PHOTO: Brendan Gleeson as Father James Lavelle in Calvary.
Dublin-born Brendan Gleeson is a former teacher who left the profession to pursue a career in acting, his first love. His rise to fame began when he appeared in Jim Sheridan's The Field, followed by a number of small roles in such films as Far And Away and Into The West.
He landed his first starring role in I Went Down, which was followed by an acclaimed outing in The General. But it was his role as Hamish in Braveheart that brought him to the attention of Hollywood.
In 2009 Brendan was nominated for Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for his work in Martin McDonagh's In Bruges opposite Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes. That same year, he won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in the HBO movie "Into the Storm."
His screen credits also include Perrier's Bounty, Green Zone, The Guard, Safe House, Albert Nobbs, The Village, Cold Mountain, Kingdom Of Heaven, Breakfast On Pluto, Troy, Black Irish, The Tiger's Tail, Beowulf, Mission: Impossible 2, Tailor Of Panama, Country Of My Skull, 28 Days Later, Gangs Of New York and several installments of the Harry Potter franchise. In just the last year, he’s appeared in Edge Of Tomorrow, The Grand Seduction, and The Smurfs 2.
Here, he talks about his latest outing as Father James Lavelle in Calvary, a modern morality play written and directed by John Michael McDonagh.
Kam Williams: Hi Brendan, thanks for the interview.
Brendan Gleeson: Not at all, Kam. How are you?
KW: Fine, thanks. I’ll be mixing in questions from fans with my own. Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier says: I have visited the South of Ireland and loved it, including the capital, Dublin. What does it mean to you to advocate for the Irish language, Gaelic?
BG: Yeah, people often ask, why are you interested in the Irish language when it’s dying? If your momma’s dying you wouldn’t want her to die alone. So, I think the Irish language is a great gift, and it’s still hanging in there, if people want it. It’s a connection to a long, rich, deep culture. There’s 2,000 years of it. And when it’s lost, it’ll be gone for good. Those doors are not going to be open anymore. I value it, and it’s up to everybody to wise up about it. It’s not something I necessarily want to revive as the spoken first language of the country. I just think it’s fantastic, and a great cultural gift to have.
KW: Patricia also asks: What message do you want people to take away from the movie?
BG: I don’t know. I think everybody has their own relationship with this movie, which is the triumph of it, really. Different elements of it access different people in different ways. From my point of view, I would hope there’s a sense that the struggle is being carried on to maintain some life in the world in whatever way that manifests itself, whether religiously, spiritually, or just philanthropically, and that people are worth it in the end. But I don’t know. There’s an awful lot of pain. One of the achievements of this film is to make clear that child abuse is a life sentence. That it’s not something you can just get over and forget after receiving an apology.
KW: What was the difference in being directed by John Michael McDonagh, whom you also worked with in The Guard, as opposed to being directed by his brother, Martin, who directed you in In Bruges?
BG: Not a whole lot, to be quite honest. They’re both very calm, very assured, very prepared, and very cinematic in their thinking. They’re also very actor-friendly and collaborative. So, I love working with either of them, frankly. That’s not to say that they’re simply two sides of the same coin. While they have similarities in their working style, their worlds are very different.
KW: Larry Greenberg asks: Brendan how hard was it to perfect that County Sligo accent?
BG: [LOL] I didn’t have to, because my character wasn’t from there.
KW: Patricia also asks: How would you describe your character in Calvary, Father James Lavelle?
BG: As somebody who believes the best, in spite of all the evidence. [Laughs heartily] I just came up with that one. He’s someone who’s committed to optimism, despite all evidence to the contrary. He insists on it. And I think people need to know that that kind of struggle, and that kind of beauty, and that kind of optimism is possible in the world, because we’ve got a lot of cynicism confronting us everyday making it easy to feel that there’s nothing worth believing in.
KW: Environmental activist Grace Sinden says: Brendan, you have courageously tackled a controversial subject in Calvary. Are you concerned about any political blowback you might receive from the Catholic Church as a consequence?
BG: No, not at all.
KW: Editor Lisa Loving says: This movie looks incredibly heavy. Irish people have suffered a lot throughout world history, have had front row seats to a lot of other peoples’ suffering – like the Irish mariners ensnared in the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade – not to mention the Potato Famine, the Troubles, and the discrimination against Irish immigrants in the United States in the 19th and part of the 20th Century. There were also the horrible atrocities committed by Roman Catholic nuns who ran the “homes” for unwed mothers and the orphanages in Ireland, and the Church’s sex abuse silence. Do you feel that the Irish suffering serves as a symbol of a universal aspect of the human experience in a way which resonates with oppressed people of other cultures?
