Capturing the Glee factor

HERE IS A story about being rejected in Hollywood that Brendan Gleeson is almost sick of telling

HERE IS A story about being rejected in Hollywood that Brendan Gleeson is almost sick of telling. Almost, but when he gets to the punchline, his huge laugh and the twinkle in his eye proves he’s not ready to retire it just yet.

After years juggling part-time theatre roles and teaching work, he decided it was now-or-never, and high-tailed it to the US to see an agent.

The agent levelled with the Dublin actor in a handful of words (“I think ‘old’ and possibly ‘fat’ were used”) that he’d never make it in Hollywood. Gleeson duly bit his tongue but vowed he’d prove the guy wrong, which he did, years later. “I did meet him again. In a lift. At the Emmys!” [where he won an Emmy award for his role as Winston Churchill in HBO’s Into The Storm]. And he hoots with laughter, admitting that he kept his “mother’s dignity” and said nothing. “But part of me appreciated his total honesty, and it definitely motivated me to succeed.”

It's a damp summer morning and he has just returned from the Galway Film Fleadh after a hectic week of publicity. As well as attending the Irish premiere of his latest film The Guard,a darkly comic tale about drug-trafficking in Connemara, Gleeson has just seen his good friend Cillian Murphy in Enda Walsh's Misterman. The play blew him away and he is full of animated praise for both it and Murphy's performance. Sipping a latte in a small, baroque meeting room, Gleeson is so familiar that you think you already know him. He has that avuncular, well-worn face, so it makes perfect sense to see him finally playing the everyday totem of the Irish garda. Despite his affiliation with film, there is a hint that this recent theatre visit has re-awakened an urge to tread the boards again.


“A little. The possibilities of theatre are huge and the play was really vibrant, but I’m in a place right now where I can’t even think about theatre at the moment.”

It's 11 years since his last stage role, but it was in 1995, while juggling the filming of Braveheartand a play in Chicago, that Gleeson finally – contrary to the aforementioned agent's view – "made it". Due to that scheduling conflict, he almost lost the role in Mel Gibson's epic, but he committed himself to the film, and ultimately, to an actor's life.

“You can reach so many more people with film, and there’s an intimacy, ironically, about film, too. There’s something glorious about theatre, but I find film too intriguing. I never really miss theatre . . . a bit like teaching really.” He laughs loudly and an image arises out of the mist of Gleeson’s old life, as a chalk-in-hand múinteoir. Born in Dublin in 1955, he graduated from UCD with a BA, and taught English and drama. Theatre beckoned, and he joined Paul Mercier’s Passion Machine, but the zeal for acting soon dwarfed his day-job ambitions. “I never treated acting as a hobby, I always had a ferocity about the way I did it. There wasn’t enough hours in the day if I wanted to write and act, and then teach, so I knew I’d have to decide some day.”

Countless films, TV work and awards later, Gleeson's latest film The Guardis a comedy that inverts and pokes fun at casual racism and Irish stereotypes. In it, he stars alongside Don Cheadle, with a strong Irish cast including Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot and Pat Shortt (in a cowboy-hat-wearing IRA man cameo). Gleeson thinks his character is far cannier than he makes out, but pillorying the Garda may mean he'll have to be extra careful when it comes to speed limits. "Actually, there was a screening held for 40 guards that I would have paid in to see the reaction. Apparently they fell around the place laughing, and I honestly think laughter is the salvation of the country at this point."

It's a passing reference, but a reminder that Gleeson has been outspoken about the failings in Irish society, long before the IMF came to town. In 2006, on a Late Late Showpanel discussion about the Health Service, Gleeson spoke passionately about the treatment of the elderly, including his own parents, in AE departments in Ireland's hospitals. The unbridled vehemence of his argument was applauded on the night and talked about for weeks afterwards. For many, he was a voice, without wanting to be a celebrity mouthpiece, for fundamental flaws in the system. Five years on, and with our current economic problems, his views are still as strong.

“I feel that we’ve let ourselves down. We prioritised all the wrong things, because at a time when we had billions, we still didn’t look after the sick or elderly. We were hideous. A lot of people fell for the bling thing, but it was beggars on horseback stuff. The generation who built the country, who sacrificed so much for it, were discarded.

“You don’t need to be a doctor to know that someone lying on a trolley for five days is morally wrong. Anger is fine, but we need to be so angry that we never allow ourselves to facilitate inhumanity to anyone in a weak position, or laugh at people who didn’t want to join the rat race . . . all that ghastly vulgarity. We did it ourselves and we can’t blame anyone else.”

