Domhnall Gleeson’s ready for his close up. Now, at the age of 29, he’s finally landing the kind of leading roles that promise to turn him into an internationally recognized Irish leading man like Michael Fassbender and Colin Farrell.
It’s not before time. When you’re an actor, having a famous father in the same business can actually be more of detriment than a leg up, since knee jerk comparisons with your more famous dad can lead casting agents to cross you off their list before they’ve even give you a chance.
But when your father is Brendan Gleeson, one of the finest screen actors Ireland has ever produced, stepping out of his shadow is probably especially challenging. So it’s to Domhnall’s credit that he has, on his own terms.
On May 31 you’ll have the opportunity to catch him in the brutally tense and atmospheric new IRA spy thriller 'Shadow Dancer' directed by Oscar winner James Marsh (Marsh’s documentary 'Man on a Wire,' told the story of tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s terrifying and illegal high-wire walk between the World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974).
Set in Belfast in the crucible year of 1993, 'Shadow Dancer' tells the story of single mother Collette McVeigh, who lives with her mother and two hard-line IRA brothers in a pressure-cooking setting where danger lurks around each corner.
When Collette is arrested for her part in planting a bomb in the London underground she’s given an ultimatum by a MI5 police officer (played by Clive Owen). Either she returns to Belfast to spy on her own family, or she goes to prison for 25 years and loses her son.
From this moment on 'Shadow Dancer' becomes an increasingly gripping, ice-cold thriller where nothing and no one is ever quite who they seem. When Collette’s brother’s operation is ambushed, suspicions fall on her circle and the danger she finds herself in grows.
As Conor McVeigh, Collette’s brother, Domhnall Gleeson gives his most gripping portrayal on screen to date. Even by the standard of the work he did in the Cohen brothers’ 'True Grit' and in Joe Wright’s 'Anna Karenina,' his performance in 'Shadow Dancer' is ground breaking.
“I really wanted to meet the guy who had made Man on a Wire, you know? That was really a lot of the reason why I got to meet with him,” Gleeson tells the Irish Voice.
“Once he started talking he was very clear about what he wanted in the film. He had a great cast as well, including Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Aiden Gillen, Brid Brennan.”
After a spate of films where IRA members were usually portrayed as mustache twirling psychopaths, it’s a relief to see how grounded in the daily life of the period the film is.
“You don’t want to get involved unless it’s going to be done with humanity as opposed to just the politics. I didn’t want it to be about the good guys and the bad guys,” says Gleeson.
“Everybody has their reasons no matter how despicable you may find their actions. The director really understood that and put the best and worst of his characters forward.”
Gleeson’s onscreen older brother is played by Game of Thrones actor Aiden Gillen, whose work alongside fellow Irish actor Conleth Hill is one of the highlights of the celebrated HBO show.
“I’ve worked previously with Aiden and another great Irish actor Sean McGinley in the play by David Mamet called American Buffalo. In fact we worked together for months on that show so I knew how impressive he was before we started,” Gleeson said.
“Despite the seriousness of the story we were telling we had a good time on the show.”
Gleeson calls 'Shadow Dancer' a coiled spring of a film, and that description conveys just how gripping it becomes as the traps set by each character start springing.
But it’s Marsh’s forensic direction, and his instinctive documentary filmmaker’s distaste for any kind of pretence or artifice, that keeps it focused and tight throughout.
Gleeson is about to star in the biggest film role of his career, as the time travelling young man at the center of director Richard Curtis’ sci-fi romance story About Time.
In the film 21-year-old Tim Lake is told an incredible family secret by his father, that all the men in his family have the ability to travel in time. That means he can do something no one else can -- he can relive any moment in his life and change them until he gets them right (or even perfect). It’s fair to say Gleeson’s career as a leading man is riding on it, so how is he feeling?
“I’m feeling good, man. I’m really proud of it. I think it’s honest and funny and gorgeous and sad, it’s everything you want,” he says.
“I think it’s exactly what Richard wanted it to be. I think people will laugh and I think they will cry and that’s not a bad combination.”
At the Irish Film and Television Awards (IFTA) this year Gleeson caused a stir when he and actor friend Francois Civil both decided to pretend they were Michael Fassbender, flashing megawatt smiles (with as many teeth as they could manage) at the rows of photographers.
“Oh yeah, Michael and his hundred tooth smile!” laughs Gleeson. “You know what that was? That’s coming from a place of pure love and admiration, you know what I mean?
“It was the IFTAs and he wasn’t able to be there and we were really sad about it. It was one of those things where we said we’re not as important as Michael, but maybe if we pretend to be him people will take our picture. And it worked!”
Gleeson works alongside Fassbender in the upcoming 'Frank,' the story of a young musician who gets involved with a rock band led by the most eccentric singer ever (played by Fassbender in a huge plastic head), with a script by the celebrated writer Jon Ronson and directed by Dubliner Lenny Abrahamson.
“It’s one of those great things where I got to work with a fantastic director and actors that I have admired for years,” says Gleeson.
“You set them up in your head so high that really they can only fail. I’ve just been really lucky in the last few years that not only have I met them, but they surpassed my expectations.”
Gleeson has had a hit of his own behind the camera as well as in front of it. His 2012 short film Noreen, starring his father Brendan as a rural Irish cop, won plaudits for the tale of two clueless Irish policemen who manage to turn an open and shut case into a bloodbath.
With the success of that will he ever tempted to write his own features?
“At the moment I have more of a roll going with the acting thing. I’m getting to work with pretty astonishing people I never dreamed I’d get to work with,” he says.
“I just want to keep that going. Maybe someday I’ll get to that, but right now I’m keeping busy.”
'Shadow Dancer' opens May 31 in New York and Los Angeles.
"Shadow Dancer" trailer:
Trailer for "About Time":