Domhnall Gleeson: ‘I live in Dublin because it’s home’

Domhnall Gleeson: ‘I just thought it was wonderful,’ on reading Medicine for the first time. Photograph: Sarah Weal/Edinburgh International Festival
The actor on his swapping the film set for the stage in Enda Walsh's new play and why he chose to live in his hometown of Dublin over a life in the US

The coastal town of Malahide glows sea-green in Frank of Ireland, the audacious television comedy recently seen on Channel 4. Its vision of Dublin suburbia, with its duplex houses and scenic promenade, takes place beneath an attractively bluish sky.

This was the childhood home of Domhnall Gleeson, one of Frank of Ireland’s stars and creators. On a video call from an Edinburgh apartment, he sits on a couch, sifting through memories of his youth.

“My dad got us a camcorder around the time he did Braveheart,” he recollects. As that epic war film introduced Brendan Gleeson to an international audience, Domhnall was a teenager beginning to make amateur short films in Malahide.

He describes a household where creativity was valued, where everybody fed on a diet of music-making, books and storytelling. In adulthood, he and his three brothers became artists. Brian Gleeson is an actor seen in television crime dramas such as Peaky Blinders, with supporting roles in films directed by Steven Soderbergh and Paul Thomas Anderson. Rory Gleeson, a writer signed to Curtis Brown, has put a debut play, novel and screenplay into the world. Fergus Gleeson is credited as composer on Rory’s short film Psychic.

“I don’t know if you’d call it an artist, bohemian household we grew up in,” says Gleeson, his brow raised. How could it be pictured? One tempting – and strictly coincidental – speculation could be gleaned from The Walworth Farce, Enda Walsh’s stunning tragicomedy in which Domhnall, Brian and Brendan played a family doomed to re-enact their lives as a daily performance inside their apartment.

If you put the surreal horrors of the play to one side, could this idea of young brothers speeding around their home, trying on different disguises and characters, while living with a showman-like father, bear some resemblance to reality?

'Medicine has been the priority. All other jobs have either not happened or have had to work around it'

He laughs. “There was a lot of play-acting. We were living in a smaller place until I was 14 so we were rolling all over each other. It had that energy,” he says.

Gleeson’s speech often flows rapidly with effusive gratitude. (“It was a very busy, happy, creative, loving time,” he says of his youth). If he rarely singles out specific memories or anecdotes, preferring to keep some things undisclosed, it might have something to do with the guardedness that comes with being one of the highest-grossing Irish actors of all time.

Known to most for his portrayal of a serious, perfectionist wizard in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or of a deranged military commander in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, he has retained an undeniable prestige with performances in such celebrated films as The Revenant, Mother! and Unbroken.

Domhnall Gleeson: ‘There was a lot of play-acting,’ on his upbringing. Photograph: Sarah Weal/Edinburgh International Festival
Domhnall Gleeson: ‘There was a lot of play-acting,’ on his upbringing. Photograph: Sarah Weal/Edinburgh International Festival

Over the past three years, that steady inflow of screen work has had to be reassessed and re-scheduled to allow rehearsal and performance dates for Medicine, Enda Walsh’s absurdist new play, in which he has a central role.

“It’s been a long journey and at every point along the way Medicine has been the priority. All other jobs have either not happened or have had to work around it,” he says, with seriousness.

In the early stage of his career, Gleeson drew attention for his theatre performances. He was nominated for a Tony award in 2006 for his comic turn in Martin McDonagh's gruesome dark comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore. After an appearance in the election-night drama Now or Later at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2008, he wouldn’t be seen onstage again for seven years.

That period saw his film career go into the stratosphere, exchanging roles in low-budget films for releases from Warner Bros and Universal Pictures. For a while, it appeared he was done with theatre.

“It was not a conscious move away. I had done Now or Later. Eddie Redmayne was the lead actor and he was wonderful in it. I was more off to the side. It was more a matter of needing to find the right play,” he says.

If Gleeson was looking for something central at the beginning of the last decade, even the upper echelons of the major studios offered only supporting roles in films such as Never Let Me Go and Anna Karenina until he secured a lead, his touching performance in About Time, Richard Curtis's romantic comedy.

'It made me weep at the end, even though I had laughed my hole off for the previous two hours. It was a different thing than I had experienced before'

Around the same time, he was planning a return to theatre, one that wouldn’t put him in the wings. He had seen director Mikel Murfi’s electrifying staging of The Walworth Farce at Druid’s Mick Lally Theatre in 2009. “My god. It just blew my head off,” he says, sitting back in awe.

