CHECKING IN WITH DOMHNALL GLEESON
In just one year since we first featured him, Domhnall Gleeson has gone from the sidelights to the limelight. From supporting roles in Anna Karenina and Never Let Me Go, Gleeson is now—however reluctantly—one of Hollywood’s most promising lead actors, starring opposite Michael Fassbender in Frank earlier this year. Gleeson’s latest film, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, has become a winter smash, and he’s since signed on to a film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. But buzz is already building over his starring role in Star Wars: Episode VII, directed by J.J. Abrams. We catch up with the young Irish actor just before his life changes forever.
“So that’s not going to be the story?”
We pick up Domhnall Gleeson the day after the Met Gala in New York City and just a week after the Irish actor, best known for passionate turns in small roles, has been cast in what could be a king-making role, in Star Wars: Episode VII. Now promoting his new film, Frank, Gleeson—wearing a simple gray shirt, dark jeans, black brogues, and a vibrantly green pair of socks—is in high spirits. “Hang on,” Gleeson continues, “we agreed that was going to be the story in the cab on the way over here. ‘Domhnall: Great guy, interesting, self-effacing.’”
As it turns out, Gleeson is a pretty great guy. Born in Ireland, the eldest son of actor Brendan Gleeson, Domhnall started his acting career with a Tony nomination in the 2006 Broadway production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore. He’s since acted in films alongside Jude Law (Anna Karenina), Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter series), Michael Fassbender (Frank), and Carey Mulligan (Never Let Me Go) and attracted the attention of high-profile directors including Richard Curtis, Angelina Jolie, and Alejandro González Iñárittu, who will direct Gleeson alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in the upcoming film The Revenant.
Gleeson is in rare air with some of the world’s most sought-after actors and directors, but his jackknife ascent and his royally good company have been earned. Gleeson demonstrates a fanatic devotion to work—to rehearse, to prepare, and to commit to roles as small as “Clan Techie” in Dredd or as large as his starring turn in Frank.
“It made me feel very good about the fact that I’d given everything I could to the relatively small roles that I played that [directors] saw something there and thought, ‘I’ll give him a shot, I’ll give him an audition,’ you know?” he says.
Frank is a nice meeting of worlds. The film follows Gleeson’s character as he discovers, and then tries to help, a talented-but-mentally-unstable musician, played by Fassbender, who wears an over-sized papier-mâché head throughout the film. It’s a poignant, often-bizarre exploration of the place where creativity and darkness meet, a small, strange film, but one that is also studded with stars.
“You get up in the morning and you have work to do,” Gleeson says. “That’s a really nice thing to have as an actor. Every week [the director and I] went through the script. Things changed along the way, we were discovering the tone, because really my character is at the center of it and, in a way, he’s not the protagonist, because who we’re interested in is Frank. But the way to view Frank is through my guy.”
Gleeson’s guy plays keyboard in Frank’s band. For the film, Gleeson, Fassbender, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays Frank’s companion, became a nearly real band (they recently played a song, in character, on The Colbert Report to promote the movie).
“Our drummer (Carla Azar) and bassist were brilliant,” Gleeson says. “The rhythm section is always the heart of the band so we could be a little crap around them, we didn’t have to always be great all the time.”
As it turns out, Gleeson is also pretty self-effacing. The Gleeson household was a musical one. Younger brothers Rory and Brian both played instruments and Gleeson himself studied fiddle when he was younger. “It was a musical family, my mam is musical as well,” Gleeson says, drawing out his “a”s with an Irish drawl. “If you go out there, my parents have instruments out, it’s just a really nice place to be.”
Gleeson proposes this as if we might actually go out to his parents’ place in Dublin. It is endearing, and not entirely true, but it bespeaks an actor not yet in tune (or perhaps unwilling to acknowledge) the wave of attention that Star Wars will bring. “Not everything’s changed for me,” Gleeson says, cautiously. “This has happened a couple of times, where people have said to me, ‘Everything changes now,’ and everything doesn’t change. Everything’s always gradual.”
And yet he has maintained a low profile with purpose, withholding personal information not just for his sanity but also for his craft. “Your only job, really, is to give as good a performance as you can in the movie and then not have people know enough about you away from it that it will inform their opinions of you when they sit down to watch you in a film the next time,” Gleeson says.
Privacy makes him happy, but it also allows Gleeson to disappear into his characters. Yet, in person, he is a live wire, as quick to find comedic bits as he is to send himself up. “I guess I’m just lovely all the time,” he says, before catching himself, “but I’m also dangerous. I could also be very scary in something. Let’s not limit my career opportunities with this interview.”
When Gleeson laughs, it is an honest, knee-slapping laugh that, at least in the several times we spoken, doesn’t feel forced. But mirth and humility are anchored by an intense self-belief earned through years of hard work. When pushed, Gleeson momentarily flashes the kind of intensity and professional curiosity that course through his work. “I think it’s a dangerous thing to come across as someone who doesn’t have self-belief,” he says earnestly. “I certainly have self-belief. I’m willing to back myself in all sorts of different situations. My way of getting to that place is—you do get worried about sounding precocious or precious—to have worked hard enough so you don’t turn up feeling dodgy about it. You have to turn up and feel loaded for bear.” And then, just like that, Gleeson is back and laughing, legs crossed and relaxed. “Is that something that Americans say? ‘Loaded for bear’?”
Frank is out now from Magnolia Pictures.