Domnhall Gleeson, a star in his own time
It hasn’t taken Domhnall Gleeson long to establish a reputation as a versatile actor, equally at ease on stage and screen. He talks about working on Richard Curtis’s new time-travel rom-com and a forthcoming role opposite his dad Brendan
Julian Lennon. Paul Dalglish. Cameron Douglas. It’s never easy following in your father’s footsteps when dad happens to be really, really good at his job. How is it, then, that Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan, makes it look so damned easy? The sometime star of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and True Grit, has, aged 30, already been exposed to squillions of movie-going punters. In sheer bums-on-seats terms, he’s a huge star.
“But they’re not going for me,” he shrugs. “It doesn’t count. Even if I signed a Harry Potter thing I don’t think you’d get anything for my autograph on Ebay.”
What if Brendan added a Mad Eye Moody signature?
“Maybe two euro. At most. But by the time you add in postage and packaging. You know.”
He’s being modest. But any film-maker who has been lucky enough to direct Domhnall Gleeson will tell you that he’s as whip-smart as he is gifted. A versatile talent, the actor has effortlessly transitioned between Hollywood gigs and home turf. He’s appeared in sci-fi (Dredd), Tolstoy (Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina), alternate history (Never Let Me Go), political drama (Shadow Dancer) and one Irish sex comedy that we know of (Sensation). He has worked with the Coen Brothers, with Charlie Brooker (for the incoming Black Mirror) and with Lenny Abrahamson (on Frank). He has sidestepped with ease between media: he was nominated for a Tony for his work on the Broadway production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore and he took home an IFTA for playing Bob Geldof in the TV movie When Harvey Met Bob.
He has, as the varied CV attests, no plans to settle down in Tinseltown.
“I like that home is, erm, home,” he says. “I don’t really want to be too far away. And I hate driving. So LA definitely doesn’t suit me.”
The distinctive Gleeson colouring doesn’t help either. We meet in Dublin, at the highest point of the capital’s high summer, not the best time of the year for Ireland’s more pigmentally-challenged community.
“I’m sunblock factor 50,” says the native Dubliner. “The thing is, if it weren’t for my colouring, I might actually enjoy the sun. I might like a sunny holiday. I like the idea of sunshine. And I quite enjoy sunlight when I’m in the shade. But it scares and burns me when I’m out in the open.”
He was not best pleased when writer-director Richard Curtis shot winter scenes – scarf wearing was mandatory – on a Cornish beach in blistering heat for his upcoming movie About Time: “It’s the only time I hated that man,” says Gleeson. “But I hated him quite a bit at that moment. I nearly died.”
The rest of the shoot, however, turned out to be fine and dandy. Curtis’s time-travelling rom-com casts the Irish actor as Tim, a young man who discovers he has the ability to leap temporally backwards, a talent that allows him to, amongst other things, successfully court Rachel McAdams. It’s a very high conceit but, for Domhnall and his co-stars McAdams and Bill Nighy, re-tweaking and replaying the same scenes turned out to be a heap of fun.
“It was a joy,” says Gleeson. “There was a fun to be had with it. It kept everything fresh. I’m very excited about it.”
One wouldn’t want to question the physics or mechanisms too much; we know Einstein’s concept of space-time is curved and all, but we’re pretty sure that doesn’t mean you can use a wardrobe to doctor personal history. Still, the finished family adventure does remind us that Richard Curtis was the co-creator of Blackadder as well as being the director behind the 2010 bomb The Boat that Rocked. About Time turns out to be Curtis’s best film since Four Weddings and a Funeral. Mostly, that’s down to Gleeson’s charm as a leading man. A paired back, scaled down feel – aesthetically a world away from the bloated and glossy excesses of Love Actually – helps.
“I would have no interest in just doing a time-travel thing normally,” says Gleeson. “It was the human element that interested me. I think it’s slightly different to what Richard has done before. It feels very real. The relationships are realistic. It’s a film world, obviously. But it’s never a “movie” movie. The time-travel keeps the narrative moving. But the couple’s journey is more important. How they get together. How they stay together. All the things they go through having been together for a while.”
The oldest of the four Gleeson brothers, Domhnall’s fate was sealed when he went to the IFTAs, aged 16, to pick up an award on behalf of his father. An agent, impressed by his amusing speech, came a-calling and, by 19, the youngster was appearing on London’s West End in The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
“I wanted to be a writer in my teens,” he says. “And when I got an agent I thought: ‘Oh great. Extra work. I might make a bit of money’. Then I read Martin McDonagh’s script and that changed everything. It was the funniest thing I had ever read. I thought it was a masterpiece. I still think so.”
Does he remember Brendan’s transition from teaching to professional acting?
“Yes and no. From early on, I remember dad coming home with strange haircuts. I remember him dyeing his hair black. I remember him doing a Garry Hynes play and looking really menacing for about a month. Which was weird. But I don’t remember the transition. And I often think about that now. Because my parents had four kids and it must have been an intensely worrying and anxious time for them. But it was completely hidden from us.”
Did he get to spend time on movie sets? Did he understand what dad was actually doing for a living?
“There were day-trips to dad’s work,” recalls Gleeson. “But we didn’t always understand what was going on. We were extras on The General. We went for one day to the set of The Treaty. We went for one day to the set of Braveheart. They had arrows. So that was cool.”
And was it cool knowing that dad was touched by glitz and glamour?
“That never mattered to us at all. He was always still busy being a good dad and mam was always busy being a good mam. And that’s what I remember most.”
Fittingly, father and son will soon share screen time in Calvary, John Michael McDonagh’s dark good-priest-gone-bad drama.
“I haven’t got a huge amount to do in that,” explains Gleeson the Younger. “That’s my dad’s film. He is the centre of it. There are all these local people who are taking strips off him and we are all in orbit around him. I am only in it for one scene. But it did take us to different level of working together. And it’s another level for John. It feels very, very strong.”
We’ll get another chance to see Domhnall in Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, featuring Michael Fassbender in a round, papier mâché head: “I first read the script a long time ago and it’s changed since then,” says Gleeson. “It’s difficult to get your head around it. It’s difficult to get your head around the head. But what Michael is doing is very different to what Frank Sidebottom did. Once he talks to you you can feel his personality. And it’s just another conversation with a face.”
The young actor hopes to return to writing eventually and is, judging by his small talk, remarkably well read, especially when it comes to his father’s favourite, Flann O’Brien. (“Always big in our house.”) For the moment, however, the thrill he discovered as a 19-year-old is still propelling him along: “Having an apartment when I was 19 was amazing,” he says. “But the joy of knowing how good a part can be. There’s nothing better.”