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Interview: Brendan Gleeson on 'Calvary' and his very decent character

Brendan Gleeson discusses how "Calvary" began over drinks and how his priest character is the opposite of the officer he played in "The Guard."

Brendan Gleeson reunites with his "The Guard" filmmaker, John Michael McDonagh, for "Calvary." Credit: Getty Images Brendan Gleeson reunites with his "The Guard" filmmaker, John Michael McDonagh, for "Calvary."
Credit: Getty Images

Brendan Gleeson is a mainstay of both Hollywood and Irish film, so it’s no shock that he’s been prominent in films by the brothers Martin and John Michael McDonagh. Martin, the nation’s current most famous playwright, cast him in “In Bruges,” while John Michael, who so far works strictly in film, cast him as the lead in both “The Guard” and the new “Calvary.” In the latter, he plays a priest who is informed by one of the villagers in his small, seaside town that he will be shot because of the Catholic Church’s abuse scandals, even though Gleeson’s character was not an abuser. This is also, it must be noted, partly a very funny comedy.

“Calvary” began over drinks: “We were at the end of ‘The Guard,’ which was a hideously difficult shoot — torrential sideways rain, apocalyptic conditions. We finally finished it, so we went for a drink, which was not that regular, really. We were chatting and this came up, this idea about a movie with a priest. John said, ‘If I wrote it will you do it?’ I said, “Of course I will” — meaning it but not really thinking that it would be made. And luckily enough he did it. It was good being part of it from its inception. It allowed me to grow into the character.”

His character here is the opposite of the lead in “The Guard”: “I felt like [‘The Guard’’s] Gerry Boyle was remote. Because for the bluster, he hides his heart under a rock. Father James lifts up that rock and says, ‘Go and walk on me, if that’s what you want to do, and see how you feel afterwards.’ He’s absorbed a lot of things. I don’t think he’s remote, especially in his relationship with his daughter. She is allowed to see him as a man and a father — as in a father-father, not a father-as-a-father. His heart is open and therefore he’s open to so much more abuse. He’s more vulnerable in a way that is unusual for a hero to be. But he’s dynamic as well. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and he cuts through posture and dubious outrage quickly.”


Brendan Gleeson plays a harried priest in the Ireland-set "Calvary." Credit: Fox Searchlight Brendan Gleeson plays a harried priest in the Ireland-set "Calvary."
Credit: Fox Searchlight

His character’s decency: “He’s somebody who’s committed to a certain goodness in the world. If you have children you almost have to commit to an optimistic view of life, because you’ve already invested in the future. His struggle is about a commitment to goodness and trying to see it through. It doesn’t come easily.”

Father James’ problems with the church: “I think he feels guilty about it. He feels the common guilt. He has a uniform, he is a man of the cloth, working with people who have done this. His organization covered that up. He understands this. He tries to reconcile it with what he thinks is his church, his belief system. He finds it very difficult to do that.”

The film’s strong, hilariously nasty sense of humor: “If you go to a funeral in Ireland even now, people will still use humor in grief. The humor here is very hard-edged, because you’re in the throes of horror. This is really a horror story. It’s lightened by the fact that people can see the funny side in things. It’s a little bit like Beckett. Also, you want to entertain people. We don’t want to do a film to empty seats. We want to keep people in the theater and give them something to stay there for. And he’s pretty good at writing good lines, isn’t he?”

The film’s almost agnostic take on religion: “It’s less about the denomination of his faith and more about the notion that humanity is worth putting faith in. As beings were capable of more beauty than we are of hideousness. This presents the hideous nature that is part of us. Hopefully we give signs of tenderness and hope that off-set that. And it’s a bloody good battle.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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