Photography: Leigh Keily Words: Tom Ellen
“It’s not fucking happy, is it?”
Domhnall Gleeson stands on stage in a pool of artificial light, staring down at his shirt. He’s quite right, it does seem troubled: it’s snarling up at the hem, refusing to lie flat across his wiry torso. If the shirt looks unhappy, though, Gleeson himself looks positively crestfallen.
“Photoshoots,” he will later admit, “are not my natural habitat” (even when they’re happening in his natural habitat: a pub in his hometown of Dublin). Between the white-light thump of every flashbulb, the actor’s shoulders automatically re-hunch, his hands find his pockets, his eyes drift downwards to settle mournfully on the sticky floor, only ever coaxed back up again by the photographer’s gentle, oft-repeated mantra: “And… to the camera.”
If this sounds at all diva-ish on paper, it very much isn’t in the flesh. Gleeson is just clearly out of his comfort zone. His long legs bounce together nervously at the knees, his hands curl into claws, describing invisible piano chords on the table.
It takes obvious effort for him to will his default bashful grimace into a warm, lens-friendly grin. Yes, this is some authentic self-consciousness right here. A contradiction in terms: the actor who hates the spotlight.
“It’s just such a strange format,” he explains once the shoot is over, and we settle upstairs in a grimy, even-stickier-floored private bar. “You feel you can never fully represent yourself in these situations. I guarantee you the person you’ll see in those photographs will be different to the person I am.”
So, who will we see in the photos?
“I went through a phase of looking like Tilda Swinton in photographs.”
Oh right. Yeah, there is a certain resemblance. He smiles – a proper smile now, the skin around his green eyes crinkling under his copper-coloured hair.
“Actually, it was Cate Blanchett first,” he adds. “That was pretty full-on for a while. People would come up to me in the street, saying, ‘Can I just tell you: you look so much like Cate Blanchett.’”
This was a few years back, of course. Nowadays, Gleeson has to worry less about being mistaken for high-profile, high-cheekboned women. This is because a) he has a beard and, more importantly, b) he’s become recognisable in his own right.
At 34, he’s already amassed the kind of one-for-me-one-for-them filmography most actors would kill for – toggling seamlessly between weird, intelligent, critically acclaimed fare (Ex Machina, Frank, The Revenant) and box-office battering, studio juggernauts (Harry Potter, Star Wars).
The film he’s currently promoting – Peter Rabbit – presumably sits squarely in the one-for-them camp, since it sees Gleeson interacting mainly with a CGI farm pest voiced by James Corden. That said, he clearly had a laugh making it.
“[Corden] never showed up, though, the fucker,” he jokes. “Neither did Margot Robbie or Daisy Ridley or any of these other brilliant actors [all of whom were just providing voices]. But I got a lot of time with Rose Byrne, which was fantastic. I’d really wanted to work with her.”
“The work” is the one thing Gleeson is comfortable talking about in these situations. When we’re on the subject of his films, he visibly relaxes, tucking his feet underneath him on the couch to sit cross-legged, like a strawberry-blond Buddha. It’s when the conversation strays into other areas that his speech becomes slower, more strained and considered, and his legs unfold and begin sweeping the floor for answers.
“Thing is, we’re at cross purposes here, aren’t we?” he points out, early on in our chat. “I don’t want to tell any story that will get me in trouble, or that I don’t come out of in a good way. And you’re trying to find out something more. There’s this expectation that you should reveal these tidbits about yourself for the whole thing to be worth the interviewer’s time. And I get that, I really do. In the same way every actor wants to be Marlon Brando, every journalist wants to be Truman Capote, right?
I mean, I’ll read that Capote/Brando thing [the 1957 New Yorker article] for ever and ever…”
I mention that, in the course of my research for this interview, I came across a piece on Gleeson that opened with the sentence: “The quickest way to end a conversation with Domhnall Gleeson is to ask him a personal question.” This gets a proper, full-throated laugh as he re-assumes Buddha position.
“Oh, man, that’s good,” he says.
“I remember, I had this terrible idea for a routine early on [in my career]. Whenever journalists would ask if I had a girlfriend or a boyfriend or whatever, I thought I’d reply, ‘Well, do you have a girlfriend?’
And as soon as they’d start to answer, I’d say, ‘That’s none of my fucking business, is it?’ And I thought: this’ll be great, we’ll all have a laugh, it’ll be hilarious.”
And was it? “I did it once,” he deadpans. “And it came across as intensely, intensely aggressive.”
