Domhnall Gleeson’s Very, Very Big Year
The man formerly known as Bill Weasley opens up about his massive 2015, starring in the films Ex Machina, Brooklyn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and The Revenant.
One might look back at a 2015 filled with noted turns in sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, period drama Brooklyn, stunning survival tale The Revenant, and that obscure little flick Star Wars: The Force Awakens and deduce, correctly, that Domhnall Gleeson’s had the biggest year in Hollywood.
Gleeson’s big year most recently saw him destroying worlds in a galaxy far, far away as General Hux, the tyrannical commander of The Force Awakens’ First Order. Taking a break from wrapping presents ahead of Christmas in his hometown of Dublin, Ireland, he shrugged off the attention with a surplus of modesty and charm as we recapped his year in review. “I did a reasonable amount of work,” he told The Daily Beast during a phone chat before the holiday. “I just got lucky this year.”
Even if you still need a primer on pronouncing his name (the “m” is silent; rhymes with “tonal”) Gleeson’s boyishly handsome face has become ubiquitous at the movies, and not just this year. The 32-year-old made his acting debut in London at the age of 19 in Martin McDonagh’s black comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore, earning a Tony nod when the play hit Broadway in 2006, and started building a resume of film and television work in the U.K. before scoring roles stateside in quick succession.
In terms of big years, Gleeson had a pretty decent 2010, too. That’s when he snagged a role in Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go and the Coen brothers’ True Grit, played Bob Geldof in the BBC rock doc When Harvey Met Bob, and starred alongside dad Brendan again (aka Mad-Eye Moody) as Bill Weasley in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows–Part 1.
Gleeson also made an impression in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina playing the lovelorn aristocrat Konstantin Levin opposite Alicia Vikander, his future Ex Machina co-star. He landed his first romantic leading role when Richard Curtis cast him in About Time, jumping through time to woo Rachel McAdams. Last year brought a triple feature of high-profile films: Gleeson played a wide-eyed songwriter enchanted by Michael Fassbender in a giant papier-mâché mask in Frank; a serial killer opposite Brendan Gleeson, again, as a conflicted Catholic priest in the Ireland-set Calvary; and a prisoner of war who suffers unspeakable cruelty alongside fellow American Louie Zamperini in Angelina Jolie’s WWII biopic Unbroken.
But processing his remarkable run in 2015 as the year draws to a close—hot off touring the world to promote one of the biggest movies of all-time, no less—is easier said than done.
“First, you just do what you’re offered. Then when you get a little bit of choice you do what interests you. Oftentimes, you don’t really know why you make choices until you start talking about them, so you don’t know how much of this is true, or how much you’re putting reason on things that actually had no reason to it,” Gleeson laughed. “I’m a very lucky guy in terms of the people I’ve gotten to share sets with, and that’s really the reason for the good year.”
Gleeson’s stateside 2015 took off with his turn in the science fiction three-hander Ex Machina, the provocative directorial debut of writer Alex Garland. “His movies are always something to be marveled at,” Gleeson said of the 28 Days Later scribe, who cast the actor as Caleb, a mid-level programmer who becomes entangled in a ménage-a-tech with his brilliant and reclusive boss (fellow Star Wars mate Oscar Isaac) and the alluring A.I. Ava (Vikander) to whom he’s tasked with administering the Turing test.
He envisioned Caleb as a smart, nice guy from Portland, where he spent a few weeks before filming. As the audience’s proxy into a brave new world in which Caleb finds himself falling for Ava, Garland found a perfect conduit in Gleeson’s inherent likeability and open vulnerability.
“He’s a super intelligent young man. He’s just not as intelligent as the other two people in the room and it takes him a while to realize that,” Gleeson assessed. “There might be a certain amount of arrogance which goes along with that. But the reality is that for most of his life, he would have been the most intelligent person in the room and it just so happens he’s a nice guy on top of it.”
“He’s just out of his depth,” quipped Gleeson, with a nod to Caleb’s fate. “He’s in the wrong room.”
For Brooklyn, the beautifully assembled period drama from director John Crowley that sparked a bidding war (and left many an audience member in tears) when it premiered at Sundance, Gleeson didn’t have to travel far. The tale of a young woman named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) who leaves her small town in the south of Ireland to forge a life for herself in New York circa 1952, was filmed last year in the Irish countryside. Gleeson contributed a quietly stirring supporting turn as a local suitor who offers Ronan’s Eilis the future she could have in her native land.
The film, which opened stateside in November, left popcorn butter-streaked tears running down my cheeks, I admitted. “You’re not supposed to ingest popcorn through your eyes! You put the popcorn in your mouth,” Gleeson chided. “And it’s salty. That would explain the tears. You’ve just been doing it wrong!”
The chance to work with Ronan and helmer Crowley made Brooklyn a no-brainer, he explained, even if collaborating with the 21-year-old Ronan gave him a bit of an existential crisis. “Part of you still thinks you’re the youngest person out there! That is not the case anymore. You look around and you’re like, ‘How old’s Saoirse again? 21? What the fuck! She’s been nominated for a what?’”
