Brendan Gleeson’s latest film The Guard is doing well in Ireland as the public packs theaters for the jet black comedy written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s older, wiser brother John Michael. CAHIR O’DOHERTY meets Gleeson, the outspoken Irish actor, fiddle player and former schoolteacher who many now regard as Ireland’s preeminent film actor.
That distinctive roar of a laugh, you’ll probably hear it booming in the hallways before you actually meet Brendan Gleeson. It’s become a kind of trademark of his, but it’s also genuine -- he knows how to enjoy himself.
Then just ask him a doubtful question, like when does your long rumored Irish brat-pack film At Swim Two Birds really start shooting, and you’ll be treated to it all over again.
Gleeson, 56, obviously takes his job as an actor very seriously, but it’s pretty clear he doesn’t take himself or his celebrity seriously at all.
This week he’s in New York to promote The Guard, which opens on Friday, July 29, the undisputed Irish hit comedy drama of both the Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals.
Making his way quickly through the foyer of the Lowes Regency Hotel on Park Avenue on Monday, Gleeson decides on a spot for a coffee and a chat before he attends a press conference to promote The Guard later in the afternoon. He’s clearly in his element, but a little jet-lagged from the trip over from Ireland, he says.
“I got in from Dublin in plenty of time last night but I made the capital mistake of going to bed too early,” he tells the Irish Voice, rolling his eyes at his own foolishness.
“Next thing I woke up at one in the morning and I did the usual staring at the walls. I’ve been up now since seven this morning doing breakfast TV, which is always interesting to do. People who are up and working and being crazy that early in the morning makes no sense to me, but ah sure it’s all a bit of fun.”
Gleeson is famously charismatic, but you’d be foolish to fall for his just one of the lads demeanor. He’s a former schoolteacher and an avid reader since childhood, and he’s also arguably the greatest film actor Ireland has ever produced. Although he sometimes plays the fiddle at an occasional trad session in Dublin, it’s been a long time since he was just another face in the crowd.
Only an actor with Gleeson’s star power could have attracted fellow A-listers like Colin Farrell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Michael Fassbender and others to co-star in his much heralded (and now finally on the way) screen version of Flan O’Brien’s masterpiece At Swim Two Birds.
News reports last week confirmed Gleeson had finally secured the funding for the film he will direct and co-star in next spring in Ireland. And as soon as the project was announced it was a trending topic on Twitter with Stephen Fry, one of social media’s acknowledged megastars, announcing it was one of his favorite books and that he had high hopes for the film.
“Ah yeah, no pressure there Stephen thanks very much!” laughs Gleeson, with just a bit of an edge to his tone. “No pressure at all. The story is the film’s due in spring and until I’m actually on the set saying that’s a wrap, thanks for a nice shoot, I won’t believe it.”
There’s a reason for his caution, Gleeson says. “I have everything in place for far too long at this point. It’s all settling in now, it has momentum and seems to be going for spring.
“But the assumption that everything is going to happen the way it’s supposed to happen is not something that I’m comfortable with these days. I’m looking forward to it and it’ll almost be more of a relief more than anything else to get going with it because I’ve been thinking about it for seven or eight years now.”
It must be a relief to let others do the worrying and just focus on the acting. It hasn’t been remarked on yet, but Gleeson is unique in having starred in the two signature films from the McDonagh brothers Martin and John Michael, In Bruges and now The Guard.
Many critics will want to compare and contrast the two brothers’ output, but when I suggest it’s much more interesting to compare the characters they have created instead Gleeson immediately agrees.
“They’re just different voices, you know? I think there’s a certain subversive quality about their writing that scuttles political correctness. And I think fundamentally there’s a total decency behind both voices, I think the integrity is absolutely rock solid,” he said.
As the local guard (Irish policeman) Gerry Boyle in John Michael’s The Guard there’s a lot of heart hidden just beneath the gruff surface of Gleeson’s prickly character, which is quite a departure from the far more shiftless souls who inhabit Martin McDonagh’s world. John Patrick’s characters seem to have more in common with John Wayne than with the Abbey Theatre.
“I’m not sure what the difference between John and Martin would be other than it’s impossible to see one character in the other character’s world. If you’re playing Gerry Boyle, the guard in John Michael’s new film, he just doesn’t work in the world of Martin’s film In Bruges,” feels Gleeson.
“You just can’t imagine him turning up there. It would be an interesting notion but they’re just different perceptions. It’s a long discussion.”
Gleeson’s guard has a wonderful antagonistic battle going on with Don Cheadle’s FBI agent from the get go, but the chemistry between the two men is off the charts. Part western, part urban crime drama, part Darby O’Gill, the bizarre elements probably shouldn’t work together, but in fact they do effortlessly.
“I think my character tries to get strong reactions from people to draw them out,” says Gleeson about his foul mouthed and apparently racist cop.
“He throws all the dishes up in the air to see where they land, partially because he’s bored but partially because it’s fun to do. He whittles people out that way.”
Gleeson himself may not always agree with Gerry’s aims or methods he says, but he always understands them.
“There’s an awful lot of outrage that’s based on clouded thinking and hypocrisy as we all know at home in Ireland. I think Gerry won’t stand for it,” Gleeson says.
“He’s seen through a lot of the official Irish authority that has been fed to him over the years and he doesn’t believe it anymore. He’s an interesting man.”
It’s about time we had one good sheriff around the place says Gleeson, and it’s hard not to agree. He doesn’t sweat the small stuff, that’s the point of him.
“I don’t think he takes a smile and good manners as evidence of an honest questioner or an honest world. I think at home in Ireland we are inclined to take loads for granted as we’ve learned to our coast.”
For a man as quick thinking and charismatic as Gleeson, playing this toned down, deeply restrained character was a joy.
“Sometimes the crusty guys are interesting and sometimes they’re just bullies. But the thing about Gerry is that everything he does could be done by a real ignoramus and a bully -- but for me as an actor I discovered there was so much more to him.
“I’m not sure that it justifies everything he does in the film (and I’m not saying it does). But I think that ultimately he is hoping that other people will step up to the mark.”
After the first few scenes in The Guard it becomes clear that John Michael has obviously watched a lot of John Wayne movies in his time. He knows all about the lone man standing on principle and in The Guard he creates one of his own.
“It’s a very dangerous thing to say well, my beliefs are paramount to me,” says Gleeson. “It opens a whole can of worms if you want to go there.”
And it looks like both Gleeson and McDonagh are determined to go there again, because their next project is a comedy drama about an Irish priest who’s community turns on him. It’s another last stand movie and the kind of storyline that fascinates them both.
Meanwhile, The Guard is set to become the sleeper hit of the summer when it opens on Friday. Don’t miss it.