The son also rises

The Sunday Times
Published: August 11, 2013

An hour with Domhnall Gleeson? The actor who was eighth on the bill in Never Let Me Go, one of the lesser-known ­Weasleys in Harry Potter, someone called Clan Techie in the Judge Dredd film nobody saw? I thought perhaps 20 minutes would suffice. We get off to a bad start, too. “You’ve got my name spelt wrong,” he shouts, looking at my iPad. (It says Domnhall. It’s pronounced “Doh-nal”.) “I don’t f****** believe it.” I blame autocorrect. “No, that’s you. I’m going to blame you and hold it against you. I don’t believe it.” He’s grinning, though. There are lifts at the end of all those sentences.

He orders an espresso “to strengthen my coffee”. We talk about the weather: hot and bright, gleaming on the top of black cabs parked outside the London hotel in which we meet. “Everything just seems better,” he says of the sun. “There’s a reason to wear sunglasses. If you’re wearing sunglasses and it’s not sunny, you’re a dickhead.”

I mention his new film, About Time, written and directed by the maestro of the saccharine and manipulative, Richard Curtis. “Did you enjoy it?” he asks, smiling wickedly. He’s fun. “Is this going to be a struggle for you?” Well, no, actually. Not only is the film a breeze — an earthbound tale of time travel and family — but Gleeson is such enthusiastic and cheeky company that you could probably spend a happy afternoon with him talking about furniture. An hour? It’s hardly enough, and I’ll be unlikely to get such a slot in the future. This Irish actor of bit parts and a famous dad — the great character actor Brendan — is stepping into shoes previously shuffled about in by Hugh Grant. He is a Curtis leading man now. The film, and lead actor, are going to be huge. “There’s no way to know for sure,” he protests, a sentiment maybe anchored by Curtis’s flop last film, The Boat That Rocked. “Best-laid plans and all that. I think you’d be silly to presume.”

Love Actually, though — Curtis’s directorial debut, always on ITV2 — made $247m worldwide. And About Time is its spiritual sequel. Does he feel like the new Hugh Grant, that part-time star and full-time moral campaigner? “Oh, no! Totally not, and that’s the sad truth. I’m not a typical romantic lead,” he says, his ginger fringe skimming across his forehead, ignoring the sex-obsessed Tumblr blog about him that I mention here. “But Hugh is so good at Richard’s words that when you read the script, the first thing you do is a Hugh Grant impersonation.”

He pauses. He says Curtis had to remind him to smile more. That seems unlikely to me. A huge grin is spread across his wide mouth. He plays Tim, from Cornwall. Grant could never play a Tim, the world’s nicest name. “But I’m worried about even talking about Hugh Grant, because it may appear as though my big battle was not to be Hugh Grant.” It’s a fight worth having. The one-time Mr Elizabeth Hurley’s last notable role was a decade ago, in Love Actually.

The point of About Time is that Tim can travel back through time, like Marty McFly without mother issues, or Donnie Darko without the rabbit. He uses it to correct the moment when he didn’t kiss a girl, or had bad sex with his love interest, Mary (Rachel McAdams). But he doesn’t travel in light beams and wormholes, with big news events flashing across the screen. Rather, he pops into a cupboard. It’s a very British, almost apologetic way to skip dimensions. Nobody ever actually explains how it works.

“It’s a strange paradox,” says Gleeson, snug in a dark blue woolly jumper, jeans and shiny shoes. “But, despite the fact this has time travel in it, it feels like Richard’s most natural film.” Tim and Mary share a one-bedroom flat. They eat in fusion chain restaurants on the South Bank and never meet a film star. It’s austerity ­Curtis, to a point. “There are exceptions, because it’s not a Dardenne brothers movie,” laughs Gleeson, referring to the minimalist Belgians. “It’s not as grim as some things might be.” He stops, adding: “I love the Dardennes, by the way. Imagine me sitting here and going, ‘You know who are shit? The Dardenne brothers!’” He laughs, and it’s loud.

