Brian Gleeson: ‘For an actor the worst thing is to have a plan’
The actor on working with family and his portrait of masculinity in The Bisexual
Brian Gleeson in The Bisexual
Brian Gleeson was always going to be an actor, even without the benefit of that surname. When should have been tucked up in bed, he was up enthralled with western movies. And during school time, he appeared proudly in plays – or as he puts it “I was a little show-off”.
Of course, the surname helped. Along with his brother Domhnall he paid many a set visit to his father before his teens, and he eventually starred alongside Brendan in The Tiger’s Tail aged 18, where he could count Kim Cattrall and Ciarán Hinds as his colleagues.
“I think I resisted a little bit when I was about 16. But it wasn’t really looking like I was going to do anything else ever,” he says, as we meet on a balmy day in London.
So began a career defined by its inevitability. With the assurance it brings, Brian (pronounced Bree-on) has calmed the show-off in him to the extent that he’s starred in a rake of high-profile projects – from the lead in RTÉ series Rebellion to Gus the dwarf in Snow White and the Huntsman – but you might not realise until the credits roll.
It also helped that he knew what was getting himself in for, for the most part anyway.
“The graft was expected,” he says, looking back. “Learning the craft, that’s been the eye-opener. Film acting is so different from theatre acting, and TV is about letting things pay off and not winning every scene.
“But I started quite young, and the only way you learn is by completely mucking up. I didn’t go to drama school, so all the mistakes I made were quite public.
“Love/Hate was a milestone in terms of working on something at home that felt very special. That said, looking back, I would have reined it in a little bit.” Along the way, working with Daniel Day Lewis in Phantom Thread, Daniel Craig in Logan Lucky and Sienna Miller in the recent celebrated production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has also given him a broader approach to acting.
“Some people are very instinctual, and some people love doing the detective work, and going in and breaking it down. It’s about what makes you feel comfortable,” the 30-year-old says. “For me you have to do as much work as you can beforehand, and once you get on stage or set, throw it out the window because you need to be collaborative. You shouldn’t have too many ideas about where it goes before you get into the room with the director and other actors.”
This collaboration is evident with new Channel 4 series The Bisexual, in which he plays the wingman of writer, director and star Desiree Akhavan, she of Girls and Appropriate Behavior fame. It’s a comedy drama told from the female bi perspective: urbanite Leila (Desiree) is newly separated from a 10-year-relationship with Sadie (played by the ever-wonderful Maxine Peake) forcing her to strike out on her own. She moves in with Gabe (Gleeson), whom she introduces to the London lesbian scene as she grapples with the difficulties that new trysts and old traumas involve. Its significant Irish contingent includes Caoilfhionn Dunne, Niamh Algar, Eva Birthistle and Gleeson. It’s a shade humorous that as Gabe he’s the token straight white male. It means he often plays the on-screen representation of The Man, but his character’s nuances and fleshed-out background means he’s more than a foil.
“I read Gabe as an excellent description of modern masculinity, which I hadn’t really read before. And it was written by two women, so there you go.
“In keeping with the ethos of the whole show, he could have been stereotyped the way any other group is stereotyped and he wasn’t,” says Gleeson. “It’s called The Bisexual, it’s about labels and identity and what’s behind them, and that holds true for a white, straight male as much as anybody else. There’s no point having a revolution if the same mistakes are made, in the opposite way.”
With its unequivocal title and sex scenes casually thrown in, critics might consider shock value as the show’s main offering. But that’s misunderstanding the premise, Gleeson explains.
“In the outline for the show, they talk about bisexuality being the last taboo, and it’s obviously very personal to Dessie,” he says, referring to Desiree’s own persuasion. “If it wasn’t her making it, maybe there would have been cause for concern, but she knows what she’s talking about.”
In case it needed spelling out, mainstream it is not. Fans of the Gleeson tribe from Harry Potter or Star Wars aren’t the target audience. I wonder if there’s a part of him that took on the role to mark out his own path?
