By Michael Gray
Brendan Gleeson comes to New York to promote his latest film, "The General," at the end of a busy year. Having played supporting roles in "This Is My Father" and "The Butcher Boy," he stepped up to play the leads in Paddy Breathnach’s sly, meandering comedy "I Went Down," Stephen Bradley’s upcoming "The Tale of Sweety Barrett" and John Boorman’s soon-to-be-released crime drama, "The General." His acclaimed portrayal of Dublin gangster Martin Cahill in the Boorman film marks him out as one of the outstanding actors of his generation, and makes him a likely candidate to join the elite cadre of Irish stars already established in Hollywood.
Gleeson began his acting career on stage in Dublin in the acclaimed theater group The Passion Machine, and debuted on screen in Jim Sheridan’s "The Field" eight years ago. Since then, he’s appeared in almost a dozen Irish-made feature films. With his solid character acting and matching build, combined with a prolific output, Gleason earned the sobriquet "The Irish Depardieu" in the Dublin papers, a reference to the French actor Gerard Depardieu.
It’s a title that Gleeson himself regards as complimentary, but wouldn’t mind leaving behind.
"Depardieu does the kind of work that I’d like to do," he said. "There’s always a lot of integrity to what he does. There are a lot of things I admire about Depardieu, and it’s very flattering . . . but at the same time you don’t want to be the British Elvis, you know what I mean!"
In the new Boorman film, Gleeson gives the performance of his career as the enigmatic Cahill, a real-life criminal figure who stole a fortune and stayed one step ahead of the law over a 20-year period, until the IRA shot him dead on the eve of its 1994 cease-fire. Nicknamed The General for the military efficiency with which he ran his criminal operations, Cahill stole more than $60 million worth of paintings, jewelry and cash from the wealthy homes around Dublin. He caught the imagination of the filmmakers and the Irish public with his daring raids, often carried out despite close Garda surveillance, and his fondness for playing jokes on the police force. Among the hard-drinking, drug-using thugs of Dublin’s underworld, Cahill stood out as an anomaly who neither smoked nor drank, preferring the quiet life to the bright lights. Gleeson bears a striking physical resemblance to Cahill, and his outstanding delivery in the role impressed the judges enough to make him a contender for the Best Actor award at Cannes Film festival this year.
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John Boorman, who wrote, produced and directed the film, won in the Best Director category. This early success for the film, combined with the presence of veteran screen star Jon Voight as Cahill’s nemesis, ensured a high-profile launch into the U.S. market. Voight and Boorman have known each other since they made "Deliverance" together almost 30 years ago, though they hadn’t made a film together since. Gleeson was enthusiastic in his praise for the pair, and the team spirit they generated during the shooting of the film.
"There was a lot of respect going on. They’re fantastic people, the two of them," he said. "It’s real clichéd, but we all became friends. It’s a real hothouse for good and bad when you’re making a film. Everything is exaggerated, the heat is up: you either make very firm friends or you fall out pretty badly with people. With that, they were so generous, particularly Jon Voight.
"Myself and John Boorman found we had a lot of common ground, which is funny, because we’re quite different people. There was a very clear common purpose to what we wanted to do in the film. We needed something to offset the whole charisma, and that attractiveness that Cahill had, to put some perspective on it, and to look at the fact that all of these job losses were happening because he was robbin’ all this stuff. But because you’re following Martin Cahill, who are you going to be up for? It needed somebody with huge presence to offset all of that.
"Jon Voight and John Boorman had been friends since ‘Deliverance.’ He came in, and he knew exactly what he had to do. And he was unbelievably generous with me."
Like Gabriel Byrne, Gleeson worked for many years as a teacher in Dublin before making a full-time career of his passion for acting. The scenes in ‘The General’ depicting the young Martin Cahill stealing food for his desperately poor family, and taunting the police, took Gleeson back to his teaching days. He frequently came across difficult kids who drifted out of the educational system and into a life of petty crime, and, like Voight’s character, Ned Kenny, Gleeson got involved in trying to set them straight before they became little generals in the making.
"At one stage when I was working in Belcamp, in Dublin, we set up a little unit to try to look after kids who were going to be chucked out," Gleeson recalls. "We said to them, ‘This is a kind of last chance saloon.’ They would come in three mornings a week, with a maximum of five in the class, with really heavy tuition. It worked for some and not others, but we did succeed in hauling some of them back in."
