When Brendan Gleeson was not quite 7, a Catholic boy growing up in Dublin, he had it all figured out. "One of the teachings was that you reached the age of reason at 7, I think. Something like that. Up till then you were still a child and you couldn't really sin as such, certainly not mortal sin. So I figured if I could commit suicide at 6 and three-quarters, I'd go straight up there, no problem. I remember mulling over how best to do this, to find this shortcut. But then after I came out of my first confession, it was like: clean slate. I came out feeling great, just bounding out, the lightness of having a clean soul. I just floated out of there."
Gleeson laughs at the memory. In the new film "Calvary," reuniting the versatile and prolific actor with his writer-director on "The Guard," John Michael McDonagh, he plays Father James, unlikely spiritual leader of a morally bereft County Sligo village.
In the opening scene, Father James is hearing confession and is told by an unseen character that he'll give Father James one week to live, to get his house in order and make his peace with God. Then he'll be killed. The rest of the film affords Gleeson's character little peace but lots of droll and mournfully funny encounters.
The actor has a fantastically rich speaking voice, an imposing frame and a face, as one commenter on Ain't It Cool News affectionately put it, reminiscent of "a well-loved dog cushion."
In a recent interview in a downtown Chicago park, the 59-year-old Gleeson spoke of confession, his profession and other topics.
"It was fantastically interesting to play a good man without schmaltz, a heroic figure," he says, behind sunglasses, stretching out as comfortably as the wee Chicago Park District benches allow a big man to stretch out. "This guy has his demons, but his commitment to goodness is total."
The villagers, played by a rich supporting cast including Chris O'Dowd, Isaach De Bankole and Marie-Josee Croze, may revile the man, but the man, Gleeson says, is an unfashionably "clean" hero, though a rather unorthodox priest, with a grown daughter (Kelly Reilly) and a late wife shadowing his sense of mortality.
Gleeson has worked with both McDonaghs. The other one, John Michael's brother Martin, wrote and directed "In Bruges," among others. Martin and John Michael may share an inky-black sense of humor. But as Gleeson said in a Guardian interview, "With Martin you never hate anyone, even if his characters do the most appalling things. Whereas John couldn't care less whether you love his characters or not."
Married with four grown sons (Domnhall Gleeson plays a convicted serial killer in "Calvary"), the actor has enjoyed a far-flung career.
He didn't act professionally until his mid-30s; he worked for years as a secondary-level teacher of English and Gaelic, then explored all sorts of classical and contemporary stage work.
His first uncredited screen role came in 1989; he was a prison guard in the Dolph Lundgren vehicle "The Punisher." His make-or-break opportunity came a few years and many films later, with "Braveheart" — a project he nearly didn't get because it conflicted with a theater commitment.
Everything worked out, he says a touch wearily, as if the pain of the near-miss is still fresh.
Since then Gleeson has worked with a full complement of A-list directors, among them Steven Spielberg ("A.I."), Martin Scorsese ("Gangs of New York") and the late Anthony Minghella ("Cold Mountain"). Of all his films, he says, Gleeson had the toughest time shaking "Calvary."
"It's the one that's taken the most personal toll on me as an actor," he says, "absorbing all that pain and angst. and feeling of — I don't know, treachery, I guess you'd call it. That feeling that everyone (in the film) is so cynical and disillusioned and angry, yet here's this one man fighting against it."
Coming after the rollicking, profane humor of "The Guard," a success everywhere but a phenomenon in Ireland, the weight of "Calvary" — a script dealing with sexual abuse, for starters — felt heavy indeed.
McDonagh and Gleeson plan to round out the trilogy begun with "The Guard" and continued with "Calvary" with a script titled "The Lame Shall Enter First," starring Gleeson as a profoundly misanthropic paraplegic. Meantime Gleeson hopes to return to the Dublin stage later this year in a project he's not ready to discuss.
The actor says he has "an aversion to therapeutic acting, where people imagine the whole thing has been set up as a counseling session for themselves. But it's not for you. It's for the audience."
The best writers and directors, he says, require Gleeson to dig deep and locate within himself access points that can be "uncomfortable and unsettling. And that is when acting becomes more of an art than entertainment."
And what is art? Gleeson laughs. "I've always said that my definition of art is simply whatever makes people feel less alone."
While various good people in his life informed the background work on "Calvary," it was Gleeson's mother, he says, who led the way, with her "good-humored humility."
His father, a civil servant who worked in a Dublin tax office, followed a sterner route. "His notion of religion was driven by fear, and I didn't find it particularly healthy," Gleeson says. Yet he admired his father's exacting sense of right and wrong.