In 'Safe House,' the new edge of your seat thriller opening Friday, Oscar winner Denzel Washington plays Tobin Frost, the CIA’s most dangerous traitor who bewilders the U.S. intelligence community when he voluntarily hands himself into their embassy in South Africa.
But complications arise when mercenaries attack the safe house where rookie Ryan Reynolds is holding Frost. After a shoot out he’s forced to help him escape and stay on the run long enough to uncover who wants them both dead.
It’s a gripping plot that asks thorny moral questions about the methods the U.S. has adopted to track and question detainees since 9/11. Water boarding, holding suspects without charge or trial and every other blatant abuse of international human rights rules are all front and center of this incredibly gripping film.
It’s because Safe House asks tough questions while keeping the action galloping at breakneck speed that it succeeds on all fronts. The moral murkiness of the rogue traitor (Washington) versus the idealistic rookie agent (Reynolds) is further amped up by the appearance of a totally compromised CIA bigwig played by Brendan Gleeson. It’s just the kind of role he gravitates to, he says.
“It’s quite easy at the stage of life that I’m at now to look around you and see all sorts of unworthy people gaining by your efforts, and you being left behind in general ways and then to starting to become disillusioned,” Gleeson tells the Irish Voice, explaining his compromised characters motivation.
“My character kind of shares that outlook with Tobin Frost, but not to the same extreme.”
One of the things that Gleeson wanted to tease out of the script of Safe House was just what his level of corruption was.
“It appeared to me he would pocket things that would otherwise be going into government coffers, but nevertheless he felt he was still the good guy,” Gleeson said.
“He really doesn’t think he’s abandoned himself to the wrong side and become a bad guy. People rarely ever think that though, do they? He just thinks of himself as a guy who’s decided to make the best for himself in that kind of hard done by way that a lot of people can use to justify their behavior.”
The question for the audience is has Gleeson’s character completely lost his principles? After all, at first he comes across as a stand up guy.
“It’s a very interesting relationship between himself and Weston (Reynolds) whom he’s mentoring.
Even at the end he congratulates Weston for bringing Frost in without noticing that in the process he’s abandoned his own side. I found him very complex to be honest,” Gleeson said.
It’s easy to rationalize your own bad behavior by blaming other people’s shortcomings and misdemeanors for it. After Gleeson’s character gets involved in so-called Black Ops it becomes extremely difficult for him to maintain his moral high ground or his own convictions.
So it turns out that illegality and human rights abuses have a corrosive effect on the good guys as much as the bad, and Safe House underlines there’s a cost attached.
“My character doesn’t see himself as a bad guy, he sees himself as a guy who’s made a bad situation work for himself,” says Gleeson.
“Obviously he has to protect his decisions when the pressure’s on. I found him interesting, and I have to say I liked the director Daniel Espinosa a lot.”
What makes Safe House such a departure from the superhero spy antics of others like James Bond and Jason Bourne is that Reynolds’s character isn’t bullet proof. He can be hurt, and he is hurt badly.
Reynolds is also a revelation in the role, playing both toughness and sensitivity in a way that seems honest and recognizably human, and that makes the film all the more compelling.
“That reminds me of a conversation I had with Don Cheedle in The Guard (the film that broke Irish box office records) where I ask him if he’s been shot and does it hurt? In Safe House the violence you see has consequences,” Gleeson says.
“You see all these bullets flying around, but it ratchets the tension up a little bit and makes it more human. We do get kind of inured with all these films where millions of bullets fly but never seem to hit the heroes.”
Meanwhile, the long awaited film version of the Irish masterpiece At Swim Two Birds is taking up all of Gleeson’s time as both director and producer. But is it any closer to shooting?
“Well, fingers crossed, we’re trying to stitch it in this year. All things are going well but we’re not quite there yet. We’re hoping to be there in the next month or two to where we put a start date on it,” Gleeson says.
The cast, if the film gets green lit, reads like a who’s who of Irish acting royalty, including Michael Fassbender, Cillian Murphy, Colin Farrell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers for a start.
“This has been going for a while now. I’m trying not to get too hyped up about anything. I’m waiting for the apple to fall essentially. Fingers crossed and it’s all in place. Hopefully we’ll get the go-ahead.”
Another recent critically acclaimed turn for Gleeson was his performance opposite Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs. Gleeson played a doctor from Belfast in the film and he’s proud to be associated with it (Close has received an Oscar nomination for the title role).
“There was an incredible amount of estrogen on that set, as opposed to testosterone on Safe House. There are so many performances I loved in that film,” Gleeson says.
“You were allowed to explore a region that’s not often explored. It just felt good to have a female perspective framing it.
And isn’t Safe House is exactly the kind of film Gleeson is attracted to because it gives him an opportunity to explore the kind of moral ambiguity that has defined his best roles?
“Well absolutely,” he agrees. “Safe House is blurring lines. It’s funny, it’s something that I think has a certain consistency to it in terms of the characters I like to play generally. There are so few times in life when the actual truth is clear and unequivocal.
“There are so many blurred lines generally in life, and I think that the film is not afraid to look at it. It puts you in this very odd situation where you’re rooting for the anti-hero, the bad guy, as well as the good guy. You find yourself drawn to the right and the wrong people and you have to question your own alliances.
“I love the way it works dramatically. You find Frost’s character fascinating even though you know he’s on the wrong side.”
Later this year Gleeson will appear in The Raven, a fictional gothic horror film about the last days of the real life poet Edgar Allen Poe. In the film Gleeson plays Colonel Hamilton, a man who has a combative relationship with the poet, he reveals.
“It’s fictional really but based on real life events. Poe disappeared for a few days before he died and when he finally turned up he was in an awful state – wearing someone else’s clothes – and no one knew where he had been or what he had been doing,” he said.
“We’re going to take a fly at that for this film. (Irish American actor John Cusack plays the doomed poet). I had a great time inventing my character in the film, how he got his wealth and his back-story. He’s basically the father of a daughter that he thinks Poe is unworthy of. It was kind of a lot of fun to figure him out."
One more rumor doing the rounds is that Gleeson will soon film Connemara Days, a film about the legendary filming of The Quite Man in Ireland. But don’t get your hopes up.
“I don’t know where that story came from. It’s a good idea and I’d be open to listen but no one’s ever contacted me about it. It’s like one of those rumors that took off because everybody quotes everybody else quoting it. I just wish somebody would come up with a great script because it sounds like a great idea. We’ll wait for it to arrive,” he laughs.
And the final word on Safe House? “I just YouTubed it before we talked because I was just saying I hope I remember it all – it was a while ago when we shot it. There’s something like eight million hits on the trailer so I don’t think it needs my help. It just works.”
Here, watch the trailer for 'Safe House':