“Irish actor” doesn’t just describe Brendan Gleeson’s birthplace or nationality: It’s a personal identity. Gleeson plays Irish fiddle. He learned the Irish language and taught it for years. And he’s turned his bearish gruffness and rich Irish accent into a character-actor identity that’s served him since he broke into film in his mid-30s. While his breakthrough role was as the Scottish warrior Hamish in Braveheart (the film was largely shot in Ireland), he built his fame around subsequent roles including Irish revolutionary Michael Collins in The Treaty, Collins’ partner Liam Tobin in Michael Collins, and Irish gangster Martin Cahill in John Boorman’s The General. He’s worked steadily since his 1990 film debut in The Field (helmed by notable Irish director Jim Sheridan), playing roles as diverse as a philosophical hitman in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, Mad-Eye Moody in two of the Harry Potter movies, and the head of a biotech company in Mission: Impossible II.
In 2011, Gleeson starred as snappish Dublin cop Gerry Boyle in The Guard, the first feature written and directed by Martin McDonagh’s brother, John Michael McDonagh. The film set box-office records in Ireland; Gleeson drew particular acclaim for his characterization as the aggressively off-putting but generally good-hearted Boyle, while McDonagh attracted attention for the script’s tight, bleak action, sharp humor, and surprisingly beautiful compositions. Now, McDonagh and Gleeson have re-teamed for Calvary, starring Gleeson as Father James Lavelle, the senior priest in a small Irish town full of bitter, disillusioned sinners. The film opens with a parishoner anonymously revealing, in the confessional, that he’s decided to murder Father James in one week, as revenge against the church for a longstanding grudge. The rest of the film follows Gleeson’s character as he considers his options and spends time with the people who most need him, including his adult daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). The Dissolve sat down separately with Gleeson and McDonagh to talk about The Guard and Calvary, about hope vs. nihilism, and about the third film destined to wrap up McDonagh’s conceptual trilogy.
The Dissolve: You’ve said this role was tough for you in a way that you’ve found very few roles. What was difficult about it?
Brendan Gleeson: Just that it became kind of personal. I think it was a personal search for optimism and faith in humanity. I have a conviction that if you have children, you’ve already committed to optimism, so you don’t have a choice in the matter. It’s a duty to maintain it, because you’re betraying the people you brought into the world if you don’t maintain it, or at least do your best to do so. And Calvary, I really brought that to a pitch whereby it went beyond just maintaining my own optimism: I also had to absorb the pain and disillusionment of everybody else, and their cynicism and their bitterness, and it was relentless. I remember putting on the vestments for Mass, and feeling, “Okay, this is like a suit of armor.” John said it was like a samurai preparing for battle, and I felt, “Okay, I’m the protector of whatever I believe to be good, essentially.” There was an essential quality to it, a kind of metaphysical examination, or an exploration of that. And it did feel as if I was under assault for the entirety of the shoot. I was shattered at the end of it.
The Dissolve: John McDonagh talks about himself as a natural nihilist. He sees this film as a struggle between hope and nihilism. Where does it come out for you? Do you think of it as a hopeful movie?
Gleeson: Yeah, I do. I think it’s unquestionably a hopeful movie at the end, because the daughter becomes the bearer of the father’s conviction. I think in a way, the baton is passed on, and we’re left with compassion. It’s difficult to talk about, because I don’t want to give away the ending. But for me, it’s about hope and compassion. The resounding lines are not all those great one-liners that all the cynics get. The resounding lines are, “We talk too much about sin and not about virtue,” and, “Forgiveness is highly underrated.” So it’s about forgiveness and compassion for me, and maintaining the faith that actually the world can be more than just the ugliness that’s in it.
The Dissolve: You really pushed for development of the relationship between your character and his daughter Fiona. Why was that so important to you as part of the script?
