The Irish actor thought that Winston Churchill was an imperialist bully. Now that he’s played the role, has he changed his mind?
Stately, plump Brendan Gleeson folds himself into the sofa, rests his paws on his knees, and begins one of his long-distance sentences — sentences that can fill minutes and rooms; sentences with their own weather; sentences that do not so much end as collapse under their own weight.
“Coming from where I come from,” he says, in his rich Dublin brogue, “there is a huge reverence for words, an oral tradition, which I think is true here as well, in London, except here it’s about the formal use of language, where a well-formed sentence is a thing to behold, and at home it’s a much more fluid thing because, you know, we tend to flower it up, and why say one word when you can use 14, but in America, well, I don’t think they do have the same love for it at all, because everything’s about economy, they really are hilariously concise…”
And so on. Gleeson is 54. He has fine, gingery hair, a bricklayer’s body and a wide, open face that can look doleful or puckish as the moment demands. As an actor, he is best known for character roles in productions such as Braveheart, Gangs of New York and the Harry Potter franchise, but it is as a leading man in less commercial work that he has made the greatest impact. His performance in In Bruges, Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy about two Irish assassins killing time and other people in Belgium, was so understated you hardly noticed how his character sneaked under your skin.
For our meeting he wears a thin, shabby jacket, a black shirt untucked, jeans and black trainers. Even in a busy hotel bar, nobody bothers him. He is not that kind of actor. Indeed, 15 years ago, an agent declined to represent Gleeson on the basis that he was “too fat, too old, and not good-looking enough” to make it in Hollywood, not understanding, of course, that it was partly the fatness, the oldness and the want of good looks that made Gleeson so engaging. That, and a certain way with words.
The agent, we can only hope, is now working as a pizza-delivery boy, because Gleeson has just won the outstanding lead actor Emmy for his role as Winston Churchill in the HBO/BBC film Into the Storm. The wording of the award was just right. His deft, complex portrayal of Churchill is outstanding — always the best thing on screen. Into the Storm tells the story of the run-up to Churchill’s political defeat at the 1945 general election, with extended flashbacks to his greatest moments of the second world war. During the wartime scenes we see the prime minister as a defiant leader, delivering fulminating radio addresses to the nation, carving up Europe into East and West at the Yalta summit with Stalin and Roosevelt or staring down an uneasy parliament. But the framing narrative explores his sulkiness, and sense of betrayal that the British people who had adored him as their leader in battle might poleaxe him at the ballot box. When the two stories combine, Churchill emerges as he must have appeared to those who knew him best: a brilliant, bruising bully who could be impossible to live with and inspiring to fight for.
As you learn more about Gleeson, however, one question keeps returning: how did he bring himself to accept the part? Gleeson is a Gaelic-speaking Dubliner, a lover of traditional Irish music, and a republican with a deep fondness for the instigators of his nation’s independence.
Churchill, it is fair to say, was not. While he recognised the need for Irish Home Rule — that is, self-government, but subservient to the imperial power in London — he kicked against outright republicanism. In 1920, as secretary of state for war in Lloyd George’s government, he presided over the creation of the Black and Tans — a notoriously drunken, violent paramilitary group formed to quash the IRA, which spent much of its energy attacking civilians.
“I’ll be honest with you, when the notion of me playing Churchill came up, I looked at it quite askance. My views on him were not entirely positive because he was an imperialist, you can’t get away from that, and he didn’t have a great history with Ireland and the Black and Tans. He tried to subdue us. But there’s also an ambiguity about him at home, because what he did in the second world war was undeniably heroic.”
If there’s a reason why Gleeson wants to look deeper into the twists of Anglo-Irish history, it may lie in his family background. His grandfather was a Connaught Ranger, an Irish soldier in the British Army. An orphan, he joined at 16, and fought in Greece, at Thessaloniki, where he was captured during a battle in which many of his comrades died. What has stayed with his grandson are the old man’s views on loyalty. In 1920, the soldiers of the Connaught Rangers mutinied in sympathy with the cause of Irish independence, and in particular against the Black and Tans. Gleeson’s grandfather was not with the regiment at the time, but he insisted he would not have joined the uprising. “He had given his oath to serve. He’d never have mutinied, even if he agreed with the uprising politically. But, you know, when he left the army, he said the only time he would ever take up arms again would be in the cause of Irish independence.”
One only has to walk through the arch known as Traitors’ Gate in St Stephen’s Green in Dublin — named after the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who died fighting for Britain in the Boer war — to know how divisive an association with the British Army can be in Ireland. Indeed, Gleeson was recently called “a disgrace” for acting the role of Churchill. For a film. He shrugs off the slur. “What it comes down to is this: as an actor, it’s your job and your duty to learn as much as you can about humanity. It’s your duty to lift rocks.”
