From writer/director John Michael McDonagh, Calvary tells the story of Father James (Brendan Gleeson), a good priest who is faced with troubling circumstances brought about by a mysterious member of his parish. While helping members of his church with their problems, he also tries to comfort his own fragile daughter (Kelly Reilly) and face the sinister force that’s quickly closing in on him.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, Irish actor Brendan Gleeson talked about the trust he has in his collaboration with filmmaker John Michael McDonagh, teaming up with him a third time for The Lame Shall Enter First, in which he’ll play a paraplegic, how liberating it was to play a decent guy, and why Father James is more inspirational than an anti-hero. He also talked about his experience working with Ron Howard on Heart of the Sea, and why he wanted to get involved with Suffragette. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: It’s rare that an actor gets to team up with a director again so soon. What was your experience like on The Guard and what already had you thinking about working with John Michael McDonagh again, a second time, before even finishing that film?
BRENDAN GLEESON: It’s a good question, but it’s hard to define, really. There’s a trust, and he’s such an exquisite writer. As an actor, to get a gift of a part like that is unusual. And then, to have the prospect of another one is always going to be interesting and exciting. We’re getting the blues about having to walk away from this whole thing. We enjoyed it a lot and it all felt good. We had a good experience on it. We thought we could do good work together. And it is unusual to get the next one, straight off the bed. John is funny. When he gets moving, he moves pretty quickly.
And you’re going to team up with him a third time, for The Lame Shall Enter First?
GLEESON: Yeah. He reckons that the only sitting around I’ll do over the next while is backstory and research ‘cause he wants me to play a paraplegic. So, I’ll have to do a lot of sitting about, which suits me really well, actually.
Are you already talking about what you’d be exploring with that story and character?
GLEESON: All he’s telling me, at the moment, is that he wants him to be spectacularly abusive to people. He hates everybody who’s able-bodied, and resents them with massive bucketloads of bitterness and revile. It all sounds like a bunch of fun. He’s investigating a crime where a friend of his has been killed, and he doesn’t believe the police. He’s a former policeman who was shot in the line of duty, and he doesn’t believe that they’re exploring it with enough vigor, so he goes to try to do something about that. That’s what I know about him. I know that he’s somebody more interesting than just somebody who’s spectacularly abusive, but that’s what John is going on, at the moment. But, I don’t think he can help himself. He’ll find some humanity in there, somewhere.
GLEESON: Once we start shooting, it’s in there. You’re trying to get into a place where you rise to the work, rather than make it manageable or make it work for you. You work for it. You don’t have to massage it, so that it fits into the way it has to be. He’s just too vigorous a writer and the dialogue is too sparking to do anything other than inhabit it and give it as much truth as you can. You just try to make it part of your DNA. That’s what the challenge is, really.
Father James is just a really decent guy, which we don’t see too often anymore, especially with a character who’s a priest. What was it like to play someone like that, who had personal problems with his family, but was mostly a decent guy?
GLEESON: It was great. It was liberating to do it. I think most people are decent people. I don’t know if they could stand the pressure he’s under, but most people aspire to be decent people. So, to get to play somebody who was insisting on it, in spite of all the evidence was very liberating and exciting. It went quite deep. I suppose I reference a kindness and humility that I would have seen in my parents’ generation, a little bit more than now. We lost faith in authority in the ‘50s, up to a point, and we spawned a lot of anti-heroes in movies, which were refreshing and open. But at this point, with the distrust that’s there and the disillusionment with leadership that is so acute, we need some kind of a focus on taking the irony out and taking the anti-hero element away. Are there people to aspire to? Can people be strong enough to withstand all of this disillusionment? Maybe the time is right for people to emerge from the easy cynicism and try to get back to a place where we can actually believe in people and trust people to have proper motivations. I think it’s doubly important, now that we see so many people failing. When the norm is an anti-hero, there’s a serious loss when you cannot portray a decent person on screen without it becoming slightly sentimental or feeling like it’s unrealistic. This is a seriously flawed man with a lot of failings in his life that he continues to struggle with. He’s not a cool, clean hero. He’s a very, very ravaged man, who’s fighting as hard as he can. I think he’s more inspirational, in that way.
GLEESON: Well, it defined him, as a man. John sent me a first draft, which is unusual for him because he’s very clear about what he wants, so it was great to be included in that process. That was when I knew who he was. That’s where it came through to me. It’s such a bruised relationship. They’ve missed each other in the night, somewhere along the line, and she arrives with a bandage on her wrist, which is the most horrifying nightmare that any parent can imagine. It’s a complicated relationship, but it’s also very revealing, with regard to the nature of his love for people and his tenderness. For me, it became clear who he was from that. And then, his vocation became an extension of him.
You did a role in Heart of the Sea for Ron Howard. What was that experience like?
GLEESON: Oddly enough, it was quite intimate. I’m playing Tom Nickerson, who is a historical character. He was on the Essex, and the tale of the Essex inspired Moby Dick. Basically, I’m the older version of Tom Nickerson, and Melville comes to talk about it. Melville was inspired by the tale of the Essex to write Moby Dick, so that’s the conceit. He tries to glean from me what actually happened on that voyage, which I’ve hidden for 30 or 35 years. So, it was quite an intense, intimate battle of wits, leading into a trust over a long night of whiskey and storytelling and revelation. I do the voice-over for the flashbacks, and the heart of the film is the actual voyage itself. I didn’t get my feet wet, even, but it was quite an intense encounter. Ben Whishaw played Melville, and he was wonderful. And working with Ron was inspirational. We got pretty down and dirty in that room. So, I think it’s gonna be great. I saw little bits of it while I was doing some looping, a few days ago. I think it’s gonna be pretty spectacular. I hope so.
GLEESON: It was the script and the part. He’s a CID man who’s spying on them. At the time, it was the first time that they’d used cameras to photograph people covertly, on the street. There was a whole series of things that happened over that time period, which were interesting. He has a proper arc and a proper storyline. I’ve found out that a lot of these guys that were in the CID section were Irish. That character was interesting, but also there was such a cast and it’s such an interesting time. I took a little bit of a chance on Sarah Gavron because I hadn’t seen Brick Lane. I’ve seen it subsequently, and I loved it. She was particularly fantastic to work with. She was very collaborative and had a real sense of what she was doing on set. It was the second time I’ve worked on a set with more estrogen flying about the place than testosterone. I also did it with Albert Nobbs, with Glenn Close, two years ago. Both were truly creative experiences. There is a different energy, and in both cases, it was fantastically creative. I think it’s going to be really, really good. I have great hopes for Suffragette.
Calvary is now playing in theaters.