Gleeson: Because I felt I knew him as a man more completely from the father-daughter relationship than anywhere else. There’s a theological battle, there’s a spiritual battle, there’s a moral battle going on at all times with everybody; he attempts, as much as he can, to empathize with everybody’s pain, with everybody’s future, and to bear the brunt of it, but with his daughter, he’s an open wound. I mean, I found it crushing reading the script, because it’s the kind of scenario I don’t think any parent can envisage without getting a shiver, the notion that your child would attempt suicide. What was even more upsetting and beautiful about it in a way was the fact that they were soulmates, and that they had lost each other in the murk somewhere along the line. He had recovered himself at the expense of keeping an eye on her. When we talked about it in rehearsal, I think it was a situation where perhaps Fiona hadn’t witnessed his worst days, losing his wife, and his alcoholism there. And then she hurts herself just when he was fit and raring to go. So I just found it really—it was written with such tenderness, and I felt that betrayed the soul of the man more than really anything else.
The Dissolve: Building out your character’s backstory like that, is that something you often do when preparing for a role?
Gleeson: Yeah, a lot of this movie, we had to, because of our interaction—if a character is coming with bandages around their wrists, you have to try to get to the bottom of it before you can go any further, I think. It’s not always necessary. Sometimes I used to make backstories, and John would say, “Yeah, you do it, because I couldn’t be bothered.” But sometimes you don’t need to—you know the essence of what the story is. I wouldn’t like a backstory to become a straitjacket. You know, sometimes the essence of something is there already, and you don’t have to overanalyze it. So, it’s only really when it’s useful, or if I feel there’s a kind of a laziness about the approach. If a script is assuming certain feelings, certain decisions, and I say, “Well, hang on a second. What exactly—”
For example, when did Father James become a priest? How long ago was it? At what age was his daughter when she felt abandoned? In one way, it doesn’t really matter. But in another way, if you know practically, you’re kind of saying, “I could see how you could take your eye off the ball there.” You know, say she was 19 or whenever, he was thinking, “This is a strong young woman,” and he lost sight of her vulnerability, because she appeared so strong. So it’s really only when it’s of use within the framework, and it aids you to get into the place where you have a structure that makes sense in your head.
The Dissolve: You’ve said that playing Boyle in The Guard was liberating, because he doesn’t care about anything, or what anyone thinks of him. Does it follow, then, that playing a character like Father James, who cares so much about everyone, is constricting and more difficult?
Gleeson: It’s more challenging, because I think if you open your heart—Gerry Boyle builds a wall around himself. You can see the tenderness there in his relationship with his mother, particularly, with the kid, and with Rory Keenan’s wife, played by Gabriela McBride. So you see he’s a man capable of tenderness, but he’s built such a wall around himself, and he deflects everything by firing at others. I think to a certain extent, Father James is the answer in the other side of that conversation. So it’s almost as if he can take the barbs Gerry Boyle flings out there—they’re in the mouth of others now. He gets to have to answer them. So whatever liberating thing there is in spraying all our bile at somebody, Father James has to deal with it. So it’s a bit of a challenge, all right.
The Dissolve: You’ve worked repeatedly with John McDonagh, and with his brother Martin, on In Bruges. How are they similar or different as directors?
Gleeson: I find their similarities outweigh their differences, but the worlds are utterly different. My answer to it really is where their imaginative worlds are—I can’t imagine any of John’s characters in Martin’s world, or vice versa. I can’t imagine anybody from In Bruges dropping into Sligo anytime soon. But with both of them, there’s a massive calm on set, this huge preparedness, they’re very vigorous in their pursuit of what is cinematically going to work. They’re collaborative with actors in a very real, creative way, but they are precious about their work, because they have worked vigorously to make it as good as it can be at that particular point. So if you want to disagree with them, you’re gonna have to work at it. But as an actor, you feel that you want to try to realize it, not oppose it.
There’s no wasted time on set with either of them, because they’re properly prepared. They’re able to accommodate them if a location throws up a certain challenge or a certain opportunity. They’re able to run with it, which is hugely liberating as well. And there is an odd—for people with such a temper, they’re incredibly calm on set. It’s pretty great working with them, I have to say, both of them. It’s been a fantastic development for me as an actor just to get to work with these guys.
