His characters have flung swords, absolved sins and robbed homes in the pitch of night. They have been bearded and shaven, light on their feet, weighted with doubt. They have yearned for and granted wisdom and have traded on a smile that has the pull of a tide. Like many Irishmen, they can break a heart or draw a laugh with the twist of a phrase.
"You know," said Brendan Gleeson, looking over a menu in Beverly Hills. "I'm going to try an 'egg in the hole' simply because I don't know what it is." As the waiter slipped away, Gleeson, who can steal a scene from the edge of a frame, talked Irish literature, revealing as much about Samuel Beckett as he did about the many roles he has played since those ragged days on Dublin stages.
"There's a real harshness and grit to it," he said. "It's very acerbic and there's an undertone of grief and tragedy, and then hilarity comes in to wipe it up."
Gleeson was a noted actor at home but largely overlooked abroad until he drew international acclaim in 1995 as the mud-spattered warrior Hamish in Mel Gibson's "Braveheart." He went on to roles as a Civil War era minstrel in "Cold Mountain," a hit man with a conscience and a sense of aesthetics in "In Bruges," the eccentric wizard Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter films and a tactless and boozing policeman in "The Guard." The portrayals linger in the mind, like friends gathered around a midnight door.
But his latest role as Father James, a village priest burdened with the world's sins, has moved him front and center in "Calvary." It is a finely honed, understated performance certain to enhance Gleeson's global appeal beyond that of a gifted character actor. The film's writer-director, John Michael McDonagh, who also directed "The Guard," said of Gleeson's incarnation: "All those emotions on his face. He's running the gamut on everything he can do as an actor. It was a master class. I think he's on people's radar, but this may be the one that puts him over the top. I hope so."
Edged with suffering and humor, "Calvary" follows Father James, a widower and recovering alcoholic whose parishioners have been betrayed by the Roman Catholic Church's sex abuse scandals and Ireland's corrupt economy. A priest who came late to his calling, Father James lives in a sparse white room of picture-less walls and ministers to a flock that includes a butcher who beats his wife and a barkeep facing foreclosure. Their lives entangle amid the dark cliffs and sweeping green fields along the North Atlantic.
The opening scene sets a menacing tone. A Caravaggio-like light shining on his russet-gray beard, Father James sits in a confessional when the voice of a penitent cuts through the scrim. "I'm going to kill you because you are innocent," says the unknown man who was sexually abused by a priest as a boy. "There's no point in killing a bad priest, but killing a good one, that'd be a shock."
Gleeson's face — filmed in single shot — slips across disbelief, pity, fear, scorn and defiance. The threat echoes through the film as Father James, a black-cassocked figure of virtue, resolve and cutting wit, struggles with his own transgressions. He is a righteous man counted among the evil.
"What if you had dedicated your life to something [only] to be included in all the bile and vitriol that's associated with pedophilia?," Gleeson said. "It's a smirch that never goes away.... If you dedicated yourself to serving the good, how would you cope with that?"
Anthony Lane, who began his New Yorker review "Thank God for Brendan Gleeson," wrote that in "Gleeson — in his proud bearing and lamenting gaze — we see the plight of a lonely believer in a world beyond belief." The Guardian in London said: "Gleeson is majestic.... Here, at least, is a Christ we can relate to."
Gleeson said "Calvary" is a wider metaphor for disturbing times. "It's a commitment to compassion.... Leadership and authority have proven unworthy of trust. There's nothing that eats away at the soul more than a lack of trust," he said. "People are politically and financially worried and then, in the church, they appear to have been betrayed by the leadership. So how do you believe human beings are worthy of investment in human terms?"
He paused and smiled, saying he hoped the film won't have tourists canceling trips to Ireland over fears of being "assaulted with buckets of cynicism when they get off the plane."
'Huge and tiny'
Damp hair combed back, face broad and etched with lines, Gleeson's bearing is palpable. He has the gleam of a prankster and the unadorned integrity of a working man; cutlery seems small in his hands. He can be self-deprecating and nostalgic when recounting boyhood days and wind swept coasts. He is, like many of his countrymen, a lyrical realist with a seam of pride. "We can be huge and tiny all in the same breath," he said.
His wellspring as an actor is an ability to effortlessly slide across moods. "It's all there without him showing us," said Chris O'Dowd, who also stars in "Calvary." "He's got the map of the world on his face."
"I'm never going to be a conventional leading man as such in terms of a kind of eye candy and all that stuff," said Gleeson, 59, sitting with a coffee in the morning sun, a faint edge in his voice. "That's not said with any bitterness. I get the whole thing.... I don't know how 'Calvary' is going to be received here. I would like it to mean that people will trust me with a film."
