Veteran actor Brendan Gleeson plays Father James in “Calvary,” opening Friday, the new film from director and writer and fellow Irishman John Michael McDonagh, with whom Gleeson previously made “The Guard.”
The storyline is intriguing in that many of the current Catholic Church scandals and difficult issues are key themes in “Calvary,” but interpreted through the life and actions of a man who is clearly a man of faith, who has not caused any of the problems we know from today’s headlines.
Q: In “Calvary” you play a “good priest,” but clearly issues involving “bad priests” is central to this entire story, right? It’s timely, given the stories we’ve learned about the Roman Catholic Church in recent years.
A: This is an institution that is so old. Every institution gets corrupted over time. There’s no question about that. Just because people and power don’t mix very well — if the people hold the power too long.
Q: What do you think about Pope Francis, and his seemingly new and fresh approach to leading the Roman Catholic Church?
A: The jury is out, in a way. It is too early to see what the long-range effect will be, but it does have to start from the top. A lot of these things are led by the top men in the Church.
As for the pope, it will be interesting to see how it all works out. But at least, the recognition is there that something has to change. The covering up and the hiding and the holding up of the reputation of the Church has backfired a little bit — more than a little bit!
Q: How did the genesis of the idea for “Calvary” come about?
A: When we worked on the earlier film we did together, ‘The Guard,’ John [Michael McDonagh] came up with the idea of exploring how a good priest would be effected by the actions of bad priests — and how that would change his life in his community. He also always has said he reckoned that approach wouldn’t be an angle other filmmakers would take — that people would always be writing about bad priests. Oddly enough, that hasn’t happened very much. I think people are skirting the issue a lot. John’s always said it took them 10 years after the war was over for really good films to come out about Vietnam. Maybe they need a bit of time for reflection on these church issues as well.
Q: What was it like for you to play this particular priest?
A: It was an odd thing. As soon as I put on the vestments, it oddly took me back to childhood. Having grown up in such a strongly-Catholic country like Ireland, the Church was a major factor and influence in all of our lives growing up. There was a clarity of division between the idea of good versus evil, which, of course gets clouded in adulthood. This man, this character I play, had a very clear delineation between good and evil.
To play him, I associated more with my parents generation, really — the humility and commitment to goodness. That was very clear and stated.
I felt it somewhat odd, putting on the vestments. It was sort of like I was a Samurai warrior — as the protector of what you feel is goodness in the community you serve.
It was quite a trying experience, really, to be absorbing all that cynicism and pain and anger. It was a constant soaking up of all that. I was a little shattered by the end of filming.
Q: Chris O’Dowd, is one of your key co-stars here. Most American audiences know him from his comedic performances, don’t you think? This is obviously very different.
A: While we deal with some pretty heavy stuff here, there are some lighter moments — quite a few really, including scenes with Chris and with David Wilmot who plays the younger priest in the parish. As for Chris, he’s so talented. He can do both light and dark. And even though he has some very dramatic scenes in ‘Calvary,’ there are some amusing ones, especially when he and I are in his butcher shop — in the meat locker and he’s slamming away with that meat cleaver!
Q: What did you like best about playing Father James?
A: He’s a man of the world, who entered the priesthood after his wife died, so he has a grown daughter — and that interaction between the two of them is so important to the story, because she feels he abandoned her, when he because a priest. He’s a man of the world, who gave it up to go into the Church, fully aware of what he was getting into. He’s a man of virtue, who believes too much emphasis is placed on fighting sin, and not rewarding virtue. So it’s a very simple creed for him, but very difficult to adhere to in everyday life.
Q: Of course, you also played opposite your son, Domhnall Gleeson in this film — a very difficult scene I would imagine?
A: Yes, it was intense. He plays a serial sexual predator and killer who is in prison. Sitting across the table from him, was something else! I didn’t know how that would all play out, but it was fine. We didn’t talk to each other for a few days before we did that scene. We thought it best to give ourselves a bit of space — and that was a good idea.
It’s nice that we can separate the father and son thing, and have the ability to just work together as actors. That came in handy in particular for that scene.
Q: You also were in a couple of the “Harry Potter” films with Domhnall. Speaking of those Potter movies, do you enjoy it when people come up to you and talk about them — obviously so many millions saw them. Do you enjoy that when they ask about Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody?
A: It’s not as invasive as it might be, because I don’t have my “magic eye” with me all the time. But it’s wonderful to have been part of that. The Harry Potter people are a very particular brand. They’re lovely. They are not part of supporting that frantic celebrity fame-for fame’s sake kind of thing. There’s a real heart and soul with them because they love those stories and the characters that J.K. Rowling created. It’s been wonderful to have been a part of that.