December 28, 2003|On the telephone from the Cold Mountain junket in San Diego, on the afternoon of the announcement that the film had garnered an extravagant eight Golden Globe nominations, I was honoured to speak with the marvellous Brendan Gleeson--the best thing about Cold Mountain, as it happens, and the best thing about a great many films. The star of John Boorman's criminally underestimated The General, Gleeson has found himself of late cast in the role of patriarch or mentor and, more fascinatingly, providing both the moral and metaphorical centre of his films, often in just a supporting role. For Gleeson to be routinely overlooked come awards season says a great deal about awards season and the extent to which showy performances--performances that the layperson swiftly identifies as performances--overshadow the sort of bedrock naturalism and presence of a character actor like Gleeson.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: You were an English and Gaelic teacher until you were 35.
BRENDAN GLEESON: Yeah, ten years teaching. I started acting with a group of people who just started going out after school so I was kind of doing it on the side for a good while. But I enjoyed the ten years, I have to say--gave me a taste of a different thing, a different life experience. I'm grateful for the fact that those were my parameters for a while, the way I was going to live my life, so I know how that is. To know the great tragedies, joys, and losses embedded in that life until suddenly it's broken open and I get this chance at a second life: the ordinary and the extraordinary, you know them both better and you keep perspective better. I'm lucky, I know it.
A few smaller films, a few films for television, and then Hamish in Braveheart. How did that come about?
Well I got a call to go meet Mel, informal, just to chat with him and no reading involved. I'd read the script and we chatted about it and for a while and that was it. I was doing a play at the time in the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, y'know, and he rang just before I went on stage and said, "All right, well, Brendan, do you want to do this?" And I said, "Oh... hey... all right." (laughs) But just at that time we were bringing the play on a two-week tour in Chicago and Mel said they were starting the shoot in the first of June or whenever it was and I said, "I have to go on tour, yeah, but well, we'll figure something out." Turns out we couldn't figure something out and they went to recast the role which was a bummer, but they decided I wouldn't miss much anyway--something where I was on a horse in the background or something--so they were kind enough to reschedule. That was really kind of the time where I realized that I couldn't do both the theatre and the film thing, that I needed to make a choice between one or the other, so that's what I did.
You play a key role in Neil Jordan's Michael Collins. Remembering that you played Collins himself in a 1991 film called The Treaty, was that strange for you?
I mean, yeah, as a matter of fact when I talked to Neil he told me he didn't know whether to ask me or not because like you say, could've been strange or whatever, but I said no, no that I wanted to be a part of it. That film was very important for us, the Irish, y'know, I mean The Treaty had been the first time the topic had even been broached for us, the whole thing about the actual treaty and the civil war and the whole thing, we didn't know where it all came from, we weren't taught that in school. Afraid of opening old wounds and such. The whole topic, then, of Michael Collins and this major production, it was very important for us obviously.
Did Liam Neeson pick your brain?
(laughs) No, no, he was really generous about it--first day on the set he comes up to me and says, "So, Brendan, don't worry about a thing, there won't be any picking of the brain or anything," so he really made me feel at home, he was real cool about it.
I'm always surprised when you're overlooked for awards consideration when you seem so central to the success of so many films--how do you feel about it?
It's always nice to win something, I can't lie, you always tell yourself that you're not going to look at the hype and the build up, but you always do, you can't avoid it really, so there's disappointment, sure. But in the end, the film is the film, I rest easy on the fact that the picture's no better for having won the award and no worse for not. I think ultimately that awards are part of the process of drawing attention to a thing, that people like to see what everybody's pointing at and that it does no good at all to speak to an empty chair. You can say the most interesting things in the world to an empty chair--the empty chair doesn't care. So if it brings the people in, it's cool.
I wanted to talk a little about your collaboration with John Boorman--your third film with him is close to release.
Right, Country of My Skull, we went out and shot it in South Africa. I'm sort of a police interrogator-cum-torturer if you know what I mean, it's about the South African Tuth and Reconciliation Commission and it was just a fantastic experience. I love working with John, this was my third with him and we hope to do the fourth in the spring, we're trying to set up a script that he's written. From the start we got on really well, we were looking for the same things in what we did and he's sort of a genius so that helps as well. (laughs)
My favourite film of Boorman's and probably my favourite performance of yours is The General.
Ah, thanks, thanks, kinda me, too, I've gotta say. Something about the film and the moment.
A great strength of the picture, I think, is the way you give Cahill the feel of a family man. Interesting to me that you've been cast so often lately as that sort of authority/father figure.
