Up Close and Personal
By Beverly Cohn
Irish actor Brendan Gleeson
gives a riveting performance as Father James in John Michael McDonagh's
"Calvary," now in general distribution nationwide.
ublin's Brendan Gleeson is one of those actors who always
manages to crawl inside a character's skin, creating fully actualized,
riveting performances. Some of his outstanding films include: "Far
and Away," "Michael Collins," "Braveheart,"
"The General," "Lake Placid," "Mission
Impossible II, " "The Taylor of Panama," "Gangs
of New York," "Troy," "Harry Potter
and the Goblet of Fire," "In Bruges," "Green
Zone," "Safe House," "The Butcher
Boy," and the most charming "The Grand Seduction."
Gleeson's latest film, currently playing in
theatres, is "Calvary." Written and directed by John
Michael McDonagh, Gleeson plays the lead role of Father
James, a very kind priest in a small Irish parish who hears
a shocking plan during a confessional. This revelation sends him on
an exploratory mission, which ultimately reveals his strength and humility
especially through his relationship with his daughter, played by Kelly
Reilly. Without being a "spoiler," the opening sequence
is probably one of the most surprising and shocking scenes you'll see
in any film and hence kicks off the action in this thriller, a cliff-hanger
until the very final shot. Other members of this outstanding cast include
Chris O'Dowd, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankolé,
Domhnall Gleeson, and M. Emmet Walsh.
Mr. Gleeson recently sat down with a select group
of journalists and the following has been edited for content and continuity
for print purposes.
Congratulations on yet another extraordinary performance.
Gleeson: Thank you very much.
Brendan Gleeson as Father
James with Kelly Reilly
who plays his daughter Fiona in "Calvary."
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
You were quoted as saying "This script is
for actors." When you read the script, what was your first reaction?
Gleeson: I felt challenged and in an odd way, I felt
reassured. What we talked about with John (director, John Michael
McDonagh) was more or less on the page. I had an initial kind
of a feeling that I knew this man as a human being through his daughter,
which I wasn't expecting and maybe we should see more of that. Obviously,
I felt excited and all that because I understood culturally where he
was coming from. I understood the issues and there was a lot of stuff
that was second nature in the sense it was a very recognizable context
Did you see Father James as an allegory for Christ?
Gleeson: No. I never felt Christ-like. I felt like a
Samurai Warrior more than Christ in the sense he was a
protector of whatever the essence of goodness is. There is a picture
of the sacred heart that I remember thinking about where you see the
actual heart. It's open there for anybody to have a go at it. So, as
Father James, whenever I put on the vestments for mass, in a way
I felt that I had a suit of armor and in another way felt that I was
stripping everything away. It was a very odd sensation.
Brendan Gleeson as Father James hears a shocking
threat in the confessional which turns his life upside down. Photo
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
The notion of atoning for others' pain and others' sins
in terms of the abuse that has been perpetrated by people of the cloth
and absorbing people's pain and trauma and taking it on yourself, that
was Christ-like, but Christ knew who his father was. Father
James is kind of working on his own faith and that this is actually
a good idea.
Have you played a priest before?
Gleeson: I played Father Bubbles in "The
Butcher Boy," which was my favorite novel at that time, so
to play that guy was interesting. He was a good priest too, but a little
naïve, but this guy (Father James) is not naïve,
which is more interesting to me.
Is there a certain responsibility in playing a
Gleeson: In what way?
An inside view?
Gleeson: There was. I decided not to say what my own
spiritual convictions are because I want people to watch the film without
thinking there is any particular agenda going on with regards to faith
or no faith or Catholic, or non-Catholic or anti-Catholic
or whatever. I'm not being coy, but I just don't think it's a good idea
for me to go into my own deal.
As you developed the character, were there any
familiar childhood memories that came back?
Gleeson: Certainly. There were people in my childhood
that kept me going back to that (his childhood). There was a mentor
of mine who was a Christian brother and was a hugely inspirational
figure in my primary school. He was great mentor. My parents' kind of
faith was the one that I accessed more than anything more modern. I
found there was clarity of purpose there, where before people had the
kind of questioning that has been the norm for the last 30-40 years.
It was kind of faith in humanity and a charity that I missed when it
started to move on just kindness or the ability to be able to go to
a child who is lost.
Where there certain scenes that had a big impact
Gleeson: The scene on the road was one of the scenes
that resonated with me in a huge amount as a father. Today, you can't
talk to a girl on the road without being accused of something improper
and if a child is lost in a supermarket, as a man you cannot take a
child's hand and bring her over to find her mother. Something is broken,
Do you have children?
