Grand Expectations

 
 

With a starring role in the light-hearted ‘The Grand Seduction’ hot on the heels from the critically-acclaimed ‘Calvary’, Brendan Gleeson sits down with Shane Hannon to discuss Canadian accents, the Irish language and the fundamental theme of community

Brendan Gleeson’s acting career is far from your classic tale of Hollywood triumph by any stretch of the imagination. A secondary school teacher of English, Irish and P.E. at, the now closed, Catholic Belcamp College near Coolock in north County Dublin in a past life, Gleeson only left teaching  in 1991 to commit full-time to acting. By then he was in his mid-thirties, but he has certainly made up for lost time.

Gleeson has been critically praised the world over for his powerfully realistic portrayal of a doomed priest in John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. The influential U.S. film website Indiewire has even gone so far as to suggest Gleeson as a dark horse for a Best Actor Academy Award nomination when award season comes back around. The emotional toll Calvary took on Gleeson during the filming has been well documented in the press.

During promotional work for the film Gleeson revealed that he himself had been molested years ago by a Christian Brother who “dropped the hand”. Although he asserts that the incident was “just one of those things where something odd happened”, the film itself highlights the traumatic lifelong mental strain that was and is often indelibly marked on victims of sexual abuse. It is a more light-hearted and yet still deeply meaningful Canadian film that Gleeson filmed prior to that role as Father James Lavelle, and that film is one that will have surely resonated with the Irish public.

The Grand Seduction is based on Jean-Francois Pouliot’s 2003 French-Canadian film La Grande Séduction, and is directed by Toronto-born actor, writer and filmmaker Don McKellar. McKellar garnered much critical acclaim with his 1998 directorial debut Last Night, which went on to win the prestigious Prix de la Jeunesse at the Cannes Film Festival.

In The Grand Seduction Gleeson plays Murray French, a head-strong fisherman reluctantly picking up welfare cheques along with the rest of the locals because of the economic downturn that has hit their small harbour village of Tickle Head in Newfoundland. Gleeson says himself that the film is true to reality in that the culture of these bays which were based completely on fishing have been destroyed. “Here’s a man in his fifties who has his own crisis with that. He’s mooching around, taking the dole and his sense of himself has been completely diminished.”

Tickle Head is thrown a lifeline when it emerges that it is being considered as the location for a new petrochemical factory, something that would revive the local economy and put people back to work. One stumbling block stands in their way however; in order to be considered the village needs a resident doctor and eight unsuccessful years of trying don’t bode all that well. Often hilarious attempts to persuade the film’s token hunk Dr. Paul Lewis (played by Taylor Kitsch) ensue, with the villagers even learning to play cricket (the doctor’s favourite sport) to make him feel more at home.

Gleeson had been eager to push this project along, and the well-written script and at times uproarious cast prove he had reason to be so optimistic. “I was interested in pushing this because I kind of felt I had a true line, so why would I try to look for something else?” Back in 2011 the late Robin Williams was in fact linked with the film, but apparent scheduling conflicts arose. The casting however is one aspect of this film that warrants no criticism; 84-year-old Canadian legend Gordon Pinsent and Mark Critch, writer and star of the weekly Canadian TV comedy This Hour Has 22 Minutes, bounce off each other and Gleeson with consummate ease. Gleeson himself reveals that “it was constant with the two of them. Gordon Pinsent is a total legend everywhere he goes in Canada, they just adore him.”

The outflow of people from Tickle Head to the city of St. John’s to find work somewhat mirrors the huge numbers of Irish emigrating to countries like Australia for improved work prospects. Gleeson points out that in places like the American Midwest and here at home communities are under threat. “It’s a question of whether people find there’s enough value in them to maintain them or to fight for them.” In the film Gleeson’s on-screen wife decides to make the move to St. John’s for work, but stubbornness keeps his own character from following suit. “He doesn’t feel like the city is him at all. It’s a dilemma.” His character’s accelerated efforts to secure a doctor for the area come about when he realises Tickle Head might fade away if it doesn’t secure the factory for the area. “He suddenly realises it’s not enough to merely be there, he has to have a reason to be there too.”

One aspect of Gleeson’s performance that is worth the price of admission alone is his mastery of the tricky Newfoundland accent in the film. “I said at the start that if we’re doing this, then I want it to be on that line where you can have great craic with the accent, but you’re not laughing at it.” The Statistics Canada 2006 census revealed that an impressive 21.5% of modern Newfoundlanders claim Irish heritage, and it is clear to see throughout the film that the music, religion and accents on show aren’t all that far removed from that of rural Ireland.

There are many different dialects in the wider Newfoundland region, all of which add substantially to the cultural uniqueness of Canada as a whole. Gleeson jokes of his own attempts at the accent that “there are something like 180 different dialects in Newfoundland alone so there are 181 of them now!”

Gleeson is a huge advocate of the Irish language and promotes it when possible (many Leaving Certificate students in this country will recall his portrayal of the slightly agitating blind cake-eater Paul in the short film Cáca Milis). He is also hugely interested in his home country’s culture and heritage, and is a keen fiddle player.

A former Irish teacher at secondary school level himself, Gleeson is hugely enthusiastic about getting more people to speak ‘as Gaeilge.’ He notes that “there are expressions and things expressed in the language that you’re going to find amazing if you can access it.” The negative aspects of how Irish is taught in schools in this country is blatantly obvious to him however. “The biggest problem I found with teaching Irish wasn’t so much what happened in the class; it’s that once you went outside, that’s it.”

Making the learning of Irish mandatory in secondary schools is one thing that, in Gleeson’s opinion, will have put countless numbers of students off the language permanently. However he feels the situation can only improve. “At least it’s valued now. It became compulsory, so you couldn’t do this or you couldn’t do that if you didn’t have Irish. It became the enemy in a way; instead of a gift it was a poisoned chalice and people hated it.”

Many people in this country see the Irish language as a dying thing, but the Dublin native hopes it doesn’t come to that, saying Irish is in fact “a connection of 2000 years of culture that is very specific to us.” Realistically, when learning any new language, complete immersion is the only true way to take all on board. “What frustrated me in terms of my own Irish was I wasn’t in the position to spend much time in the Gaeltacht. I went down for a couple of weeks and as soon as I was getting into the flow of it I had to come back.”

Most teenagers worldwide will undoubtedly mainly recognize Gleeson for his portrayal of the Hogwarts Defence against the Dark Arts teacher Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter films. His teaching background actually gives him the distinct honour of being the first and to date only actor to have played a Hogwarts professor who had been at some point or other an employed teacher in real life.

One of Gleeson’s co-stars in the Harry Potter series is his eldest son Domhnall, who played Bill Weasley in the screen version of J.K. Rowling’s acclaimed novels. Domhnall is also due to appear in the star-studded and much anticipated Star Wars Episode VII, which is due for release in December 2015. Acting talent is clearly something that runs in the Gleeson blood with another son, Bríain, an up and coming star who has already appeared in the likes of Love/Hate and The Stag.

In their father, the Gleeson sons are learning from the very best in acting talent, and yet any discussions about acting in the family seem to be kept to a minimum. “I would only give advice to them if I was asked. We seem able to keep a certain objectivity when it comes to looking at our work.”

The Grand Seduction performed well at the Canadian box office, and its performance in Ireland has been expected to be quite strong as well, not least because of the lure of Brendan Gleeson. When asked whether he thinks it will perform as well in Ireland as across the Atlantic, Gleeson is quietly confident. “I hope so, and I hope it gives people a laugh. We tried to keep a kind of integrity in it, a certain soul in it, we wanted to show that it is about something.”

Gleeson’s acting C.V. is more impressive than his modest and friendly demeanour would suggest. His performances in the likes of The General, Braveheart, In Bruges, 28 Days Later, Troy, Gangs of New York, The Treaty and the remarkably successful and hilarious The Guard have ensured he is the subject of much acting acclaim. Freelance writer Monika Bartyzel of The Week unwittingly described the film’s lead actor in her review of The Grand Seduction. Brendan Gleeson truly is a man “overflowing with charm from end to end.”

The Grand Seduction was released in Irish cinemas on August 29th and is currently still showing in selected cinemas nationwide.

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