The Dissolve: You’ve called The Guard, Calvary, and a future project a suicide trilogy—
John McDonagh: Well, a “glorified suicide trilogy,” because it doesn’t imply that the characters will die, it implies that they’re going to face a confrontation at the end of the movie that may lead to their deaths. So it’s “Will they or won’t they.”
The Dissolve: Is “glorified suicide trilogy” a facetious description? As an idea, was it built into these films from the start?
McDonagh: I think it started off as a facetious comment, but then I realized it is a quite-specific overview of The Guard, Calvary, and the next one I intend to write. Sometimes you make an off-the-cuff comment and then you analyze why you said it, and you think, “Actually, I was quite serious about that, really.”
The Dissolve: As you were structuring Calvary, were you thinking about ways to make it distinct from The Guard while moving in the same direction?
McDonagh: I wasn’t intending that to happen, but I gradually realized halfway through, it was moving towards that conclusion. But I guess you can say it’s kind of a Western-movie structure, you know. Both characters—obviously Father James has a moral core, and I think Boyle in The Guard turns out to have a moral core. He turns out to have integrity. It doesn’t seem like it’s there at the start of the movie, but we come to realize that it is. And there will probably be similar themes in the third one as well, the kind of character I’m thinking at the moment. It’s just a unified way of looking at it, for me to decide, “Okay, I’m gonna do a third film that will have a similar structure.” And once that third film is done, I’ll probably go off and try to do something completely different. Try to do, I dunno, a romance or something like that. But I think I will replicate these kinds of structures and these characters for the third time, just to unify the whole thing.
The Dissolve: But the one you’re working on now, War On Everyone, that isn’t the third one in the trilogy, is it?
McDonagh: No, no. That was always intended as my first American movie. War On Everyone is something completely separate.
The Dissolve: Was it just that the funding came together for that first?
McDonagh: Yeah, we cast Michael Peña and Garrett Hedlund in it, and—though we’re still actually in the process of finalizing financing. I wrote it before Calvary, and I was planning that as my next one. Calvary, I then wrote quickly, ’cause Brendan was involved so quickly. Once you’ve got your lead actor, the pragmatic decision is, plow forward with that movie. And then once Chris O’Dowd came on board, the producers more or less said, “Well, with Brendan and Chris, you got the money now.” So War was put on the back burner for a little while.
The Dissolve: How did you manage to get Aidan Gillen in for Calvary, given his schedule on Game Of Thrones?
McDonagh: Well, he’s an old friend. I’ve known him for 20 years, or something. But it was tricky, which is why he’s still got his Game Of Thrones mustache and Van Dyke beard. He wasn’t happy, ’cause he likes to change his characters visually. We couldn’t give him a big beard, or shave the Van Dyke beard off, because he had to go back right away. Brendan is in every scene, but everyone else was episodic, so they came in for a few days here and a few days there. It was tricky for the producers to work it all out, but they got there in the end. Some actors who were cast, or I intended to get, they had to fall out because of that kind of scheduling. We’re shifting jigsaw pieces around, really.
The Dissolve: As I understand it, you knew Brendan was going to be involved even before you wrote the script. You talked to him about it when you were working on The Guard.
McDonagh: I had talked to him about it, yeah, and then I had written the first draft quite quickly, and he gave notes on that first draft, so he was involved very early on.
The Dissolve: So if you were writing it with him in mind, did that change your process from writing The Guard?
