Brendan Gleeson turns in another memorable, must-see performance in The Guard as Sergeant Gerry Boyle, an eccentric small-town cop with a confrontational and crass personality who reluctantly partners with FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) to track down elusive drug traffickers. A longtime policeman in County Galway, Boyle’s a maverick with his own moral code, a jaundiced outlook and a subversive sense of humor. He’s indifferent to what others think of him and he enjoys keeping them guessing as to his intelligence.
We sat down with Gleeson at a roundtable interview to talk about his new comedy crime film, a darkly funny fish-out-of-water tale of murder, blackmail, drug trafficking and rural police corruption written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. Gleeson also discussed his upcoming projects including the recently completed CIA thriller Safe House starring Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington and At Swim-Two-Birds, a project he’s adapted from Flann O’Brien’s acclaimed 1938 novel and hopes to direct next Spring. Hit the jump for more.
Interviewer: You and John Michael McDonagh hit it off really well. How do you describe that relationship when an actor and a director share a vision? Is that something you look for?
Brendan Gleeson: Yeah, it is. What you want is somebody who pushes the bar up for you, and then what you try to do is to push the bar up for them. I’ve been very lucky since I went full time on this, and even before that actually, to work with people who push the bar up, like John Boorman was one, for example, who happened to quite early on in the 90s. Just to work with somebody like that who constantly questions, “Okay, you’re going in at a particular level but maybe there’s something underneath that?” He keeps kind of pushing it up and you try to rise to it. You always feel on a set when a director is allowing people to function like that. You can feel people going “Okay, so that’s what this is then. I’m getting a chance to improve. I’m getting a chance to find out more.” It was interesting now with John because it was his first feature and all that as a director, but you knew that he absolutely has it from the script. So the next thing is then how are you going to work together? He was remarkably unprecious in the sense that he would allow you to push the boundaries of what we were doing. We didn’t really feel the need ever to start taking it off and starting again, but you would need to expand. Even if it’s going in the wrong direction, you need to go there to find out that it’s a cul-de-sac or whatever. He was tremendously interested in that regard. I know he was even a little scared when he started because I remember what his answer was to the rehearsal thing that I was talking about with Don when we met here. We were talking about the need for a rehearsal or not. This was before the film was shot. I said, “I love rehearsing.” In Bruges, for example, we had two weeks’ rehearsal – myself, Colin (Farrell), and Mark (Donovan), we sat in a room and went through the script for two weeks before we started shooting. Don (Cheadle) and John were both uncomfortable with that. Don felt “I don’t like to mess with the spontaneity,” which was okay. We had that discussion. But John, in his typical way, said “I’m not mad about rehearsal at all either” and I said “Why? Why not? I mean, this is so solid. You could explore this for a hundred years and you wouldn’t get to the end of it.” And he said “I might not know the answer to all the questions.” (laughs) I said “That’s the point. None of us has the answers to all the questions.” So, that’s what you do then. You keep asking each other the questions you don’t quite know the answer to, I guess.
Gleeson: Did I like him? I’ve met him.
How does that work?
Gleeson: It works, and if you meet him on a good day, you can have the best laugh in the history of laughs. If you meet him on a bad day, it’s too much work to bother. I meet a lot of these guys actually. I do like him because in the end he carries it through. If you’re in the trenches with Gerry Boyle, you’re not going to look around and find out that he was the smart guy who got out at the end of the trench when you weren’t looking. He’s actually the guy with no bluff or no showboating or anything like that. He’s actually going to be the solid one who’s going to figure out how to get at the back of their trench.
He could fall under the definition of maverick. Are you a bit of a maverick yourself and do you think that’s why you like him?
