Brian Gleeson is sitting in Dublin’s Gate Theatre, his eyes half-closed, reciting a line from an obscure Beckett poem in a nasal and dream-like voice.
A voice that he hates, a voice that he has to listen to a lot at the moment.
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Gleeson (31) and with a red beard, is staying behind the scenes for his next big role. He plays the voice of Samuel Beckett in Beckett’s Room in Dead Centre and Mark O’Halloran’s Dublin Theatre Festival play.
The makers of Lippy, Chekov’s First Play and Hamnet have this time taken the actors off the stage. The audience will listen to the recorded voices of Gleeson and an international cast, through headphones, and puppet strings will move typewriter keys and coffee cups on the set. “The effect will be weird and ghostly,” says Gleeson. “We get a feel for these people but we can’t see them.”
Gleeson will also be in the audience with his own set of headphones, “cringing”, he expects.
A modest fellow, Gleeson finds the recording process “torturous”. He does not like the sound of his own voice “not even if I’m putting on a voice”. Nor does he much like watching himself in his many films and TV programmes. “Hate it, hate it, hate it,” he says, shaking his head, too. The night before we met, he made his entrance in Peaky Blinders, the fifth season. He plays the worst of humanity, as a leader of the Billy Boys razor gang with a big Glaswegian accent.
“In every actor there’s a little boy who wants to play cops and robbers,” he says, adding that he watched the episode “through my fingers. I can’t watch any of the things I’m in, unless it’s on my own in a dark hole. I don’t like other people around, because they try and be nice. It’s like doing a show. It’s two things. You want the complete truth, and you don’t at all, you want the compliments.”
A courteous, if slightly reluctant interviewee, the third of Brendan Gleeson’s talented four sons is generous with his time but more reserved with the bon mots. You could not accuse him of rambling on any topic. His amusing description of the short period when he had a Twitter account says a lot about him. “It took me forever to write a tweet. I was writing letter by letter.” And his explanation for having virtually no social media presence?
“I’ve nothing to say. Nothing to say.” He repeats this three times, enough to bring to mind the comic bleakness of the tramps in Waiting for Godot (“Nothing to be done, nothing to be done!”).
Dead Centre’s performer-less play is set during 1941 when Beckett and his partner Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil joined the French Resistance. They were part of a cell called Gloria SMH. Beckett translated secret reports on German troop movements from French to English, which were then shrunk to microfilm and smuggled to British intelligence. The couple had to flee the Gestapo and their apartment was raided.
This is not only Gleeson’s Gate Theatre debut and that of the OBIE-winning Dead Centre, but his first Beckett play and it gave him the chance to learn all about Beckett.
He worked with a French tutor to bring his Leaving Cert ordinary level French up to Beckett’s standard, and he has been listening to recordings of the Nobel prizewinner to try and capture a voice that was “old Protestant, Foxrock”.
Gleeson likes to do a lot of research for a part, and this took him to the Rue des Favourites where Beckett lived in Paris, and to sit by Beckett’s grave in Montparnasse. He says, rather gnomically: “I read a lot about him. Because you never know anyone really, do you? Even if you’re sitting opposite them. Your closest family member. In terms of what they’re thinking. So it’s very weird playing someone.”
Beckett’s role in the Resistance could have cost him his life, and though he would later be awarded a Croix de Guerre and a Médaille de la Résistance, he referred to his spy work as ‘Boy Scout stuff’. Brian nods appreciatively. “It’s that very Irish and English feeling that we can’t big ourselves up too much. He doesn’t sell you anything, Beckett.”
Nor does this Gleeson. His own career began 13 years ago when John Boorman cast him as the Marxist son to Brendan Gleeson’s property developer dad in The Tiger’s Tail. He found himself sharing a set with stage greats John Kavanagh, Ciarán Hinds and Sinéad Cusack while he was still a schoolboy. “It was definitely quite frightening, to get used to the camera,” he says.
A big break in Love/Hate came not long after, and many films with many stars, including Kristen Stewart, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and his brother Domhnall. He has been flat-out for the past three years since relocating to London. What was the best bit? “Working with Daniel Day-Lewis [in Phantom Thread] was pretty great.”
In 2015, his father, brother and he played the family in The Walworth Farce by Enda Walsh and became the good news story of the year. Walworth was the highlight of his career, he says, but how does Gleeson family celebrity sit with him? “I hate it,” he says. “But that’s the trade off for doing a play with your brother and your dad. We did the Late Late. That’s the trade off.”
He claims that they are just as boring as the next family while they are together. What’s it like then to be a Gleeson at the supper table? Three of them are successful actors. Rory writes novels and films and Fergus is a composer. “We’re a very loud family, it’s a lot of men. We all think we’ve good opinions.” He says it is a chaotic house with “a lot of lost wallets around”.
Working with his brothers and father is “a joy” and has allowed him to flex another talent, writing. He has co-written a comedy series with Domhnall and their musician friend Michael Moloney, set in Dublin, about a failed singer-songwriter and his best friend. “It’s like Alan Partridge meets Todd Solondz.” If they close a deal with Amazon, they will be filming next February with he and Domhnall playing the friends. They work so well together because they are so different.
“Domhnall is very rigorous in his prep and has a very sharp instinct. My approach never feels as thorough as his for some reason, much as a I try. I think it takes me longer to get there. But we complement each other definitely.”
Setting up a life in LA is not an ambition for this actor. “No, no, no,” says Gleeson. “I like LA. But between Ireland and England, I have it covered really.”
For a moment, this acme of young talent wonders if he should be going to more opening nights, more parties. What parties does he mean, can he be more specific? “I don’t know?” he says, as if looking this way for an answer. “If someone said, if you went to that party, you would have got to work with Martin Scorsese, that would be hard to take wouldn’t it?”
One surprising thing he says is this: “People, their heart drops when they feel they have to go to the theatre. Doesn’t it? Maybe that’s just projection.” When he goes to plays in the West End, he sits in the gods and leaves without compunction. He’d rather go for an ice cream than suffer a “bad play”. So why is he continuing to work in theatre, including doing the odd, ehm, promotional interview? “A bad play is not like anything else,” he replies. “But a great play is unlike anything else, too.”
It is a queer kind of debut, since he won’t be on stage, I tell the star, and he agrees with a hearty laugh. “I remember a few years ago talking to Bush [Moukarzel, co-director of Beckett’s Room with Ben Kidd]. I said I’d love to work with you guys. So that’s great and everything, but I hope next time he puts me on stage.”
Beckett’s Room plays in the Gate Theatre, Dublin from September 19-28, with matinees on September 21, 27 and 28
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