McDonagh: Before Calvary, I would never write with an actor in mind, because it’d be so depressing if I sent them the script and they didn’t want to do it, and I built it around them. But on Calvary, we had such a good working relationship on The Guard, I knew that if he said he wanted to do it, he wanted to play that character, he was not gonna back out. He does have that integrity. What happened was, when he got the script, he wanted to develop more of the scenes with Kelly Reilly, who plays his daughter, so it became a more emotional script, I’d say. But I wanted those notes because I have a tendency to be too sort of detached, a bit nihilistic, a bit cynical. I knew I didn’t really want that kind of irony in this film. It’s great to have somebody involved that early on. I’m not sure if I’d do it all the time. You need to have a trusting relationship with an actor to begin with. You have to know they’re not gonna receive the script and then start giving you notes that are ego-driven, just, “I want more lines, I want more scenes for myself,” that kind of stuff. You have to trust them in that way.
The Dissolve: There’s this question throughout the entire film, about why Father James is voluntarily going toward his death. The title is a clue, but in terms of the character, it feels like like he’s acts the way he does because he’s trying to foster hope in himself, trying to trust people in a way that doesn’t come naturally. Do you see it that way?
McDonagh: Yeah. I mean, he’s continually trying to help them, with very little response. Although, you do find toward the end of the movie, one of the most confrontational characters does actually drop his cynicism, and comes to Father James for help. So his perseverance actually did work. Whatever happens with that character after that is up to the character to decide himself, but Father James did actually reach in and move him. Throughout the movie, Father James is obviously thinking, “Maybe what I’m doing is completely pointless,” and maybe that’s what leads him to face the killer at the end. He’s willing to die and maybe shock everyone in town because his integrity will go all the way to the end. But he still has hope that he can talk the man out of it, and save himself. He also wants to save the man’s soul, so if he goes to the police, how is that gonna help the man? It’s probably gonna put the guy in an even worse situation. So he could confront him, but he wants to save him, he doesn’t want to create any more pain for him.
The Dissolve: You’ve said you structured the film around the stages of grief, which Father James goes through as he decides how to handle his possible death. Is there any similar structural thinking in the process of him visiting all these characters in the film one by one? How did you put that together, in terms of who he should talk to and when?
McDonagh: What that came out of—I start with character, then plot, so I started with the priest. Plot would be, “Well, what does a priest do? What do they do in their community? Well, they tend to get involved with marriages in trouble, possibly when they shouldn’t get involved, but they form that social-worker aspect.” So okay, he’s dealing with a married couple in trouble, that’s two characters there already. The rich man on the hill who wants to make a donation to the church, you’d have to go and see those people to raise money, so that’s Dylan Moran. He’d go and minister to the sick, which would be M. Emmet Walsh, that’s another character. Priests administer the last rites, so he meets both Marie-Josée [Croze] and Aidan Gillen. It came out of standard plot mechanics, the creation of all these characters. But of course, once they were created, I wanted to make them original. Like for me, Dylan Moran’s character is one of the most interesting, because on the face of it, he’s a completely despicable guy who’s ripped off loads of people and got away with it, but he’s suffering, he doesn’t feel good about it. So I tried to switch the characters around in that way.
I mean, Aidan Gillen’s character, who has some of the most appalling scenes and most destructive stories, he’s still actually doing good in his community, he’s still saving people’s lives, so that character can’t really be judged at face value either. Orla O’Rourke, who plays the woman having the affair, we have to assume that Chris O’Dowd’s character for whatever reasons no longer has sex with her, so she’s lonely. What’s she gonna do? She should probably leave town, because she’s obviously an intelligent woman. You know, when she says to the priest, “You’re a little too sharp for this parish,” she’s really talking about herself. So she should probably get out, but she doesn’t. But I don’t think she should be judged in a negative way because of that. I always try to keep in mind the Jean Renoir quote, “Everybody has their reasons.” That’s always in the back of my mind when creating characters.
The Dissolve: You said that, as a result of this film, people are coming to you with their stories about the Catholic Church, their questions and problems, almost like a confessional. Were you prepared for that level of interaction with the public over this film?
McDonagh: I thought it might happen, and I kind of want to say, “Well listen, I’m questioning the world and life just as much as you, I wouldn’t really have any answers.” But you just hope that if they are looking for those spiritual values, they’ll take it from the film, and make up their own mind. I think both The Guard and Calvary are anti-authoritarian films. I’m a big believer in, “You shouldn’t really be going to anyone in authority for advice about anything. You should try to make up your own mind and come to your own decisions.”