The film also spoke to a sentimental streak in Gleeson. “It’s set around the same time that my grandparents would have been courting, on both sides, my father’s parents and my mother’s,” said Gleeson, whose rugby-playing local boy Jim develops a sweet, tentative connection with Eilis even as her heart pulls her toward America. “I’m very close to my grandparents, so I liked that aspect of it.”
Add his work in Brooklyn to a growing list of lovestruck characters in Gleeson’s arsenal, even if he’s only been afforded the chance to play “anyone with a romantic bone in his body” in the last few years. One role in particular opened up Gleeson’s philosophy on both acting and love, he explained.
“I think particularly when you’re younger, you think that real acting is pain,” he mused. “Like, you’re only really acting if you’re weeping, and there are popcorn-salted tears coming out of your eyes. Unless you’re really in pain, you don’t feel like you’re expressing yourself because that was the place you thought, well, that’s really acting.”
“I had to think about it for Anna Karenina—actually expressing true love, without just being soppy. Expressing something true in that way is much trickier than you expect. Forming those connections to people that you hope will let people see a version of love onscreen, saying ‘I love you’ with a single tear coming down your cheek won’t do it. There has to be a real connection, and sometimes it’s more difficult to get to than crying because somebody’s cut off your finger,” he laughed. (For what it’s worth, he does an excellent job of the latter in True Grit.)
“They’re just different ends of the scale, but when I discovered that, it was a big deal for me. I found that I really enjoy trying to get to those places because they’re very interesting places to spend time,” Gleeson continued. “You hope in your own life that love will play a bigger part than fear or hate or anything like that.”
Gleeson capped 2015 with the Christmas Day release of one of the season’s most buzzed-about films. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s The Revenant is the product of an ambitious shoot in freezing temperatures that took its cast and crew to remote locations, chasing available light and complex, long takes to tell the story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a 19th-century frontiersman whose spirit and body is put to the test when he’s left for dead in the wintry American West.
“It was intense. I kept myself sane by telling myself that at least I could eat because on Unbroken, it was horribly difficult and we couldn’t eat,” he recalled, comparing it to the time he lost so much weight for Jolie that his contacts wouldn’t fit from the extreme body change. “We were on a diet which was really punishing, because you were denying yourself and it just wasn’t any fun. So at least you could eat on The Revenant!”
The intense shoot meant downtime spent in the hotel where the cast and crew lived for nearly half a year was no party, either. “We all kind of looked after each other,” Gleeson said. “You know, everybody has down days, and everybody has up days. Everybody has times when it just feels like a lot. And you’re away from your family for a long time. So it was important that we all looked after each other. It was a good group of guys and a really good group of actors.”
Gleeson plays one of his sturdiest roles yet in The Revenant as fur trader Andrew Henry, the leader of an American expedition decimated in the film’s early moments by a deadly attack by hostile Ree Indians. His youth and authority are called into question by the desperate band of surviving pelters left under his charge, including DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass and the film’s Machiavellian antagonist John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy. Gleeson described the emotionally exhausting shoot, which director Innaritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski filmed in chronological order using only available light.
“There wasn’t a lot of time because you were resting,” said Gleeson. “You were keeping your reserves. It wasn’t like going out and getting crazy and getting drunk because the next day you were back at -30 and crossing a river carrying bodies and furs and everything in ridiculously intense conditions.”
The taxed cast coped in solidarity with nighttime rounds of low-stakes poker. “It makes it OK to not talk. Like, a bunch of guys sitting around just staring at their laps is weird. But if you’re playing cards you can chat and it facilitates conversation but it’s also fine to be quiet for a while. There’s a competitive element, but if the stakes are totally manageable then it doesn’t get too crazy.” Jokingly, he acknowledged the film’s infamous CG bear. “That bear was great! Amazing poker face.”
The Revenant also offered Gleeson a major change of pace after Ex Machina and Brooklyn: He got to be the guy in charge. Finally. “He starts out not in control and making bad decisions trying to keep everyone together,” he said. “It was nice that as the film progressed he really grows into himself and becomes much stronger over the course of the film, much more sure of himself. He ends up quite vengeful at certain points and quite strong, and I really, really liked that.”
“Going into work every day, at least I felt like I was going in somewhat in control of my own destiny towards the end of the shoot,” he remarked. “It would have been difficult to go in if I was having my balls busted every day.” Could Gleeson survive the brutal and unrelenting Wild West his alter ego is tasked with wrangling?
“It’s very different growing up in the city where you can get your latte,” protested Gleeson, who was born more than 200 years after the real-life Henry. “I have immense respect for people then. It wasn’t even that every day was survival, it was that every minute of every day was a fight to keep your life, at all times basically.”
He considered having to pull off one method Glass takes to ensure his survival: slicing open the carcass of his horse to escape the freezing cold, Luke Skywalker-style. “It would have to be a pretty gutsy horse, in every meaning of the word. But there’s only room for one inside that horse. You wouldn’t want to be sharing your horse with somebody else,” Gleeson deadpanned. “I’d give it a shot, though.”
