Brendan Gleeson, On 'Guard' As A Small-Town Cop The Irish actor plays a cynical, small-town cop who is thrust out of his comfort zone in the black comedy The Guard. "I've met men like [my character] quite a lot," Gleeson says. "People who are underused a little bit and have terribly sharp wit, but pretend to be a little bit stupid."
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Brendan Gleeson, On 'Guard' As A Small-Town Cop

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Brendan Gleeson, On 'Guard' As A Small-Town Cop

Brendan Gleeson, On 'Guard' As A Small-Town Cop

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You may have seen our next guest, Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, in a half-dozen films and not known his name. He played Mad-Eye Moody in three Harry Potter films. He starred with Colin Farrell in the film "In Bruges," and also appeared in "Gangs of New York," "Cold Mountain," "28 Days Later" and "Braveheart." And he won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in the HBO movie "Into the Storm."

Gleeson starts with Don Cheadle in the new film "The Guard." It's a dark comedy set in rural Ireland. Gleason plays a seasoned but eccentric policeman who has to work with an American FBI agent, played by Cheadle, on an international drug smuggling case.

Gleeson spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Let's start with a scene from "The Guard." Gleason and Cheadle's characters are having tea, talking about how to proceed with the case.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Guard")

Mr. BRENDAN GLEESON (Actor): (as Sergeant Gerry Boyle) So what do you have planned for your day?

Mr. DON CHEADLE (Actor): (as FBI agent Wendell Everett) Well, we obviously don't know who killed McCormick or why. And there's no real useful forensic evidence at the crime scene, so I thought that we might start by canvassing the neighborhood around where the body was discovered - see if anybody might have heard something. You know, we also have to consider the fact that McCormick was probably reconnoitering drop-off points all along the coast. Sergeant?

(Soundbite of snapping)

Mr. GLEESON: What? Sorry. You lost me at we.

Mr. CHEADLE: We. You and I.

Mr. GLEESON: It's my day off. Did I not tell you?

Mr. CHEADLE: It's your day off?

Mr. GLEESON: I've had it booked for a good while. You can ask Denton(ph).

Mr. CHEADLE: Let me get this straight. We're investigating a murder and the trafficking of over half a million dollars.

Mr. GLEESON: Billion.

Mr. CHEADLE: Half a billion dollars worth of cocaine and you're telling me it's your day off.

Mr. GLEESON: I'm sure 24 hours won't make any difference.

Mr. CHEADLE: Twenty-four hours won't make any difference.

Mr. GLEESON: They're always saying it does in these cop shows on telly, but it doesn't, not in my experience anyway. Now, why do you keep repeating everything I say?

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Brendan Gleeson, welcome to FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLEESON: How do you stand it?

DAVIES: That's, of course, you and Don Cheadle in your new film, "The Guard." You know, I read in the production notes to this film, you were quoted as saying after you read the part, "anybody who didn't take that part should lock himself into a small room and shoot himself."

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Describe this character Gerry Boyle.

Mr. GLEESON: Well, I mean he's a lot of things but essentially he is a policemen who reads a lot, watches a lot of movies, drinks too much and basically is going slowly out of his mind because of a lack of things to engage his intellect with. He has a number of people in his life, not many, his mother being one of them, who's not well, and very few other people, really. So he has become cynical and a little bored and he likes to ruffle people's feathers. So he's a kind of a lonely cynic waiting for something to happen.

DAVIES: Anybody you drew on for this role?

Mr. GLEESON: Not specifically. I mean I would have met men like this quite a lot, people who are underused a little bit and who have terribly sharp wit and pretend to be very, very stupid. It seems to be quite a common thing, particularly in the countryside in Ireland, that I don't know whether it comes from going to market or whatever, but countrymen, quite a lot of the time, pretend to be incredibly stupid so that you will underestimate them and not really understand who you're dealing with. And I think this guy is very reminiscent of that.

DAVIES: Right. Now, this takes place in a little town in western Ireland called Connemara, which is a real place, right?

