John Michael McDonagh's “Calvary” is a gorgeously photographed, exquisitely acted, richly written tale of the underbelly of faith. At the end of a lackluster summer that seemed full of more malnourished product than normal, it's wonderful to sink your teeth into something like this that has so much to say and does so in so efficient a manner.
The film debuted at Sundance to mostly positive reviews, but I'd wager they weren't positive enough. McDonagh, along with his brother Martin, are two of the most vital voices we have in movies at the moment and “Calvary” might pack the heftiest punch of either of their filmographies. At at its center is Brendan Gleeson, a lone man of love against a world of hate.
The western iconography is impossible to ignore and indeed, both Gleeson and McDonagh flip some of those conventions on their ear in the film. Gleeson recently sat down with me to discuss the dark acerbic wit of the piece, the role of landscape in the film and his very own “High Noon” moment. Read through the back and forth below.
“Calvary” is now playing in limited release. It opens wider Friday, Aug. 8.
HitFix: The McDonaghs, Martin and John, have a very acerbic sense of humor that sets their work apart. How did you get on with John when you first met him before “The Guard?” Did you share that sense of humor at all?
Brendan Gleeson: He was less communicative. I met him – obviously it was kind of Martin's gig [“In Bruges”] and I met him at Sundance and I think then at the Globes. So he was more in the background and I didn't get to know him very well, to be honest. It was only when the script came in for “The Guard,” and of course it was a no-brainer that you would want to do that. Then I began to know him a bit better. So it took a while to kind of get into a proper working relationship.
I liked him from the beginning, but it was a working relationship and you just never know until you get on set. I found him extraordinarily calm. I mean he keeps calling himself OCD and everything but he is meticulous. It's not a kind of obsessive thing for its own sake. He's meticulous in his preparation. He's meticulous in his writing. He's calm on set and he's collaborative in the way, you know, he has great respect for actors despite the fact that he kind of keeps slagging us off at every opportunity. [Laughs] He employs and casts good people and he gives them great characters to inhabit. So he's a very, very positive individual, although he keeps telling you that he's nihilistic to a fault. But actually he's betrayed by his own work, I think. He pretends to be a hard man and then he writes all this tender stuff and you kind of say OK, you're outed.
Since you two already had a sort of rapport built in from the previous collaboration, how did things evolve for the two of you on this one?
Well, I mean, basically we were just on the last night in Connemara and we still had two weeks to go in County Wicklow. But we hated leaving Connemara; it was just such a part of the story and the character in the film, really, that and Galway. And we were chatting. It was the first time we were able to kind of let our hair down a little bit. We were talking about how he wanted to write about a good man who was non-ironic, or at least the treatment of him was non-ironic, and that he as a person was not beyond irony but that he was a good man in a very true sense. And I had been kind of talking about these priests who had been accused of pedophilia wrong and I found – I said how on earth do you maintain your sense of yourself or your sense of compassion or hope when you've been besmirched by just kind of a false accusation. It's just such a heinous thing. And we got around, I mean, I think he's a cinephile, and there are a lot of priests on screen that he had thought about and so he said, “If I write it, will you do it?” So that's basically how it happened. And so I said of course I would.
Clearly, “Calvary” is a really dark tale underneath the sort of merciful levity that pops up from time to time. Was that a difficult head space for you to get into?
No. I have to say it wasn't, really. Increasingly it took its toll, I suppose, in a way. It was quite exhausting because the vitriol he's subjected to is very personally damaging and challenging because a lot of it is true. And these guys are just in despair and disillusioned and it proves more difficult than he imagined. To actually fight that, to absorb it and then to try to turn it around and inject some hope into this place… So the humor I think was part of the character. I think it pops up a lot in the national character in terms of the Irish. I don't think it's exclusively Irish but I think the kind of juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy is kind of an old tradition there and people, I think, deflect all sorts of things from grief to guilt. They deflect it with humor and gallows humor and all that kind of stuff. It's quite a cinematic kind of a boon because it does give, as you say, a release. It allows the audience to breathe a little and just get a little respite from the intensity of everything. But it wasn't a big challenge for me to do it. Being given these lines is just a joy. You're not thinking about, “Oh, how will I do this?” It's kind of, yeah, you're trying to rising into that place, but I think once you know the character it should come naturally. It never felt like I had to take a line that was going to be difficult to say. Once you knew this man the lines were perfect.
I obviously don't know if you're a religious man or what your feelings were on the subject matter here, and I respect that you withhold that when discussing this film. Nevertheless, was there anything about the project that gave you pause in taking the role?
No. No. No. Not at all. The only thing I was suggesting to them was that when I saw the first draft, the relationship with the daughter could be a little teased out more. We needed more of it. I wanted to see more of her because she defined him in a very particular way and that the scenes between them were of such pain and tenderness I felt she was a little undercooked, not so much as a character but as a part of the film. For me that was the most natural place to go, I suppose, because I'm a parent. It was the most natural place for me to inhabit, was that scenario with somebody, that they obviously have a soulmateship. And she has bandages on her wrists. I mean it's such a – the image itself is nearly enough without words. But no, there was nothing getting in the way. It was truthful. It was always truthful.
Kelly Reilly is great in that part. I really loved her in “Flight” and in this as well. She just seems like an actress who can do a lot with a little.
Totally. To combine whatever about the comedy/tragedy thing, to combine that vulnerability with such inner strength and being so fragile and at the same time having such an intellectual vitality, you know, having such love in her heart, that was patently there and strong. Once she walked in the door we knew this was perfect. She's pretty amazing, actually.