Walsh’s play finds a family in a dilapidated London flat, mounting an eccentric comic play for an audience of nobody. It establishes the giddy tone of a surreal comedy before bringing darker details into focus – the escalating violence of an abusive father; the discovery that the farce they are staging is the story of their own startling exile from home.

“It was so intensely funny. It made me weep at the end, even though I had laughed my hole off for the previous two hours. It was a different thing than I had experienced before.

“That night I thought: I wonder if one day I can do that with my dad and my brother,” he says.

The ingenious casting idea for The Walworth Farce’s first major revival eventually reached the desk of producer Anne Clarke, one of Walsh’s greatest supporters, and whose company Landmark Productions has premiered many of the writer’s new plays, operas and musicals in the past decade.

Domhnall Gleeson in Medicine. Photograph: Jess Shurte/Edinburgh International Festival
Domhnall Gleeson in Medicine. Photograph: Jess Shurte/Edinburgh International Festival

The 2015 revival of The Walworth Farce at the Olympia Theatre allowed Gleeson to display a degree of comic physicality rarely seen in his onscreen roles. In one unforgettable moment, as a desperate young man forced to transform into yet another madcap character, he miraculously lifted his legs, wrapped them behind his head and became somebody new, all while delivering poignant moments of tenderness. The energy poured into the performance seemed endless.

“Since I was a kid, I loved Jim Carrey’s movies. I loved Dumb and Dumber and the rest of the Farrelly brothers’ films. I loved Laurel and Hardy, and slapstick in general. What the play offered was the best of both worlds: it runs so serious and emotionally and yet you have this full-on farce to go with,” he says.

He likens the compulsion to work with Walsh as similar to the need he felt to star in Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller Ex Machina and Lenny Abrahamson’s dark comedy Frank. He remained a watchful fan as the playwright’s plays were produced on a larger scale, securing prime slots on the festival circuit, becoming more resistant to easy interpretation while no less engaging. The complex demands they’ve put on actors such as Cillian Murphy might be compared to an elaborate obstacle course.

“I think Enda writes roles, on purpose, to challenge actors,” says Domhnall, grinning.

'The play is bottomless. It’s very full and beautiful'

It’s notable that his part in Medicine – which  opened in Edinburgh and will tour to Galway and New York – doesn’t feature the same turbo-charged physical comedy as The Walworth Farce but still involves multi-layered, complex levels of storytelling.

Somewhere in a mysterious hospital, Gleeson appears as John, a patient whose illness has never been diagnosed. His prescribed treatment: a series of agonising dramatherapy exercises to help re-tell the story of his life, led by two self-centred facilitators, played by Clare Barrett and Aoife Duffin, looking for source material for a knockout musical.

“When I read it, it felt really real. I felt I understood something about how Enda feels about care and about love, and its place in how we deal with people who are troubled. I just thought it was wonderful,” he says, with enthusiasm.

It’s been one week since the play opened and he is still finding fresh meanings during the daily performances, partly because each night is an improvisation due to live jazz percussion by drummer Sean Carpio. “The play is bottomless. It’s very full and beautiful,” he says.

Some might expect an actor with Gleeson’s resumé to base himself in Los Angeles. Instead, with an address in Ballsbridge, he resembles a world-famous celebrity keeping a low profile in Dublin. “There have been a couple of points in time where I’ve began to feel, strangely, like a goldfish in a bowl. In Dublin, you still get all the strangeness of people recognising you but people generally are nice.”

When asked about the intrusions of fame, he’s reminded of Margot Robbie, who he has acted alongside and has a good friendship with. “She is intensely famous. I’ve never heard her complain about it once. She just gets on with it, has a good time and lives her life,” he says.

That example has helped him, after years of gruelling schedules and infinite considerations, to reach a point of balance: “There’s life and there’s work, and sometimes the lines get blurred: sometimes you live for your work. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at living my life as well as living for work”.

  He considers the benefits if he had based himself in Los Angeles. “It might be easier for work, to be seen for more things and to be involved in more discussions,” he says.

Instead, he felt the gravitational pull of his home town, the green marshy wonders of a coastal upbringing. The decision wasn’t a calculation but something organic. “I love my family, my friends and the people around me there. It’s home. The reason I live in Dublin is because it’s home”.

Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival’s production of Medicine runs at Black Box Theatre September 2nd-18th, with livestream and on-demand also available. giaf.ie