Mr. GLEESON: Well, Connemara is a district, really. It's west of Galway City and it kind of encompasses quite a large area, really, for Ireland. And much of it is Gaelic-speaking. And it has a particular kind of magical sort of appeal for people in Ireland. It is rural and it changes and reinvents itself all the time. But it's held onto the language, which is unusual in Ireland. There are only maybe three, maybe four places in Ireland where Gaelic is spoken as a living language and Connemara is one of them. And so it kind of represents a place that not everybody can break into anyway, in terms of understanding exactly what's going on. And so Gerry Boyle would be very much a product of that, in the sense that it's very difficult to know exactly what's going on in Gerry's head at any point anyway.

DAVIES: Right. And he has great fun when the FBI agent, Everett, goes around and tries to interview people. And even when they understand his English they will not speak to him in English.

Mr. GLEESON: Yeah. Absolutely, yeah, because they understand that he's an FBI man and therefore he's associated with authority and the law and they prefer to keep things going the way they like to keep things going, and that they just, there's a history there maybe of not colluding with the law too often. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLEESON: Gerry and Wendell kind of agree that it's sort of Compton-esque in that regard, in the attitude to authority.

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is actor Brendan Gleeson. He stars in the new film "The Guard."

You started acting later than a lot of people. You taught school for 10 years and then at age 34, I gather, went into acting full-time. And one of your early roles I believe was with the TV drama "The Treaty," where you auditioned for the role of Michael Collins, the Irish national leader.

Mr. GLEESON: Right.

DAVIES: And I read that you won the role more with a tantrum then with a reading. Is this true?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLEESON: It is true, because I'll tell you why and it still annoys me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLEESON: I had read Tim Pat Coogan's "Michael Collins" - he did a wonderful work on "Michael Collins." He's such a fascinating character. The next thing was they were making this TV film of "The Treaty." But I was asked to go in to audition but they would not tell me who I was going to audition for. Auditions can be really nasty in that way. Sometimes they give you lines. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes they tell you the character. Sometimes they don't. And I find it really insulting and so I went in, in a fit of pique anyway, and I said if they're going to tell me now that I have to audition for Michael Collins without giving me any script or anything it's just not fair. And I went in and I attacked the director as soon as I heard it was going to be for Michael Collins. And I said if I had known about this I could have prepared properly and I started giving hell to him and just, I really did lose my temper actually. And he said hmm...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLEESON: ...that's very like Collins. And he told me afterwards hmm, we might have to pin your ears back and all this kind of stuff. But actually I did kind of feel like that. I kind of felt they should treat people with more respect. But in the end it worked to my advantage because I got the job.

DAVIES: You got a role in "Braveheart" as one of the friends of the Mel Gibson character, William Wallace. Was that like a breakthrough for you?

Mr. GLEESON: I was doing a play when Mel came over - when Mel Gibson came over and was talking about doing "Braveheart." And he came to see the play and had a chat with me afterwards and I met him. We had a good chat. I really enjoyed his take on the whole thing. And we talked a lot about, you know, history being written by the winners and all that kind of thing, and it was a fascinating project, one way or the other. And then he came - I was performing and he came in that night and I think the following night, or whatever, I was ready to go on stage and I got a call, and it was Mel, and he's saying so, you want to do this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLEESON: I said, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLEESON: And it was a fantastic moment. But, yeah, I owe a lot to that production. It was the most phenomenal thing, went on for about six weeks, I think, in Scotland and then four and a half months at home in Ireland. And just to be working at level with the amount of extras and the whole production was such a massive undertaking. It made a huge difference to me.

DAVIES: You were in the film "In Bruges" with Colin Farrell in 2008. And I just loved this film. And it gave - it had a similar feel to your new movie "The Guard." And I had to wonder if they were by the same director. It turns out they are directed by brothers.

Mr. GLEESON: Yeah.

DAVIES: John McDonagh directs "The Guard." Martin McDonagh, his brother, directed "In Bruges." I thought we would just listen to a clip. You want to just tell us the basic storyline of this film, what your character is?

Mr. GLEESON: Of "In Bruges?"


Mr. GLEESON: Basically there are two hit men - arrive in Bruges, a city in Belgium, which is an extraordinary city. It's a little medieval haven that was left behind when the canals changed, and it's kind of a very beautiful little city. But not an awful lot goes on in it, and these two guys are there running away from a job that has gone wrong, and Colin Farrell is the younger guy and I'm the older guy. And the younger guy, it was his first job. I kind of got him in on it. He kept pestering me and I brought him in and it all went horribly wrong and we ended up in Bruges just laying low.

