In two decades in the movies, Brendan Gleeson has alternated between key roles in Hollywood blockbusters (he played Professor Alastor “MadEye” Moody in the Harry Potter movies, and his credits include Gangs of New York and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence) and smaller, mostly Irish productions (including crime farces like I Went Down and In Bruges). In his latest film, The Guard (which opens Friday in limited release), Gleeson plays Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a gruff rural Irish policeman who teams up with Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), a straight-laced FBI man, to solve an international drug trafficking case. Boyle is so fond of drugs, hookers, and politically incorrect pronouncements that Everett (and the audience) is never quite sure if he’s a buffoon or a genius, and Gleeson’s performance is so strong that he rarely tips his hand.
Before he was an actor, Gleeson taught math, physical education, and Gaelic at a secondary school in Ireland. He’s maintained a lifelong love of the culture of his native land; for his directorial debut, Gleeson will helm an adaptation of Brian O’Nolan’s notoriously difficult novel At Swim-Two-Birds, which is slated to star Michael Fassbender, Colin Farrell, and Cillian Murphy. In an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Gleeson discussed his approach to acting, the end of the Harry Potter franchise, and the current state of Irish cinema.
RT: In The Guard, you play a character who’s not always terribly sympathetic – he has a certain integrity, but he’s often behaving horribly. Are you ever worried, when you’re playing someone so complex, of losing the audience?
BG: You’ve gotta find the truth of the guy, really. When you read the script, obviously, you form an impression of him, and then you kind of see where it brings you, really. I think he hides his light behind a bushel quite well, Gerry Boyle. But some of the themes, like, for example, with his mother, or maybe with my [bride little]? It’s hardly fair to be saying this, you know, you can see he has a soul. As long as you can enact him within a set of reality, it gives you confidence that the rest of the stuff, you don’t need to show your hand all the time. I mean, somebody said to me a long time ago anyway, “You know, you don’t actually have to tell everybody everything about all of the stuff all of the time.” And it’s kind of a good acting lesson. It’s not necessary. People don’t do it in real life; they don’t reveal everything. Hopefully, it’s properly written. If it’s properly written, that kind of deeper understanding of the guy will come.
RT: You create a very original character in The Guard. When you played Winston Churchill [in the made-for-TV drama Into the Storm], how did you get at the heart of a character who’s so iconic? Obviously his voice and his image have been recorded a lot, so how do you avoid doing an impersonation?
BG: The first thing you’ve got to do, I think, is, out of all mannerisms or body language or anything, the first thing for me was the voice. You have to get the voice into a place where it doesn’t sound strange to you in your own head. You know, if you do an impersonation, you can hear yourself being somebody else in your own head. With something like the Churchill character, we were doing quite a domestic take on that story, and it was looking at his marriage. You know, I had to have a voice to talk to my wife in, you know what I mean? So the first thing was to try to get the sound as part of my DNA in a way, the sound of that man speaking , that it would surprise me coming out of my own mouth. So I worked with John Washington, who’s a fantastic dialect coach, and we used my own pitch; I didn’t go into a different sound. We just worked on my own sound. In terms of the big speeches, we did the mimicry to begin with; she never encouraged us to do mimicry, but to begin with, we started doing mimicry. Then we listened back to what I was doing, and what he was doing, and we discovered that the closer we got to my own pitch, the better it was. So, you have to try to, I think, make his person your person, his expression your expression. You know, that’s the easy part, in a way; you listen and you listen and you listen, you listen and you practice. That’s it, you know? The greater challenge is this quieter domestic situation, where he’s not going to be speechifying; we don’t have recordings of it. That’s where you have to find a voice that makes it real.
RT: You’ve had a very diverse career, but it seems like with some of your “smaller” films, you tend be drawn to these sort of morally ambiguous characters. Not playing black-and-white seems to appeal to you.
BG: Yeah. I mean, I was working on Safe House down in South Africa, by Daniel Espinosa, who is a director to watch out for. He said, “You never play good guys,” and I was kind of astounded by that. But I was thinking about it, and I do play good guys, but I do tend to find the flaws in a good guy, and I tend to look for the good things in a bad guy, because I think that’s really the way the world works. I find the great issues are much more complicated and humanity much more complex than good guys and bad guys. So you’re right, I do tend to muddy the water a little bit because I actually think that’s the truth of it, for the most part.
RT: A lot of what you see of rural Ireland in the movies is very traditional with a lot of quirky characters. You get that in The Guard, too, but you see a place that’s been touched by immigration, that’s touched by outside cultural influence. Obviously that was something you guys were going for with this.
BG: No, absolutely, [director John Michael] McDonagh’s not sentimental; let’s be honest about this. There’s not a sentimental side to him. You know, I think confronting the reality of a place enhances its beauty. It’s funny, we had awful weather. We filmed in November and December, we were out on the coast of the Atlantic, and we were lashed on and blown out of it, and still the place manages to look beautiful because you embrace the way it is, you know what I’m saying? Similarly with the characters, the people who populate it, they’re all flawed in a proper human way. They have their quirky things going on, but there’s a lot of corruption going on, there’s a lot of kind of nasty stuff, and I personally find it more interesting that way. It’s more real, and in the end, I think it’s more interesting to watch.
