When I tell my best friend I'm going to get to interview Brendan Gleeson, an actor actually worthy of the title living legend, I'm appalled when they text me back "I had to Google who that is." Brendan Gleeson is Brendan Gleeson, I think. How dare you. The fact is that most people, whether they know it or not, are already Brendan Gleeson fans! It might just take them a moment to put a face to the name. Gleeson's played his part in the massive Harry Potter franchise as "Mad-Eye" Moody; he's a frequent collaborator with acclaimed Irish filmmakers Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) and his brother, John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, Calvary). Gleeson even had a delightful cameo in the equally-delightful Paddington 2. So, yeah, no need to Google: You're a Gleeson fan.
Today it's early August, and Gleeson is perched high in a glass-walled hotel suite facing out onto a gorgeous Manhattan panorama. The 64-year-old Dubliner is here just for the day doing press for Season 3 of Mr. Mercedes, a criminally underrated dark thriller from David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies) and based on the popular, more-grounded-than-usual Stephen King book series, which does still include a fairly prominent mind-control plot come Season 2. (As talented as he is, King could evidently only help himself for so long before he introduced the supernatural into his otherwise grounded detective series.) The show can be seen on AT&T Audience Network on Tuesdays at 10pm E.T.
Throughout a freewheeling, charmingly disjointed conversation (Gleeson picks topics out the air as they come to him, and returns to thoughts 20 minutes later when the subject has been dropped) GQ explored the acclaimed actor's storied career, while also finding the space to delve into discussions about how streaming is changing television, the joys of swimming, and our respective bedtimes.
GQ: I'll admit, even as a Mr. Mercedes fan, I had trouble finding the show at first, and I subscribe to DirecTV. I suppose they prepared you for the fact this might not be the kind of show where they're looking too hard at overnight viewers or all that?
Brendan Gleeson: Yeah. I was told the audience will be starting from a small base. The work is what's important, really, to me. But what was odd was that the first season was sold to RTE at home in Ireland, which is a big national channel. So it was the very opposite of what I expected. You know, I thought nobody would hear about in Ireland and that there'd be a certain kind of a profile in America. Whereas people in Ireland actually saw it and gave me a lot of good feedback, and then I come over here and the rest of the cast were saying no one told us anything!
There are platforms and services cropping up now to the point that it overwhelms. But I suppose an upside is there's a creative freedom for shows to go their own way and either succeed or fail on their own terms, rather than having it be up to whoever in Ohio's got a Nielsen box anymore.
And you can't ask for any more than that. There's the opportunity to get some great work done now, a little bit like the seventies in movies when people were giving their head a little bit because it needed to reinvent itself, and TV's reinventing itself. I don't even know if you could call it TV anymore. I didn't work in television for a long time. I love the format of the movies. I love the care that's taken with the movies.
There's an intimacy there, particularly with films like Calvary or In Bruges.
I love the microscopic attention to detail that you don't have a lot on TV. I also found that the quality of the old television flattened everything out in a way that was very unappealing.
So what brought you into Mr. Mercedes?
I hadn't worked in television for a long time until this came up. I did one pilot for a thing called The Money for HBO. That didn't take off. Also that long-term commitment to working away from home wasn't something that particularly appealed. But I loved working on Lake Placid with David [E.] Kelley. I always wanted to work with him again. And in the meantime, he's become the maestro of TV writing.
And so when this came along, it was kind of oh God, I'd love if this was to work.
I suppose there's not much more you can ask for: David Kelley, Stephen King, detective story.
And it was a really properly fleshed-out character. Not just a curmudgeon but very soulful in a way. He's on the point of suicide with regard to the emptiness in his life. He had sacrificed his family and everything he has for his work. I did a limited amount of research on retired detectives, particularly on the huge suicide rates amongst people who have given themselves over to that kind of work, watched all the detritus of humanity, tried to do something about it and fell short or actually achieved something, but then suddenly they're not allowed to anymore. At the beginning of the show, Bill Hodges's family was gone, [along with] that whole notion of a lack of sense of purpose. It's horrible but fascinating.
What was it you think that endeared you, and Stephen King for that matter, to Bill Hodges more than the other 80,000 hardened retired detectives we've seen over the years?
It was his first venture I think into the hard-boiled detective genre against, you know, the otherworldly stuff he's known for. The part of it that drew me was talking to Jack Bender about it and how it's about the demons inside as against the demons outside us. We wanted to keep it firmly on the ground. But.
But. Stephen King is Stephen King and, and there was no question we'd get to the supernatural, too. I was always a little bit worried about, you know, horror porn and all that kind of stuff but there's no question when you bring that element to life, it's so visceral. To me, I was much more interested in the terrestrial human-based malignancies that are causing all the damage. But throwing that Stephen King... spin-ball? Curveball? It ups the ante, in terms of people needing to see what happens.
When it played in Ireland someone came up to me in Dublin and told me it's a great "follow-your-roper." In other words, it's the show people need to follow and need to see what comes next. Lots of people come up to me and say did I catch that guy yet? It's in good humor, but also it absolutely frightened the daylights out of people.
You don't get much actual face-to-face time with Harry Treadway in the first season even though the—for lack of a better word—chemistry is very important between these two characters. How did you work with that?
