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The Guard - Brendan Gleeson interview

The Guard

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BRENDAN Gleeson talks about shooting subversive comedy The Guard for John McDonagh (the brother of In Bruges director Martin).

He also talks about handling edgy comedy, coping with his own mother’s death during some of the more poignant moments and enjoying an Ursula Andress moment when being filmed coming out of the freezing Irish sea…

Q. So, is Sergeant Gerry Boyle an idiot or a genius?
Brendan Gleeson: Well, obviously you don’t want to give too much away too early. But I think he’s smarter than he’s letting on, that’s for sure. I don’t think it’s any secret either. But to what extent… I mean he can be a bit dodgy in terms of women. I mean, he’s quite naive in regard to the women [in the film]. He’s a bit of an old softie, actually. So, I think maybe the question might be equally: “OK, definitely smarter than what he’s pretending to be, but is he as smart as he thinks he is?” He’s kind of his own worst enemy as well. Even socially, he’s stuck in a place where nothing is going on, none of his talents are being put to the test, and he’s grown gnarly and quite mischievously provocative.

But it’s all very negative in the end because he’s kind of the one who is suffering by it most. You know, he hangs by his mum, who seems happy enough, and she’s really his only friend. He’s someone who is not afraid of women, or who isn’t in anyway dismissive of them, but you can imagine that he doesn’t have anybody. So, all in all it’s not going terribly well for him really, for someone who thinks that he kind of has the edge on everybody. So, I kind of think he’s stuck by his own vigour and his own attack. His insistence on things making sense and having integrity has actually landed him in a place where he’s terribly unhappy [laughs aloud].

Q. The Guard also feels like a contemporary Western and I saw elements of Gary Cooper in Gerry – did you see that?
Brendan Gleeson: Totally. First of all, I love the way that’s incorporated into the place because it’s impossible to go anywhere in the world now – unless you go into some jungle areas – where there haven’t been Westerns as part of the culture at some point along the line. And so to make sure that when you’re talking about a place in Ireland where they still speak Irish, or Gaelic, and the culture is still alive… what I love is that John [McDonagh, writer-director] is completely unsentimental about that and he holds in the fact that these Westerns are as much a part of the culture as speaking Irish is.

But I think also that Gerry is somebody who started off with quite a romantic notion of your mettle being tested in that kind of Western way and insists on living his life in a particularly cavalier and maverick way, but one that is also ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ type of dude. But then he found out that there was no mettle – there were just blokes kind of dripping off the side of bars who were putting little bits of stuff in their back pocket and looking the other way and nobody was really addressing anything. So, it all just faded away – this big challenge of life somehow just dribbled into some sort of obscure banality.

So, when [FBI agent] Wendell Everett [Don Cheadle] comes over, like with everything else, all Gerry wants to do is up-skuttle everybody because he’s bored and he wants to make himself laugh. He wants to see what Wendell has to offer and he becomes quite bullying in a way, if you aren’t up to him, and negative. But Don’s character is just as naive and a little bit pompous and patronising maybe, quite fond of his own intellectual prowess himself. But he appears to have integrity, even if its naivety. And that’s why I think it becomes interesting for Gerry – because he’s actually not ducking and diving in the way that the others are. He doesn’t quite believe it initially, so he starts trying to usurp it and muck around with it but oddly enough it becomes more interesting. So, that’s what’s cool about it, I think.

Q. There’s a dance that goes on between the two of you, so is that something that remains on-script. Or do you and Don mix it up to keep each other on your toes?
Brendan Gleeson: It’s all about action and reaction and for the most part Don is reacting but there’s huge strength in what he does. It’s not just a straight man deal. You know, my favourite one is the scene where Gerry asks him if he grew up in the projects and Don’s head just kind of drops [motions] and you know that he’s had this crass kind of comment so often in his life and it’s like: “Here we go again.” So, that’s all about what you bring to it. That’s so much deeper and more colourful and rooted in a kind of reality. It’s not that we messed around with the lines so much as people were bringing stuff in I wasn’t expecting. You know the line is provocative and I kind of half expected a reaction but that kind of tiredness felt so real and I felt so sorry for him. So, it was all coming from somewhere true.