DAVIES: Right. And one of the things that went wrong was that Ray, who's played by Colin Farrell, had actually ended up killing a boy.


DAVIES: And the clip I wanted to play was a moment where you've been touring some of the sites and have seen all this medieval art, which - with religious and moral themes. And you have a kind of a conversation about morality in your own lives. And there's one linguistic thing I want to explain, is there's a discussion of the term lollipop man, which I gather is a...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: ...a school crossing guard, right?

Mr. GLEESON: That's exactly what it is.

DAVIES: So that will make it a little easier to follow the...

Mr. GLEESON: Yeah. The stick looks like a lollipop. Yeah.

DAVIES: Right. So this is Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell from the film "In Bruges."

(Soundbite of movie, "In Bruges")

Mr. GLEESON: (as Ken) Yes, I have killed people. Not many people. Most of them were not very nice people, apart for one person.

Mr. COLIN FARRELL (Actor): (as Ray) Who's that?

Mr. GLEESON: This fellow Danny Aliband's(ph) brother. He was just trying to protect his brother, like you or I would. He's just a lollipop man. He came at me with a bottle. What you going to do? I shot him down.

Mr. FARRELL: In my book though, sorry. Someone comes at you with a bottle, that is a deadly weapon, he's got to take the consequences.

Mr. GLEESON: I know that in my heart. I know that he's also just trying to protect his brother, you know.

Mr. FARRELL: But a bottle, that can kill you. It's a case of you or him. If he'd come at you with his bare hands that'd be different. That wouldn't have been fair.

Mr. GLEESON: Well, technically your bare hands can kill somebody too. They can be deadly weapons too. I mean what if he knew karate, say?

Mr. FARRELL: You said he was a lollipop man.

Mr. GLEESON: He was a lollipop man.

Mr. FARRELL: What's a lollipop man doing knowing (bleep) karate?

Mr. GLEESON: I'm just saying.

Mr. FARRELL: How old was he?

Mr. GLEESON: About 50.

Mr. FARRELL: Well, what was a 50-year-old lollipop man doing knowing (bleep) karate? What was he, a Chinese lollipop man?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: And that's Colin Farrell and our guest Brendan Gleeson from "In Bruges." A lot of this is about the city Bruges, this medieval city. Do you know how the elders and the citizens of Bruges reacted to it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLEESON: I do know how they reacted to it. First of all, before we'd even stopped shooting, they started putting up placards on the streets saying this is where this is filmed, and they were really smart. We went in, we met the mayor, and I said listen, Mayor, I just want to thank... because the city is beautifully lit at night. You know, you walk through and it's, you think it looks like a film set. And I just said, I'd just like to thank you Mr. Mayor for lighting our set for us, you know? And, of course, he laughed and they had absolutely embraced the film; even though there were some things that were said about Bruges that were not particularly complimentary in the film, they got the bigger picture and they embraced us when we went there. And then when we left they began, you know, once the film came out, the tourism figures for Bruges went up by 33 percent.


Mr. GLEESON: That's not a joke. That's a statistic. And so they got it, and they had no problem laughing at themselves at any point and people have just been flocking to see this place ever since.


DAVIES: You know, in 2009 you played Winston Churchill for the film "Into the Storm," it was a BBC/HBO production. And this is interesting because, you know, he is the very symbol of English power. And earlier in your career you'd played the nationalist, Irish nationalist Michael Collins, who had opposed Churchill. Churchill, of course, was instrumental in the partition of Ireland.

Did it give you any pause to play Churchill?

Mr. GLEESON: It did certainly. Thaddeus O'Sullivan, who directed the film is another Irishman, which was kind of bizarre. And so we did a comer test. I mean I was going to have to jump up a few years anyway and it wasn't just a feeling of why an Irishman play or a southern Irishman play with Winston Churchill. There were things about the casting that...

DAVIES: Big things. Yeah.

Mr. GLEESON: ...yeah, I guess a whole cultural leap that I wasn't sure I could make in terms of the aristocracy. You know, he wasn't the aristocracy and it's not something I'm particularly familiar with. So I didn't want to, you know, the part of my own miscasting apart from anything else. And so we did a camera test, basically, and we did, we played out a number of the scenes. And it became sold chalk talk of dramatic possibilities it became impossible to turn it down. It kind of felt, okay, we have o to go for it.

