A couple of years ago, Brendan Gleeson was chatting with his friend John Michael McDonagh, when the writer and director asked him a question. “John said: ‘If I wrote a good priest, would you play him?’ ” Gleeson remembers today. “I said, yes, I would, without hesitation.”
The result was Calvary (reviewed here), a bleakly gripping drama set in a small seaside town in the far west of Ireland, in which Gleeson plays Fr James Lavelle, a good and decent man sincerely committed to his religious vocation in a world where, sadly, the priests have become almost as well known for abuses of their position as for the good they do. It was a role, Gleeson says, that intrigued him from the beginning. “What must it be like to be vilified for the sins of others, as part of an organisation that you have joined, albeit with different aspirations?” he asks. “What intrigued me was the idea of how difficult it must be to uphold a sense of truth and goodness when you’re being vilified. We’re in a very strange time now where it’s difficult for people to believe in heroes any more – it’s kind of revolutionary now to think of goodness as an aspiration, but I believe we’re swimming against the tide with Calvary. The story is about the notion of goodness.”
The amiable actor refuses – politely but firmly – to give his own views on Catholicism today, saying that no matter whether he says he does practise the religion or says he does not, either statement would colour the views of Calvary’s audience in a way he would rather avoid. But as we talk about the film, it is that theme of goodness that arises again and again. Here, for instance, is what he says about dressing himself in the vestments for a scene in which Fr James celebrates the Mass: “There was a very odd sense of revisiting my childhood because there was a purity about the goodness that
I felt was to be protected. In other words, whatever goodness is for me on a personal level, I felt I must fight for that. The film’s about keeping faith, but it’s about it on a more universal level than the Catholic Church as such, or even organised religion. It’s about the essence of goodness.”
Gleeson was born in Dublin on March 29 1955, the son of Pat and Frank Gleeson, a civil servant with a blackly comic sense of humour and a sense of right and wrong that his son admires to this day. A dreamy little boy, he was drawn from the beginning to reading and acting, and says he was encouraged to follow his imagination when he was very young by a Christian Brother at his primary school. “He understood creativity,” he remembered recently. ‘He had a whole bunch of us and he did all sorts of stuff – putting us onstage and bringing us up the mountains. He was one of those mentoring people that you just really get a break when they’re part of your life. He seemed very strange and odd in that particular school and took the brunt of it. So afterwards I’ve felt like maybe I’m carrying the flame for him.”
Although Gleeson trained as an actor as a young man and worked at it part-time throughout his 20s, it was not until he was 32 that he took the leap to make it his life’s profession. “It wasn’t that I was rejected and went away,” he says. “It was more that for a long time I kind of felt that professional acting was for other people and not for me.
I have no idea why I thought that – I acted with some people at school and later at college who went on to become playwrights and such. But for me I kept it at arm’s length for many years because it was so special to me that I didn’t want to have to make my living from it or compromise it in any way.”
Instead, he became a teacher. “I taught boys of somewhere between 12 and 18 – the interesting age!” he laughs. “It was partly the same occupation in the sense that you’re communicating while you’re doing it and you do do a certain amount of theatrics when you’re in front of the classroom. And I enjoyed it. I taught English and the Irish language, which I’d studied at college and which I have a great love for, although so few people speak it these days but we’re still holding on.
“I remember one of the lecturers said to us: ‘People are going to ask you constantly why you’re studying a dying language.’ And he said that his own answer to that question was: ‘If your mother was dying, you wouldn’t want her to die alone.’ I think it’s invaluable to be able to tap into a language that goes that far back.”
In his spare time he was working with a local theatre company. “It was called the Passion Machine and it went out to an audience that didn’t go to the theatre and we worked for long years getting people into the theatre who didn’t go. After a few years, I was getting pretty well known in the theatre crowd so I decided to go full-time. I think that the proudest moment of my life was when I wrote down ‘actor’ on my passport as my occupation and suddenly realised that – yes, this is who I am.”
He first became known in Ireland playing Michael Collins in a television film, The Treaty. The next day, as an experiment, he asked the boys at school whether they’d seen him, to which, he is delighted to report, they replied: “We did, sir. But don’t worry,
it was no big deal.”
Four years later, he was playing opposite Mel Gibson in Braveheart, which was filmed in Ireland, about which one Hollywood agent commented that he’d never make it on the large screen because he was “too old, too fat, and not good-looking enough”. “Everyone has their opinion I suppose,” he adds, dryly.
It helps, of course, that he is having one of the heartiest last laughs in modern Hollywood. Braveheart led to Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, which led to – just for the highlights – Cold Mountain, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Mission Impossible II, The General, three Harry Potter films and, finally, to his informal partnership with both McDonagh brothers, Martin, who directed him in In Bruges, and John Michael, who cast him in The Guard before Calvary, and with whom he is already discussing another project.
“I’ll have to let other people answer why I’m in demand,” he says modestly. “I think, given my history, having taught for that amount of time and done something other than acting to make a living, I did tend to hide my light under a bushel and doubt whether I had what it takes. But I think I know now that I can access some honesty in my work and that I know what I’m doing. I’m a character actor, which suits me – although I think it was [Scottish actor] Brian Cox who said that there are no such things as character actors and leading actors: there are only short parts and long parts!”
When he is not working, Gleeson guards his privacy ferociously. He lives in Dublin with his wife of 32 years, Mary, a welfare officer whom he met when they were students at University College, Dublin. He supports Aston Villa and looks forward to frequent visits from his four grown sons, Domhnall, Fergus, Brian and Ruari, a brood of whom he is every bit as proud as you would expect.
“Four is unusual these days. I grew up in a family of four myself and in those days you’d hear we were ‘only four’. Now, it’s ‘Wow, you’ve got four kids?’ So times change. They’re good boys.”
His first and third, Domhnall and Brian, have followed their father into the profession – indeed, one of the most powerful scenes in Calvary is where Fr James confronts a young prison convict played by Domhnall. It is not the first time the two have acted together – Domhnall, now 31, played Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films when he was in his teens.
“I was a little suspicious of involving my sons in the movie business,” Gleeson admits. “Because I think sometimes it steals people’s childhoods and I wasn’t prepared to have that happen with my kids. And, in fact, when I started on the Harry Potter thing, I was a little bit nervous that I’d go and find a set full of brats with ambitious mothers and fathers who were pushing them … but then I went on the set and found that it was the direct opposite. These kids were not spoiled at all, and there was a really wonderful feeling working there.”
Gleeson adds that he generally has a good time with actors everywhere. “What has struck me most about the acting world is the generosity that I have found there. I had had a notion before I entered it full-time that it was a place of backstabbing and that the hustle was all-important. That wasn’t the case at all. I came across some of the finest people I have ever come across in my life when I became an actor.”
The chances are good that they’re pretty pleased to know him, too.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (19/12/14)