by Ashleigh VanHouten
photography by Barry McCall
“Gossip is malign and dull. I would prefer to celebrate beautiful qualities and actions. It is important to people’s state of mind that we continue to show there is love in the world. Fame is a deviant.”
Dublin-born Brendan Gleeson has a movie star name; it’s memorable and rolls off the tongue just so. And a movie star he certainly is, having appeared alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood in some of the most iconic movies of all time – Braveheart, for one; also Troy, Gangs of New York, and a few installments of a little series called Harry Potter – and playing such iconic characters as Winston Churchill (Into the Storm, a role for which he won an Emmy). Still, he may never be considered in the mega-star ranks of his costars by mainstream media, and not only because he doesn’t eschew to a Tom Cruise aesthetic, but mostly because, after getting into acting at the somewhat mature age of 34, he doesn’t subscribe to the typical movie star lifestyle. “Private is private,” is Gleeson’s long and short answer for how he manages to keep a low profile while working in some of the biggest movies in Hollywood. And as he may not be the most verbose actor we’ve ever interviewed for Moves, Gleeson doesn’t mince words, especially regarding the goldfish bowl that is our obsession with celebrities. “Gossip is malign and dull,” he states. “The elevation of fame to its present level of aspiration is vacuous. I would prefer to celebrate beautiful qualities and actions. It is important to people’s state of mind that we continue to show there is love in the world. Fame is a deviant.”
A deviant it may be, but a certain level of fame is a necessary evil, perhaps, to accrue Gleeson’s golden resume; and this from a man who started his acting career when scores of thespians are already entering the decline of their careers. Gleeson may not have dreamt of acting from birth, or got his feet wet as a child actor, but he had goals and he went for them – working as a teacher and a part-time actor, Gleeson was nominated for a theater award in Dublin which gave him the confidence to dive into acting full-time. “I was approaching my mid-thirties and felt to a certain extent it was now or never,” he reflects.
Gleeson made his feature film debut in Jim Sheridan’s The Field in 1990, and in 1997, the actor was given his first starring role in I Went Down, a black comedy that cast him as a dim-witted hitman. Perhaps his affection for this role prompted Gleeson’s desire to one day work with the Coen brothers, American filmmakers also known for their dark, twisted senses of humor (see Burn After Reading or Fargo.)
While he got his start in theater, Gleeson says that at the moment he prefers film. “It can be more intimate in one sense while reaching more people, and the possibilities intrigue me more. That I have been lucky enough to work with great writers is a huge part of that equation.” He admits that he does sometimes “hanker after a good play” and misses the “shared human experience” of theater: “You can feel an interaction with the audience that is alive and unique to that time and place.” But for now, he’s more than content with the film work he’s involved in.
As for what’s next, Gleeson’s set to appear in John McDonagh’s Calvary, where he plays “a good man who is a priest in a society which once revered such men but now reviles them.” The actor is also set to make his directorial debut with At Swim-Two-Birds, a film based on a 1939 novel by Irish author Brian O’Nolan.
Throughout his respected and solid career, he’s done a lot of historical pieces, but shrugs off any notion that he’s somehow being type-cast, or that if he is, it’s a bad thing – after all, playing the rugged, ruddy Irishman with a heart of gold in many a period piece has served him well. Still, Gleeson is far from a one-trick actor. When preparing for his role as Churchill in Into The Storm, he worked with a great dialogue coach and did “the usual research,” stating that the account of Churchill’s personal physician was particularly helpful. “I had a wonderful co-star in Janet McTeer and a host of gifted, generous actors in the cast who had my back at every level,” he adds. “We discovered the humanity of the man together and let his response to the seismic events of the time reveal his heroism.” But does Gleeson have a favorite role? “I continue to have a lot of affection for many of the characters I’ve played and feel I would betray one by choosing another!” he says.
Of course Gleeson’s spent a significant time in North America for work, and though he loves New York and Chicago, is not limited to the glitz and glamor of the larger cities – “I had an unforgettable time in Louisiana. Generally I get away from it all in Ireland, but have recently been cocooned in Newfoundland.” And as one of the “normal guys” of Hollywood, his personal life is that – personal. But we get glimpses of the real man behind his larger-than-life characters in his accomplished fiddle playing that shows up every now and then in his films, and in his admissions that he’s an avid reader, be it classical or comics – “whatever transports me,” he says. His love of words is evident not only in his work but also the way he carries himself; the actor studied Performing Arts at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and also majored in Gaelic and English at University College in Dublin.
A movie star he may be, indeed, but a rare one who seems to have the perfect mix of respect and irreverence for the job: two of Gleeson’s sons, Domhnall and Brian, are actors as well, but the elder Gleeson doesn’t worry about a changing landscape for his sons. “I think it will always be the same challenge in a different costume.”