The Dissolve: At the same time, the film does have this very moral figure who’s trying to draw a line in the sand, and forcefully pull everybody over with him.
McDonagh: Yeah, I mean, it does end for me on a moment of grace. That final stage of grief is acceptance, which should lead to calmness or at least not a rage. Anger is the early stage, it shouldn’t be the final stage. To me, it ends with, as one of the characters says, “a modicum of hope.” To me, there’s a modicum of hope at the end, and maybe that’s enough, I think, especially for this story.
The Dissolve: There’s a modicum of hope at the end of The Guard, too, but you yourself have said that, as ambiguous as the film’s ending is, you believe Gerry Boyle is dead.
McDonagh: When I was writing it, there were so many references to death, literary references, like the yacht that carries the drugs is called the Annabel Lee, which is a Poe poem about a dead girl. Even the songs, a lot of them are about death. The John Denver song, he’s leaving on a jet plane, but John Denver died in a plane accident. So in my mind, Gerry Boyle dies. But Brendan, when he was playing it, believed he lived. And that’s fine, we can have that difference of opinion. Everyone who watches the movie can have that difference of opinion as well.
The Dissolve: I’ve heard you’ve gotten a lot of pushback from people when you express your opinion about the ending. Was there any desire to make Calvary more definitive in that way?
McDonagh: I didn’t actually have that in my mind, but I know from the very first page of the script, without spoiling it, what the ending was gonna be, and that never changed. It was just who the man in the confession booth was—I didn’t know.
The Dissolve: Really? How late in the stage did you figure that out?
McDonagh: About 60 pages into the script. As we were moving toward the final act, I started saying, “Well, I’ve got to make a final decision about who it is now.” It’s funny, I never thought about that, but maybe that was in my mind, to be definitive this time around, not to be ambiguous.
The Dissolve: This is such an Irish story, dealing with questions of Catholicism and relationships with the Church, and the small isolated Sligo town, and a particularly Irish priest. How much were you thinking about the Irish tradition of grappling with all of these big questions in stories and film?
McDonagh: I think the thing for me was, obviously because of cast and because I know the locations, the film was gonna be made in Ireland, and it’s gonna be perceived as an Irish story. But America is a very religious country. It may not be Catholicism, it may be different religions, and the rituals are different, because Catholicism is kind of a theatrical religion. It’s very bloody. But all these questions of faith and spirituality are common around the world. Also, these scandals have happened all around the world: America, Latin America, Italy, Spain. I think any country where there are small towns with a populace that still goes to church regularly—this could be about any of them. To me, it’s a film about human beings rather than a specifically Irish tale. But obviously, while saying that, I’m still referencing people like Samuel Beckett in the movie, where the widow says, “I can’t go on, but I’ll go on.” So yeah, we are dealing with that tradition, or at least with the view that we’re dealing with that tradition.
The Dissolve: What will it feel like at this point, making a film without Brendan Gleeson?
McDonagh: Yeah, it’d be interesting! I could go off to America, make my American movie, and it’ll be disastrous—I’m hanging around, I don’t get along with anybody, they fire me. But I think you should try to push yourself in life, and do things that are scary, just to try to expand and grow. And the way I look at it, if it all goes wrong, I can still come back and make another movie with Brendan in England. ’Cause that’s where the next one will be set—in London.
The Dissolve: Is there any timeline for making that third film in the trilogy, The Lame Shall Enter First?
McDonagh: I probably wouldn’t start writing it until the middle of next year, and maybe if it went fast, financing and everything, ’cause there’s a lot of interest in the movie already, it could start shooting by the end of the year. It’s funny, both the films ended up being put together very fast, and shooting in the same time, October to November. That’s a miserable time to shoot in Ireland, but we kind of got away with it on Calvary. It looks a little sunnier than it actually was.