Whether single, married or a monk, you’d have to figure most men would want to look their best when meeting Angelina Jolie. Sadly for renowned Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, when it came to filming alongside Angelina Jolie for their new movie Beowulf, looking his best was simply not an option. “I wore a black, full-length leotard right down to the end with a skull cap,” Gleeson sighs ruefully. The actor, midway through a long day of interviews at Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel to promote Beowulf, breaks into a chuckle. “It was a sight to behold.”
Alas for the inquisitive among us, the vision of Brendan Gleeson leaping around in a leotard is not one that has made it to the final print. Thanks to director Robert Zemeckis’s seminal style of performance capture film-making, first patented in The Polar Express, leotards were a necessary part of the production – rather than the finished – experience for all of the actors involved in Beowulf, including Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich. Digital sensors were attached to the actors’ leotards so their performances could be captured, uploaded into computers and remastered into a digital hybrid style of film-making that sits somewhere between reality and the kind of thing you see in Shrek. Sets and proper costumes were all added in after the six-week film shoot.
Based on the legendary epic poem, Beowulf, with a reported budget of $150m and a star quotient designed to dazzle even the most jaded of observers, would always have had a willing audience. But Zemeckis’s performance capture model has had the effort of turning Beowulf the film into a most curious beast, the kind that will attract scholars of the poem, the oldest surviving epic in the English language, and kids of all ages who get their kicks from watching Batman, Superman and Spiderman. The finished film might occasionally be a little too cartoonish, but it’s also a hugely enjoyable, dynamic and unusual experience, further enhanced by the surprisingly excellent 3D element: this writer spent more than a little time ducking and diving in her seat at the press screening.
The storyline has little in common with the 700 AD poem: the plot, for one thing, has been vastly (and thankfully) simplified. This Beowulf (Winstone) is a superhero for modern times: ambitious, powerful, greedy, troubled, brave, heroic and stupid, he is the man who dares to come to the rescue of an ancient Danish kingdom, which has been terrorised by the monster Grendel – a brilliantly etched, pain-wracked creation, played by Crispin Glover. Beowulf, aided by his trusty partner Wiglaf (Gleeson) succeeds in slaying Grendel. But a greater problem lies in wait: Grendel’s addictively beautiful mamma (Angelina Jolie).
Old and admired as the source material might be, the screenwriters didn’t seem remotely intimidated by the project – no surprise, really, when you consider that the material was reworked by Roger Avary (the screenwriter for Pulp Fiction alongside Quentin Tarantino) and Neil Gaiman (Stardust and The Sandman comic series). In their clever, violent and frequently funny adaptation, Beowulf the hero mostly comes off like a cross between Superman and Kanye West. When he’s not boasting about his superior battling prowess – slaying nine monsters in the ocean while racing another warrior and no doubt doing a little knife-sharpening on the side is nothing to him, apparently – he’s having arguments with John Malkovich’s character which involve him boasting about what he did to Malkovich’s Momma. Frankly, Public Enemy could hardly manage better quips.
The leotards, meanwhile, might have been embarrassing to wear, but they’ve had a glorious cosmetic effect on the bodies of some of the characters. Ray Winstone, in the lead role of Beowulf, is barely recognisable. As he strolls around, casually stripping off – happily for his smitten love interest Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn), Beowulf firmly believes he should battle Grendel in the nude – Winstone proves to have an astonishing Hulk Hogan-esque physique. Jolie’s curves, meanwhile, as she emerges nude but for some gold paint from a lake, appear similarly enhanced.
No such luck, though, for Brendan Gleeson, in the role of the side-kick. Gleeson glances up at the gloriously buff Ray Winstone in the Beowulf poster beside him and mock-sighs: “Why couldn’t they do that for me?” With his hunched-over pose and loose, navy-blue shirt and jeans combo, Gleeson has the demeanour of a man who wouldn’t mind concealing a few extra pounds. His face makes you think, at various times, of all the different characters he has played – watching his expressions move, you catch glimpses of the General, Mad-Eye Moody from the Harry Potter films and Breakfast on Pluto’s John Joe Kenny, to name but a few. Gleeson doesn’t look like the kind of man you’d want to get on the wrong side of – his face betrays a flicker of annoyance when I ask about the budget for the film, and the effect is slightly terrifying. But he’s, in general, a cheery, patient, funny interviewee, with the resigned air of the long-suffering victim. He frets after one of the hotel staff unexpectedly arrives at his room with a complimentary snack. “I didn’t get a chance to tip her,” he says later to the publicist.
It’s interesting listening to Gleeson talk about the film because he starts off by sounding quite timid about the project. It transpires there is a very good reason for this. “I have to ‘fess up,” he says, grinning. “I haven’t seen it yet. I saw some of it during looping so I’ve seen the thrust of it, but I’ve yet to get the full whack.”