The son of a tax office worker and strict Catholic, Gleeson, who grew up in Dublin and was accustomed to confessionals, began in theater in the 1970s. He didn't see it as a "viable occupation" back then and worried that if he acted full time, "I might lose the joy of it.... I wanted to do it on my own terms. I didn't want to be making soap powder commercials." He took a job in the health department — "bored out of my head" — and then followed his brother's cue and returned to college to become a teacher of Gaelic and English.
"Acting and teaching are alike, you're trying to impart a few truths," he said. "I taught teenage boys who were struggling and trying to figure out who they were.... But I had forgotten how much you laugh as a teenager."
He started acting in plays about suburbia written by Paul Mercier, a founder of the Passion Machine theater company. The works were staged in an old bingo hall: "We renamed it the SFX Center, and we used to get calls from people who thought it was a sex center," he said. "It was all very invigorating, and it felt constructive and creative."
The plays drew crowds and productions were moved to the Olympic Theater. Gleeson, who plays fiddle and mandolin, was also writing "a couple of bad plays" himself and trying to direct. He was rushing from classroom to stage, a 34-year-old father of four. "I had to give up something. Something had to go," he said. "I had a chat with my wife. "
He left teaching and began acting in earnest, learning nuance and pushing his characters deeper than their plot points. "There were other levels I had to access," he said. "Building layers and depth of character." He acted at the Abbey Theatre and later veered into film. "The camera is a totally different craft," he said. "The rules of engagement are completely different."
Small TV and film roles led to larger parts and praise for his portrayals of revolutionary Michael Collins and for the title character in John Boorman's "The General" about a legendary criminal who ran afoul of the Irish Republican Army. He won an Emmy in 2009 for channeling Winston Churchill in the miniseries "Into the Storm." The honor came years after a Hollywood agent told Gleeson, who was vying for a part in "Braveheart," that he didn't have the looks and talent to be a screen actor. The actor took two things away from the experience.
"Mel Gibson was fantastic. He was a great director, massive energy," he said. "He gave a lot of guys like me a shot." And, of course, there was the agent, who lives on, if unnamed, in folklore. "I've dined out enough on that one," said Gleeson. "He was being honest about it. At least I wasn't waiting for a phone call that wasn't going to come.... I said in my head, 'I'll see you at the Oscars,' and actually I did see him at the Emmys."
Gleeson's acting résumé reads like an idiosyncratic collection of schemers, instigators and noble misfits. He was the stepfather in "The Smurfs 2," a fisherman in "The Grand Seduction" and the vicious and spurned Menelaus, the husband of Helen, in "Troy." He wields both whisper and sword with piercing accuracy and is at the point in his career where craft trumps commerce.
"He's not ego-driven as an actor," said McDonagh, who asked for Gleeson's input on the script for "Calvary," notably in the exchanges between Father James and his daughter. "He doesn't think my character needs more scenes. He'd ask me, 'Do you need me doing that there? You can take that out.'"
"I prefer to work with people who are going to open challenges for me," said Gleeson, who spends little time in Los Angeles. He added that McDonagh plans to next cast him as a spectacularly abusive paraplegic policeman. "I don't want to be a big star. It doesn't mean anything. It doesn't mean you get proper work. I don't want to be recognized on the street."
Gleeson has made dozens of films in the last 20 years, which have cut into his reading. "My life hasn't stayed still enough to read any book beyond research," he said. "I feel a bit of a fraud. So many books I get halfway into and lose momentum." Except for "At Swim-Two-Birds" by Flann O'Brien, which Gleeson fell out of bed laughing at when he first read it at 17. He wants to turn the novel into a film one day.
He took a breath, widened his eyes. "It's not an easy pitch," he said, proceeding for many minutes to unfold the tale of Dermot Trellis, a fictional novelist who corrals his characters into a hotel room because he "wants to keep an eye on them." His wily creations decide to take revenge once Trellis falls asleep. Full of sleights-of-hand, satire and parody, the story is a classic in Irish literature. Gleeson reveled in the telling.
He sat for a moment in quiet, as if a man who had remembered a secret or came upon a long-ago map. He smiled and spoke of Beckett, Joyce and of the fallen stones and blustery coasts of Ireland. "The footprint of humanity is in the landscape at all times," he said. "A timelessness emanates from that land." He turned toward the window and back again. "My take on art is that it makes you feel less alone."