Published: August 27, 2014
By his own admission, the Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson is no one’s idea of a typical romantic lead. True, he’s a lean six-footer who carries himself with a certain grace. But he has a shock of long, red, heroically unkempt hair that falls over his eyes; his appearance can often be summarised as ‘dragged through a hedge backwards’. Pale in complexion, he looks like he has just woken up after a rowdy night. ‘Suave’ is not the word that comes to mind. Here is a man who says his big-screen ambition is ‘to be in a film noir where I’m “the guy”, you know?’ Not romantic comedy, then? A shrug: ‘The rom-com genre is not something that necessarily lights my jets.’
It seems incongruous, then, that Domhnall Gleeson (his first name rhymes with tonal) is currently at the epicentre of rom-com land, as the star of Richard Curtis’s new film, About Time. It largely cleaves to a familiar Curtis template: Gleeson plays Tim, a nice, somewhat diffident young Englishman, who is smitten with a winning American woman (Rachel McAdams). But it also features a sci-fi element – time travel – that plays havoc with the story. And unusually for Curtis, it’s more about family than friendship; Tim’s relationship with his father (Bill Nighy) is a significant (and moving) narrative strand. Gleeson still seems faintly dazed at landing the role; in truth, he’s surprised to be cast as someone called Tim.
Yet Gleeson, who just turned 30, is an actor sufficiently serious and versatile to recognise a rom-com role as another challenge. ‘Also,’ he notes, ‘I would be foolish not to realise it’s a huge opportunity.’ He had already made a name for himself on stage in Ireland and America, having won a Tony award in 2006 for his portrayal of Davey, a hapless teenager, in Martin McDonagh’s pitch-black comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore on Broadway. But in the film world, he seems to have come out of nowhere these past three years.
He had a key minor role opposite Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield in the clone drama Never Let Me Go. He played a doomed young outlaw in the Coen brothers’ remake of the western True Grit. Gleeson landed the role of Bill Weasley, older brother of Ron, in the final Harry Potter films – Deathly Hallows Part 1 and Part 2. He was Andrea Riseborough’s gentle younger brother who becomes a torture victim in the IRA drama Shadow Dancer. And last year he won raves as the serious-minded idealist Levin in Joe Wright’s radical remake of Anna Karenina.
It’s an impressive cv, accrued in quick time; Gleeson clearly had what it took in terms of ability. But nothing in these roles suggested him a natural inheritor of Hugh Grant’s roles in Curtisland. Still, he had become a hot name in the industry, and Curtis’s casting director Fiona Weir urged him to audition Gleeson early for the role of Tim. ‘I tried hard to get the part,’ Gleeson recalls. ‘I really worked at the audition because it was something I hadn’t done before. Though rom-coms aren’t necessarily my cup of tea, I was a huge fan of Notting Hill. I laughed a lot and the romance got to me. And as a kid I was a fan of Mr Bean, and then Blackadder, so I was really happy to meet Richard.’
Still, there can have been few auditions in which the prospective actor looked so wholly unsuitable for his role. Curtis, of course, pictured Tim as clean-cut and clean-shaven; but Gleeson was still shooting some final scenes as Levin in Anna Karenina.
‘He came in with this huge beard, looking like a character from Deliverance,’ Curtis recalls. ‘I remember auditioning him in a scene when he approaches Rachel’s character in the gallery. I thought, “Christ, she’d run a mile.” Then I saw a preview of Anna Karenina, and I thought he was marvellous in that. But it was a complicated process casting him, because he never lost the beard. I had no idea how his face would move, and he always looked much older than the part.’
Curtis also fretted about Gleeson’s Dublin accent: could he sustain a lead role – in which he’s in almost every scene – as the very English Tim? ‘I called Joe Wright, who couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. He said, “This is such a good actor, and he works so hard. Tell him what street he comes from, in what town, and he’ll do it perfectly.” In the end, it was so much to do with Domhnall’s general sweetness and demeanour.’
Gleeson plays Tim from the age of 21 to 28. ‘It’s quite a big range, and I found 21 a bit of a stretch. But do you dabble with extra make-up? I thought not. The sureness of your posture does a lot of it too. I think I get away with it.’
He professes himself broadly happy with About Time. ‘You’ll always see things that make you think, “I wonder if…?” and it’s always to do with your own performance. But I can watch the whole movie through and not stand up and leave the cinema. I think the relationships work really well. They’re believable.’
We meet, appropriately for a discussion about a Curtis film, in Notting Hill – in a snug private enclave one floor above a bustling Portobello Road diner. Gleeson arrives on time, looking gangly and a little shy, but quickly relaxes. He’s funny, smart and clearly well read.
One aspect of About Time he particularly liked was its depiction of a loving extended family. This resonates with him. ‘I’m pleased to say I grew up in a happy family in Dublin. I feel we’re very close.
