Actor Brian Gleeson: ‘Anyone who says they don’t ever look themselves up is a liar – It is very hard not to read reviews’
The last time Brian Gleeson performed on stage, it was to a completely empty house. It was the height of the pandemic, and Irish theatre companies were trying, with varying degrees of success, to switch from the boards to the small screen. Gleeson starred in the streaming of The Saviour in The Everyman in Cork. It was directed by Louise Lowe, who cut to the deserted stalls to amplify that the atmosphere and magic was missing. “Film and TV seemed to stop for five minutes... but it was definitely the theatre that was hit big time. Theatre was completely banjaxed by [the virus],” Brian says.
This month, he is performing to much fuller houses in the Gate Theatre’s production of Nick Payne’s Constellations. The two-hander, which also stars Sarah Morris, is a high-concept love story that uses sliding doors to move between alternative dimensions and universes. A romantic relationship forms and implodes as the script moves forward, backward and sideways.
“It’s a bit of a brain-bender,” Gleeson admits. “It is my first time on the Gate stage. I missed being in a theatre rehearsal room. Once it is taken away from you, you realise how important it is. And Sarah is an incredible actor to be working with.”
Based in London, Gleeson is also enjoying being back in Dublin. “London is very exciting, but Ireland is home,” he says.
It has been an eventful 12 months for the 34-year-old actor. This time last year, he and his elder brother, Domhnall, had just launched their Channel 4 series, Frank of Ireland. The comedy focused on the exploits of an eternal kidult, Frank (Brian), and his unfortunately named sidekick, Doofus (Domhnall). It had been a labour of love for the brothers.
They began the project in 2015, and had spent years developing and writing the scripts. They also starred in the series and had a hands-on role in the final cut. So it was hugely disappointing when Channel 4 decided not to recommission it. “It was a one-and-done sort of deal,” Gleeson says. “It is [sad]; very much so.”
During the pandemic, TV audiences were higher than ever, but it was a crowded market, and with so many runaway smash-hit series, some new shows struggled to be seen or heard. I ask Gleeson if he has any idea why it didn’t land and won’t be returning.
“I don’t, I don’t... well, I do know. We don’t know the audience figures, if I am being totally honest, but I don’t think enough people watched it. Here in Ireland, it got a great reception. It was a Channel 4 and Amazon show, and they were brilliant, but I don’t think it travelled the way it needed to. That is sad in a way.”
Despite the disappointment, it sounds like there are some silver linings to the series being cut short. “I was up to 30 cigarettes a day, so maybe it was better for my overall health that it didn’t come back,” he laughs. Although he emphasises hitting the smokes was not because of working with his brother. “No, no, let me be very clear. Creatively, it was all cooking,” he says. “But it was the first time I was in that sort of role, and your time is accounted for every second of the day for the months you are doing it. It is constant. It was thrilling and so amazing, but it was certainly stressful.”
Gleeson is funny in an unassuming way. In previous interviews, he has been described as having a deadpan or Eeyoreish sense of humour. He is well-mannered and engaging, yet somehow remains quite guarded and has very clear boundaries about what he will and won’t talk about. When I ask him if he is in a relationship or single, he declines to answer. “I won’t get into any of that if you don’t mind, thank you.” Polite but firm.
Raised in Malahide, Gleeson realised he wanted to be an actor from a young age. His mother, Mary, is a social worker, and his father is, of course, award-winning actor Brendan, who gave up a career as a teacher to follow his true calling. His elder brother, Domhnall, is the Hollywood star, while his other brothers, Rory and Fergus, also work in the arts as an author and composer.
Gleeson has previously described his background in self-depreciating terms as “boringly middle class” but, if anything, it sounds like a hub of creativity. “I have been very lucky. I was very shy as a kid. I think I would have had some drive to do something creative, but I am not sure I would have known what it was.”
Watching his dad act in big films like Braveheart inspired his interest in acting. “Because dad was acting, it meant there was an avenue that was open, and I kind of count my lucky stars in that regard,” he says. His love of acting intensified as he moved through adolescence. “There is a magic to it that I responded to very early on,” he says.
Gleeson never studied acting but feels his dad and the house in which he was raised served as a form of apprenticeship. “I didn’t go to college or do acting school or anything like that, and I always felt dad helped me with that a lot. More so when I was starting out. That was a kind of acting school.”
He got his first on-screen break when he was sitting his Leaving Cert, when he appeared in John Boorman’s The Tiger’s Tail, but most Irish audiences came to know him when he landed the role of John Boy’s half-brother Hughie Power in RTÉ’s hit drama Love/ Hate. “I remember being with Ruth Bradley and Aoibhinn McGinnity, and we went for a drink after the read-through. We were so excited about the scripts. I knew that show was going to be a hit. I just knew it.”