In moments like these you glimpse the person Gleeson is so convinced won’t emerge in the photos: eccentric, funny, self-deprecating. His anxiety about being the centre of attention seems to stem largely from the fact that he never really wanted to be an actor in the first place.
Growing up, it was always writing he was drawn to. He spent his formative years devouring the work of people like Dylan Moran and Samuel Beckett – two of Ireland’s finest contradictions-in-terms: uplifting pessimists, able to wring comedy from misery.
At 16, though, he went up to accept an acting award on behalf of his father, Brendan, and ended up bagging an agent by accident.
“I was very nervous, but I just thought, ‘Fuck it,’” he recalls. “My dad had given me a three-page speech, but in the end I just ad-libbed and made fun of it all. It wasn’t me, it was a persona, I suppose. That got me an agent, and it went from there. But I never naturally wanted to be on stage. None of it was planned.”
Gleeson (whose first name, by the way, is pronounced to rhyme with ‘tonal’) has starred opposite his father a few times now – most notably in 2014’s excellent Calvary – and Gleeson Sr remains a constant source of advice and encouragement.
“I called him during filming on The Revenant,” says Gleeson Jr. “That was really intense. I mean, look at that movie. It was designed to be punishing. You’re in these extreme conditions, and it felt like it was never going to end. I said to my dad, ‘This is like Gaelscoil [Irish language school] all over again.’ I remember doing that when I was 11 – it was just three weeks, but it seemed like a lifetime.”
But while the Gaescoil may have proved a dubious long-term investment – Gleeson’s Irish fluency having since ebbed away – surely something like The Revenant was well worth the effort?
He nods. “Yeah. Of course. And that’s what keeps you coming back. I’ve had moments watching myself where I’ve thought, ‘Well, I tried my best, but it didn’t work.’ But every now and then it comes off, and you go, ‘Yeah, goddammit, I like being in good stuff. It means something to be in good stuff.’”
He’s still writing – currently thrashing out a sitcom script with his younger brother, Brian (“If it works, great; if not, we’ll try something else”) – but the allure of being in good stuff is starting to take precedence.
On the immediate horizon is his reunion with Frank director Lenny Abrahamson in supernatural thriller The Little Stranger, and soon after that he’ll reprise his role as toadying First Order bastard General Hux in Star Wars Episode IX.
“I don’t know if I’m even in the next one,” he admits. “I think JJ [Abrams] has just finished the script. They’ve given us dates for when it might begin, but I’m still waiting to find out if I’ll be there.”
He disagreed with the fanboy ‘backlash’ against The Last Jedi – “I thought it had some of the best [Star Wars] stuff ever in it” – but says he understands where it came from.
He even draws a vague parallel with the initial reaction to Radiohead’s Kid A, in that “if people change something you love and don’t give you what you expect, then you’re within your rights to be outraged. And it’s nice that these things matter so much to people. But in my opinion, that film was brilliant and necessary because it kept you guessing. I now have no idea what to expect from the new [Star Wars] script, and that’s a good thing. Otherwise it may as well be fan fiction.”
We return briefly to Radiohead and, since he turns out to be a fan, I ask he’s ever met them. He stalls for a second, and then blinks and nods, before repeating “Yep, I met… yep” several times, like a malfunctioning protocol droid. You can almost see the thought process in action: “How much should I say here?”
We’re back at cross purposes again, and it reminds Gleeson of another Star Wars story: at the tail end of 2015, when the whole cast was doing press for The Force Awakens, he confided in Harrison Ford about his anxieties over what you can and can’t say in interviews. Ford, in “brilliantly Harrison Ford” fashion, told him: “You can say whatever the fuck you want. And you know it.”
But the truth is, saying whatever the fuck you want is for the Harrison Fords (or, more recently, Quincy Joneses) of this world. For Gleeson, now is not about revealing his “true self” in interviews: now is about graft.
“Laziness is the only thing that’s not allowed,” he tells me. “That’s what you learn [working] with people like Leo [DiCaprio] and Tom Cruise. They both work like fucking maniacs. They lead by example.”
His publicist appears at the door; an indication that our time is up. Gleeson is a free man again, and he plans to celebrate by trawling Dublin’s bookshops to re-purchase Catch-22 (“I’ve lost my copy”).
As we part ways, I ask if he can ever imagine reaching that Ford/Cruise/DiCaprio level of stardom. “No, never,” he says, firmly. “My dad doesn’t occupy that level of superstardom, so maybe you can only imagine what’s gone before you.” He shrugs and reconsiders. “Or maybe I’m just a pessimist. I naturally skew towards the melancholy. But I’m trying hard to be more hopeful.”
Peter Rabbit is at cinemas from 16 March