On my radar: Brendan Gleeson’s cultural highlights

The star of Hampstead and Alone in Berlin on his Flann O’Brien obsession, the most thrilling piece of theatre he’s ever seen, and discovering Caravaggio

Born in Dublin in 1955, Brendan Gleeson worked as a secondary school teacher of Irish and English before turning to acting full-time in 1991. He is best known for his roles in Calvary, In Bruges and The Guard. He has also appeared in Braveheart, Cold Mountain, 28 Days Later, Gangs of New York, and the Harry Potter films. His portrayal of Winston Churchill in the television film Into the Storm won him an Emmy award in 2009, and he has been nominated for three Golden Globes. Two of his four sons, Domhnall and Brian Gleeson, are also actors. Gleeson stars opposite Emma Thompson in Alone in Berlin, based on Hans Fallada’s second world war novel, and in Hampstead, both out now.

1 | Place

Boyle, County Roscommon

Castle Island near Boyle, County Roscommon.
‘An incredibly beautiful place’: Castle Island near Boyle, County Roscommon. Photograph: Arco Images GmbH/Alamy

This is all that I love about home, the best parts of home. I first went there when I was 19 – I had a guitar I’d painted myself in some sort of vague, aspiring hippie-dom. I was a city boy in a country town and I was made to feel very welcome, which is not always the case. There’s a massive tradition of music there, and some of the older generation let me in on what traditional music is all about. Then in the 90s, people came back like John Carty, who was born in London but his father was from Roscommon. So the music is still thriving there, and it’s an incredibly beautiful place.

Defying Hitler: A Memoir by Sebastian Haffner
‘Frightening given the present-day situation’: Defying Hitler: A Memoir. Photograph: handout/HANDOUT

2 | Nonfiction

Defying Hitler: A Memoir by Sebastian Haffner

I read this doing research for Alone in Berlin, and it’s wonderful. It was written by a guy who got out of 30s Berlin. He felt that German law was so clear and robust that the judges would stop Hitler, but actually the judges were frightened and Hitler sent one pillar crumbling after another. It’s a wee bit frightening given the present-day situation. What struck me was a feeling of what has been lost culturally because of Nazism: even Bauhaus, which obviously did prosper, was repressed, then after the war people didn’t want to embrace German culture. So the book opened up a side of that I was certainly not familiar with.

3 | Film

The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant.
‘Captures the harshness of nature in a unique way’: Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. Photograph: Kimberley French/AP

My son [Domhnall] is in this, but that’s just the way it happens. I thought this was a great example of the art of cinema. It allowed me to feel the harshness of nature in a unique way – the scale of the savagery, and the uncaring attitude of the natural world were brought home in a way that I don’t remember seeing with that kind of immediacy before. It’s about how survival is paramount – you either survive or you don’t. The humans and animals were one, and I don’t remember that happening outside of David Attenborough, who can slightly humanise the animals, which is not exactly the way it is. But here all of us became part of this struggle to survive.

4 | Theatre

The Leenane Trilogy by Martin McDonagh

The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Druid Theatre, Galway.
‘Bizarre and hilarious’: The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Druid Theatre, Galway. Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey

This was a standout. Druid, the Galway theatre company, ran three plays in a single day. It was a little bit intimidating to be honest, I mean I love theatre and all the rest of it, but three plays one after the other, I was kind of taking a deep breath. And it was the single most thrilling bit of theatre I’ve ever seen. It was enthralling from the beginning, and I can still remember Mick Lally, who’s since passed away, bashing skulls on a table in quite the most bizarre and hilarious experience I think I’ve ever had in the theatre, in A Skull in Connemara. The life-affirming juxtaposition of all this cruelty and love was just mind-bending.

5 | Music

Down in Hollywood by Ry Cooder

Ry Cooder.
‘A little bit disruptive and a little bit cheeky’: Ry Cooder. Photograph: Morena Brengola/Redferns

I’ve got an eclectic enough musical taste, but Ry Cooder has been always someone at the very base of what I retreat to. This track gives the other side of Hollywood, kind of a reality check, and there’s just something wonderful about the rhythm and the beat, that has a funky quality to it; it’s a little bit disruptive and a little bit cheeky. Every time I come across this song it’s a thrill and I have to stop everything I’m doing. I mean, they even re-enact a mugging on the track, so you just have to stop and listen, you can’t wash the dishes or anything when you listen to it, everything has to stop.

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien.
‘Comic and crazy’: At Swim-Two-Birds. Photograph: Penguin

6 | Fiction

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien

I’ve been slightly obsessed with this book since I was 17 – I literally fell out of bed laughing at it – and have been trying for years to make it into a film. I could talk about it for a week. It’s about a guy writing a book who creates characters who are given self-will, and when the author is asleep they conspire against him. O’Brien took the Irish mythology he had been taught and undermined it with funny, sarcastic remarks. It’s the most complex novel – it’s comic and crazy but it all makes a kind of sense. It speaks to my heart and messes with my head.

7 | Art

The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio

The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio at the National Gallery of Ireland.
‘I love the starkness of it’: The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio at the National Gallery of Ireland. Photograph: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggi/© The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

There was a time I wouldn’t really enjoy a gallery if I hadn’t got somebody to share it with, but then being away and going to various galleries I got mad into the impressionists. Then Caravaggio became the big thing. He is possibly my favourite artist – partly because I want to play him, though I’m probably too old now. His life was extraordinary, and the beauty and honesty of his art was so much at odds with the belligerence of his personality. This painting was rediscovered in Dublin [at a Jesuit residence in 1987] and is now in the National Gallery of Ireland. I love the starkness of it, the cinematic quality: it’s so bright and arresting, even after 400 years.


Interview by Kathryn Bromwich

The GuardianTramp

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