Gleeson has been lifting rocks his whole life. He was born in Dublin in 1955. His father was a civil servant; his mother worked in a shoe shop before she became a full-time “mam”. Both his parents read to him as a child. He remembers his mother, who loved the theatre, being “particularly inventive” with her use of language. As a teenager he was “a little bit all over the place”, but he found the time to read furiously: Joyce, Beckett, Faulkner. At 17, he read Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, an Irish modernist Tristram Shandy. It was a book he loved at first sight — “I literally fell out of bed laughing, it was so funny” — and which, 34 years later, he has adapted for film and will shortly direct.
After school, Gleeson took three years out of education, because “I thought I’d doss it all away if I went to college immediately.” He took jobs on building sites, in factories, in an office at the health board, “which was purgatorial… so debilitating, so claustrophobic, so undermining to my sense of joy”. At the same time, he travelled the country on weekends playing his fiddle, which suited his sense of joy much better.
At 21, he matriculated at University College Dublin to study English and Irish. He had an “erratic” attendance record, preferring to spend time on his music and plays. Here he met two men who would have a significant impact on his life. One was Paul Mercier, a director who he met through the Irish theatre group, who would later found the Passion Machine theatre company. The second was Roddy Doyle, who wrote plays for Passion Machine, and later the novels — The Commitments and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha — that would make his career.
When Gleeson graduated, he, like Doyle and Mercier, became a teacher — in his case, of English and Irish at Belcamp College, an all-boys school in a poor area of north Dublin. “I was vocational about it,” he says now. “I’d never been a Holy Joe at school, but I thought maybe I could teach Irish in an interesting way, in a way that it had not been taught to me. It seemed a very worthwhile thing to do with your life. I also discovered teaching’s very like acting. With both, you’re trying to explore a certain amount of truth and communicate it to people.”
In his spare time, Gleeson continued to act with the Passion Machine. They performed new plays about the modern Ireland, often in the “black box” style, with minimal effects, in the SFX theatre in north Dublin, an old parish hall that would happily hold a bingo evening, followed by a play, followed by an REM concert. It was, remembers Doyle, a happy time, in which Gleeson’s talent stood out. “He had this amazing plastic quality,” says Doyle. “In 1987, I’d written this play called Brown Bread, about some lads who kidnap a bishop, and Brendan was playing the father of one of these lads. I remember a scene in which he suggested that he should come on stage carrying a bag of chips. There was no actual bag, he’d have to mime it. But it was so brilliant, so convincing. The way he reacted when he put a chip that was too hot in his mouth, the way he shook his hand to get the vinegar off. He had this fantastic knack of bringing non-script ideas into comedic life.”
This skill for conveying wordless meaning has translated into his film career. It’s an odd thing, given Gleeson’s loquacity, but many of his best moments as an actor have been silent. Indeed, the zenith of In Bruges is not a one-liner but a close-up of blood draining from Gleeson’s face as his character receives an order to assassinate his young protégé. In that moment, the audience understands the drama completely.
Doyle remembers how the group’s shared experiences with teaching fed into their acting and writing. “Teaching was important to us all. We were all working in the poorer areas of Dublin, and we came into contact with hundreds of people a day. There’s not many jobs that are like that. You can’t help but hear how language is used, the rhythm of it. You come into contact with great potential for writing and character.”
It was after Gleeson’s performance in another play — Home, by Paul Mercier — that his life began to change again. As well as the central role of Valentine Ward, a builder, he played a thug protecting a moneylender. “He had no lines in that part,” remembers Doyle. “But his body! His face! He didn’t need any.”
Gleeson was nominated for a theatre award for Home, and a switch flicked in his head. “I’d always said to myself, I didn’t want to get to 35 and have any regrets about my life. Well, I was 34 and I’d just been nominated for an award, and I wasn’t even a full-time actor. It felt like someone was knocking on my window and asking me, ‘What more do you need to take the jump?’ ” He went home to his wife, Mary, to whom he was married in 1982 and with whom he has four grown-up sons, to discuss a change of profession. Plays turned to television, including a role as the Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins in The Treaty, in 1991. Television turned to small parts in small films, more plays, and more television. And in 1995 all this turned to Braveheart, where audiences all over the world first clapped eyes on Gleeson as Hamish, Mel Gibson’s “stupid friend”.