Gleeson: Well it depends on what it’s about. I wouldn’t be a maverick for the sake of it. That’s really dull. There’s nothing more boring than somebody who wants to be different all the time. You’ve got to look at the situation and say “No, actually this is a really cool place to be. I’m glad I’m with fifty other people in this thing because it’s the right place to go.” But, if you go into another situation and say “These fifty people are losing their minds. I’m not going there. That’s it.” So it depends on what’s going on. I do find people who are professional rebels bogus for the most part and really boring as well on top of that. Being a rebel and going around as a rebel doesn’t make sense to me. It depends on what you’re about in the end. So that’s the answer to that. I’m a maverick rebel.
Gleeson: Well I didn’t say that he’s been trying to avoid police work. I said what he’s trying to avoid is filling in phones which is usually a way of avoiding police work. I think Gerry went with a very definite belief that he could make a difference and he found a small compromise as he found his so-called superiors weren’t that interested in all that. Basically, the real measure would have been to keep your head down, don’t make a fuss, write out a few tickets for people every month and that would be grand. Maybe in a couple years they’ll make you sergeant and then whatever. I don’t think he has any ambition to have stripes, like bars on his shoulders, but I do think that he always wanted to get in there and make a difference and he wanted to be confronting these bad guys who were doing seriously bad stuff. I think what becomes clear in the initial part of the film is that when McBride is abused, manhandled and killed basically, then he really wants to get these people, and it’s not good enough, and all the stuff and all the posturing that the others are going on with is not good enough. It’s rubbish anyway and it’s self-serving and it’s nothing to do with anything. So that while he doesn’t want to fill in forms that are about nothing, I do think that he has a very smart, clear moral sense and then he’s outraged by these people. As far as he’s concerned, he’s going to get them one way or the other.
Gleeson: Oddly enough, and very literally, all he did was enhance his own reputation as far as I was concerned. I mean, on a daily basis, there are always surprises. We were always getting little takes on stuff that I hadn’t seen before and that were funny and good, interesting, subtle and layered. I don’t know why, but I kind of expected it from his work, so sometimes it’s a great joy not to be disappointed by people. We met here. We did our little thing here and then we went over and it was kind of hilarious for once not to be the person who had to learn how things went. Don would come and see how things went in Connemara and was just a joy, and he rose to the occasion so it was fun. It was great. He’s a great actor and he works the way great actors work which is collaboratively. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a big thing that people will work collaboratively because I think, in the way we were talking earlier, you can always raise the bar for people and they can always raise the bar for you, and collective stuff is almost always, for me anyway, far more interesting than any great, intense separate thing. Now sometimes that’s what’s called for and you respect it, but he’s collaborative.
Gleeson: It’s the scene where I ask him if he’s from the projects. I still think that reaction is priceless. I’d seen a couple of different cuts of that film so I saw pretty much all his reactions and they were all priceless. It was all about ‘he just said that, didn’t he?’ And then, that was okay, he’s kind of getting used to that a little bit. But then, it was like ‘okay, here we go again.’ And you suddenly realize that he had been asked that question or that had been assumed of him before. That’s real character work. That’s proper history. That’s proper soul [when you] just store the stuff in your stomach that you can’t. That’s when it becomes joyous because you can feel okay, I’m dealing with a real person here now. So the stakes have gone up.
How did you prepare for this character? Was it in terms of something you had done before?
Gleeson: There were a couple of things I hadn’t done before so I had to do them. There was the prostitution thing and then (laughs) … I’m joking, I’m joking. I kind of knew him straight off to be honest with you. I knew the guy, I really did. My preparation for him was more about finding out whether it was worth it. Like, as I say, there’s something about shock jocks that really bores the face off me where guys say really, really shocking things but there’s nothing behind it. There’s no real depth of thought. It’s only I’m going to say this stuff on the radio. People are going to be shocked by it so they’ll tune in to see what I say next. The danger with Gerry was that he’d be a shock jock. I don’t believe he was a shock jock because I think behind all that stuff, there was a whole other thing ticking and there was a whole life going on. So the challenge was less about…culturally I knew exactly where he was. As I say, I meet one of these all the time. You can meet these guys. But I had to find out if all that stuff was worth it, that it was worth hanging around and understanding why he was so lonely or understanding why he was so frustrated. Was it worth it? For me, it was finding the places where it was worth it.