RT: it seems like the Irish film industry, despite the recession, has been doing pretty well. Is that what you’ve seen? Not that it’s recession-proof, per se, but that it’s chugging along despite some of the economic troubles the country has been having.
BG: Yeah it is. You know, I was part of that kind of a delegation that went into parliament to lobby for, first of all, the retention of the Arts Council, and the retention of the Film Board, and the retention of the tax incentives about two years ago. There was a whole campaign where people were looking to cut, cut, cut, cut, and we kind of made the case that the industry is actually financially a good idea, and that it works and brings cash way beyond any investments in tax breaks and everything else. Oddly enough, they listened, and they maintained that, on the Film Board, we go to 2016. It was fantastic because it gave everybody confidence to be able to say, “Look, it’s not going to go bust in the next year or two. There’s no axe hanging over the structure.” And it’s made a big difference. Confidence is everything, as you know, and as long as we can maintain what’s working and try to improve on it and keep our standards up, I don’t see why we can’t last this through.
RT: Speaking of Irish films, you’re scheduled to start filming At Swim-Two-Birds pretty soon.
BG: Yeah, hopefully in spring; we have it marked down for a springtime shoot, and it’ll give us a chance to get all our ducks in a row, in terms of cast, because I think you know we’ve a fantastic crowd of people. You know, Colin Farrell wants to do it, and Michael Fassbender, Cillian Murphy, Gabriel Byrne, and people like that. It’s really difficult for any of them to be keeping their schedules open; they’re incredibly in demand. So we’re going to go in springtime, and it’s going to be a co-production with Luxembourg. We’re not officially green-lit yet, but there’s fantastic momentum behind it and we’re set to go, hopefully.
RT: This is some pretty challenging material for you to make your directorial debut.
BG: [laughs] Well, no point in doing it otherwise, is there, really? You know, if I thought of somebody else who could do it, I would hand it over. I do have a really strong vision of what I want from it. It’s been in my life, that book, since 17, and I’ve had a lot of time to prepare it. I’ve been through a lot of people, in terms of the script. John Boorman, actually, was one of those who came in with me from the beginning, and I asked him would he direct, would he be interested? He said he didn’t know what to do with it, and the more I talked about what he could do with it, the more he said, “Listen, you know what to do with it. Go write it and direct it. That’s what you should do.” I mean, he’s going to be there for me at any point, and I’ve talked to him a lot about it in developing the script. So I’m not short of people who can kind of fill me in, in terms of any inexperience I have. I’m always interested in how it works. I wouldn’t be directing something just for the hell of it, just to put it on my TV anyway, to be honest with you. I prefer to do what I do — I love doing what I do — but I’m kind of proprietorial about this particular reason.
RT: Shifting gears a little bit, were you sad to see the end of the Harry Potter franchise?
BG: I wasn’t sad in the sense… No, I wasn’t, really. I mean, I wasn’t involved in the final part of the saga, but I’m not sad because it seems to have – I haven’t got to see it yet – but it seems to have come out with a proper sort of flourish. I became very proud and very fond of that whole setup, so I’m really delighted it’s going out in that kind of a flourish. It just seems right. You know, everything has its day. I’m sure there will be a lot of people sad to see it go, but I know it will endure. I mean, I think it’s great. It just feels right.
RT: On a more personal note, did being a teacher prepare you for dealing with an audience?
BG: [laughs] It’s the same job. You try to impart something, and you gotta keep them interested long enough to listen. So I don’t feel it’s any different, really. No, I love teaching; I was ten years, teaching, and you know, I actually did like the kids, even though they maybe didn’t think so at the time. Getting to assert yourself in different creative ways is phenomenal, and there are elements that are similar. I think it helped me… for example, I can pretty much see early on if something has a real chance of working or not. I mean, trying to keep a captive audience… The only difference is they don’t have to go into the cinema, you know; they have to go to school, so maybe a little tougher to keep their attention.
RT: You taught Gaelic, and Gaelic turns up randomly in a lot of movies, especially in The Guard, obviously. Do you think there’s ever going to be a feature-length all-Gaelic movie, and would you be interested in doing something like that?
BG: Yeah, there have been a couple already… It would have to be good enough. It’s like working in Ireland. If the script was good enough, and if I was in a position to do it, I would do it. I would love to do it. I would absolutely love to do it. But there have been feature-length films made; it just hasn’t… I haven’t been around or I just haven’t been able to do it or I didn’t like what was there. You know, I just like keeping in contact with it. If I can [do] a little bit of it in At Swim-Two-Birds, I’m not sure quite yet whether I’m going to film it with both; I’ll probably know on set. You know, Irish is something that’s kind of hanging in there; in spite of all logic, people are still drawn to it. It’s 2000 years old, and people don’t want to see it go away. But I don’t see this kind of notion that it’s going to be spoken all over Ireland or that this revival is going to happen. It’s a thing of beauty that’s there in some places and not in others, and we just have to appreciate it, I suppose. But yeah, of course I’d go for it.
The Guard opens this week in limited release.