He looks pleased, if not entirely convinced, when I tell him honestly that I enjoyed the movie. Gleeson was initially reluctant to take on the film, not simply because it would mark a return to the ‘sword and sandals’ style role he had played in Troy (2004), but because, as he says, “I had to consider: ‘was this just a computer game or would it be interesting in terms of performance?’” Gleeson began to visualise himself in the role when he realised how much the film version differed from the poem.
“I read the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf first,” he says. “My character is different than in the original. He’s a younger character who comes in at the end and he succeeds to the throne. I didn’t want to be the dumb buddy. But the notion that this guy would succeed to the throne threw a lot of interesting things into the mix. Quite often it happens, even still in politics, where, having had a dynamic and charismatic leader, people just want a safe pair of hands at the end. It became a very interesting part.”
With his leading roles in films like The Tiger’s Tail (2006) and The General (1998) having firmly established Gleeson’s capacity to carry a film, you wonder if Gleeson is beginning to tire of the character roles he is constantly asked to play. “I love doing character stuff,” he says. “I’m not intimidated by the notion that I’m not the leading man. But I do love leading roles. There’s something fantastic about being able to take a film and lead it as against follow it. To carry a film is a massive thing. I love the responsibility of starting and finishing a movie. You bring people with you on a journey.”
One of the character roles Gleeson found himself unable to turn down was that of Mad-Eye Moody, a teacher of Defence against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series. The role involved Gleeson incorporating a neat little facial prop – a bulging eyeball that sat in his left eye socket like an interrogating force. The prop has meant that Gleeson rarely has to fend off children anxious to talk to him about Harry Potter.
“I can magic the eyeball away,” he smiles. “They don’t know who I am, which is great for me because I like to walk around with as much anonymity as possible. When parents haul the kids over to meet me, they’re invariably disappointed. There is no correlation between me and that character in the child’s mind. It reminds me of doing the Wizard of Oz in the Olympia. I was the Cowardly Lion. Some kids would be dragged up into the dressing-room at the end. And you’d come in after a show, and the head would be off. You’d wreck it for the kids. They’d say, ‘What did you do that to me for?’”
Gleeson has established himself as such a force in Irish acting that it’s hard to believe he was ever at the stage when he needed to take a panto gig. He began his career in acting relatively late, at 34, leaving a secure teaching job at Belcamp College in north Dublin to do so. The move from teaching to acting wasn’t quite the leap some people imagined, he says. “I think it’s the same job. You’re trying to communicate with people, keep them awake, get something across. But it’s a little bit freer as an actor. You don’t have to be constricted by the curriculum.” Plus there’s that not-quite-normal-for-teachers benefit of getting to spend time with some of the world’s most adored actresses. Leotard or no, when it came to filming Beowulf, Gleeson was in a position most men would envy. What is Jolie like? “She’s gorgeous,” he says. “Lovely. Really sound. She’s kind of one of us.”
Although Gleeson lives in Malahide with his wife Mary, he spends months abroad every year for his work. He has just finished filming Churchill at War, directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan, in which he plays Winston Churchill. Alongside Colin Farrell, he has also just wrapped up on In Bruges, a much hyped project helmed by the Oscar-winning director and playwright Martin McDonagh in his first full-length feature production.
Recently Gleeson has also been busy watching the birth of his own sons as actors. “I’ve acted with both Briain and Domhnall,” he says. Does he worry about their career choice? “You’re always going to worry about anybody in acting. Because it’s so tough, so difficult, so insecure. But I’m not worried about their talent. I just hope they get the chance to explore it.”
Gleeson himself has begun to branch out from acting: he has adapted and hopes to direct Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds for the big screen. When Gleeson speaks about the project, it’s with more passion and genuine sense of engagement than at any other point in the interview. “It’s a difficult thing to bring to the screen because it’s so anarchic,” he explains. “But at the same time we have it at a place now where it’s a film, in terms of the script. It’s going to be difficult to push through, but we’ve got fantastic people involved. Colin Farrell has said that he wants to be a part of it. And Cillian Murphy, Gabriel Byrne. We had them in for a reading and it was fantastic.”
With the success internationally of films like Garage, it seems as though Irish film-making is in a healthy place. Gleeson nonetheless sounds a note of caution on the subject of the state of Irish cinema. “I don’t know how robust Irish cinema is. The problem is that the market is too small. The temptation is to look outside the country and try to market your film as an Irish cultural thing for outsiders, which is nonsense. You’ve got to be true to what you know, what you’re good at and what reflects Irish culture. And then hopefully it’ll be universal and you’ll find a market. We’re always going to be on thin ice. Sometimes we’ve got to be more inventive and creative.”
Beowulf is on general release.