“Who knows? I don’t know. But I never really think of it that way,” he says after some thought (this is the best thing about interviewing him: he lets silence persist until he’s found a truthful and articulate answer). “It’s more about what I’ve done before, and trying to make it different. I felt like I hadn’t done anything comedic in a while, and with the script’s dramatic depth, it was a no-brainer for me.”
He doesn’t do much comparing between himself and Domhnall, older by five years. But then, of course, they are “different actors, different people,” as he says.
While separate in career, he’s comfortable enough to join the family when the roles are right. The brothers recently took a stylish turn alongside in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! And, along with Brendan, they appeared in Enda Walsh’s play The Walworth Farce at the Olympia in Dublin in 2015.
“We’re always looking for stuff to work on, and when we do find something, we make sure it isn’t a novelty act,” Brian says. “The Walworth Farce was perfect: it was a father and two sons. It’s an amazing play, it’s very different. And it’s not a big three-hour family epic that feels quite navel-gazing, which I thought would be the trap we’d fall into if we were to do a play. This was quite fast and furious and mad, so it made sense for us to do that.
“We’re always looking for stuff to work on,” he continues. “It usually reveals itself to us, as opposed to us going out chasing stuff, which I think is the right way to do it.”
We talk more than we should about a new project he and Domhnall are penning with their Malahide friend Michael Moloney, the former frontman of art rock band Director.
“It’s a comedy about a failed singer-songwriter who lives with his band in north Co Dublin,” Brian explains. “We’ve made a 12-minute pitch for Channel 4, so we’ll see. We’re hoping to get that made next year. It’s been a joy to write with them. We don’t know what the hell we’re doing, but we work with Sharon Horgan and she’s helping guide it.”
Has the experience awakened the writer within him?
“It’s the three of us writing it, I can’t emphasise that enough. And I’ve always been interested in it, but I would never classify myself as a writer. In film and TV, there are so many people that build that house.
“Acting is probably what I’m best at but there are certain stories kind of rattling around in my head that I like the idea of developing over time. But there’s no ambition to get them made as soon as possible. I like the idea of them just percolating and revealing themselves over time.”
In the meantime he’s busy bringing other people’s stories to life. Aside from The Bisexual, he’s in RTÉ’s Taken Down, from the Love/Hate trio of David Caffrey, Stuart Carolan and Suzanne McAuley. He’s attached to Death of a Ladies’ Man, the Leonard Cohen-inspired film with Gabriel Byrne, which will kick off when funding is secured. Then there’s a reboot of Hellboy, out in April.
At the end of this year he’ll start filming the fifth series of Peaky Blinders, where, not for the first time, he’ll star alongside Charlie Murphy, another of a close-knit community of Irish actors in London that also includes the likes of Ruth Bradley.
“There’s so many that travelled over from Dublin. You’d almost see more people here [in London] than you would when you’re back home, because you have to be sure to keep in touch,” he says.
Are their meet-ups personal or work-focused?
“We don’t meet up and read out Shakespeare to each other, no,” he smiles. “It’s lots of coffees, jittery coffees, in Soho during the week when we’re not working.”
He’s not keen on sharing other details about his life in London, like the area in which he lives or his girlfriend, who accompanied him to The Bisexual premiere. It’s a fair position from someone who’s seen how to navigate the job’s occupational hazards.
“There’s a sweet spot that you can get to where you can be respected and still be able to keep your privacy – that’s what I aim for,” he says of being in the public eye. “When you’re not working and your self-confidence is low, you start thinking, God, I’d love to be recognised. But actually once you’re working with people who you respect and who respect you, that’s all you need.”
As to his future direction, he’s ready for what life has to throw at him. He enjoys the energy of London and isn’t ready to return home just yet, and when it comes to his career path, he’s purposefully open-minded.
“If I see a great show or a great movie, I do think that I’d love to work with whoever made it,” he says. “And I’d love to do something with the family again, that’s always a goal. But outside of that, you’re at the mercy of other people. For an actor the worst thing you can do is have a plan.”
The Bisexual begins on Channel 4 on Wednesday, October 10th, at 10pm, and the full series is available to stream or download from All4 after the first episode airs