What was the name of the town in which you shot this again?
What did that atmosphere do for you as an actor? Did it help inform your performance along the way? It's an intriguing dichotomy, obviously, the beautiful landscape peopled by such a vile sort of community and the one good man among them.
Well, it gives kind of an epic quality. John talked about the brooding Benbulbin and all that, that big mountain that's like something in Monument Valley or something, except it's green. It gives an epic quality whereby we are huge and at the same time we are tiny. So the large questions can be tackled in a context like that. There's kind of a primal element to that landscape that allows the great metaphysical questions to be aired. It doesn't seem inappropriate. And it kind of went from these huge panoramic views to very claustrophobic, personal close-up shots in claustrophobic hell-like bars. There was a constant battle between the kind of the claustrophobia and then this breeze blowing through everything that you felt there was kind of a pathetic fallacy outside, and inside then was a kind of inner torment, which I thought worked particularly well.
Absolutely. And it's interesting you mentioned Monument Valley because there are a number of times when watching the movie it felt like a western to me.
Yeah. Totally. Even walking down the street, I got to walk down the street heading towards that final scene. I mean it's “High Noon” written all over it. And so was “The Guard” in a small way, although not in a small way but in a very real way. I just think the western structure is kind of timeless and people got a little bit bored with it or it felt that it outlived its usefulness for a while but it's never really going to be like that. And since James Dean, basically, we've had the idea of the rebel and the antihero. And at this point in time everybody wants to be an antihero. And if they're all antiheroes, where are the heroes? So it might be an interesting time. I mean, you don't want schmaltz and you don't want good men that are impossibly good. What I love about this guy is that he's really badly flawed in a lot of ways but he understands that and he still works against it. But it was nice to play hero.
You mentioned about the town being full of vile characters and all that. I don't really see it like that, and it's been interesting talking to a number of different priests, like there was an Episcopalian priest. I think, and a Methodist priest on different phone conversations with myself and John and they both said that they didn't find these people grotesque at all. They hear this every day. When you're somebody's confessor, all the pain, all the rage, all the anger and the cynicism and all the feelings of betrayal, he hears them. And maybe people don't share it in the general society because nobody wants to feel that bad a loser, but he said that rage is not unusual. They hear it every single day. And it feels to me that those characters really don't want this guy to break at all. They're trying to break him with everything they can to justify their own despair and disillusionment, but actually at the bottom of it they're hoping that they'll be turned around a little bit and find something to hope in again.
I think that's absolutely true and certainly as a theme, that comes across beautifully in the film. And the film has already opened in Ireland. What was the response like over there?
Yeah. It was very, very interesting. It's been good. I mean, I was telling a story about two women who came out and one said to the other. “Wow, we got more than we bargained for there.” That's how to best describe it. Anybody who's going down to see explosions and car chases obviously was a little disappointed. But anybody over the age, or the mental age, of 15, I think, had a great time. It was a very personal relationship that people had with it. They came out very quiet and there was kind of a period of that wonderful silence where people were trying to absorb what they had just seen and wondering what to take from it. Because I think it's so evenhanded, in a way, and so aggressively sort of asking questions that the audience is left with to try to ponder on and figure out. And so we had this great time of 10 to 15 minutes before people would start to get into kind of a heated discussion about what was going on. I think people generally were, number one, they were glad we didn't take the easy option and portray a bad priest and a corrupt church and all that and all the poor people getting messed around. John turned it on its head and it meant that you got all of that stuff thrown at a man who has to respond and who wants to respond. So you don't just get it thrown at a wall where there's a silence, you get it thrown at a man who brings it to the next step.
And absorbs it in some way. Takes it in.
Absorbs it but also gives his answer, even if his answer is only that I don't know what to say to you. Because there's been too much silence. I think people were very, very taken with that and responded in a very sort of personal way, really. It's been good. I've been delighted with that. I was a little bit worried; there have been occasions in the past where I've been involved with films where there's been kind of, “Oh, come on, that's overstating it” or “It's not that bad” or “Fire people who portray the country like that.” And people just go into kind of a denial. And the response hasn't been that. So I'm kind of overjoyed about it. It's been taken on board, I think, by a lot of people. Not everybody. It'll never made the box office that “The Guard” would make, for example, because it's a different film. It's a more challenging film. But I got texts and reactions from people of a very different nature, on this film, to stuff that I've ever done before.
Last thing here is I wonder what you can tell me about Ron Howard's “Heart of the Sea.” What was that experience like and what do you think we can expect from it?
Yeah. That was quite a tall order. I'm playing Tom Nickerson, who is the narrator and we go into flashbacks, so I didn't get my feet wet, exactly, but it was much more dense than I was expecting. Because Ron set up a scenario where Herman Melville comes to meet Tom Nickerson and there's all sorts of – Tom Nickerson did talk to a writer at one point about publishing the story of the Essex, and then they found his own account stuffed up a chimney in 1960 or something, which is kind of pretty amazing. But Ron set up a scenario where it was actually Herman Melville, who's played by Ben Whishaw, who speaks to Tom Nickerson and trying to elicit this story from him. And the idea being that Tom Nickerson hasn't told anybody about it because of the nature of what happened and there's a bit of post traumatic stress going on, really, for the entirety of his life. And so we tease out that story. It was much more intense than I was expecting, really. It was fantastic, actually. I think it's going to be really, really good. I was just in doing some looping on it. From what I've seen, it's going to pack a punch.
Great. Well, listen, congratulations on this one. It's one of the most potent pieces of work I've seen this year.
Thanks very much, Kris. I'm delighted. Cheers.