Gleeson: I have four lads, four sons who have been my
You're stage-trained and your profile says that
you did a lot of Shakespeare (He cuts in).
Gleeson: It's a lie. (Laughter) I keep
telling people that I've never done Shakespeare. I keep telling
everybody that and think to myself, why not just take the credit for
all those years in RADA,* which I didn't spend and get the degree
without doing the work. (Laughter)
What was the genesis of events that led you to
Gleeson: When I left school, I hooked up with a bunch
of guys who had been with my mentor as well and we got involved in theatre
with the help of a particularly good English teacher who I could
get on with. After a few years, I went back to college and was going
to do a lot of different things. I hooked up with a group there. They
were working in the Irish language and were putting on plays
and rock concerts and all sorts of stuff in the Irish language.
They developed a theatre company and this company grew bigger and bigger.
We went out to find audiences that didn't go to theatre and we wrote
plays for them and brought them into a theatre they could identify with.
Were you also teaching at the same time?
Gleeson: I was teaching for 10 years and enjoyed
it, but I was 34 at that point. I was writing plays and trying
to direct plays. I was trying to act in plays. I was trying to put on
a concert at school. I was trying to keep all the lads educated and
decided that I couldn't keep it up and had to do something.
Did you have professional aspirations?
Gleeson: I didn't do all this with a view of becoming
a professional actor. I did everything on my own terms. I didn't feel
that I had to go and advertise soap powder to keep my family fed and
I enjoyed the teaching itself. But when I turned 34, I decided
that 35 is not going to be a point of regret for me where I would
say "I should have." So, that opened up a second life for
With all the different kinds of characters you've
played, do you build an inner life for your characters or does the character
become alive just from the script itself. Also, how do you work with
Gleeson: It depends. I don't have a particular process.
Whatever I need to do is what I'm going to do. I don't necessarily do
"Method," but I don't mind if somebody else is doing
it. It's kind of great to join in and do improvisation and all that
stuff around the work. I think essentially I can read a script and can
understand and empathize with the characters to the extent where I can
feel impact or the lack of it. Maybe it's because of all the essays
I read when I was teaching. It's an important thing in my arsenal so
I can distinguish pretty well what is a good script and what isn't.
You've already read the script and with a voice in your head and that's
the beginning of empathizing with the character and then you do whatever
you need to do whether it's culture research or something else.
I did Churchill, for example, which was a massive leap in terms
of accent and culture. It was totally different from my life experience
and I did a lot of research. That said, there are other times where
the research gets in the way. So for me, you always approach every job
with whatever you need to get it done.
Brendan Gleeson as Gerry Boyle in John Michael's
McDonagh's comedic thriller, "The Guard." Courtesy
Since you've worked with John before on "The
Guard, do you have a shorthand in your communication?
Gleeson: He is such an exquisite writer with very sure
cinematic vision that I feel very liberated in exploring what I find
in the character. We share a general instinct in most areas, but we
don't always agree on things, which allows kind of a proper creative
friction. I would tend to be a little bit more optimistic while he tends
to be more nihilistic and then he writes these exquisitely tender scenes
that are full of compassion and love.
What would people find out about you that would
Gleeson: In what way am I weird? (Laughter)
Let's turn this around. In what way are you weird? (Laughter)
I don't know but whatever it is, I'm going to keep it to myself because
there's so little left that is private, that anything I have, I'm going
to hold onto for dear life. (Laughter)
"I'm lucky to have an extraordinary partner
who has created my stable family life."
I have one final question. You are a father, a
husband and have a very successful career. What is the challenge in
Gleeson: I'm lucky to have an extraordinary partner.
We decided to have the base at home in Dublin as the stability
and there were sacrifices that she was required to make. It meant that
my kids would not get hauled around. I got kind of lonely, but I had
kids who were being looked after, so I was very lucky. It's very difficult
when two people have two careers to balance. So I have her to thank
for my stable family life.
I wanted to tell you that I've been to Ireland
three times on press trips sponsored by Tourism Ireland and absolutely
Gleeson: Have you been to Sligo?
Yes. As a matter of fact, I had dinner with this
wonderful couple who are experts on Yeats. With the Lake Isle of Innisfree
as the backdrop, the professor would read a poem in between delicious
courses prepared by his physician wife. It was quite an unforgettable
And, they love Americans.
Gleeson: Well, half of them are us! (Laughter)
*Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts