Irish actor Brendan Gleeson never phones in a performance — but he is willing to call in for a quick chat. The 59-year-old Dubliner, best known to a generation of moviegoers for his brooding Alastor ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody in the Harry Potter series, rang to discuss his latest film, Calvary. In this intense character-driven drama (with dark slashes of comedy), Gleeson plays an empathetic Catholic priest targeted for death by an anonymous, sexually-abused parishioner. The movie is directed by John Michael McDonagh, with whom the actor worked in 2011’s The Guard.
What makes Gleeson’s Father James tick?
Father James is a man who’s bruised and flawed. He’s been battling alcoholism. He’s lost his wife, found a vocation and became a priest. Along the road, he took his eye off the ball raising his daughter and lost sight of her. She arrives in this town where he’s received the death threat after she’s had a second suicide attempt. Life is not a pack of laughs. It’s a moment in time: he’s threatened with death to atone for the sins of the church, and he’s in a hell of spiritual fatherhood and biological fatherhood. As a parent, it’s beyond scary.
What kind of emotional baggage did you bring to this man of the cloth?
There’s a certain amount of instinct you have to bring. It’s about lifting and absorbing people’s pain and drama, and then doing something about it. The reaction has to be truthful. There was a spiritual and emotional intensity to it that I wasn’t entirely prepared for. It became personal to everybody. It pressed buttons. We shot in a cruel schedule of 29 days. Every scene, this man is battered emotionally and it’s on his shoulders to maintain that life can be beautiful despite all the pain.
Are you a Catholic?
I’m keeping it to myself whether I’m Catholic or not. I decided early on to keep it out of the equation. I grew up when Catholicism was just a part of growing up in Ireland. I did have a personal reaction in putting on the vestments. It was like putting on the armor to protect this kind of essence, this childlike relationship to goodness against badness. It was liberating and scary, in equal measure.
How does the movie confront sex abuse among the clergy?
We understand the nature of the damage that abuse causes and we feel in a very real way, the life sentence that it is. [‘Calvary’ director] John Michael McDonagh exposes a truthful justifiable rage against actions perpetrated by members of the cloth. If, in this world, there is such a lack of compassion, then perhaps the only sensible conclusion is that it’s not worth believing.
And yet Father James largely believes, true?
That was the first thing that became apparent. It was part of his ministry to tend to the abused in the flock. Without realizing it, that’s why he joined up. Because of the anonymous death threat [from a man who had been molested], Father James is very personally engaged since his own life is at risk. Ultimately, it is extraordinarily personal.
Did that extend into your personal life?
It took me longer to recover from this movie. The reflection on the nature of good and evil went to my core. This man is trying to present himself as the best man he could muster. He opens his heart and allows himself to be subjected to that vitriol and tries to absorb it. Inevitably, you have to open you own heart. I don’t try to merge personal and professional, but sometimes you cross the line, you just kind of open the funnel for these spiritual journeys.
McDonagh and his brother Martin (In Bruges) have written meaty leading roles for you. What’s next?
It’s been fantastic to work with these two men, to be given the helm to drive the film. Now that I’ve played a policeman and a priest for John Michael, I’ll play a paraplegic who is very angry at every body able-bodied. He decides to solve a murder, clattering about in a wheelchair in south London full of rage. Next time out, I’ll be the one with all the vitriol.
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