It wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s ever seen the great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson in a film that his laugh is a big, long, deep, chesty sound that bursts out of him.
Gleeson is a big man. Everything about him is big – his physical size, his ears and his talent, which has a way of dominating every movie he’s in, no matter what he’s playing.
While talking about his brilliant and very different sort of starring role in John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” (which opened in Buffalo Friday), we happened to talk about the wildly ambitious film he’s been trying to get made for several years now – an adaptation of Flann O’Brien’s novel “At Swim-Two-Birds,” one of the great masterpieces of 20th century Irish literature.
If you look at the 1998 paperback edition of the book, you find an introduction by the more than estimable William H. Gass, and blurbs by the likes of James Joyce (“a really funny book”), Grahame Greene (“One of the best books of our century. A book in a thousand.”), Anthony Burgess (“Flann O’Brien is unquestionably a major author.”) and John Updike (“O’Brien has the gift of the perfect sentence.”).
Nevertheless, I tell him that my all-time favorite literary blurb was Dylan Thomas’ praise long ago for “At Swim-Two-Birds”: “Just the book to give your sister if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.”
Hence, the large Falstaffian laugh from Gleeson into the telephone – a laugh, I swear, with a bit of an Irish lilt to it. “Brilliant,” he says of Thomas’ encomium.
Will the movie he wants to make of what seems such an unadaptable book be apt for loud, dirty, boozy moviegoers everywhere, I ask? “Not so much,” he deadpans. “I’m more interested in the imaginary journeys and the worlds within worlds.”
The wildly ambitious movie he wants to make of this book is about a man miserable that he doesn’t fit in, but when he tries to fit in, he needs to get away from the attempt, just so he can go back to being so miserable that he doesn’t fit in.
And that, says Gleeson, is the essence of “the artistic temperament.”
Even though, he said, he “fell out of bed laughing at this book,” it is nothing if not bold and venturesome to imagine a film of it.
For such a big man with such a big reputation in the world of independent film (“The General,” “In Bruges,” “The Guard”), Gleeson is a man with big cinematic ambitions. It’s hard not to hope someone with sufficient resources helps his marvelous Flann O’Brien dream to come true.
In the meantime, we have something exceptional and unusual from Gleeson the actor in “Calvary,” the newest film by McDonagh, who wrote and directed him with Don Cheadle in “The Guard,” and whose brother Martin wrote and directed the gloriously daft “In Bruges,” in which Gleeson co-starred with Colin Farrell.
Gleeson’s relationship with the McDonagh brothers, he reported, actually began with his son liking a play by Martin McDonagh so much that he wanted to appear in it despite not “actually thinking of becoming an actor at the time.”
“He started out working with Martin before I’d even met him,” he said. When Gleeson and Martin McDonagh met “he asked me to do a film short (‘Six Shooter’) with him. Which won the Oscar. And then he asked me to make ‘In Bruges.’ And that’s when I met John.”
It would be hard to imagine a luckier or more talented pair of brothers to have an actor as good as Gleeson on virtual family retainer.
Of “Calvary,” Gleeson said, “I’ve wanted to get something like this for a long time. It’s very different to get [a script about] somebody who’s a good man, who’s interesting without being preachy. But there’s something about this man’s soul – the fearlessness of it, fully in the knowledge of what’s coming down the line at him – I’ve wanted to play for a long time. He’s not a man I’ve played, even though I’ve played good characters. I’m always trying to harsh them up a little bit. To give them blemishes if I can. I don’t believe very many people are perfectly good. I don’t believe very many people are perfectly bad.
“I try to mix it up a lot. People tend to get the notion that I tend to play bad guys. It’s not entirely true, you know? I always try to play the human element. …
“This one is different because it has a kind of Gary Cooper kind of thing – ‘High Noon.’ There’s a fundamental decency at the bottom, a very deliberate commitment to goodness and forgiveness and compassion and all those things that are still slightly uncool at the moment – or which are treated as such in films.”
Count Gleeson among those who are, at times, not happy about being thought of in that old studio category “character actor.”
“Sometimes [character actor] is a category that means you can’t carry off a film, which I don’t think is true of everybody and is resented by a lot of people … I felt it frustrating to be dismissed as someone who will only do the small parts.”
But he steadfastly refuses to repeat himself, a most unstarlike ethic in contemporary movies (think of all the actors happy as clams with hugely profitable sequels).
“My general path is that I’ve been trusted with leading roles in smaller independent films. And I don’t feel cheated by that. I feel like I’ve been really lucky to be able to work in a large industry and to have these fantastic sort of parts where you’re asked to carry a movie like this one.”
It’s the Brendan Gleeson leading parts that audiences love.
“I was never that interested in having the ideal physique and the ideal character. I was more interested in playing ordinary men.
“Obviously, if I thought I was going to play a jockey I’d have a problem. But I haven’t come across any jockey roles that are really killing me that I haven’t done so far.”
What he does, he said, “has always been just to inhabit ordinary men and find the epic things that are in there.”
To those of us who have seen him in movies for two decades now, he has never failed to find what he was looking for.