Powerfully portraying a seemingly upstanding member of society who’s actually contending with a harrowing emotional complexity and a brazen code of morals can be a difficult obstacles for some actors to realistically do. But Brendan Gleeson intensely and grippingly did just that when he enthrallingly stepped into the role of the struggling Father James in writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s new drama, ‘Calvary.’ Gleeson not only made the character entertaining, relatable and at times comical as he struggled to reconnect with his parishioners, but also showed the endearing side of the embattled priest as he faced modern desire and sin. The priest also learned the true meaning of corruption and compassion when he became vilified for the actions of the members of his community, and discovered the difficulties of upholding a sense of truth and goodness during that process.
‘Calvary’ follows Father James, a notoriously good-hearted priest at a small Irish Parish, who receives a death threat from one of his parishioners during confession. The church member warns the priest that he should settle all his affairs, as he plans to murder him the following Sunday on the beach. While Father James has an idea of the identity of the parishioner, who claims the physical abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of a priest is his motivating factor behind the threat, he’s reluctant to tell the police about the warning. Instead, the priest makes amends with various suspects in his doubt-ridden community. They include the agnostic, opinionated doctor, Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen); the guilt-ridden financial speculator, Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), who has a business proposition for the church; and a jealous husband, Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd), his cheating wife, Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) and her boyfriend, Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), who doesn’t wish to be judged.
As Father James engages with the parishioners who each have their vendettas against, and reasons for wanting to kill, him, the priest also tries to mend his strained relationship with his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly). After attempting to commit suicide, Fiona visits her father at his church for a few days after he receives the death threat. The two became somewhat estranged after Fiona’s mother died years before her suicide attempt, at which time he decided to become a priest. The two reconnected during her visit, however, as the priest not only confronts the confounding limits of modern faith and his impending mortality, but also realizes his strength after his loss of grace, forgiveness and humility.
Gleeson generously took the time recently to sit down for an exclusive interview and talk about portraying Father James in ‘Calvary’ at the Crosby Hotel in New York City. Among other things, the actor discussed how he first became interested in playing the priest as he was shooting the 2011 crime thriller, ‘The Guard,’ with McDonagh, and they began talking about exploring the notion of what makes a good priest; how they were aware they could offer a little insight into the identity the parishioner who threatened the priest to viewers, without being too deceptive; and how Fiona was so vulnerable, her father felt he couldn’t tell her about the threat against him, as he felt like he needed to repair her.
ShockYa (SY): You play Father James in the new drama, ‘Calvary.’ What was it about the character and the script that convinced you to take on the role?
Brendan Gleeson (BG): Well, I started talking with John Michael McDonagh as we filmed ‘The Guard’ together, and that was a great script. I really enjoyed working on that film. As we were coming to the end of that movie, we started talking about the notion of a good priest. So I was committed to being in this film before it was even written.
I love working with John; he’s an incredible writer and a great director, so I wanted to do it again. So we discussed things that interested us both, which is how I became involved in ‘Calvary.’
SY: Speaking of the fact that you previously worked with John on ‘The Guard,’ what was the process of reuniting with John on ‘Calvary,’ once you began filming?
BG: We get along really well. We have different sensibilities at times, but we also have a shared instinct at times. That’s a good thing, because you do need a bit of friction. If your views are too tunnel visioned, it’s not necessarily a healthy thing.
But at the same time, it’s not a good thing when you work with someone with a totally different sensibility and series of instincts from you. The worst time I’ve really had on a film set wasn’t when I worked with someone who’s a bit of an idiot, but when someone has a totally different sensibility. Then you’re fighting with them all the time, and what you’re trying to achieve.
With John and myself, we have gotten to a place where we understand each other, and what we’re trying to achieve. We might have different ways of doing it, but it’s all about getting to the same place. So you raise the bar for each other than.
SY: ‘Calvary’ features a diverse and talented ensemble cast, and was filmed in the fishing village of Easkey in County Sligo, Ireland. What was the experience of shooting with your co-stars in Ireland?
BG: It was fantastic. The cast was great, because I think everyone we got were the people John wanted. So he pretty much hired everyone he wanted, and they’re fantastic actors. John’s a very sharp caster with his films. He likes to collaborate with the same people, so a lot of the people who worked on this film contributed to ‘The Guard,’ as well. So there was a level of intensity and personal commitment that happened with each of these people.