You've reminded me, in In Bruges I have a long phone call scene with Ralph Fiennes, and he flew in from London purely to do the other side of the phone call. He wasn't supposed to come for another week. It was far more personal, you know. We could have done over the phone if he was in London, but he insisted.
As far as the chemistry between Bill and Brady, they're purportedly two sides of the same coin. I'm not sure I would agree with that, but there was a certain element of truth in there.
It's horrible but it's also a brilliant moment of dark victory when you figure out he's sleeping with his mom, and you really attack that part of him.
And it was all surmising. It was great detective work in a sense because he smelled the blood and he went for it. Look, you don't have to look around to too hard to find the kind of people who enjoy the power of wielding malicious intent through the anonymity of computer technology. And when you get a go back at these people... it's kind of nice. [Laughs.] I do think that he's quite a ruthless individual, Hodges.
There have been three books. Are you ending at three seasons?
Not tellin' ya. [Laughs a lot.]
Moving away from Mr. Mercedes, you pop up in smaller roles here and there. How do you anchor yourself in a part when you're not there for weeks on end?
You know, the cliche is that there's no small part. That's not true. Some things are just functional and actually you're getting in the way, especially on television, if you overdo it, if you try to turn into hamlet or something. Sometimes you just have to open the door. Open the door. Say good morning. Is it a good morning? Who cares. [Laughs.]
I do love the freedom of a character that can come in and you're not carrying the main story. I get myself excited by thinking this is a free shot, right? You're not going to go in there and try and eat up the scenery for no reason. That's not the idea. But you don't have to carry the responsibility of saying, I can't really go that far with this because I have to end up down the line with this, that wouldn't make any sense.
But in a recent smaller role, you did get to chew some scenery in Paddington 2. I love Knuckles.
I thought you were going to say Buster Scruggs or something!
They really encouraged you to bring it up to a 10 on that one, didn't they?
Absolutely. But why would you do anything else? You know, that was just such, such fun. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant craic. It felt as big a mission as anything else I've done.
Another huge part of Mr. Mercedes is obviously this anxiety around the unchecked growth of technology.
Absolutely, and it's happening fast. Even people from thirty up. 'Cause my own sons are kind of saying, even for us, this is kind of off the scale.
I'll tell you, I actually interviewed your son Domhnall. This is the first time I've ever spoken to two generations of actors.
So you're getting old, too. [Laughs.] But yeah, I mean David and I do complain about technology, Dennis Lehane has a few great rants in this season. Some of our prejudices did come out. I thought the iPod was the best invention in the history of the word because I remember suddenly thinking "Oh god, I don't have to worry about bringing all my stuff to listen to on a job, and it's a big lump in my bag. I can just put it in this thing." I couldn't get over it.
Our attention spans have been decimated, and a lot of stuff happens in fermentation. I go swimming, and once you get into the rhythm of it you stop thinking about it, and you can kind of sort things out. Things become quite fluid—well, very fluid with swimming. It's therapeutic but it's also great for problem-solving.
Whereas like even going to sleep now I think people are having increasing difficulties. I do regret that it's come under such assault. It's very, very difficult to maintain any proper concentration span.
Not to speak for everyone—everyone sleeps differently—but for me, I wasn't giving myself any fermentation periods during the day. So as soon as I went to bed, that was my brain's moment to ferment, which meant that I wasn't sleeping for two hours because I was finally processing everything.
Yes, exactly. Exactly. There's no stillness. I still am fighting myself not to be looking at my stupid computer or whatever it is. I was using it as the last thing before going to sleep. Oh, there was a brilliant episode of The Odd Couple, the old version where they went off on some sort of a retreat. And they go absolutely spare because there aren't allowed books or anything like that. And Felix goes into the bathroom and he's there a while and Oscar comes and says, "What are you doing?" and Felix says, "I'm reading the back of the toothpaste." And there's this pause and Oscar says, "Give it to me after, will you?" [Laughs.]
I'll tell you something: I kind of fell into writing about films and TV. I used to have a LoveFilm subscription in the U.K. [a Netflix equivalent] where they would send DVDs in the snail mail. And one day I got In Bruges, and I started a blog for absolutely no one just because I wanted to write about it. It's a very special film to me even now.
Do you know what? I watched it again very recently for the first time in ages and ages and ages. And it is. It really does stand up. Martin [McDonagh] is a very special writer. You don't need to be particularly observant to figure that one. It is just a really successful film on so many different layers.
But I remember saying to some of the younger lads who come up to me and ask me for advice and I say, film is often used as a visual medium, particularly in the States, and sometimes it does have a tendency to disregard language. I say, just learn to love words, learn to love language. In Bruges is just so light on its feet and then incredibly to the point at other times.
It's a shame what's happening to film now: we're watching them all on smaller and smaller screens. I'm just hoping that cinema reinvents itself some way to get people to watch it. I'm just hoping it gets back into a place where we can watch interesting, deep, dramatic material outside of our own homes. The new good thing about TV is it allows for a lot more thinking outside the box. I love Mr. Mercedes because it's about people, together, facing challenges in their way. I remember when CGI first started coming out and someone said to me "the problem with CGI is it allows for your first good idea to happen." You're never being pushed into a place where you need to create anymore, if you don't want to. And I never want to feel like that when I'm working.