Brendan Gleeson discusses ‘The Banshees of Inisherin,’ career

Written by Anna Buss, produced by Joshua Farnham

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell star in the film “The Banshees of Inisherin.” Photo by Jonathan Hession. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

After playing a diverse array of characters in more than 90 TV and feature film credits, Brendan Gleeson has had a busy and eclectic career, performing in epics such as “Braveheart,” and “Troy,” horror films like Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” and even playing a grumpy, but loveable inmate in “Paddington 2.” 

He has worked with some of the biggest names in filmmaking, like Martin Scorsese in “Gangs of New York,” Stephen Spielberg in “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” and the Coen Brothers in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” and he just finished shooting Todd Phillips’ “Joker” sequel. 

For his latest role in “The Banshees of Inisherin”– set on a remote, fictional island off the west coast of Ireland – Martin McDonagh brings Gleeson and Colin Farell back together, 14 years after appearing in his 2008 film, “In Bruges.” 

In this black tragicomedy, Gleeson became Colm Doherty - a grumpy man who abruptly ends a lifelong friendship with Pádraic Súilleabháin (Farell) with unexpected consequences for both of them. 

Connecting to his character in “The Banshees”

Upon receiving the news of his achievement, he wrote to his manager to concede that there is “a lot of aspiration” that viewers will connect to “The Banshees” at a first glance, himself included. 

“I didn't feel overly sympathetic towards my own character, because the damage that is caused by this rupture is such that that's your immediate concern at the beginning.” 

As the film progresses, he says there are different ways of looking at Colm Doherty. One is to simply regard him as his own worst enemy, treat him as someone who could be blamed for the Irish Civil War because of his behavior. 

The other is to ask, “What is the person to do who is in a relationship that even though it's not sexual, it's actually impeding him as a human being? He wants to just be creative in his life and feel he has contributed something and this has been thwarted by the fact that somebody needs him so badly, he won't let him go.” 

To understand these nuances, Gleeson suggests that viewers should consider the idea that his character is “borderline suicidal” and his “grumpiness and menace” are “outward signs of a deep desperation.” 

“I don't think he's an unkind person of nature,” he poses, “I think he’s drowning.”

As such, Gleeson believes the film – also directed and co-produced by McDonagh – deserves “future examination.”  

“When you watch the film again, there is enough in Colm’s character, to see the aspiration in him, and to see the desperation that is there, and to push the dilemma of what do you do when you're in a relationship that is impeding you from being what you maybe should be?” 

Read more: 'Banshees of Inisherin' director Martin McDonagh on his films' deceptive logic

In a macro perspective, other Academy Award nominees this year – “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and “The Fabelmans” – deal with similar themes, he points out. 

“Isn't it weird how there's a kind of connectivity?” he asks. “I don't know if in retrospect, it's so odd that this same question has been asked, and in the various movies across that are garnering this kind of attention.”

While in “The Banshees of Inisherin” there’s a level of heaviness, with mix of unhappiness with niceness, the film also has a comedic side to it. 

“It's not a grim fest, and funny enough,” Gleeson notes. “The reason it's not a grim fest is because there's love in it, and love without humor is really dull.”

Receiving recognition

This lighter side of the film was picked up by international audiences as well. At the Venice Film Festival premiere last September, it received a 15-minute ovation.

“That was wonderful. You could feel the response in the room. That was more important, really than the ovation for me,” Gleeson states. “For me, it was the reaction within the cinema that made the difference. We knew it was crossing cultural lines and I think that was the first indication that this could be as good as we were hoping it would be.”

The film has been nominated for eight Golden Globes, nine BAFTAs, and nine Oscars, including one for Best Picture, and one for Best Supporting Actor for Gleeson’s role. This is the first Academy Award nod for the veteran actor. 

“I just find it's been very interesting for me because to get the nomination was massive,” he says. “I'm so chuffed about it.”

The film is now streaming on HBO Max.

Early acting career

Though Gleeson was a trained actor, his professional acting career didn’t kick off until he was 34-years old. That’s because once he finished college, he went to work as a secondary school teacher who would take on occasional roles at a local theater production. 

Paul Mercier was a playwright, whom Gleeson had met in college, and who formed the Passion Machine Theater company. During school holidays, Gleeson would take on acting roles at it. 

By the late 1980’s they were setting up productions in mainstream theaters around Dublin and playing to 1,300 people for 20 week runs. “We became quite successful,” he recalls.

And by 1991, Gleeson left teaching for acting. “I decided to throw my hat in the ring full time.” 

