'I resisted going into acting - you want to have your own identity' - Brian didn't set out to join the Gleeson family firm
The cagey but gritty star tells Donal Lynch about moving out of his dad’s shadow, sibling rivalry and his role in RTE’s epic new drama
Brian Gleeson was a little boy of about seven when he first became aware of what his father did. It was the mid-1990s and Braveheart was being cast. Brendan Gleeson, until then a respected but mainly local actor, was hoping to make the leap into the Hollywood stratosphere, but everything was dependent on a call from the film’s director and star, Mel Gibson.
“This was, of course, back in the days when there were only landlines really, so people did literally wait by a phone,” Brian recalls. “We had to leave the phone alone. We had to be quiet, and it was all a bit exotic and mad, waiting around. The call came early in the afternoon; I think it might have been morning for Mel in America. We were very young, but we knew it was an important moment. I just remember all the tension went out of the house; it was a great moment for my parents.”
Brendan Gleeson would parlay his big break into greater things — Michael Collins and The Butcher Boy followed in short order — and in time he would also found his own mini-dynasty; both Brian (pronounced the Irish way — Breen) and his older (by four years) brother Domhnall became actors. Domhnall has carved out a Hollywood career, turning in notably impressive performances in Brooklyn, Star Wars Episode VIII and, most recently, Lenny Abrahamson’s spookily brilliant The Little Stranger. Brian has meanwhile won generally warm reviews for his performances in Love/Hate, Taken Down and the controversial Channel 4 series The Bisexual.
He’s about to reprise his role as Jimmy Mahon from RTE’s Rebellion series in Resistance, a big-budget RTE historical drama which centres on the period around the civil war. It’s the second part of the trilogy about Ireland’s revolutionary years — which is set in November 1920 right in the middle of the Anglo-Irish War; four years after the 1916 Rebellion series — and unfolds quickly. Brian describes it as a “thriller”. “It deals with espionage and the lead-up to Bloody Sunday. It’s an incredible piece — I hope people watch it.”
Growing up in Malahide — what he calls “a boring middle-class background” — Brian says that being an actor wasn’t as much of a given as it seems in hindsight. “Initially I resisted going into acting. You want to have your own identity, and I thought about doing other things but that didn’t last very long. Doing the same kind of work [as my father and brother] does make it a bit more difficult to establish your own identity, but at the same time you have to find your own way. It’s very difficult for someone to shepherd you one way or the other. Dad gave us advice and made us aware of all the pitfalls. He was definitely a guide. He never really had to shield us. We were somewhat sheltered being from [Ireland], it wasn’t like in the States, where there might have been vulture agents or something like that.”
I wonder if one of the pieces of advice was “never tell anything, however innocuous, to press”. Cuttings about Brian reveal the impressions of a long line of interviewers who have attempted to shine a light on his heavily guarded personality. The Irish Times notes he’s “not keen” on sharing details of his life; The Sunday Times gets the impression “he doesn’t particularly like doing interviews”; and the Irish Independent notes “you could never accuse him of being an open book”. More taciturn than Domhnall or Brendan, Brian describes everything from his upbringing to his opinions as “boring”.
My quotidian query about New Year’s resolutions elicits the response: “To work more.” Does he chat with his family about acting? “I think we probably talk about our jobs no more nor less than anyone. There’s probably lots of titillating gossip we could talk to each other about but we don’t. Or maybe we do. I don’t know.” When I try to apply the defibrillator with Alain de Botton’s classic, how are you crazy? he responds, “I’m crazy in how boring I am.”
Against all evidence, I somehow still refuse to believe this. We speak on the phone, and after one of his responses I hear a hearty, knowing laugh in the background. Someone is infinitely more amused by this than either myself or Brian. Surely there must be a group of people who understand the colour of Brian, maybe better, even, than Brian himself. What do his friends tease him about?
A long pause on his end. “Well, they might not say that to me”. They might not tease you? Why not? “I have a bit of a temper.”
A fiery personality to match the flaming hair — that will do just fine — but it’s a glimpse that he instantly thinks better of, and the curtain comes down again. In a sense, there might be some career calculation in this. Alfred Hitchcock said that the biggest stars were blank canvasses onto which the cinema-going populace could project their dreams and aspirations.
Gleeson might not be at superstar level yet, but his almost comical avoidance of any attempt to round out his character and life might be rooted in a feeling that drawing attention to oneself would be distracting for casting agents and audiences.
“If you’re an actor you’re doing a part and [showing] more than that is distracting,” he explains of his approach to press. “I feel that if you’re going to talk about something, you should know as much about the subject as a person who would usually be given that platform,” he tells me. “I’m just a bit wary. I’ll talk about stuff I’ve gone through in my own life as it relates to the work. For my performances I do draw on things I’ve gone through, but it’s about taking it to an extreme, tapping into that extreme emotion. I’ve led a very middle-class, very boring kind of life.”
There’s that phrase again, like a dull thud, and yet behind the scenes he is a dervish of creative energy. He’s just started filming the fifth series of Peaky Blinders, where, not for the first time, he’ll star alongside Charlie Murphy, another of the Love/Hate coterie of Irish actors in London. He’s also working on a project with Domhnall, and their friend Michael Moloney, the former frontman of band Director. It’s a comedy about a failed singer-songwriter who lives with his band in north Co Dublin. “We’ve made a pitch for Channel 4, so we’ll see,” he says. There is no sibling rivalry between himself and Domhnall, he tells me, or if there is, it’s limited to things like “sports or just growing up”.
“I totally get how jealousy would happen if one was in work and the other wasn’t doing great, but we’ve both been pretty lucky so far,” he explains.
“We’ll do more writing together this year and hopefully the thing we’re working on will come out in 2020. I’ve nothing really planned beyond that, but hopefully this will be an interesting year.”
Interesting. Creative. And anything but boring.
The first part of ‘Resistance’ is on RTE One tonight at 9.30pm