Brendan Gleeson, probably Ireland’s finest living actor, has played some memorable roles but his next one has a special significance. The Dubliner talks to the RTÉ Guide’s Donal O’Donoghue about his late parents, and the hope of St Francis’ Hospice.
“People keep telling me that I’m an orphan now”, says Brendan Gleeson, looking into the middle distance. “But it’s only Christmas since my dad Frank died and I haven’t come to terms with the implications of that yet. My father was very religious and like a lot of religious people he feared crossing the line. For me the big thing was that Fr Eustace was there for him in St Francis Hospice every day so he had constant affirmation that his soul was in good nick. When my dad died there were no furrows on his brow. He passed away peacefully and that was the most extraordinary gift for us because we knew it was very tough for him to let go.”
It’s late January and the harshness of winter has been tempered by the promise of spring. Brendan Gleeson, recently returned from Utah, is wearing a peaked cap, a large coat and voluminous scarf. We sit in a far corner of a hotel in Malahide, the seaside village north of Dublin close by where he lives. It is mid-morning and the building is nearly deserted apart from a few elderly couples. Most don’t take a blind bit of notice of the big man with the grizzled and greying beard. Gleeson, recently returned from the Sundance Film Festival where his latest film, ‘The Guard’, won garlands for his portrayal of a maverick cop, probably likes it like that. Now he is preparing for his next role: a cameo part but close to his heart and home.
Celebration of Life is a concert to raise funds for St Francis Hospice, Raheny (and its sister hospice in Blanchardstown) where both Gleeson’s parents spent their last days. This year, alongside such acts as Riverdance, Virginnia Kerr and Rebecca Storm, Gleeson and his two thespian sons, Domhnall and Brian, will perform their adaptation of the James Joyce short story, After the Race, from Dubliners. It is the picaresque adventure of an Irishman caught up in a night-long swirl of excess and gambling. “If anything expresses our little Celtic Tiger journey of the last ten years, it’s After the Race”, says Gleeson with a gruff laugh. “And the emphasis is on ‘after’. We’re doing it for fun though, the message is only accidental.”
At 55, Brendan Gleeson still burns with curiosity and an intelligence which illuminates his conversation and acting. His hangdog features and expressive face can as easily snare cunning (‘The General’) as innocence (‘Sweety Barrett’) and sometimes both (‘In Bruges’). If he looks like an unlikely leading man – a Hollywood agent once dismissed him as “too fat, too old and not good enough looking” – his range is impressive, arcing from the definitive portrayal of iconic rebel Michael Collins in ‘The Treaty’ (1991) to an Emmy-award winning interpretation of Britain’s wartime PM Winston Churchill in ‘Into The Storm’ (2009), and alongside that are police and thieves and the late, great Alastor ‘Mad Eye’ Moody from the Harry Potter series.
His humanity is a measure of the actor and the man. Occasionally, those worlds collide, most dramatically some years ago when Gleeson made an emotional appearance on ‘The Late Late Show’. The subject was the health service and the actor was mad as hell as his ailing mother, Pat, had been through the wringer. “You’re blissfully unaware of the shortcomings of the Health Service until it hits you”, he says. “I was profoundly upset about that, prior to my Mam passing away three years ago and I don’t think it has got an awful lot better. Recently I was asked to comment on Mary Harney’s retirement from politics but I didn’t really see any point in going over old ground. If they want to get a template that works they should look to the Hospice. In a way, St Francis’ Hospice was for me a renewal of faith in human kindness.
“I was very close to my Mam and it was only in the last year that I was able to miss her for what she was. Before that I was just so pleased that her pain was over. I didn’t want that to go on any longer for her. I do miss her every so often as I’d like to share stuff with her. Two days before she died, we watched ‘Il Travatore’ together. We said very little apart from her comments like ‘the bowsie’ or whatever. My mother had a love of theatre and music and that’s where I found a home, even as a kid. After my father died this man wrote me a nice letter saying that he had worked with him. My father told him he was worried, that he didn’t know what was going to happen with me as I was starting to mess about with the acting.”