One of the most important people who was cast was Kelly Reilly, who played my (character’s) daughter. That relationship was massively important. Chris O’Dowd also faced a challenge to pull off what he pulled off.
It was exhilarating to have that level of presence with all of the actors as we went from scene to scene. But it was also very challenging, because it meant I had to take all this abuse from the other characters, which was pretty intense. Dealing with that became that much more difficult.
Working in Sligo was a treat, though, because I kind of know that part of the country pretty well. Getting to inhabit in that area with a story of such an epic nature was pretty special.
SY: There are several suspects throughout the film who appear to be prime suspects for the parishioner who threatened Father James, from an agnostic, opinionated doctor to a guilt-ridden financer with a business with a business proposition for the priest, to a jealous husband. How did you work to maintain the mystery of who threatened Father James in the beginning of the film?
BG: We had to be aware of what we could portray to an audience, and what you can’t show. But at the same time, you don’t want to be so tricksy that it becomes untruthful. We did put in a few red herrings, but it wasn’t the kind of film that was too deceptive.
**SPOILER ALERT** Father James does know who the parishioner is who threatened him. So I was worried about my scenes with Chris, as we thought about what we should portray. I said to John, “We obviously can’t portray anything, and it would be idiotic to do that. We have to play it without giving it way.”
At the same time, that added another layer to when we were confronting each other. It helped in the scene where we were talking about Veronica being beat up, and the meat was hanging up around us. So there was that elephant in the room.
But there was also that confrontation with some of the other characters, like Aidan Gillen’s character. The notion of his cynicism was almost as bad as the threat of violence. All of these other people were also coming at me, like Isach De Bankolé when was flicking his cigarette at me.
As we went through all the suspects, the nature of their disillusionment and their cynicism was almost as violent as the death threat. They were death threats in a philosophical way. So there was a lot of cross over, where it could be read as one thing or another. I think John was very clear in that he structured it that way, and the signs he left. **END SPOILER ALERT**
SY: Besides dealing with the death threat from the parishioner, Father James is also trying to mend his relationship with his daughter, Fiona, who was played by Kelly. Why did you feel that showing his personal life and relationship with his daughter was also important to the story?
BG: For me, it rounded out the character. He wasn’t a naive priest who came into the religious world without having this faith in God that he never questioned. He was a fully grown man who had problems with alcoholism, and faced tragedy when his wife died. He had slightly lost his daughter in the process of finding his vocation.
I knew the character best when I read the scenes with Kelly, even in the first draft of the script. He had such a torturous relationship with his daughter. Having a child who’s suicidal is a nightmare, and his response to it showed his own distress and flawed nature that rounded out the character.
I also think people were more capable of taking him seriously when they knew he had lived in the world, and he hadn’t just coasted through on some scholarship. They knew he had to put up with real life.
SY: Do you think exploring father James’ personal history before he became a priest, particularly the details of his wife’s death and his daughter’s suicide attempt, was beneficial to building his character?
BG: It totally helped. The notion of keeping faith when he realized that he was part of the problem that led his daughter to attempt suicide, as he had abandoned her in a way, did show his true character.
**SPOILER ALERT** That also complicates the issue at the end of the film, when he’s about to go down to the beach, as he’s deserting her again, in a way. He makes a phone call to her, and they talk about forgiveness. They’ve forgiven each other for what’s happened in the past, but in a way, he’s also asking for forgiveness for what may about to happen on the beach. So it made the decision to go down to the beach, and confront what’s down there, much more interesting and layered. **END SPOILER ALERT**
SY: Throughout the film, Father James was contemplating whether or not he would go down to the beach to talk to the parishioner who threatened him, but didn’t tell Fiona about the threat. Do you feel keeping that a secret from her is another insight into his relationship with her, and that they’re still not completely trustful and comfortable with each other?
BG: That’s an interesting question, and I haven’t really thought about that. It seems like a very obvious thing to do. But I think she was so vulnerable, I don’t know if he felt he could tell her at that point. I think he felt like he needed to repair her first. He was also reluctant to tell her, in case it didn’t come about. I don’t know-that’s a fascinating question. Maybe she did have a reason to feel betrayed for him not telling her about it.
There’s a scene with Veronica in the restaurant where Fiona says to her father, “You have to put up with this sh*t all the time?” You imagine she’s asking him to talk about his life, but he doesn’t feel like he can at that point. Perhaps he feels like she can’t deal with it. I know what she would have told him, though, if he did tell her. She would have told him to get out of there.
Written by: Karen Benardello