It was one of those rare, sunny April days. The sun shone brightly on the Wicklow countryside, the daffodils swayed gently in the Spring breeze and all felt right with the world. Days like these are good days to enjoy a lunch, and on this particular day I was lucky enough to have Brendan Gleeson for company. He had recently returned to Ireland after a six-month spell in Rome where he’d been working on Martin Scorsese’s new movie ‘Gangs of New York’, so I put some Italian food and Italian wine on the table, just to get him back into that Roman frame of mind.
Brendan Gleeson is a big man; it’s not just his physical size, he fills a room with his presence. He’s played big men on the screen – William Wallace’s best friend Hamish in Mel Gibson’s ‘Braveheart’ and, of course, Martin Cahill in the ‘The General’, but what strikes you at once when you meet him is how softly-spoken and thoughtful he is – the archetypal gentle giant. I remembered something that John Boorman had told me about him. ‘What Brendan has, that all great actors have, is the ability to bring emotion to a part, but modified by intelligence.’
John Boorman should know; they’ve worked together on two films now, ‘The General’ and most recently the soon to be released ‘The Tailor of Panama’. It just so happens that I had tiny parts in both of those movies, and in both of them I was in a scene with Brendan. Watching him work was compelling. His absorption with the character is total, so much so that he’s able to try different things in different takes while remaining firmly in character. He has an empathy that makes his performances devastatingly incisive, which is another way of saying what John Boorman said. To understand a character from reading a script means that you must have a clear understanding of what makes people do what they do. To put him at his ease, I immediately embarrassed him by quoting Boorman’s remark. ‘I do try to empathise with people, it’s part of my personality. When I read something in a script and recognise something in it, it usually has more to do with my own experience of observing people and trying to imagine what they’re feeling. It merges with your own experience.’
His personal history, or at least that part of it that he shares with interviewers, goes like this. He grew up in Artane in North Dublin, was a fairly good student, and eventually qualified with a degree and a H.dip.Ed, becoming a secondary school teacher. He had always been involved with amateur dramatics, something that continued to be a part of his life during his years as a teacher. In 1990, at the age of 34, he made a decision. He was going to pursue a career as an actor full-time. Was it a traumatic jump? I wondered. ‘Not really. It opened up a whole new world for me in the sense that I had a lot of wrong ideas about the world of professional acting. It wasn’t back-biting or vicious, it was warm, open and generous. The change was a little worrying at first, but liberating.’
With the benefit of hindsight it’s clear that his progression through the ranks of his chosen new profession has been dramatically meteoric. Think about this; within a mere ten years of taking that decision, he worked with John Boorman, Steven Spielberg and most recently Martin Scorsese. When you consider that most actors dream of working with any one of these directors, what Brendan has achieved in such a short space of time is remarkable.
The path from there to here has wandered through a lot of movies. He was the social club policeman in ‘Far and Away’, another policeman in ‘Into the West’, big Hamish in ‘Braveheart’, Liam Tobin in ‘Michael Collins’, Stubbs in ‘Turbulence’, Father Bubbles in ‘The Butcher boy’, Bunny Kelly in ‘I went Down’, Martin Cahill in ‘The General’, Officer Jim in ‘This is my Father’, Sheriff Keogh in ‘Lake Placid’, Micky Abraxas in ‘The Tailor of Panama’ and in the last year ‘AI’ with Spielberg and ‘Gangs of New York’ with Scorsese. Looking down this filmography you realise that Brendan Gleeson has deftly managed never to get type-cast. He’s played almost as many criminals as he has policemen, he’s been Irish, American, Scottish and even Panamanian. Versatility is the obvious conclusion.
He began to get recognition internationally after his work in ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Michael Collins’. But it was possibly ‘The General’ that first brought him to the notice of the Hollywood power-brokers. Apart from a striking resemblance to Martin Cahill, Gleeson brought a chillingly penetrating performance to the screen, one that had him tipped for an Oscar nomination. That wasn’t to be, but he got his plaudits none the less. The performance won him the Best Actor award from the Boston Film Critics Society, as well as many print inches extolling his portrayal. It’s illuminating when he talks about how he approaches a part as complex as Martin Cahill.
Both Gleeson and Boorman decided they wanted to make the gangster into a real, accessible man, but without glorifying his life-style. ‘I knew he had a certain charisma, but I also knew he was violent and ruthless,’ he says. ‘There’s a certain honesty about somebody who will beat you up if you do something wrong, even if it’s not an honesty you want to live with, but this guy would just send somebody round or he’d turn up himself in the middle of the night when you’re not expecting him – he’d come out of a shadow. It was never a face-on; he could always back off. I couldn’t see an awful lot that would attract me to him, really. And I also felt that maybe his victims were worthy of more consideration; if I was going to play anybody in that scenario, I felt, ‘Well, why celebrate the bad guy?’ There’s a scene in the film, based on a real event, in which Cahill has a gang-member nailed by his hands to a pool table. ‘I felt once that was in the can, people would understand that this man was not some kind of icon. I feel that we did as much as we should have done to allow people to understand how dangerous this guy was.’
I remembered reading how he had struggled at first with taking on so large and so complex a task and I asked him how he had resolved those difficulties. The arrival of Jon Voight, who played Cahill’s adversary, Inspector Kenny, was the catalyst. ‘Jon Voight came on board to balance out the kind of charisma that Martin had, he just liberated the whole thing, because he was so centred and so powerful in his presence that he was a constant antidote to Martin’s wildness. So that liberated us. It was only then I kind of breathed a sigh of relief and began to understand just what a great gig it was. The Kenny character was a huge weight off my shoulders, because once he was there, I didn’t feel I had to do all the work in terms of trying to provide both sides – I could allow him to be human. We were going to get the counterbalance of the damage he was doing a lot of the time from the Kenny character, so I didn’t have to work so hard at it. That being said, I would always try to understand what Cahill was doing. From what I can gather from my research, I don’t think that he used violence as something that he enjoyed. It was always a means to an end, it was something that he did in order to make people do what they were told. It doesn’t justify it, but it meant that there was no indulgence in that violence – it was a very specific thing for a very specific reason. It made the playing of it more interesting and in some way more terrifying, I think – that it wasn’t a passionate outburst, it was a very calculated thing.’
