Dublin-born and based, Brendan Gleeson is, like many of the finest character actors, many things to many people. To some he is forevermore Professor “Mad-Eye” Moody from the “Harry Potter” films. Others will recall his standout turn opposite Mel Gibson in “Braveheart”, or the wickedly underappreciated “In Bruges”, opposite a headstrong Colin Farrell. Others still might think he looks familiar from Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture “Beowulf”. Most recently, Gleeson won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie for his portrayal of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in HBO’s “Into the Storm”. In real life, of course, Gleeson is all of these characters, and still so much more — a voluble, friendly and exceedingly insightful and intelligent guy.
In his latest film, writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s dryly comedic mismatched-buddy-cop dramedy “The Guard”, Gleeson plays Gerry Boyle, a longtime police sergeant in Ireland’s rural Galway who yawningly meets only the basest professional obligations, and lives by his own loose moral code. Friction ensues when an American FBI agent, Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), arrives to oversee the investigation into an international drug trafficking operation that may be planning on using Galway as a port. We had a chance recently to chat one-on-one with Gleeson, about his prickly and provocative character in “The Guard” and his desire to take a great American road trip. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: I spoke with your costar, Don Cheadle, about this topic as well, but when you’re crafting a somewhat antagonistic relationship on screen, is it necessary to keep a distance off-set?
Brendan Gleeson: I think it’s unnecessary if you know what you’re doing. I’ve always been a believer in the collaborative approach, particularly with material like this where there’s a certain fine line that you have to walk. I think you’re better off, as happened here, getting to know the guy, so that there are no problems, and you’re not coming at it with a wildly different approach. We both knew where we were going with it, and still had a lot of fun doing it. But I also feel, as I did with Don, that you can raise the bar for each other. I mean, I think Gerry’s provocations hit the spot every once in a while, but Wendell is a very quick learner and realizes what Boyle is up to, trying to push his buttons, so he comes back at him more and more as the film goes on. And so it was much better as a collaborative effort.
ShockYa: There’s a pleasantly off-kilter quality to the film, in that for a while the audience is really trying to get a hold on your character. You know that Boyle isn’t overtly malicious or brutish, but he says these terribly inappropriate and sometimes bigoted things, and seems to exhibit a certain geographical cluelessness with respect to America, which rubs Wendell wrong.
BG: To be honest with you I don’t feel like there was a geographical ignorance or anything like that with him. I mean, he reads Russian novelists too, but doesn’t like them because they take too much time to get to the point. (laughs) He’s very well versed and I think roundly educated in an odd way. I think he’s too bright for what he’s doing at the moment, actually, and so it’s suffocating him, he’s in a rut. My take on Boyle is that I think he grew up in a family with no male figure and had kind of a “High Noon”-type notion of maleness when he joined the police force. He expected moments where he would have to prove his mettle against the forces of corruption and this kind of thing, and all he met was compromise and heads being turned, things not being looked at, and so he’s stewing in his own juices a little bit. It seems very clear to me that there’s no hatred or racism in what he does. The relationships with Dr. O’Leary and his mother [are] very close. He’s very quick to see that, at last, in Wendell he finally has someone with a moral backbone. He’s quick to see that because his test of a man is to throw the most appalling stuff at them and see how they react. It’s partly boredom — he wants some fireworks to happen, and to see the look in the other guy’s face — but I get the impression that he’s always hoping that someone is going to step up to the mark. And that’s the dynamic that [evolves] between the two guys.
ShockYa: What do you think the history of Boyle’s use of prostitutes and casual use of illicit substances is, then? Is that emblematic again of occupational boredom?
BG: I think yeah, that’s possibly part of it, but it’s also a very real distrust. He does not trust received wisdom, and doesn’t care for unearned reputations. So if somebody is telling him, “Hey, you can take hit on crack and you’re hooked,” for instance, he says, “That’s rubbish, that’s propaganda.” I don’t think he’s a drug addict, and in the prostitution scenes there’s an odd, almost unsettling feeling that these women aren’t being abused — at least certainly not by him. It feels as if there is no disrespect involved in that relationship, which isn’t to say that that’s the way it should be (in real life). But it seems to me that Boyle doesn’t take received wisdom easily, that he plows his own furrow and makes his own decision about things. I think in the case of the prostitutes, he’s particularly naive. The notion that somebody would take a picture on a camera phone and that it wouldn’t come back to bite him is very naive, but I think he’s always been a softie with women.
ShockYa: Don mentioned that you basically only had one day together before filming.
