07.26.11

Fat, Ugly, and Famous

Irish actor Brendan Gleeson was once told he was "too old, and not good-looking enough" to be a star. In his new film, The Guard, he proves his naysayers wrong. By Nicole LaPorte.

After costarring in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, Brendan Gleeson was told by a Hollywood agent that he would never be a star, because he was “too fat, too old, and not good-looking enough.”

“Basically, what he said was that it was Mel’s movie and that he would be the only one who could make a difference, not anyone else—that I was just kind of local color,” the portly Irish actor, who is 56, said in a phone interview recently from his home in Dublin. “He more or less told me that I did not have a future as a star, as far as he was concerned.”

Gleeson’s reaction?

“I kind of said, ‘OK.’ And in my own head I said, ‘I’ll see you again. Hopefully at the Oscars.’”

That, of course, was before Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, the offbeat buddy caper in which Gleeson starred opposite Colin Farrell as a buttoned-up Irish assassin, more than holding his own against his costar’s good looks and disheveled charm, and before Into the Storm, the HBO/BBC biopic of Winston Churchill, which earned Gleeson an Emmy in 2009 for outstanding lead actor in a miniseries or film.

But if those projects proved that Gleeson—who has spent the bulk of his career as a character actor, appearing in everything from Harry Potter (as Mad-Eye Moody) to Gangs of New York to Michael Collins—had leading-man chops, his new film, The Guard, which opens in the U.S. on Friday, is the most compelling evidence yet that he can not only carry a film but embody one to its (in this case) raucous, touching, and dementedly irreverent core.

Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (brother of Martin, and writer of Ned Kelly), The Guard—like In Bruges—is a noir buddy comedy set in an idiosyncratic land. This time around, however, Gleeson doesn’t play the straightlaced foil, but a wisecracking, work-averse cop in the middle of godforsaken Ireland who is forced to team up with a much more by-the-book FBI agent (Don Cheadle) to abort a drug-trafficking mission.

On the surface, The Guard, which was greeted with enthusiasm at its Sundance premiere, feels like a mashup of Quentin Tarantino high jinks and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) humor. But underneath the absurdist coffee-shop banter and parodic stick-‘em-up scenes, there is a level of poignancy and introspection to the tale—a quality that Gleeson says attracted him to the script.

“There’s a certain loneliness” to Sgt. Gerry Boyle’s character, Gleeson says, in that he’s examining “what his life is worth and what it stands for. There’s a certain amount of reflection going on.”

Indeed, despite the abundance of very funny scenes, most of which are spawned by conversation-stopping observations made by Boyle (“I thought only black lads were drug dealers,” he muses at one point), Gleeson refutes the notion that Boyle is a comic role.

“You can do a lot with comedy that isn’t” outright comedy, he says. “Beckett, for example, is a very funny writer, if you take him properly. Most people don’t take him like that, and associate him with misery and despair. All those things are there, but he’s usually extraordinarily funny if done properly. You can channel a lot within a comic framework, and I think The Guard had a lot going on outside of the comedy, which is satisfying.”

If Gleeson sounds more bookish than most actors, that’s because he is. Growing up in Dublin, he devoured books: Joyce, Faulkner, and, yes, Beckett. Upon discovering Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds when he was 17, he “literally fell out of bed laughing, it was so funny,” he once told The Sunday Times. The book’s impact on him has lingered: He plans to direct his own adaptation of it next year starring Michael Fassbender.

'You can channel a lot within a comic framework, and I think The Guard had a lot going on outside of the comedy, which is satisfying,' says Gleeson.

This love of literature led him to become a secondary-school teacher, a profession he devoted himself to until he was in his mid-30s. Acting, too, was a passion, but it was one he kept at arm’s length. Despite IMDb and Wikipedia reports that Gleeson attended the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, he did not. (“It’s great that I get credit for three years of work without having actually gone to school,” he says with a laugh.)

Rather, his theater training came by way of the Passion Machine Theatre Company in Dublin, founded by his friend and mentor Paul Mercier (Roddy Doyle was also a member).

“It was set up to bring plays to places where they had not been before,” Gleeson says. “For example, we’d drop a bunch of tickets into dole offices, and around to places where theater was not part of the culture. We kept the material relevant to suburban life more than anything else—areas that had not been explored in Irish literature or Irish theater.”

At 34, Gleeson finally made the leap. He gave up his day job and began auditioning for film roles.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his security-guard-like stature and a face that alternates between a state of ponderous, Mount Rushmore–esque severity and the kind of twinkling merriment that sets in sometime around the second round of Guinness on a Friday night, there was no shortage of work. Gleeson has 75 acting credits, dating back to 1989. But the meatier roles have come more recently, thanks in part to the McDonagh brothers, whom he first met through his son, the actor Domhnall Gleeson, who starred in Martin’s 2006 Broadway play The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

Gleeson says he relishes the collaboration because he’s “more interested in fresh stuff than rehashing old stuff. There’s a kind of ferocity about their writing, an edge to it, and it’s original. It’s coming from a place that hasn’t been seen before. They seem to be able to reinvent their own genre all the time.

“They both have very different voices, but the variety of stuff they’ve done, even including Martin’s plays, has been staggering.”

The partnership has in no way run its course: Gleeson is already planning on starring in John’s new script, Calgary, about an Irish priest whose community turns against him.

But what about Harry Potter? He played Prof. Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody in three of the films. Does he miss those days at all, especially given the current worldwide mania for the final installment?

“Not really,” he says, chuckling. “The good thing about my part in Harry Potter was that I was pretty well disguised. When I was walking down the street, there was no real recognition factor. Parents would sometimes call their children to come say hello to Mad-Eye, and the kids wouldn’t know what they were looking at. They had no idea who this middle-aged man was staring down at them.”