By Olivia Tracey
Like Gabriel Byrne, Irish actor Brendan Gleeson began his professional life as a school teacher. Like Liam Neeson, he went on to play Michael Collins, and like both of them he is well on his way to much deserved stardom, the classroom days closed over like the last page of a copy book. Not that the talented thespian craves fame and all its inherent benefits. Rather, he aspires to the simplicity of doing good work with good people. I met with him at his suite in West Hollywood’s luxurious Wyndham Belage Hotel during his recent tour to promote his current U.S. release, “I Went Down,” an award-winning black comedy, which is an absolute must-see.
Physically, Gleeson is strikingly tall and imposing, a fine strap of a man with a typically Irish ruddy complexion and strawberry blonde hair. He is also as down to earth as a potato crop, despite his pedestal position as the star of not one, but three, current award-winning movies: Neil Jordan’s 1998 Berlin Film Festival winner, “The Butcher Boy,” John Boorman’s directorial winner “The General” at the recent Cannes Film Festival, and Ireland’s top-grossing independent film, “I Went Down,” for which Gleeson received the 1998 Sunday Independent Ford-Ireland Actor of the Year award.
It has been a steady and rewarding climb for the Artane actor, who, despite knowing his theatrical fate since the age of 4, only went full time in 1989. Before then, he worked constantly with Passion Machine’s Paul Mercier, for whom he has the ultimate respect and gratitude, and wrote his own plays, including “The Birdtable” and “Breaking-Up” before his professional debut with no less than The Abbey Theater in Eugene McCabe’s “King of the Castle” and Jim Sheridan’s “The Field.” Next came a string of projects that included “Far and Away,” “The Snapper,” “Turbulence” with Ray Liotta, “Into the West,” Neil Jordan’s “Michael Collins” and Mel Gibson’s Award-winning “Braveheart.” On television, he was a series regular on RTE’s “Glenroe” and won critical acclaim for his portrayal of Michael Collins in “The Treaty” and for his work in Linda LaPlante’s BBC series “The Lifeboat.”
It sometimes seems that for every Irish movie that is made, Brendan Gleeson is part of the picture. His roles swing from criminal to cop, and are more often than not colored with an ample supply of Gleeson humor. One recent night here in L.A. his face appeared yet again at an Irish Screen evening in Hollywood’s Raleigh Studios, where a host of Irish and non-Irish enjoyed a screening of “The Break,” an independent prison movie in which Gleeson plays –surprise, surprise — an inmate with an infinite sense of humor. And as usual he does it beautifully in this suspenseful thriller alongside no less than Stephen R’, who also attended the event. At the first Irish screen event back in May, the ruddy actor’s face appeared yet again, this time as a rural policeman in the Quinn brothers’ “This is my Father.” Again it was not without humor.
He even manages to inject that witty edge into his portrayal of the notorious Dublin criminal Martin Cahill in Boorman’s “The General.” On the controversy surrounding the film, which has been criticized for glamorizing the infamous Dublin criminal, Gleeson debates his point calmly and convincingly. He argues that Cahill’s charisma was a fact that could not be denied and therefore should be used in order to present a true, fully-rounded and non-cliched portrayal of the hardened criminal. He also added that the character’s humor and geniality was undoubtedly counter-balanced by the film’s gruesome crucifixion scene, which firmly labeled him the lethal rogue he was. As regards the Irish police being portrayed as a bunch of floundering idiots, Gleeson points out that it was also an unfortunate fact that the police system was insufficiently equipped to deal with a criminal of Cahill’s cunning and gall .He also went on to note that Ireland, being so close to the subject, is naturally going to be more sensitive and therefore less subjective, hence the ability of the foreign press to objectively applaud the balance in the character, appreciating it purely on artistic rather than moral values. Gleeson is totally at ease with his own conscience, knowing that he thoroughly researched his subject and fulfilled his thespian task with a sense of responsibility and regard for the criminal’s victims.
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For the future, Gleeson is taking a break from the criminal world to play the good guy in the title role of “Sweety Barrett,” after which he takes the wheel as a taxi driver who lands a job as chauffeur to his favorite American movie actress in Barry Devlin’s “Limo Man.” I have no doubt that the roles will keep rolling for this consistently excellent actor who never disappoints, always entertains and, more often than not, raises at least a chuckle or two.