BG: I would hope so. I would hope that while we made a movie about faith, that it’s not necessarily only about Catholicism. And I’d also hope that the notion of disillusionment wouldn’t be seen as the exclusive province of the Irish. The context is the Irish landscape, and the Irish story of the moment, with all of the treachery in terms of the spiritual, economic and political leadership. There have been horrible shortcomings, with hurt and pain being inflicted upon people. But I don’t think that’s exclusive to the Irish. Many people find it difficult to believe in leadership anymore. What do you replace it with, though? That’s kind of what the movie’s all about. The idea of replacing flawed leadership with cynicism and despair isn’t a barrel of laughs, either. So, I hope the film is thought-provoking in a generalized way as opposed as to being read as simply specific to the Irish point-of-view.
KW: Professor/Filmmaker/Author Hisani Dubose says: You have played so many rich characters. Which one has been your favorite?
BG: Comparisons are odious. So, I don’t really come out and put one against the other. But this one might have been the most challenging. This experience was certainly one of the top five in terms of recovery. It definitely stayed with me and took a little while to get over this one. So, I put Father Lavelle up there.
KW: What actor did you admire growing up?
BG: I was very fond of Gene Hackman.
KW: Kate Newell says: Brendan, I loved Calvary. I hope you've written your acceptance speech for the Oscars.
BG: [Chuckles] No, I think we can leave that on the back burner. Those expectations are awful because, if it doesn’t happen, then you suddenly feel like a loser. By the token, when you do happen to win something, I never question it. I just take it at face value. But I hate the notion that there would be losers associated with any production where great performances have been recognized. I’d be honored if it happened, but I ain’t looking that far down the road.
KW: Kate was also wondering whether you’ve been back to Belgium since playing a hit man in In Bruges?
BG: Back to Belgium, yes, but not to Bruges. I think I might find it difficult to walk through Bruges without having to stop quite often. At some stage, I might like to go back since I had a great time there. But I think I have to let it sit for a little bit.
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles says: Brendan, you’ve played extraordinary fantasy roles and amazing biographical roles—thank you for Mad-Eye Moody and Winston Churchill.
BG: Cheers! Thank you, Harriet!
KW: She asks: What’s the difference in preparing to inhabit a role that doesn’t exist except in the fantasy world versus portraying an icon that is already so clear in everyone’s mind?
BG: Well, there’s a certain freedom in both that doesn’t accrue to the other. The freedom in playing an historical figure is that you don’t have to suspend disbelief. This stuff happened. As they say, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Otherwise, a lot of the time, you would have to work very hard to convince people. For instance, who would think that after the Battle of Dunkirk there could ever be a resurrection of the fortunes of the British in the Second World War? But the fact that it did happen releases you from having to prove it. It happened. And it can be incredibly interesting exploring how life can be so extraordinarily surprising in that way, turning expectations on their head, and trying to figure some version of how that might have happened, and how people may have responded in the face of overwhelming odds like that. With a fictional character, by contrast, you start with a blank canvas, you have the truth of the imagination to guide you. And you can bring it anywhere you want. They’re just different challenges, but they each have their own freedoms, as well as their own limitations, if you like. I try to find the freedom possible in each type of role, but in different ways.
KW: Harriet also asks: With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you'd like to star in?
BG: Does she mean a remake of one of my own films, or of other films? I generally don’t like to do remakes. I don’t really want to second guess any film that’s achieved what it set out to do. You need to have a legitimate reason beyond just wanting to make money from a remake, like a desire to bring a story to a broader audience. Regrettably, so many of them are ill-advised. I just did a remake of The Grand Seduction, which was a whimsical story set in Newfoundland. I made an exception for this one even though it was, beat for beat, the same story, because it was set in a different place where I’d never been, and I wanted to find out more about Newfoundland.
KW: Professor Dubose would like to know whether getting an independently-produced Irish film like Calvary wide distribution in the U.S. is dependent on having a prior connection to the Hollywood film industry.
BG: No, I don’t think there was any American money in this film to begin with. What happens is you make your film, and then take it somewhere like Sundance, where the distributors can discover it. Sometimes, it’s nicer to have money from the very beginning, because that makes things easier. But the path most independent films take is that they’re made first, and then they’re sold.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
Another one was “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” which I read as part of my research for the upcoming Ron Howard film based on it.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
BG: It depends on who I’m playing. [Laughs heartily again]
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
BG: Oh, I prefer not to cook anything.
KW: What do you like to eat?
BG: Almost anything you can imagine.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
BG: Reading a little book that went, ”Mommy horse and daddy horse are proud as they can be, because they have a baby horse and baby horse makes three.” I remember saying, “That’s me!” I know I was three at the time.
KW: The Sanaa Lathan question: What excites you?
BG: Good roles, like this one in Calvary, and making important films with people who know more than I do. That’s what interests me now. I’ve done a lot of projects that need development where there’s been inexperience involved, which I loved, but at this point in my career, I want to work with people who allow me to learn.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
BG: Do it!
KW: Thanks again for the time, Brendan, and best of luck with the film.
BG: Okay, Kam. Cheers! Thanks a lot.