The Irish legend and go-to character actor for Spielberg and Scorsese talks about his hilarious new black comedy
Brendan Gleeson worked as a teacher in Dublin for ten years before training to be an actor. Despite a Hollywood agent telling him he was ‘too old and too ugly’ for the job, the 59-year-old has become one of the most respected character actors in the industry, working with everyone from Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York) to Steven Spielberg (AI), Harry Potter to the Smurfs.
His brilliant new film Calvary reunites Gleeson with The Guard director John Michael McDonagh for a small-town black comedy. Gleeson plays a good priest, a decent man who gets a death threat in the confession, which leads him to explore the darkest corners of modern Ireland.
Brendan, paedophilia in the church, the economic crash… What does Calvary say about Ireland?
I don’t think the problems in the film are confined to Ireland or Catholicism. It’s fundamentally about disillusionment, about people despairing of the notion of leadership, or faith in humanity or any kind of goodness. There’s been a seismic change in people’s faith in authority, or in any kind of wisdom from above. I think people are a little bit lost.
Do you think it’s an angry film?
There is anger there. But it’s also about empathy with other people, no matter what their situation. That’s what art is supposed to do – art makes people feel less alone, in their joy or their struggle or their pain. It’s interesting to watch audience reactions – they don’t give it a standing ovation, they want to absorb it a little bit. You know they loved the film, but they’re also troubled by it.
Calvary and Philomena both examine abuse in the Catholic Church. Do you think it’s important for films to explore these issues?
What I love about both Philomena and Calvary is their non-hectoring nature. Philomena was a beautiful film. The simplicity of that character’s faith: what do despair or anger have to offer as an alternative to forgiveness? And I know John [McDonagh] was also eager to get away from cynicism. It would have been very easy and lazy to write about a bad priest, but he took a different approach.
You taught in a Catholic school for ten years. Do these revelations taint your memories?
Not at all. I never got a sniff of any abuse. There were people who were very tough on the kids, but I think I would have been aware if anything more had been going on.
The cast is a who’s who of Irish actors… Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, Aidan Gillen. How was it working with them?
Fantastic. Everybody put their heart and soul into it. And each character has their own little world, so I’d be doing two or three days with Dylan, a few days with Aidan.
Was that fun?
I loved it because I’m carrying the narrative, my character is the guy that the others bounce off. But it did mean they got all the best lines!
Your son, Domhnall, is also in the film, and he’s getting a reputation as a terrific actor at the moment. How does that feel?
It’s fantastic. It’s gone past the stage that he would be looking for guidance from me, but we still run things by each other for a different perspective.
He also directed a short film that you starred in, ‘Noreen’. How was it for him, directing his dad?
Ha! You’ll have to ask him that. Being directed by him was a joy, he was a bit nervous to begin with, then he settled in and it was great. We had fun.
Calvary opens Thu Jul 3.