Brendan Gleeson was 34 when he kicked the day job to become a full-time actor (he had been acting since his late teens). Behind him was a brief two-year stint in the health service (“an absolute catastrophe for everyone involved”) and a decade as a teacher at Belcamp, where he taught Irish and English. “I enjoyed the ten years teaching because you’re always hoping that things will work out for the fellows and they will come out the other side”, he says. “Then they can blame you for everything which is generally what happens.” (he laughs). “But I never felt trapped as a teacher. You could see results for what you were doing and they weren’t always measured by these stupid tables. There were people coming out of situations that were difficult with options. That’s all that you wanted to do as a teacher: to give people options.”
His own options an actor have always ranged far beyond the narrow description of ‘character actor’: from the epic scale of ‘Braveheart’ to ‘The Guard’ (“a little gem”), a black comedy set in the lonesome west of Connemara. Coincidentally Gleeson also plays a Garda in Noreen, the IFTA-nominated short directed by Domhnall and co-starring his son Brian. Written before the McDonagh film, but shot afterwards, Gleeson ‘borrowed’ his uniform from ‘The Guard’ for his ‘Noreen’ role. “I don’t think that the cop in ‘Noreen’ would have made it to sergeant in any situation in any society in any era in history but we had to keep the stripes on the jacket”, he laughs.
For some time, Gleeson has been working on putting Flann O’Brien’s landmark comic novel, ‘At Swim-Two-Birds’, on screen. Up to now even the most ambitious film-makers would have considered it un-filmable, not least due to the novel’s labyrinthine Russian Doll-like structure and its menagerie of fantastical characters. Gleeson though, is confident that it will happen. His script is raring to go and a clatter of Ireland’s finest actors, including Cillian Murphy, Colin Farrell and Gabriel Byrne, have signed up. “It’s still alive and as of now it’s going ahead”, he says. “The last few years have been difficult because of the lack of money. I believe it can work commercially. I wouldn’t do it otherwise because it’s too much of a commitment. Gabriel Byrne reading the part of ‘The Pooka’ was one of the funniest things I have ever heard. Now I’m just dying to put a tail on him!”
Last year, accepting his Best Actor Emmy for ‘Into the Storm’, a chuffed Gleeson began his speech with the line: “Now there’s a turn up for the books” and concluded by paying tribute to his wife, Mary, who was picked out in the audience by the cameraman. Usually, she is far from the cameras and action (although she cooked for the crew on ‘Noreen’), like their other two non-acting sons, Fergus and Rory. “She didn’t sign up for the limelight and the other two lads didn’t sign up for it either, so I don’t talk about them”, says Gleeson. “It’s not that I only have two boys. I honestly do feel that I do a job and I didn’t sign up to be a celebrity or any of that. I signed up to do work. The only reason I do publicity is because the work is about communication. The notion of using the media as a confessional doesn’t appeal to me.”
His conversation inevitably returns to the heart of what matters: St Francis’ Hospice, a totem of faith, hope and dignity in difficult times. He asks that you downplay the political stuff, anxious to evade the whine of the negative or adding to the white noise of pre-election hype. In contrast, Gleeson’s fundamental philosophy is both simple and profound – the wide-eyed wonder of the world of Harry Potter crossed with the selflessness of his world-weary hit-man from ‘In Bruges’. “When you are no longer curious about life your time here is really over”, he says. “You should be aware of the magic that’s around you. Right now you can smell spring in the air and just to smell it is extraordinary. My mantra has always been that art is about making people feel less alone. And part of that is that is keeping the knowledge that life is very special and very magical.”
* Celebration of Life, a Gala Variety Performance is at the Mahony Hall, The Helix, February 26. For more information go to: www.thehelix.ie