A few years back, Gleeson sent his agent a list of 10 directors he wanted to work for, saying: “Anything they do, just find half a day. That’s worth six weeks on a film you don’t want to be doing.” Thus, in his short career, he has acted for the Coens (True Grit) and Joe Wright (Anna Karenina), while reading from scripts by Charlie Brooker (Channel 4’s Black Mirror) and Alex Garland (Never Let Me Go, Dredd). The roles are often small, but it’s about “being in good stuff”. He says you’d be an “idiot” to pass up any time on a Paul Thomas Anderson set, for instance. “You’d rather be Mona Lisa’s fingernail than the face on the ­full-page advertisement that’s up on Broadway,” he says, and it sort of works. Better to be a speck by Leonardo da Vinci than a full portrait by Tony Hart.

“So far, the work has been good, but that’s not always going to be the case,” he insists. “There will be movies I make that are mistakes, and not good performances.” Next year, he’s in the ­adaptation of Colm Toibin’s Booker-longlisted novel Brooklyn. He’s fine for now.

Gleeson lives in Dublin. He hasn’t been there much recently, thanks to the globetrotting around film sets, but the accent remains strong, rolling over sentences that wind like the Liffey. It’s one of those soft Irish accents so many find so sexy. Dublin’s the city he was born in, 30 years ago, to Brendan and Mary — the eldest of four brothers. After university, he planned to write, but then he read Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, ­auditioned, got a lead role and opted to follow his father into acting. It was a “totally too high” start: in the West End, on Broadway, Tony-nominated.

After that, the material inevitably dropped. There were fallow years, but, thanks to Harry Potter — he was in the final two films — he could afford rent for a “few more months”. He’s still new to this, though, apologising for an anecdote about how brilliant it is to work with your family that he says he has told before. Like everyone else, he thinks his father was best in The Guard and, of course, In Bruges.

I ask him when in his own life he would travel back to. At first, he offers a “boring” answer about being “quite happy”, so there’s no need, thanks, but then he talks about his “Nanna”, and how he was abroad when she died. “I’d go back and say goodbye to her properly,” he says. “Not goodbye like I’m going to see her in a couple of months. That’s probably what I’d do…”

The “do” crackles as he chokes up. It’s the Curtis effect. Then we laugh, like a ­couple of men at work one morning who won’t admit that they watched Four Weddings, again, the night before.

It’s a question he’ll be asked from ­California to Kyoto, I suggest, as About Time becomes the latest Working Title film to take over the world. “I should think about it properly, then, so I’m not talking about the fact that my Nanna passed away,” he says, looking up.

He says he can “skew towards melancholy”, but really he’s a dreamer, perhaps a couple of failed auditions away from discovering Buddhism. “A few times a week, you look around and you see someone on the streets doing something that is utterly delightful,” he says, as if he’s the pot dealer in American Beauty. “If you’re looking for it, you’ll find it.” He likes high-concept stories that explore emotions, like Never Let Me Go or About Time. “They are proper ideas that say something important,” he enthuses, and we talk about the Black Mirror episode, The Entire History of You, as if it’s the greatest television programme ever made. (It sort of is.) He says he felt “alive and thinking about love” in his scenes with McAdams, and how he listened to Paul Buchanan’s Mid Air — “I want to live forever / And watch you dancing in the air” — every day before filming with her.

The photographer is in the next room, waiting. If I could find a cupboard and go back in time, I’d probably spend less of the hour talking about the weather. He’s pleased I enjoyed the film, though. He knows this is huge. I say again that I did, all except a saccharine and manipulative ad man’s view of Britain in a final montage, with dancing NHS nurses and babies being pushed in supermarket trollies: an all-inclusive dream of the country one suspects Curtis shot to make up for writing Notting Hill, set in Notting Hill, where the carnival is, and ­giving just two speaking parts to black actors.

“I’ve got nothing to do with that bit!” Gleeson claps happily about the montage. “So that can be your problem with Richard. I like to think that’s what I brought to the ­process — reality. A sense of reality.”

I ask if he’d bother using the power, Nanna or not. “I think at the start you’d fix everything, but you’d get bored after a while,” he says. You still have to sit on the Tube to get around. Every day has boring bits. We conclude that time travel is creepy and takes ages, and that bad stuff teaches you to enjoy the good, anyway, so it wouldn’t be worth the effort. He says he wouldn’t bother going back in time to correct a sandwich order, to have it ­without mayonnaise. “You’d start saying, ‘Oh, f*** it. It wasn’t that bad.’ Unless you ran somebody over.”

© 2013 The Sunday Times | Written by Jonathan Dean | No copyright infringment intended.