Which brings us to the role Gleeson’s been able to discuss the least this year, despite it being the biggest film he may ever make in his entire career. Offered the Star Wars job under pain of extreme secrecy, Gleeson accepted—and, like his fellow castmates, spent the next year and a half skillfully evading questions about his villainous General Hux and his place in the insidious First Order.
Now, days after Episode VII broke records upon release, Gleeson could finally talk Star Wars. Kinda. Even now, the erstwhile General Hux is afraid of pissing off Disney or spoiling The Force Awakens, and any possible future installments of the Star Wars saga that he may or may not be in or have knowledge of.
“It was a pretty simple document that just made very clear very quickly that you would be in a hell of a lot of trouble if you said anything—and rightly so,” he said of Disney’s fearsome Star Wars NDA. “But at the same time, I didn’t need to sign the document not to tell anybody. I understand that if I just wandered up to somebody and tell them the ending that wouldn’t be a good thing,” he laughed.
He did allow himself to wax enthusiastic over Hux’s bitter relationship with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), his Force-powered First Order colleague and rival for Supreme Leader Snoke’s affections.
“His fascist relationship with Kylo Ren was great fun,” he said, as fond as audiences are of the pair’s adversarial adolescents-on-the-playground dynamic. “And it’s Star Wars, so you don’t want to leave anything at home. There were people when I was young, bullies, who just had a disregard for human life and were just born that way—you know, when you look at some people’s faces and you’re like, ‘That person’s an asshole.’ Some people have it in them. Their sourness from the inside just shapes the way they hold themselves. So it was kind of fun to go there. As long at you’re not dealing with those people in real life, it’s enjoyable to hate them.”
As for Hux’s perennially scowling contempt for Kylo Ren, “they’re both disdainful of the sort of power the other person wields. My guy has gotten very far in the military at a very young age. He doesn’t look like he’s seen a lot of action so you can imagine he’s made very smart moves and put people down to get where he is, whereas Kylo Ren seems to have done it through action rather than political [moves]. He’s got these mysterious powers that are freaky, I think, to people like Hux. I thought that dynamic was kind of cool. And each of them needs the other… it appears.”
So where does Hux come from? Did his parents ignore him as a child? Does he pen angsty diary entries about his First Order frenemies like Emo Kylo Ren does about him? “I may not be telling you because I know and I can’t tell you, OR I may not be telling you because I don’t know,” teased Gleeson, who would neither confirm nor deny his knowledge of Hux’s past or future. “If the film doesn’t tell you, then I for sure as shit am not going to risk the wrath of Disney by hazarding a guess.”
As we chatted Star Wars Gleeson pleaded the fifth so many times, JJ Abrams would be proud of his commitment to the mystery box. He did reveal that he modeled Hux’s showstopper of a monologue—in which the young general commands the attention of Starkiller Base’s stormtrooper ranks with a venomous anti-Resistance hate speech, quivering with spite like a ginger Joseph Goebbels—on a few real-life figures.
“It obviously seems quite Germanic in places,” he said of Hux’s clear Nazi parallels, “but much more than that there were a few English people who I don’t even want to name-check because they were just disgusting people. There were examples of people like that in England’s history that were really crazy. It wasn’t like all of England was with these people. But there were a few I took inspiration from.”
“There have been lots of people who valued power above all else—those people exist all the time,” he continued. “Obviously in the middle of the century in Europe there was a particular madness going on, but those people are always there. Those people don’t disappear. Sometimes they’ll wait for their opportunity or they’re in countries that don’t seem as relevant to us because they’re far away, but those sort of people are there all the time. It’s never not been there, and it’s never going away. You just hope that they don’t get what they want.”
Hux’s hatefulness, then, doesn’t come from the fact that he’s the galaxy’s most loathesome redhead? “I have found gingers to be very welcoming, and very lovely, in my brief time on this planet,” countered Gleeson, who has been anointed by various media in recent years to be one of Hollywood’s favorite redheads and scoffs at the thought that there exist Internet quizzes with titles like Which Domhnall Gleeson Is Your Boyfriend? “That may have to do with me being a fellow ginger, but no! I would hope that’s not what shaped his personality. I think more a never-ending desire for power and a general condescension towards everybody around him had more to do with it.”
As the New Year approaches, so do new Domhnall Gleesons. After his varied 2015 in film, Gleeson will star in another change of pace: the Black Listed stoner rom-com Crash Pad, with Christina Applegate and Thomas Haden Church. Last summer he shot the true-tale CIA thriller Mena with Tom Cruise, which Universal will release in 2017. And yet, naming the project he’s most proud of from his “blur” of a Big Year, Gleeson picked the one closest to his heart.
“The play that I did is probably the one I’m proudest of out of all the jobs,” he said of The Walworth Farce, which he starred in alongside dad Brendan and brother Brian during a brief break from filming on The Revenant. The Dublin production of Enda Walsh’s black comedy enjoyed a sold-out run early this year. “A lot of people got a bit of a break for Christmas and during some weather issues. I went home and did a play which was kind of nuts! But brilliant.”