego actors who give this business a bad name," says Patrick Sutton, director of the Gaiety School of Acting. "Him and his boys are significant players." 

"Brendan is a deeply honest performer with a rich inner life," adds Kathleen Warner Yeates, director of Flying Turtle Productions, and head of acting and drama at the Abbey School of Music and Drama. "He studied acting, performed in theatre and drama clubs for a long time developing his craft, and then came into the full-time acting profession relatively late with plenty of life experience.

"I imagine that since he left a stable teaching career. . . he must have put a good strategic business hat on in order to focus on earning a 'grown-up' livelihood in the international market - which is near to impossible for actors working in the Irish industry alone. He also seems to be a really decent kind of person, and he brings that compassion and honest precision into the characters he portrays."

Brendan surely had to call on all his reservoirs of talent for Alone in Berlin, a slow, difficult character study in which he plays the husband in a bereaved German couple whose son is killed on the Western front. Adapted from the remarkable Hans Fallada novel and loosely based on a true story, it tells of the parents' campaign of vengeance against the Nazis through the distribution of anti-Hitler postcards and leaflets around Berlin - and the terrible price they must pay (the real life husband and wife were arrested and executed in 1942).

While Gleeson's performance has been universally praised, early reviews are nonetheless mixed. "Filmed with competence rather than actual verve," said the Guardian. "Alone in Berlin works - just about. There's enough of a thriller about it to hold the interest, even if it's a bit on the stodgy side."

The degree to which Gleeson's success impacted on his sons is hard to say. Would they have turned to acting anyway? It's pointless to speculate - though it is interesting to note that their dramatic styles are very different from their dad's slow, methodical approach.

"For me, Domhnall is an acting teacher as much as anything. If I turn out to be half the actor he is, I'll be happy," was how Brian described his relationship with his brother. "We discuss projects with each other. He's been in the game a long time so he's someone to look up to. It could take a while to get close to where he's at but I'm trying."

Domhnall for his part comes across genuinely astonished by his success while also appearing slightly concerned that his winning streak might eventually run dry.

"I feel like I do too much press sometimes," he told this writer when we sat down last year.  "I worry that people may get sick of seeing [me]."

There is, it seems safe to say, little chance of that happening.

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