Well, I ought to be comfortable in that role I guess, I have four kids. (laughs) No, that's come up now recently and I never really quite realized... I knew 28 Days Later..., I thought that was my first father figure really. I'd thought that maybe my part in Gangs of New York was sort of a mentor, sort of an authority figure, but playing an actual father was really different. He was sort of dad of the year in 28 Days Later..., where [Gangs of New York's] Monk was a peripheral figure in one sense, yet he occupied a central role in the narrative, too, but if a father in much more of an enigmatic sense. Much less overtly a father figure, much less at least in comparison to 28 Days Later... or, indeed, in this film, in Cold Mountain. I was quite surprised is what I'm saying that the last several roles had that commonality, for better or for worse. At the time they all seemed like such different characters.
I always thought that the conflict of Gangs of New York should have been between the surrogate father that Daniel Day-Lewis represented and the surrogate father that you did.
Well, he got me in the back. (laughs) Let me tell you that what I loved about Monk was that he had bravery to not only set up in a new place but to want something more than just bashing heads. But people pay for that and that's what I loved about Monk and his demise is just the truth of it. So many people have been assassinated just for that willingness to take the risk to move beyond the clubs and swords and bullets. There's a major truth to impart, you know, that if you choose that path of honour there's often a terrible toll.
Were you leery of working in digital video for 28 Days Later...?
Oh yeah, yeah--it was marvellous though, a really great experience. Initially though, yeah, I was a bit dodgy about working with digital but I thought that with [director] Danny [Boyle], and after chatting with him, that he was very much on top of it. But I was still very much worried, you know, because my role was such an emotional one--I thought that I needed the softer sides, the depth of actual film. I didn't trust digital's brashness. But I was really surprised, the picture was just a great dipping of toes in the water, plunging in really, into the medium. I don't feel the same fear now as I did--I shouldn't have been worried, I see that now, but I was so impressed with how the emotionalism of the piece was carried by digital--the content was there and I didn't expect that.
Was there a benefit to your performance, as well, in that the camera could just be left running for extended takes?
Let me tell you, I think that the death scene couldn't have been caught quite like that on ordinary film. I remember feeling like I was going into a really dangerous place with the idea of infection and all--but just the digital video, the flash and alienation of it all absolutely I think it gave me the room to explore the scene to its potential. Kind of odd, though, all the grip stuff was too big for the cameras--the tracks, the shoulder mounts, all too big. (laughs) It's all so new, you have to be careful with the medium because while it's great to experiment with all the stuff, if you get too profligate with the new stuff you can do now with the technology, if you get too profligate with it and start shooting and shooting and shooting with it, there are only so many takes you can do with anything. It gets tired and starts second-guessing itself, and at some stage you can abuse the ease of it all and the thing escapes on you, and you find it hard to get it back.
Scorsese does a lot of takes, though...
Some directors can wheedle stuff out, particularly when you know that you're in for the long haul. I never want to think that the first take is just a practice run for anybody, I think that after the first run you inevitably begin to lose a little of the spontaneity that's difficult to get back. But Minghella for example, he does a lot of takes but he's very tactful about the way he can introduce new elements into the process, a way of guiding it through where you see that you're walking into a different place--exploring a new angle. So it's not the number of takes in of itself, I think, so much as that you just need to be careful the people you're working with know what they're doing.
What's M. Night Shyamalan's process? You worked with him on next year's The Village.
Night, not so much the multiple takes, actually--he's very cool, you know, if you have it, you have it. He's very much like John [Boorman], come to think of it, in that he uses a minimal amount of coverage and tends to try to let the scene have its own pace: to edit as he shoots if you know what I mean. There's kind of an elegance in the way he wants to shoot.
I know you can't say, you know I have to ask.
(laughs) I can't tell you a thing [about The Village].
Is it pretty primary in your job selection who's going to be behind the camera?
No, not primary, I wouldn't say so. It figures in the thinking, you know, no question, for me though I think, it has to be the script first. The cold facts of the matter are when you're sent an extremely good, often higher profile project, you're going to have someone qualified attached to it. Like I've said though, there are exceptions, and if John called me today to film something tomorrow, I'd be on a plane. By the time the scripts get to me nowadays, I have the luxury of seeing the stuff that's already been through a lot of weeding out. 28 Days Later..., though, I was nervous about it.
Because it was a genre film?
Yeah, sure, I read the thing and saw so many interesting comments about the modern world in it, but I did question myself a lot, I wondered if I wasn't reading too much into it or if it was just a zombie picture.
Dangerous to underestimate zombie pictures, though.
(laughs) Right, absolutely--I was convinced by Danny after I had a chat with him and realized that all the things I thought were in it, were in it, and maybe a few other things I hadn't thought about besides. So the talent behind the camera, yeah, in some cases that plays into it but for the most part for me, it's the writing. It has to be good.
I know you did a run last year, but any plans to return to the stage?
I have to say the only thing to make me do it would be so that I could be home more. It's become a real circus with the location shoots and I miss home terribly. I do miss the stage, but film, I'm still excited about it, still curious about it, and I actually for the moment prefer this. I thought I should do a play last year before I got stage fright or something and couldn't do it anymore, but honestly, this is where I want to be, tired or homesick or no.