Gleeson: It was great. It was Gerry having his little fantasy, wasn’t it? You know he’s been dreaming about this for donkey’s years. He always wanted to be Gary Cooper or John Wayne or somebody going down in High Noon with spurs jangling away. It’s a wonder he hadn’t got a pair of spurs on him. But, at the same time, there was quite a desperation to it. When we were figuring out how to do it, I wanted him just to walk. I didn’t want him doing fantastically athletic things partly because Kate (Katarina Cass who plays Gabriela) loved him. I wanted it to be quite certain that he didn’t care really whether he lived or died at that point and he was doing what he had to do. That’s so Western, it’s unbelievable. But, in a way, I think that’s how he started — wanting that walk, wanting to be faced with that and wondering if he’d be up to it or not.
We don’t usually see you in scenes like that. Was that a dream also?
Gleeson: I’ve shot me fair share.
You mentioned John Wayne and I saw your name associated with a film called Connemara Days about shooting The Quiet One? Is that coming together yet?
Gleeson: No, I have no idea what that’s about. That’s another IMDb [rumor].
But you did say you shot in South Africa?
Gleeson: I did. I shot Safe House with Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington. I just finished actually. We finished it over in Washington (D.C.). So yeah, I’d been down before. I shot a movie with John Boorman down there about 8 or 9 years ago which was about the South African Truth Commission and all that. And then, we were down there again shooting with this very interesting young director, Daniel Espinoza, who I guarantee is going to make a lot of waves. He did Snabba Cash (Easy Money) and he’s an interesting guy, a Chilean who talks Swedish, not a very usual combination. So that’ll be next year, I guess.
You have a wonderful and diverse career. If you could talk to the young Brendan at 20, what would you tell him based on your experience?
Gleeson: I’d tell him to wise up and leave the business. I think every section in a person’s life [has merit]. I’m trying to do a thing called At Swim-Two-Birds. I’ve been trying to make it for a long time. It’s a book by Flann O’Brien that’s gonna become a movie hopefully next Spring. It’s one of the funniest and most anarchic novels I’ve ever read. I read it when I was 17 and I just loved it.
Gleeson: Really? Good. I’ll remember that.
They were trying to do it a long time ago. It’s a great, great book.
Gleeson: It’s a great book but it’s kind of unfilmable in the way that the book was unwriteable. But I have the script and it’s going to be filmed.
Somebody tried to do it 20 years ago and the script was dreadful.
Gleeson: Oh I know. It was done by an Austrian guy. It was just him and a couple of friends and stuff. But I have it kind of sorted. I mean, not sorted, but I have the launch pad for it anyway. The reason I brought it up was that Flan O’Brien was asked, somebody went up to him, I think it was Eamon Morrissey actually, and said “Listen, I just want to know…” He was a curmudgeon and he’d be drinking and he wouldn’t want anybody interrupting him, but Eamon Morrissey was a young actor at the time when he went up and said “Listen, I just wanted to say in a few words I just love your work.” And he actually attacked him and called it juvenilia. He said anybody that likes that is juvenile. He wanted nothing [to do with it]. So he attacked his own work of 20 years prior as if it wasn’t worth a damn. And we know that it is worth a damn even though he didn’t at that point. So I think any judgment of yourself as a younger man is bound to be wrapped up in all sorts of error. I don’t think you can. You have to live the time you’re in.
Are you in the last Harry Potter?
Gleeson: No, I’m dead. I died in the last one (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part I) so I won’t be in the end of it. Not in the last one but in the one that’s been out. That’s why I’m not spoiling it for anybody.
What does it say to you being part of that world even if you die in it?
Gleeson: In Harry Potter? Magic! That’s what it is. It’s magic.
The Guard is currently playing in limited release.