BG: That was the first time we met, yeah, that one day in Los Angeles. We’d both gotten the script and answered very quickly, in like 24 hours or something. And so when I heard Don was going to do it I was absolutely overjoyed, because there’s a certain integrity in people’s work that you can recognize. I knew from his work, I could feel, that he was not only really talented and smart, but also very collaborative. You could sense it. Sometimes you can actually be mistaken in that, where somebody comes and works out of their own space and doesn’t really share. So you have to be easy in your expectation. But I came hoping not to be disappointing, and expecting the best. And within about three pages of reading through the script, it became immediately obvious (I was right). There was a lot of spontaneous laughter, there were little side comments coming in — we both kind of knew these guys pretty well, even we arrived. It was a question, then, of just exploring the dynamics between them. It’s a fantastic feeling, particularly with a script as good as this, when you meet someone that you’re going to have to go into the trenches with, and it’s the one you want absolutely by your side. After that long afternoon of reading and laughing, we knew we were in a pretty good place.
ShockYa: As a quick off-shot, what’s the toughest lift as an actor — a director with whom there’s a markedly different style or manner of working, or a fellow actor?
BG: I would say the director. I mean, one of the things I learned when I started working over here, with Americans and in America, is that there’s a massive respect among actors for one another’s process. Things that we might pooh-pooh a little bit at home maybe, everyone gives great credence to. So if someone wants to do the method thing, they do that, if someone wants to do 75 presses before they do a scene, go ahead and do it. Nobody here bats an eyelid about it. And it was respect that I learned quite quickly, and was also appreciative of. So you do respect other people’s process, but there does come a problem particularly with a director, and sometimes with actors, if their process is clashing against yours. And quite a lot of the problems often happen not with people who aren’t particularly good people, but people who just have different sensibilities. If you find that all your instincts are screaming one way and your director doesn’t go that way at all, it’s really rough, it can make for a long ride. And if you’re in the trenches with somebody who really thinks you should go out the other side, it can be kind of nightmarish. Because acting is the best profession, for me, possible, when it’s singing and going well. But because your relationship with a director will impinge on your performance more completely, I guess that’s the worst scenario.
ShockYa: A quick question about scale — this movie is at the exact opposite end of the spectrum of something like “Harry Potter”, “A.I.” or “Troy”. Do indie productions like this ever feel like an escape or respite from some of the complications of those bigger films?
BG: It can be a respite, sure. But I do like to mix and match, I have to say. The horrible fact of my life is that I tend to get bigger, more central roles in the smaller films, and therefore my affection — a lot of the time, with the work I’ve done — is more complete because I’ve had my hand on the tiller from the beginning to the end, whereas with a lot of the bigger ones there’s been a tendency to float in and out. But really it’s all about time, and sometimes it’s not what you might expect. Sometimes because you have multi-millions of set-ups on a large movie, and there’s so much riding on it, you don’t actually have a lot more time for the actors to explore what they need to explore. There’s so much pressure if there are 17 cameras and a whole city has been stopped and you’re going from one large thing to another. For me, moviemaking is all about money and time, and the only way that money really most factors into things is with buying you time. If you have time, and the proper people around you, you can explore what you need to do properly. On a small movie like this, for example, the schedule is of course very tight and we worked very, very hard, but because we were all on the same page and John was extraordinarily calm for a first-time director, we were getting there on schedule and always seemed to have enough time to explore what we needed to explore. That’s all you can ask.
ShockYa: I would be interested in your perspective on the geographical sprawl of the United States. You’re a worldly guy, who’s traveled the world, and Gerry Boyle… well, he’s gone to DisneyWorld once, by himself, but is otherwise quite content at home in a small rural town.
BG: One of the things I actually wanted to do this month, before things fell in and became very busy, was to finally get into a car and go in some vague way from the coast to somewhere. (laughs) One of my ambitions is to go into some of America’s smaller pockets. I’ve been around a little bit. And one of my best, most memorable times was when I was working in Mexico and I came up to see a friend of mine, Dirk Powell, who I met on “Cold Mountain”, and I spent some time in Louisiana, in Cajun country and then down in New Orleans. That, for me, was wonderful. At home, every county has a different accent, and we can tell what county a person comes from because of their accent. In the States, there’s obviously different accents all over the place, but it doesn’t seem quite as intense as all that. And there’s a certain homogenous thing that’s happened — I think possibly with the whole corporate way that America is structured — where you find the same stores on streets all over the country. So people from the outside looking in do tend to group the whole American experience together, but for me it’s never felt like that. I’ve always been intensely curious. I listen to “Fargo”, and I just want to get up there now! And New Orleans, with all its music and the Caribbean influence! I wasn’t expecting reggae and backbeat stuff, and there it was. I can’t wait to go and explore this country properly.
ShockYa: As someone who’s made three cross-country drives, I can attest that it’s certainly quite an experience, always.
BG: Sam Shepard, when we were doing “Safehouse”, told me this great story about going to live in a rural place — I think it was in the Carolinas or someplace — for a while, and he shot a couple of snakes down by a river. He put them up on a fence to dry out, and some guy was passing by and said, “What, you wanna make it rain?” (laughter) We have no idea about that in Europe! We understand it in my neck of the world (Ireland), but America is an endlessly fascinating place. I think it’s why so few Americans have passports, because there’s so much variety to be found within the borders anyway.
Written by: Brent Simon