Although Gleeson spends considerable periods of time abroad for work, he lives in Ireland, where he and his wife Mary raised their four sons. Ireland, despite the troubled times, is where he wants to live. Our problems are not just economic (“apathy is a national problem as much as anything else”) but he is sensing a change.

“The first time I began to get a little hopeful was the day of the general election, because people had made a change. The culture of the Galway tent was the problem. It was all nods and winks and no one had any standards. We had no self-respect and that’s why we treated people the way we did. Prioritising children, the sick, the old . . . that’s how you know when a country is worth a damn. The election brought change, but we have to stay on the ball. If this Government starts fudging, we need to call them on it. I also don’t want the mé-féin people who betrayed this country back in power.”

In recessionary times, cuts to arts funding are a given, but Gleeson thinks we should be wary of reductionism, at a time when we need positive distractions. “The arts are about allowing us to feel, and by examining things, we can understand what has happened. The artistic world reflects the beauty that we can achieve and gives a feeling of purpose. We have to look after our spirit now – and that’s what the arts do.”

Gleeson was a speaker at the College Green event when Barack Obama visited Dublin this year. Looking out at the crowd, he recalled seeing a sea of young faces, many of whom face uncertain futures in terms of education, jobs and emigration. Of his four sons – Fergus, Rory, Domhnall and Brian – the latter two followed him into acting, something he actively discouraged “until the point where they were deciding what to do with their lives”.

He starred alongside Domhnall in Six Shooter, Studs, Perrier's Bountyand Harry Potter, and with Brian in Noreen(ironically another film about two gardaí, which was written and directed by Domhnall).

“It was a bonus that I had little right to expect. Domhnall was more interested in being on the other side of the camera . . . he didn’t get the acting bug until he was older, but Brian, I knew it since he was this size [he makes a gesture of a child’s height]. He becomes transported, and I tried not to assume he’d be an actor. Working together, I didn’t know whether we’d undermine ourselves with too much love, familiarity or criticism.”

He refers back to his last theatre role in 2000, which Domhnall came along to, and recalls how it affected him. “I crumpled. It was my worst performance and I don’t really know why. It ambushed me.” When he worked with Brian on The Tiger’s Tail, he kept reminding himself “not to keep going over and daddying him”.

“I’ve loved directing some of the work they’ve done. Whenever they had auditions, I’ve worked with them and helped them out.”

Success started to happen right at the time when his sons were small, and the peripatetic nature of acting made the separation hard. “It really was. At the time I was living in Swords and I would literally fly over my own house every time I left. And I knew that my sons were in a little nest underneath. It was devastating, and I didn’t want to do it, and even though it was exciting, it was hard.”

Gleeson will star in a slew of films over the next 12 months, including Irish film Albert Nobbswith Glenn Close, and The Raven, based on Edgar Allen Poe's final days. His long-cherished plans to bring Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birdsto the screen are gaining momentum, despite admitting that writing the script was "torturous" and required 14 drafts – last weekend, Gleeson announced at the Galway Film Fleadh that he had secured funding for the project. It has been a long-time coming, but it's a book that literally made the actor fall out of bed laughing, when he read it as a teenager.

Initial fears about whether it would work as a 21st-century film were soon minimised after an initial reading with the cast. “I asked the younger guys afterwards if it was relevant and Cillian [Murphy] asked, where is there for a sensitive young man in this country to go, someone who doesn’t know where he fits in, so it’s not just about a world that’s long gone, it’s about now. And now it feels like an entity itself, rather than just an attempt by me to recreate my joy in the book.”

Gleeson is a fascinating talker, generous with his time and modest. Despite being as one of our greatest and best-known actors, he feels simultaneously lucky and aware that it’s good not to be too cocky.

“I remember when I had to fill out my passport form and write “actor” as my occupation. It occurred to me that I was now full-time in the arts – and it is such a privilege to be in a place where people have optimism and aspirations. I felt that I had finally found what I was meant to do. My career was such a long time coming that I’m always fearful of making a wrong move, not because of my career, because I don’t want my work to be rubbish. But I’ve no problem doing pure entertainment,” he smiles a little ruefully, “because now, more than ever, we need diversion.”

The Guard

is on general release

Sinéad Gleeson

Sinéad Gleeson

Sinéad Gleeson is a writer, editor and Irish Times contributor specialising in the arts