From there on, he has built an extensive and very successful acting career, being nominated 104 times, and winning 21 of those awards.

 “Harry Potter” fame

Having already worked with some of the biggest directors in business Gleeson joined the “Harry Potter” film franchise in 2005 to play Alastor 'Mad-Eye' Moody, a wizard teacher at Hogwarts. 

“I had a brilliant time with them. It was a very healthy, great sort of enterprise on so many different levels,” he recalls.

The role, however – the late Robbie Coltrane warned him – would change his life. After appearing in several “Harry Potter” movies, he became too famous to walk around unrecognized. 

In an interview with the Irish Times, Gleeson is quoted saying, “It’s hard to browse in a shop. It’s a big price to pay, and I don’t like it.” While the article was nuanced, he says the headline made him sound as though he “disregarded the benefits of being able to work” and do something he loves. 

Though it has increasingly become more difficult to navigate constant public scrutiny, Gleeson recognizes how lucky he is. “I'm an actor, that's who I am, and I absolutely love it.” 

In Ireland, where he’s been known for more than 30 years, he misses the normalcy. 

“I miss being able to mix with people, and being able to sit down maybe and just ‘have a gawk,’ as we say, at people just passing by, just people watching,” he laments. “It's not easy to walk around incognito.”

Having two sons in the business

Gleeson did not plan to have any of his four children involved in showbiz, but when he was trying out for “Braveheart,” the production wanted to audition his kids.   

“I'm really uneasy about the whole thing with child acting. I was very careful about it,” he remarks.

In the end, his children were not cast, and it was a “huge disappointment” for them. Eventually, two of his sons, Domhnall and Brian, became actors. 

“I think it was in spite of the fact that I was an actor rather than because of it,” he says. “There's no decision for the parent to make other than support that really well.” 

Working with the McDonagh’s brothers

Though Gleeson had seen some of Martin McDonagh’s plays, he only met the director at the premiere of his 2001 theater production, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.” Gleeson’s son Domhnall had worked on the play and introduced them. (Following a Tony Award nomination for Best Play, Domhnall became a full time actor). 

Then, in 2004, the veteran actor starred in Martin’s debut short “Six Shooter.” The darkly comedic film focuses on cot death (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) - a topic that made Gleeson uncomfortable.  

“I knew he pushed the envelope out all the time with his work, and I kind of loved it in a way. It was an edge, as always. But I said, ‘I'm uneasy about what's going on here. I'm not sure I wanted to do it.’”

After they had a long talk, Martin convinced Gleeson to take the part. They shot the film in a week, and it grabbed an Oscar for Best Short Film, Live Action. 

A couple of years later, the pair reteamed for his 2008 black comedy, “In Bruges,” this time with Colin Farrell in the mix. 

The film had three Golden Globe nods, and at the ceremony, Gleeson met Martin’s brother, John McDonagh. 

After that encounter, John sent Gleeson a script he had written for “The Guard.” 

“Oh my god, I could not put it down. I couldn't believe it.” 

They worked on that film together in 2011, followed by the mystery-drama “Calvary,” in which he plays a good-natured priest. 

“[‘Calvary’]  is one of the films I'm most proud of, to be honest,” Gleeson says. “I just think his writing is extraordinary.” 

In all, Gleeson starred in five of McDonagh's films. 

“They're two phenomenal talents, the same in some aspects, but very different in others,” he says. “I just hit the lotto, basically.”

Playing Donald Trump 

One role is not very keen on talking about is his portrait of Donald Trump in Showtime’s “The Comey Rule.” The limited drama series is a behind-the-headlines account of the turbulent events surrounding the 2016 Presidential election and its aftermath, centering on Trump and the former FBI director, James Comey (Jeff Daniels). 

In order to take the part, Gleeson made an agreement with the production. 

“I did the job on the condition that I would not do publicity for it. I think it's pretty obvious that for an Irish person to come in and get embroiled in a political debate was inappropriate for me to do. I wanted to work as an actor, I'm not a politician,” he states. “Basically, the performance had to be it.”

And as in other roles, interpreting the former president meant he had to completely embody him.

“I do go into my corner in this particular character,” he says. “The performance was [the] best that I could do.”

A balanced work-life

Over the years, Gleeson developed a philosophy to approach a work-life balance: It has to be enjoyable. 

“I did not want to come just to trivialities from my living, so I would insist that every year there had to be something of real and artistic intent in it, serious, creative, even if that was funny, but it had to be serious in its intent,” he explains. “I did not want to live my life as a grim fest.” 




Kim Masters


Joshua Farnham