For Gleeson, it’s the killer detail, the hottest chip in the bag, that matters. Martin McDonagh remembers how the actor came to his defence during the filming of his 2004 short, Six Shooter. The plot concerns the relationship between a psychotic young man and a grieving husband, played by Gleeson, who meet on a train. McDonagh was, at that stage, a well-known playwright, but this was his first time behind a camera. While shooting on a rented train, the producers pressured McDonagh to finish on schedule. They suggested that a scene in which Gleeson tries to buy whisky from the coffee trolley, only to have his probity questioned by the young boy serving him (played by Gleeson’s son, Domhnall), was superfluous.
“It was my favourite scene in the whole film,” McDonagh remembers. “But the producer was in my ear, saying, ‘It’s not necessary for the plot.’ It’s true it wouldn’t have hurt the plot. But it would have hurt the film. Anyway, I didn’t have to fight for it because Brendan stepped up to the plate and said that if the scene went, so would he.”
Fifteen months later, Six Shooter won the Oscar for best short film. The two men worked together again on In Bruges, and again the big man played the protector. In turn, McDonagh has offered his friend any help he needs on his directorial debut, At Swim-Two-Birds. The remarkable thing about McDonagh is that he’s a Londoner with Irish parents, who sounds English but writes almost entirely about, and in, the Irish vernacular.
That Anglo-Irish cross-pollination is also true of Gleeson’s other frequent collaborator, John Boorman, who directed him in The Tiger’s Tail, a snipe at the hubris of the Celtic Tiger economy. That film perhaps best encapsulates Gleeson’s politics. “I didn’t like the way the country was going,” he says. “Ireland was becoming full of bling. Every field was a building site. Money was the only measuring stick… It was awful vulgar. At the same time we had a crap health service. Now, people talk about the credit crunch and the shine coming off Ireland. I’m not so sure. While people losing jobs is an unmitigated disaster, taking a deep breath and discovering what our real values are is not a disaster.”
This is where Gleeson becomes interesting. He is a man, says Paul Mercier, “who, with his love of the music, and the games, and the language is probably more attuned to the Irish tradition as it is lived today than anyone else I know”. But he is also aware of the manifold contradictions that make up his Irishness.
“I love the fact that we’re a separate nation,” Gleeson says, “and that we’re not subservient, and we stand or fall on our own. But there are some things people deliberately don’t see. For instance, for a long time, Dublin was in the Pale. It was heavily influenced by English culture. For a long time, Dublin was a British city. But also, it was the seat of the revolution. It’s complicated, but I hope people can now explore some of that history without getting too freaked out.”
In short, nationality is an area where the details matter. Gleeson likes to play historical characters because “you can suspend disbelief immediately, because, like it or not, these things happened”. Also: “Not only do you learn a lot from another person’s perspective, but your character and their character become a kind of mishmash. That’s what happens when you put yourself in someone else’s corner.”
When Gleeson put himself in Churchill’s corner, he “saw that genius is sometimes to do with timing, and he was a man of his time. Some of the characteristics he had could be infuriating but they were absolutely what was required at the time. He was such a convinced optimist, such a wordsmith, such a soldier, someone who ran towards danger, who was utterly convinced of his own fate and his ability to bring people towards it. Utterly defiant. Utterly unbowed. At another time, those things might not have been the best qualities to have, but back then they were undeniably what was required”.
Just as his sentences are building a head of steam, he stops, then begins again, quieter. “When I’m in England, people say to me, ‘It must have been a great honour for you to play Churchill.’ And I have to say, it’s more complex than that for me. In the end, it’s fantastic to have conviction… but at the same time, if your principles and ideals and values are intractable, then nothing ever gets sorted. So you have to go where you don’t want to.”
Who is Gleeson talking about here? Politicians or actors? Maybe, in his own head, there’s no difference. He mentions that, when he took the role of Churchill, he was aware of the residue of Irish resentment, “where people feel that you’re betraying your own people, that you’ve been seduced by London”. And that, during the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, “they used to say that about Michael Collins”. This could be the vain rambling of a thespian with ideas above his station. Or it could be a benevolent slip from an actor who sees his roles not only as extensions of his personality, but as a chance to re-evaluate opinions. You need only hear Gleeson talk for five minutes, with his thoughts rattling after one another like the cars on a freight train, to know how playful he is. There is never a final word, only the chance to conjure, to vacillate, to banter.
If you want Gleeson at his most serious, catch him with his mouth shut. My lasting memory of Into the Storm is a shot of Churchill looking out over London, during an air raid. Everyone else has taken shelter, but he wishes to watch from the roof of Downing Street as the Luftwaffe turn the city into the seventh circle of hell. We see him alone, head tilting towards the danger. In an instant, you understand the man as the actor sees him: boyish, brave, selfish, and transfixed by his own destiny. Another rock is lifted.