The Guard

Q. How does John compare to Martin [McDonagh, of In Bruges fame] as a director?
Brendan Gleeson: He was great. They’re both very calm. I wasn’t quite sure if it would work out that way. But he’s very meticulous [demonstrates by re-arranging items on a table]. They’re both a wee bit like that but they’re both very vocational writers. They’re both completely merciless on themselves and on others at times in terms of the work that goes in, the care with which lines are crafted, and the care with which shots are framed and so they share a whole pile of stuff but their voices are different and there’s different sensibilities. It was a joy working with both of them, it really was, but you knew you were on a different film with both of them. And yet there was this common currency that was very obvious. I guess the way I’ve been putting it the more I think about it and talk about it is that you can’t imagine Gerry Boyle in the world of In Bruges, you just can’t. It’s a different thing. So, there’s a huge difference but I don’t know exactly how to put it in words. I just know it feels like a different voice.

Q. After In Bruges did you notice an increase in offers of these kind of roles and did you have to be careful about which ones you accepted, given the subversive nature of the comedy and how easy it could be to get wrong?
Brendan Gleeson: Nobody writes like that, though. To get something that had that vitality, coming from a place of truth… people can’t write like that. It doesn’t happen very often and that’s the honest truth. You don’t get scripts like that. So, I felt incredibly lucky that it happened not once but twice and hopefully it’ll happen again. But very few people know how to write to that quality.

Q. I saw an interview with you at Sundance in which you said you were anxious about how audiences would react to this. Is that always the case?
Brendan Gleeson: I was, yeah. But Don took them by the hand and led them through it. But actually I’m beginning to think now after speaking to so many journalists that that’s true of everybody. Gerry is so kind of impenetrable in this that actually it’s Don’s character who takes you by the hand and leads you through because your reactions are quite similar to what Everett’s are. A lot of the time the audience is going with the other characters, not the main guy. It’s unusual that.

The Guard

Q. But you know his heart is in the right place thanks to the scenes between Gerry and his [dying] mother, which are genuinely poignant. Were those nice to film as a contrast between some of his less savoury elements?
Brendan Gleeson: Yeah, it was and it was kind of beautiful as well because my mum had died the year before. I remember hearing about actors saying about when somebody [close to them] died there was kind of a little message to self that they will remember this moment for the next time they do a movie and there’s a real guilt about that. But I didn’t feel that with my mum at all. So, it’s not even an issue. It’s just that when you’ve just had an encounter with death, the situation naturally is more evocative when you’re going in to do the scene. And it’s not that you actually mind it, you just know what to do. You’re in a place where… I knew how to sit beside her [Fionnula Flanagan] and it was one of the things that I liked most about that relationship.

The image that comes back to me is when I sit beside her on the bench and I scrunch her up into the side of it. I mean, she’s not a well woman and I scrunched into her because there was a closeness there that didn’t have to be. It meant they could go at each other and use each other and be a little bit less emotional or sentimental… because they were sitting so close to each other, they could josh each other and it was all about the love that was between them without having to be stated. So, I kind of just knew that that was appropriate because maybe of the proximity of what had happened in my life.

Q. Conversely, the swimming sequence must have been cold!
Brendan Gleeson: F**king freezing! It was bloody December and not only that, we went over from the West Coast to the East Coast, which is colder. There’s no gulf stream on the East Coast in Ireland, so it’s bloody freezing. Mind you, I did have my wet-suit on, which is kind of a hilarity in itself. At one stage, John shot it so that it was a Halle Berry or Ursula Andress shot [mimicking Tomorrow Never Dies and Dr No]. He actually filmed it from the time I come out of the wave and walk towards the shore for a minute and a half! It was just the funniest thing ever. It screwed up the film a little bit, so we truncated it, but it was all in one shot and made the cold worth it.

Q. You’re working with Liam Cunningham again in The Guard and have teamed up since for the Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds thriller, Safe House
Brendan Gleeson: We weren’t face to face on Safe House, so he was finished before I got down there. But I actually caught him and said ‘hello’. The great thing about working with Liam is that I get to shoot him most times [laughs]. I’ve terminated him three times I think! Twice with bullets and once with my bare hands! So, it’s a phenomenal experience and long may it continue. It’s a bit weird not killing him. I don’t think I could work without ending his life! But he’s great. There were so many cool people coming into The Guard one after the other – Mark Strong, David Wilmot, etc – that it was great fun to do.

Q. How is your directorial debut, At Swim-Two-Birds, coming along?
Brendan Gleeson: It’s meant to be happening in the spring. We’re very confident about getting it together this time but because of the calibre of the cast [Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy] every time there’s a blip, it’s all up-skuttled and all the ducks go waddling off into various different places. So, then you look around and Mother Duck has gone away! But we are now getting it together and I’m hoping that it’ll happen in the spring.

Read our review of The Guard