DAVIES: Well, let's listen to one of those moments. This is a moment in the film where the English army is facing annihilation in France. This is before the evacuation of the army at Dunkirk. And you, as Churchill, are meeting with your advisors. And one of them says that, you know, we're in a terrible spot and the Italians have reached out and suggested they might broker a deal with Hitler to deliver Britain from this disaster. And that you as Churchill respond. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "Into the Storm")

Mr. GLEESON: (as Winston Churchill) ...unless (unintelligible) is prepared to act as an intermediary between us, the French, and Hitler.

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Any hint of negotiation will destroy the morale of our people.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) I think perhaps not in the present circumstances.

Mr. GLEESON: (as Winston Churchill) The ambassador was most conciliatory or at all extreme, very well mannered. Of course, they would expect something in exchange. Of course.

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Such as what?

Mr. GLEESON: (as Winston Churchill) Mortar perhaps. Gibraltar. Perhaps Uganda.

Unidentified Actor #1: Winston?

Mr. GLEESON: (as Winston Churchill) My dear Edward, if I thought we could get out of our present difficulties by giving up Malta, or Gibraltar or a view of the African colonies, I'd jump at it. But Hitler cannot be trusted. No point in talking with the (unintelligible).

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) And French are very keen. Go give it a try.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) There, the French. They're not prepared to fight, let them give up. I will not allow this country to be dragged down as simple as (unintelligible). What is the point of becoming a slave state when stand for the love of God the face that? We could lose a quarter of a million men at Dunkirk. Nations that go down fighting rise up again. There is a surrender tamely. I'm finished.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) We cannot win this war without a devastating loss of life and resources. You'll destroy everything you most want to preserve.

DAVIES: And that's from the film "Into the Storm." No mistaking Winston Churchill in that clip played, by our guest Brendan Gleeson. You know, it's a, it might be a little intimidating to take on such an iconic figure, you know, one that everyone has popular images and, you know, recollections of.

Mr. GLEESON: Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah. What was the trick to getting him you see?

Mr. GLEESON: I mean there was two challenges. One is the iconic figure we all are familiar with, and the sound is so familiar and you have to get that right. But there is a certain amount of mimicry that will get you half the way there. What's more intimidating for me is the private voice. You know, how do they speak with planning his wife's, you know, he the speechifying the whole time, it would be very dull and not at all natural for him to do so.

The initial temptation was to go down very low and do all this kind of thing. Whereas, in actual fact, what we listened to the speeches, it was closer to my own picture than I would have thought and we tried to get the boys into my own head so I couldn't believe myself when I spoke and that others could believe then that the character was cool, you know, it purported to be. But that was the biggest one. I mean after that body language that all the rest of it is kind of a doddle(ph). It's the whole notion of actually speaking with his voice and believing yourself while you do so.

DAVIES: Well, you know, the other thing that's a challenge here is your big guy. You're what, six foot two? Churchill was short and portly. How did you manage that physically?

Mr. GLEESON: It's a great excuse to put on weight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLEESON: You could put on weight, you foreshorten yourself. and then so I can be nice and easy with everything that passed my lips for while until I have to kind of just knock it on the head and say take it easy. In fact, it took me a couple of years to allow me to get rid of it. But there are various tricks that you can use to actually help you, and they actually casts "Into the Storm" very well in that regard. You know, people were, they cast quite total actors around me which made it very easy. And once or twice I did a little Groucho walk, stuff would allow me to kind of stay below the general level.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLEESON: And. You know, there are you little tricks you can use. But generally people forget. If you set up a few things early on. If you set up a few, you know, tableaux, you can get away with murder afterwards. Once people buy it and believe it, the stature thing, it becomes less and less important as the thing that goes through.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Brendan Gleeson, thanks so much. It's been fun.

Mr. GLEESON: Thanks, Dave. Thanks a lot.

GROSS: Brendan Gleeson spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Gleason stars in the new film "The Guard." You can download Podcasts of our show on our website,

(Soundbite of song, "Shiny Stockings")

GROSS: We'll close with this tenor saxophonist Frank Foster's best known composition "Shiny Stockings." Foster died yesterday at the age of 82. Here's the Count Basie's band 1955 recording of "Shiny Stockings" featuring Foster who also did the arrangement.

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "Shiny Stockings")

(Soundbite of music)

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