We talk to the Irish actor Brendan Gleeson about his character in The Guard, which has been a massive hit on the film festival circuit.
Brendan Gleeson doing well in post-secondary career
Despite being a fine actor, Brendan Gleeson very rarely gets the chance to play the leading man roles that his talent deserves because at the end of the day, he is neither hulking supermodel nor international superstar.
The Irish comedy The Guard proves that audiences are getting a raw deal out of such narrow-minded casting. Gleeson dominates the screen in his role as the acerbic, quick-witted policeman Sergeant Gerry Boyle.
Initially, he seems to make the most unlikely copper. He has a confrontational personality, a subversive wit and a dying mother. Police work seems to be an inconvenience to his hectic life. He lives on his own but fills the time with various shenanigans. So when an international cocaine smuggling ring brings a black FBI agent (Don Cheadle) to Galway, he seems extremely nonplussed.
Indeed, at the police briefing to introduce agent Wendell Everett to the local police ranks, sergeant Boyle makes some uncouth and seemingly racist remarks.
The 56-year-old says that he feels this confrontational, almost offensive, sense of humour comes from a great tradition of Irish humour. One thing is for sure: what is emitted from his character's mouth should not be taken as gospel.
"I wonder how readily audiences from around the world will understand that people are going to tell lies just to get a rise out of somebody. People in Ireland do that all the time and used to perhaps more before than they do now," he suggests. "People tell you complete lies just to see how you will react and it is just poking fun. For the most part people around the world say something and that is what they mean. At home that is not the truth at all! I've seen reviews where people have written that this character is racist, but he is not a racist at all, he presses those buttons deliberately to fluff the pillow and see how the world will fall."
This type of prodding makes for some hilarious situations. The Guard is a cultural clash comedy, where the outside American help thinks that they know best, but it's the man with the knowledge of local traditions that can separate the wood from the trees.
The movie has been a huge hit on the film festival circuit and opened to stellar box-office numbers in Ireland, as well as winning the Best Irish Film Award at the Galway Film Fleadh last year.
Gleeson jumped at the chance to play Boyle. "The part was an absolute gift," he says. "The first time I read the script, I knew that it was something special. I got on to the set as quickly as possible. Obviously, it's funny, but I actually think there is a loneliness to the character that is quite profound. I don't think it's to be laughed at. He is a very lonely man."
The Dublin-based actor seems as busy as he has ever been in recent years. He's played Alastair "Mad Eye" Moody in three of the Harry Potter films, appeared in Paul Greengrass's Green Zone about the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and played Sir Winston Churchill in the TV drama Into the Storm. He's having quite a career, given that he didn't decide to become an actor until he was 34, after admitting that a career as a secondary schoolteacher was not for him.
He starred in Albert Nobbs, helmed by Rodrigo Garcia - a movie set in 19th-century Ireland, in a society dominated by men. Based on the short story by the Irish author George Moore, Glenn Close played a woman who disguises herself as a man to get a job in a hotel.
"I played a kind of alcoholic doctor who inhabits the hotel," says Gleeson. "It's one of the few real male presences in the thing and it was a beautiful role in a way to play and I just have great hopes for what is a fascinating piece of work, lots of brilliant actors and actresses."
Nonetheless, no matter how many films he does overseas (Mission Impossible II, Gangs of New York and AI Artificial Intelligence are but a few on that list), nothing beats the feeling he has when he's working in Ireland, he says.
"It's always 40 minutes into work when we film in Ireland, so of course I love it. I don't want to be living out of a hotel room and wouldn't if it wasn't for the fact that I need to do the work. It's great to be away and a privilege, but really to be there for months at a time, it's not really where you want to be."
The actor admits that he has always had a free spirit and a fascination with human behaviour. Accents are a particular penchant and source of amusement. "I remember we used to take our holidays away from Dublin down to the country. I'd always come back having spent two to three weeks where my father's from and end up speaking more like them. There is a certain thing in your ear. I've always found it really interesting and I started hitching around Ireland when I was 15 or 16 and remember being mesmerised by the different ways that people would speak, even in Ireland, which is such a tiny place. The way people express themselves has always been magical to me, it has very clear delineations and I've always enjoyed the diversity of it. The way people speak tells you an awful lot about them." Gleeson got to test out his skill for accents in his role as a CIA agent in Safe House, alongside Denzel Washington.
One of his major breakthrough roles was playing Michael Collins in The Treaty in 1992. It was an experience that reminded him of the importance of culture in the interpretation of characters, he says.
"I remember we brought the film to England, for obvious reasons because Collins fought the English and because of that, there was also a certain weight. The reason that Irish people loved him was that he was a bit of a rogue, he would jump on top of fellows and bite their ears and, at the same time, he had this fantastic brain that was able to organise the national fund. The Irish people loved the maverick side. In Britain, they didn't find him particularly heroic in the same way because they expect different things from their leaders. They don't really want their leader to be one of the lads, they want somebody to enter into leadership and have the bearing of a leader."