For role, Gleeson looked to mentors

Interview by Karen Butler


Ireland’s Brendan Gleeson still has a special place in his heart for Gerry Boyle, the debauched cop he played in writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s celebrated comedy “The Guard” three years ago.

Gleeson’s affection for Gerry was evident when he talked to the Irish Echo by phone recently about his latest role, that of the saintly Father James Lavelle in McDonagh’s new film “Calvary.”

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Asked what it was like to play a character who was essentially the polar opposite of Gerry, the 59-year-old Dublin native said, “Well, I’m not sure if I’d agree with that particular one.

“I think Gerry hid his light under a bushel a little bit. I think there was more going on with him than we thought. He was quite sensitive in his own way. He was very perceptive and I think he had a hidden hero in him, which kind of emerged in the end. Father James, on the other hand, was somebody who kind of just opened up his heart to be kicked,” Gleeson laughed. “They had different ways of negotiating the world, but I’m not sure if they were 100 miles apart, really. But, certainly, to play somebody who was committed to the good [like Father James,] it’s unusual to get those roles, for me anyway. To actually have a real-life hero, kind of in the Gary Cooper mode, was brilliant. It’s the kind of stuff you always want to do. It’s what I wanted to do when I came into acting. When it’s so kind of layered and it’s not just a simple thing of sticking on a cowboy hat and shooting somebody. You have to go through the whole confrontation with all the various disillusionment that’s around him. So, it was great.”

“I always start with the lead character first,” McDonagh said in a separate phone chat with the Echo. “So, on ‘The Guard,’ I had the idea for the Gerry Boyle character and, on this, I was talking to Brendan when we were finishing up ‘The Guard…’ I was talking about wanting to do a film about a genuinely good person and I was thinking maybe that good person would be a priest because we were assuming there would be a lot of films coming out dealing with the scandals and they would be dealing with bad priests and I thought we should be more original and do the exact opposite and deal with a good one.

“So, that’s where it all started from. I always start with the characters first and then the plot and then whatever the subtext comes out of the story you are trying to tell is all well and good, but the primary goal is to tell a good story.”

Focusing the mind

Set in County Sligo, “Calvary” is about what happens when a man enters Father James’s Catholic Church confessional and tells him he is going to kill him a week hence. The man confides he was molested as a child by a now-dead priest and says he wants to make headlines by slaying an innocent cleric in the pedophile’s stead. Father James spends the week reconnecting with his adult daughter, who is recovering from a suicide attempt, and talking to his parishioners, many of whom are lonely, angry and bitter, until the day arrives when he must meet his fate and possibly sacrifice his life.

So, does Father James immediately know what he should do when faced with this dilemma or does he need the week to decide if he is going to keep his appointment with the man who threatened to kill him?

“I think when he says he doesn’t know, but he is sure he’ll think of something in the week, I think that’s the truth of it, yeah,” Gleeson offered. “It focuses the mind, a death threat. It means that all the issues that he has had and has been struggling with anyway become very focused and I think he wants to find his true light, if you want to put it that way, and to find the best version of himself that he can project and to kind of inhabit that person for the week. I think that’s what he tries to do and, in confronting the actual threat, I feel he understands there is a very real danger of it happening, but that he decides that he is going to believe that he can face it down and it’s his duty to face it down. Because I think it’s all wrapped up, as well, in the fact he understands the pain that has been inflicted on the perpetrator and he wants to absorb some of it.”

Asked if he thinks Father James’s interactions with his parishioners throughout the week cause him to question whether life is worth living or people deserve saving, the actor replied, “I do.”

Gleeson added: “I think that’s the constant battle, yeah. And you’re all the time facing the easy option and possibly the most logical one, which is to say, ‘To hell with it all.’ And they have all capitulated to it and I think his faith is of a particular fundamental strength that he is intent on seeing that out, though. But I think, for sure, there are times when he wilts underneath the weight of it. It’s undeniable that there is a lot of horror in the world and it is very easy to bow underneath it.”

Parents’ humility, faith

In preparing for the role, Gleeson said he looked to the people in his own life who over the years inspired him and taught him how to be the kind of man he wanted to be.

“I think I knew him. I think I accessed all the stuff that would have been maybe when I was growing up as a kid. I kept referring back to my childhood in terms of people I knew,” the actor noted. “Particularly, there was a brother I had who was a great mentor to me and was very generous of spirit. The kind of humility and faith that my parents would have had. Particularly, my mother had a very, very open kind of faith that was very love-based and things like that. I had an aunt, her sister, who was a nun and I remember her coming back from South Africa and she was the most liberal woman I ever met. She knew and understood the issues that were happening down there at the time with apartheid and she was very open-minded. She was very warm. So, I think I accessed all those people who had maybe given me gifts of reassurance and kind of formed in me the notion of what it means to be charitable and optimistic.”

He went on to say another family member also influenced his performance in the film. One of the most memorable scenes in “Calvary” shows Father James visiting in prison an unrepentant murderer played by Gleeson’s real-life son, Domhnall.

Pressed to describe the experience, Gleeson admitted it was “very odd.”

He recalled. “We basically didn’t speak for about a week beforehand and got through it and gave as good as we got to each other on opposite sides of the table.

“It was great when it was over, but it was also something I was kind of looking forward to and to have it in a film of this nature I was, obviously, very, very proud of him. But, also, just it was a real treat to engage with an actor of that quality. I think he did an amazing job on it.”

Director McDonagh remembered capturing those gripping moments on film as being part of a “tough day.”

“That was a very dark scene. It was very intense. We shot it in just one day. It was like a prize fight, I suppose, between two sort of evenly matched opponents in the level of darkness that was going on. I think that was the one day my brother turned up on set,” he added, referring to playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, who directed the elder Gleeson in the movie “In Bruges.” Domhnall also starred in the Broadway production of his play “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” and both Gleesons appeared in his short film “Six Shooter.”

“[Martin] hadn’t read the script and he turned to me after a few minutes in and he said, ‘I thought this was supposed to be a comedy.’ He didn’t know what was happening at that point,” McDonagh related. “The initial intent with the film, it was meant to be much more of a black comedy type film, but when you get all of these really great actors involved, they find depth to the characters and it becomes a much deeper and much more dramatic movie and much more somber, I suppose. But that’s good.”

Co-starring Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Kelly Reilly, David Wilmot, Pat Shortt and David McSavage, “Calvary” is earning rave reviews from critics. It opens is U.S. theaters Friday.

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