“Everybody reckons it’s a genre film,” says actor Brendan Gleeson, of the new Irish crime film, I Went Down. “I got 10 pages into Conor McPherson’s script and thought: ‘Oh. Right. Irish Tarantino.’ But then Bunny entered, and the script began to break with all predictions. He’s such a chaotic steamroller of a man, a big Dublin lulah with an exaggerated sense of his own importance and a great assumption of paternal superiority — the sort of mad gobshite who could never even arrive in a Tarantino movie.”
The 43-year-old Gleeson, a big-boned, high-energy performer, makes a wonderful Bunny in I Went Down, a career breakthrough that should be boosted still further come fall by his superb (if unlikely) star turn in John Boorman’s The General, which won best director at this year’s Cannes film festival. Gleeson has a plain, eminently familiar face: He’s the red-bearded lug cowering a shoulder or two behind Mel Gibson when the arrows come flying in Braveheart. He’s the one decent priest in The Butcher Boy. As Bunny, he’s the good-natured agent of chaos in I Went Down. In person, Gleeson is a wonderful talker — articulate, precise, the kind of guy who’ll use the word imprimatur in casual conversation. That word (which his Gaelic lilt rhymes with alma mater) rolls off his tongue when he explains that “My Left Foot started people believing in the Irish film industry. The imprimatur of the Oscars made a huge difference to the mindset at home.”
Ireland’s coming of age in the world’s film industry coincides with a readiness in Gleeson. Until 1991, he wrote and acted in theater by night, while earning his living as a teacher of the Irish language. Since committing himself to acting full-time, his climb has been rapid. His performance as Michael Collins in the Thames TV movie The Treaty brought him to the attention of John Boorman, and his volcanic physical presence in The General gives a powerfully tragic dimension to the true story of Martin Cahill, the Dublin crime lord. “John was adamant we not romanticize this man,” says Gleeson. “But we needed to humanize him. And one of the burning questions the film is meant to leave you with is, what might this man have become if he hadn’t been raised in such poverty? Because as John saw it, he had the brilliance, the roguishness and the physical daring of a great Irish chieftain. His story, we hope, provokes in the viewer a most profound sense of waste. That all the vitality and humanity of this man is squandered in the dark places left open to him.”
That Gleeson is an established playwright in Dublin comes as no surprise, given his verbal facility, but interestingly enough, he has no plans as yet to write and direct films. “I’m not the sort to wait for the phone to ring, but for the moment I don’t have the passion that Boorman has, or that Paddy Breathnach showed in I Went Down, which would inspire an actor to soar.
“I’m a great believer in this notion put forth by Patrick Kavanaugh, a great Irish poet, that ‘Gods make their own importance.’ He talks somewhere about a dispute over a little patch of land, and says, ‘The Iliad was made out of such a local row as this.’ Every small thing is essentially huge. Every ordinary man’s life is ultimately heroic or tragic. That I went into acting and got this second life, where I’m sitting here in the Westwood Marquis talking to you, or being feted at Cannes — living in the very glam that everybody’s always talking about — is a wonderful but ridiculous concept, set against the first part of my life. I don’t regret anything. I don’t regret coming late to it. There are roles I would’ve preferred, that I would’ve loved to have had a go at, and would have, had I started younger — but that’s a passing sort of regret. It’s been an incredible bonus to have two lives.”