The General’s motivation
In researching the character of The General, Gleeson became fascinated with Cahill’s motivation in ridiculing the establishment in Ireland. The actor felt that Cahill’s background in Dublin’s Hollyfield slums left him with a deep rage, hidden behind the prankster facade.
"The more we talked about it and analyzed it, I realized that what fed the anger was the notion of being dismissed," Gleeson said. "He wasn’t valued anyway at all in Hollyfield. I think that that was the anger that drove him. If you think I’m a gobshite, we’ll play a little round of find-the-gobshite. And I think that all that humor, and all that delight in making complete idiots out of people, were fueled by anger.
"He didn’t seem to spend the money from his crimes. He was driven more than anything else into ridiculing every kind of authority figure that he came across. It’s not the complete answer; there were a lot of other people in Hollyfield who didn’t end up maiming people. But the anger was very cold and very clear; it grew out of the fact that he was not just undervalued, he wasn’t valued at all in the setup."
The film generated controversy in Ireland for its perceived glorification of violence and its presentation of dangerous criminals as charming family men. The fact that many of Cahill’s victims — maimed by shootings, bombings and torture — are still around, made the subject matter more sensitive in a country accustomed to seeing mob dramas made at a safe distance away in America. While preparing for the role, Gleeson deliberately steered clear of many of the people involved in Cahill’s gang, his beloved pigeon club, and the criminal fraternity in order to keep a clear perspective on his own version of The General.
"I didn’t want to be carrying the agenda for the police, the judiciary, the victims, the criminals or the family," Gleeson said. "I didn’t want to be walking into a situation where I was carrying the burden of responsibility for presenting their side of the case. One reason for not getting involved with the criminal fraternity was that suddenly you can get yourself in the situation where they’re sucking you in, and they’re saying, ‘Now one thing you have to do that Martin would always do is this.’ That’s not to say that everybody didn’t have a story about Martin. Everybody told me stories about him."
Cahill stories galore
Among the portly gangster’s peculiarities was his unusual home life: he lived with his wife, Frances, and their five children in a middle-class housing estate in Rathmines in Dublin. Around the corner he had another household with his sister-in-law Tina, with whom he had four more children. The arrangement, by all accounts, worked harmoniously. Cahill thought that the sisters were the greatest thing since sliced bread, and for Frances and Tina he was the ham in their sandwich. Gleeson drew a blank on his attempts to contact Cahill’s family. He wrote to the sisters to explain his take on their man, that he was trying to portray all his facets, good and bad. But such was their loyalty to The General, even in death, that they never replied. One of Cahill’s own sisters, however, stopped by at the set to meet Gleeson and give him her view of the person he was striving to portray on screen.
"She came around because she heard that I looked like him," Gleeson said. "But she said he was much darker, I was more fair. She loved him dearly, no question about it. He’d stay up til 4 in the morning talking to her. She also said that he knew they’d make a film about him one day. I said, ‘Now who’s pullin’ the strings here?’ "
As the star of the film, Gleason was on the receiving end of enough stories about The General to fill this article several times over. His favorites center on Cahill’s apparent lack of interest in the money he stole. He seemed to steal more for the challenge of pulling off a difficult stroke under the noses of the gardaí than for the haul itself. Before his death, Cahill was rumored to have plans in the works to steal the Sam Maguire Cup, the most revered trophy of the GAA, because a lot of gardaí were GAA members. One of Ireland’s greatest treasures, and a difficult item to fence, also caught his thieving eye: the Book of Kells.
Cahill would bury the loot from his robberies in the Dublin mountains and often forgot where he buried it, making hiking with a metal detector a potentially lucrative hobby in that part of the world. Gleeson finished the interview with a particular favorite.
"He often lost his stash because he couldn’t remember where he put it," he said. "One time he buried a bag of money in a field in Tallaght, and when he went back to look for it they’d started building a housing estate there. They’d already tarmacadamed over the spot where he thought it was, so he stole a JCB digger and drove around like a lunatic, digging holes all over the place to try to find it."
Martin Cahill continues to fascinate Gleeson after months of intense cinematic involvement with this eccentric character. New Yorkers will have the chance to share in this fascination when "The General" comes to local screens on Dec. 18.