We talked about some of the roles he’s played, starting with the TV film ‘The Treaty’ in which Brendan gives a fine performance as Michael Collins. It prompted me to ask him what it felt like when some years later he found himself in Neil Jordan’s ‘Michael Collins’ with Liam Neeson in the title role instead of him. ‘The first day I went to the set Liam came over to me and said ‘Here’s the real Michael Collins now, I’ll be picking your brains.’ We spoke about the part for an hour or more – he was really generous about the way he approached the whole thing and made me feel at ease.’ We spoke about how this period of history, so crucial to the early years of the Free State, was surprisingly little understood. ‘In my generation nobody knew what was in the Treaty. History stopped at the War of Independence. Yes, the Treaty was signed and there was a bit of disagreement, but it was never explored. The Civil War was so bitter, no one wanted to re-open old wounds.’ In a way this view of history also affected how the film was received. ‘It was interesting when we had our first screening in London. They really didn’t like it.’ Not much of a surprise, I mused. ‘Well it was, really. Because as a drama it left people unmoved, which when you’ve seen it here and felt the reaction, is surprising. In London, and when I saw it in New York, you could sense that people were uninvolved with the story, whereas here they had hairs standing up on the back of their necks. I was only able to see its flaws as a drama when I saw it in London.’
This talk of history and how it was taught inevitably led us to discuss how teaching has changed. Brendan was a Christian Brothers boy and learnt much by rote. His maths teacher had a somewhat unusual view of the usefulness of multiplication tables, making his students learn them right up to the 17 times table. Quite how useful this might be in later life, Brendan has still to discover.
In ‘The Tailor of Panama’ he makes a quantum leap. Here he is, an archetypal Irishman with Irish colouring who takes on the role of a Latino ex-freedom fighter. It’s not your obvious piece of casting. ‘I was talking to John Boorman over Christmas and I asked him was there a part in the Tailor that I could play. He said ‘Brendan, they’re all Panamanians,’ but he called me a few days later and asked me to read for the part of Micky Abraxas. I’d been working with Brian Cox on Saltwater and he’d worn dark contact lenses to play a chip-shop owner, so I dyed my hair black, wore dark contact lenses and read the part with a South American accent. I got it.’ I couldn’t help wanting to explore this further. What about the hair on his arms and legs? ‘Yes. Dyed them too. Top to bottom.’ Now that’s dedication to art.
Half of the filming for the Tailor took place on location in Panama and that meant working there with Panamanian actors. ‘It was very intimidating and I worried about my accent. But I did feel that I understood something of the soul of the character.’ An Irish rebel heart in Panama? ‘Yes. I had to make a cultural jump, but not an intellectual leap. I remember Gabriel Byrne telling me that the more he works the more he realises that you have to go inside yourself to find the character, not outside.’
When you think about it, the number of internationally known Irish actors is completely disproportionate to the size of the population. Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne and even Daniel Day Lewis at a stretch, spring to mind. I wondered if soon now we’d be able to add the name of Brendan Gleeson to this illustrious constellation, especially after the forthcoming releases of ‘Gangs of New York’ and ‘AI’. ‘Well I don’t know. Internationally I’m a character actor rather than a star. These two movies put me into a different sphere of character acting, but I’m still a character actor. They’re not leading roles. They could bring more recognition, possibly.’
So is being a renowned character actor where he wants to be? ‘I love driving a movie, I love being given control of where it goes, taking a lead part and going at it – given the right people to work with. But at the moment I’m doing a lot of character parts, not leading roles, but significant roles within the movie. At that level there’s a greater diversity of parts available as a character actor than there are as leading roles. And I don’t get a lot of the hassle that major stars get. I was able to walk around Rome and be left alone.’
Both Spielberg’s ‘AI’ (Artificial Intelligence) and Scorsese’s ‘Gangs of New York’ are yet to be released and Brendan was justifiably reticent about speaking too much about them. Certainly ‘AI’ has been kept under very tight wraps, but it stars Jude Law and Haley Joel Osment and is set in the distant future, where robots with artificial intelligence populate Earth after the polar icecaps have melted, leaving New York underwater. ‘Gangs of New York’ is set in the mid nineteenth-century, before the main influx of Italian immigrants had arrived, so for once Scorsese’s gangs are not peopled with Sicilians. This time they’re mostly the newly arrived Irish, with memories of the famine still fresh in their minds. Brendan plays the part of Monk, a man who sees the futility of violence and tries to stop the internecine warfare. What the movie explores is how the Irish made the shift from being in gangs outside the law to running the police force and getting into politics. Why the Italians never did this is a puzzle. It has an impressive cast; apart from Brendan there’s Liam Neeson, Daniel Day Lewis, Leonardo di Caprio and Cameron Diaz.
These are two big movies, and made by two major directors. Both of them wanted Brendan for their movies, and to make it possible for him to do both they re-arranged their shooting schedules between them. ‘Yes, that was flattering,’ said Brendan modestly. ‘It was great working with them. I find the bigger the talent the less nonsense you have to deal with.’ That’s a quote that tells you something about Brendan Gleeson and how he views the world. Himself a man of immense talent, he has the gracious modesty of a man who sees all too clearly the foibles and the vanities of the world.