His father is the great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, as adept and enjoyable in lead roles (The Guard, In Bruges) as he is riveting in dozens of smaller character parts. Yet for Domhnall and his younger brothers, Fergus, Brian (now also an actor) and Rory, it wasn’t quite like growing up in an acting household. Brendan was a secondary-school teacher who appeared in theatrical productions as a sideline; he only became a full-time actor aged 36.
‘We grew up in a little cul-de-sac, and there weren’t many other kids around,’ Domhnall says. ‘My mum and my dad have really good taste in movies. My gran would tape them off the TV, and write notes about them, rating them. There was a love of it. I wasn’t into the notion of theatre that much till I read a Martin McDonagh play [The Lieutenant of Inishmore], and that made me really excited. I’d been interested, but never seen anything that electrified me.
‘I’d seen my dad on stage and that was fine,’ he continues, ‘but the real excitement was – that was my dad. Even now, when I see his films, he’s always my favourite person in the movie. We’ve worked together [on Harry Potter and the short film Noreen], and I always learn a lot from him.’ (Domhnall was at one point reluctant to go into acting, fearing accusations of nepotism, yet at this point in his career he is even relaxed about working with Brendan.) ‘The base I have I feel very fortunate for,’ he continues. ‘Going home, spending time with the family, I feel they’re my friends as well, all of them. I look forward to meeting any one of them for a coffee, and when we all get together, I just love it.’
In all this, there’s a touch of the sweetness that Curtis came to notice, as well as a sense of someone grounded and well-rounded, which arises when we broach the subject of his inevitably growing fame. He doesn’t care for it and he doesn’t want a personal publicist, yet you can’t be the lead in a film like About Time and hope to remain obscure.
‘My feelings about it are complex,’ he says, sighing. ‘In itself, it’s nothing to aim for. And I’ve got the feeling a lot of it can be avoided. Yet I know a name on a poster means something. So I understand that if About Time does well, I’d have more choices, probably. Maybe I’d be able to meet some director I couldn’t before. But so long as it’s your work that’s doing that and not your personal life, I feel you haven’t asked for anything untoward or seedy.’
So who’s his girlfriend? With a grin, he acknowledges the funny side of the question in this context, but adds, ‘See, that’s something I don’t talk about. That would not be fair. I don’t like the idea of people becoming defined by other people. I think the people who I love in my life are more interesting than I am, but I’m the person doing interviews at the moment, they will live their own lives away from me talking about them.’
The industry word on Gleeson is that he’s made good choices to date – though he insists luck plays a huge part in what appear to be shrewd decisions. ‘I got very lucky with Harry Potter. I got that role because [he giggles] I’m a ginger! Red hair was my only qualification!’ Certainly he looks a plausible brother to Rupert Grint’s Ron. ‘That’s right,’ Gleeson says. ‘I was a Weasley waiting for a role.’
On another occasion he auditioned with Joe Wright for a role in Hanna, without success. ‘But I’d mentioned this short film I’d directed [What Will Survive of Us], with my brother Brian in it. Joe said he’d like to see it and I sent it to him. He asked to see the next one [Noreen], and loved them both. Then I got a call from him asking to meet. On the basis of those short films I’d made, he considered me for Levin. That’s not something you plan for.’
Wright confirms the story, while stressing that Gleeson’s acting landed him the gig, and says of his short films, ‘They’re incredibly intelligent, but irreverent and darkly humorous. In casting Levin I was looking for someone affected by and engaged with the big issues in life. Domhnall can convey all that without becoming whiny or maudlin or annoying.’
Gleeson’s upcoming films sound intriguing, and far from obvious follow-ups to a mainstream rom-com. He’s currently at Pinewood Studios, filming Ex Machina, an artificial-intelligence thriller with Alicia Vikander, who played Kitty alongside him in Anna Karenina. It’s written and directed by Alex Garland (who also wrote The Beach and Sunshine), whom Gleeson idolises. He has already wrapped Frank, co-starring Michael Fassbender, about a young musician who joins an ‘outsider’ pop band. And he has a small role in Calvary, which stars his father as a beleaguered Catholic priest.
Gleeson also chose these last two films because of their directors, Lenny Abrahamson and John Michael McDonagh respectively. He keeps in his mind a list of filmmakers with whom he wants to work: ‘Paul Thomas Anderson, Todd Solondz, Terrence Malick – though I could turn 50 waiting for him – the Coen brothers…’
But he has already made True Grit for the Coens. ‘I know,’ he says touchingly, ‘but do you think they’d remember me?’ One imagines they will; Gleeson is a wholehearted sort of person who gives a role everything he’s got. He says he is devoted to acting at the moment, and has set aside plans to write and direct. ‘I stand to learn more working as an actor with really talented people than I do by directing a feature. People who are happy to have me in their films at the moment are inspiring.’
And that’s without the offers that will come his way when, not if, About Time is a hit. ‘Who knows?’ Gleeson says with a disarming smile. Curtis is in no doubt. ‘We knew he could do intense, dangerous, ragged – and now he can do charming too.’
© 2014 The Last Magazine | Written by David Gritten | No copyright infringment intended.