Since his mid-twenties, he has worked on an incredibly eclectic array of projects, from historical dramas (RTÉ’s ill-fated Resistance) to fairy tale retellings (Snow White and the Huntsman) and farcical theatre shows (Walworth Farce). He also featured in Oscar-nominated Phantom Thread, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! and cult TV smash hit Peaky Blinders. In the latter, he played Glaswegian mobster and Billy Boys’ leader Jimmy McCavern.
Much like Irish audiences, the Scottish have had to deal with a litany of sub-standard on-screen attempts at their accent. And sadly, Gleeson added to the Scottish roll call. Viewers complained that his accent was of the same calibre as Dick Van Dyke’s cockney lilt in Mary Poppins. “I don’t think I realised quite how big [the show] was. I did a Scottish accent and I got crucified for it. I remember going, ‘Okay, people take this seriously.’”
While he thinks the criticisms were valid, he doesn’t regret any aspects of his performance in the show. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But with Peaky Blinders, you have to go for it. I have no regrets about that. Anthony Byrne, who directed Peaky Blinders, had directed Love/Hate. I remember him saying to me, ‘You need to give us more.’ At a certain point, you go, ‘Feck the accent.’ It’s about throwing yourself into it. And [the writing] was so operatic and the language was so muscular, you can’t be shying away, trying to nail every syllable. You have to just go, ‘Feck it.’ I will take a risk. I think that’s important. A big part of this job is taking risks.”
Nowadays, actors must deal with a torrent of analysis and criticism, not just from newspaper and online critics, but also from fandoms. I wonder if he ever finds that taxing? “Anyone who says they don’t ever look themselves up is a liar,” he says definitively. But he tries to avoid the chatter, shunning social media altogether. “It is very hard not to read reviews and stuff. It just is… We can’t be that strong that we are immune to that stuff.” He says he takes some solace in the fact that few, if any, people can remember a review, but most people do remember a series or a show. “There are a couple of famous reviews, but no one remembers them. If you are feeling burned by it, know that people will forget about it in a week’s time.”
Despite starring in so many successful series and films, he still shares the anxieties most actors feel regarding stability and security. In a way, he says, that made the uncertainty during the pandemic feel strangely familiar. “As an actor, you are battling unemployment and, a lot of times, you are already bloody semi-retired. So, in a way, it wasn’t totally unfamiliar, but obviously it was much, much, much worse,” he says. “[Acting] is a feast or a famine. Even if you are super busy and have a very intense few weeks, then you will be off for weeks. There is great uncertainty in your day-to-day. It’s not like a regular job, where you know exactly where you are going to be every day. That is something you have to navigate.”
Thankfully, he says, he has never been out of work for long enough to question his commitment to the vocation. “If you have that baseline that you are not always worried about the next job and when it is going to come in, you are laughing, really. Obviously there are ambitions you have and things you want to do, but really that’s the most important thing by far.”
In terms of TV, Gleeson will next appear in Sharon Horgan’s hotly anticipated series, Bad Sisters. The series boasts a stellar Irish cast (Sarah Greene, Sharon Horgan, Eve Hewson, Anne-Marie Duff and Eva Birthistle) and made headlines when the cast were spotted filming swimming off the Forty Foot amid lockdown in 2021.
He can’t say too much about the show — “I signed a lot of things,” he says, referring to non-disclosure agreements — but he takes on the part of Thomas, one half of an insurance investigation team (Irish actor Daryl McCormack plays the other half) who are chasing the ‘bad sisters’. “They are kind of covering up some nefarious activities, and I play an insurance investigator looking at what they are up to,” he says.
Gleeson has worked with Horgan before. Her company, Merman, produced Frank of Ireland, and he has a huge amount of admiration and respect for her. “I love Sharon. She is an absolute machine. She was showrunning this show and also the lead actress in it. And she was also producing five other shows and writing two other ones. And she was on set when I was doing my scenes giving notes. Some people just thrive off it. The scenes were always funnier when she was around.”
He will also appear in Sky’s eight-part series The Lazarus Project (formerly called Extinction). It is a time-travel crime series starring, he says, “a who’s-who of hot young twenty-somethings”. He laughs, adding that he excludes himself from that description.
I ask if he has any preference in terms of the type of acting jobs or shows he stars in. “Not really. Anytime the muscles of one particular discipline are underworked, I hope to get back into that. Even with this show, Constellations, I hadn’t done theatre in ages, and it’s an amazing play. I hadn’t worked that muscle, so I wanted to do it.”
And after Frank of Ireland, does he have any further desire to write. “I am loving acting again, I really am,” he says. “I just want to keep going with that.”
Nick Payne’s award-winning play, Constellations, runs at the Gate Theatre until June 2