Domhnall Gleeson on messy love, mixed reviews and About Time: ‘People were definitely sniffy about it’

‘I’d much rather have a good life than a good career, but I’d love to have both’  (Freddie Miller for The Independent)
‘I’d much rather have a good life than a good career, but I’d love to have both’ (Freddie Miller for The Independent)

When Domhnall Gleeson was a young actor, he excelled at a certain type of role – and it was not the romantic lead. His first major part was as the dim-witted Davey in Martin McDonagh’s black comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore, for which he picked up a Tony nomination when he was just 23. “In that play,” he says, “somebody chops all my hair off with a knife. I have a cat that gets shot and explodes all of its blood all over me. Then I have my head shoved in the dead cat. And people laughed at that.” He pauses, considering what it might mean to be good at the “funnily pathetic” roles, as he calls them. “I think that was a part of my personality that I could access really easily. So the notion of being suave or being attractive was alien to me, because that’s just not how I saw myself.”

But then his dad, Brendan Gleeson, the Oscar-nominated star of The Banshees of Inisherin (also written by McDonagh), sat him down. “He said, ‘You’re going to need to start seeing yourself that way if you want to be considered for that stuff,’” the 40-year-old remembers, his Irish brogue warming up a room in Channel 4’s HQ. “It took me a very long time to tune in to that, or to allow myself to, and I worked with a couple of really important people early on in my career who said, ‘You could do that’. It is an incredibly generous thing to say to somebody else, you know?”

Gleeson Jr is now well established as a leading man. He starred as a time traveller in Richard Curtis’s butterfly effect romcom About Time, a whizz-kid programmer in the sci-fi psycho-thriller Ex Machina, and a life guru in the road trip series Run. And he’s at it again in his newest TV show, the Channel 4 drama Alice & Jack, in which he and Andrea Riseborough play two people in love, who can’t live with each other, but can’t live without each other. “Often romance can be really, really messy,” says Gleeson, his doleful eyes peeping out through strawberry-blonde lashes, “and real love will f*** you up. You’ll also f*** up love.”

The show spans 15 years, with Gleeson’s Jack marrying another woman (played by Aisling Bea). After having a baby together, they get divorced; his feelings for Alice never go away. Gleeson – who recently got married himself – particularly likes that the drama shows how the cracks can begin to form in a strong, healthy marriage. “And trying to be a good parent in the middle of that is f***ing hard,” he says: he doesn’t have children, but has just become an uncle for the first time. “Going to work every day, being fully in love with somebody who doesn’t love you back, is horrible,” he adds. “I think people will hate these characters at times. They really damage themselves and people around them. But then when they’re together every now and again, you realise, oh, they’re just home when they’re together. And they can’t get away from it.”

‘They’re home when they’re together’: Gleeson and Andrea Riseborough in ‘Alice & Jack' (Channel 4)
‘They’re home when they’re together’: Gleeson and Andrea Riseborough in ‘Alice & Jack' (Channel 4)

The sheer variety of Gleeson’s career can be summed up in one year: 2015. In those 12 months, four films he starred in were released. All of them nominated for Oscars, they were completely distinctive – Ex Machina, Brooklyn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Revenant. There have also been plenty more “funnily pathetic” guys – he got his fingers chopped off as an outlaw in the Coen brothers’ True Grit – scattered among roles in mega franchises such as Harry Potter (Bill Weasley).

He’s also worked with Angelina Jolie in Unbroken, and Tom Cruise in American Made, and says both were positive experiences. “Oftentimes the bad experiences are with people who are insecure about their place in things, and so they act out to try to maintain status. Or they’re trying to desperately control things because they don’t feel they have control. Those megawatt people, they don’t need any more control. They have it all if they want it.”

He gets a present from Cruise every year – but not the much rumoured coconut cake the US actor is said to send around to all his friends. “I get incredible chocolates,” he says, pausing as if unsure whether he should be spilling this top secret info. “Ah I don’t know, maybe, I don’t know if I’m meant to...” He decides it’s fine. “Yeah, I’m very lucky and look forward, every year, to getting this little thing of the most extraordinary chocolates.”

Gleeson grew up the eldest of four brothers in Malahide, a seaside suburb of Dublin, in the Eighties. He’d wanted to act from a young age – his dad quit teaching to become an actor when Gleeson was just eight – and performed in school productions of Grease and King Lear. The father and son’s careers have been interlinked from the start, with Gleeson making his film debut aged 21 in McDonagh’s short film Six Shooter, which also starred his dad and won an Oscar.

Gleeson made his film debut at age 21 in ‘Six Shooter’, acting alongside his father (Freddie Miller for The Independent)
Gleeson made his film debut at age 21 in ‘Six Shooter’, acting alongside his father (Freddie Miller for The Independent)

He had always thought his father’s career was “cool”, but there were still embarrassing dad moments. Take Brendan’s first big role, in the historical drama Braveheart. “I remember when they all raised their kilts and flashed their arses at the camera,” says Domhnall. “It’s so funny, the stuff that matters to you when you’re young and in secondary school. I was so worried. I was like – ” he makes a very serious face – “’Oh no. This is – no. Oh God.’”

Working with his dad hasn’t always been straightforward. They were both cast in the 2014 Irish drama Calvary – made by the other McDonagh brother, John – in which Brendan played a small-town priest and Domhnall a cannibal he visits in prison. They started talking about their scene before the shoot, but found they each had totally opposing ideas about how to do it. “I thought, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if I wasn’t your son. I need to do this my own way and arrive with my own ideas,” says Gleeson. “So we turned up on the day and we didn’t talk. And then we did this brilliantly horrible scene together, where we had to knock seven shades out of each other emotionally. And I loved it.”

He, his dad and his brother Brian (also an actor) – all of whom have popped up in many projects together – avoid giving each other unsolicited constructive criticism. “Unless it’s sought out, I don’t think you should offer it, because it’s a very delicate place to put yourself in, putting stuff out into the world. And then to feel judged by your family is worse again.”

The Gleeson dynasty: Brendan, Brian and Domhnall in 2013 (Dan Wooller/Shutterstock)
The Gleeson dynasty: Brendan, Brian and Domhnall in 2013 (Dan Wooller/Shutterstock)

Gleeson’s career has not been without its brickbats. The third Star Wars film in the sequel trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, received a pummelling from fans and critics. Gleeson was only in it a tiny amount, so he hasn’t “lost any sleep over it”. “You want everybody to like everything, but it’s impossible,” he says. Does he read reviews? “If you’ve got nothing to do all day, and you’re in between jobs, it’s hard not to have a glance. Because you’re unemployed and somebody’s whispering behind that door, and you want to lean in to hear. The only time the reviews hurt is if they say something that you agree with, because otherwise you can just disagree with what somebody says, and that’s fine. Everybody’s got a different point of view, and everybody likes different art.”

About Time – an unapologetically sentimental film that has this writer sitting in a pool of tears every time, but on which critics weren’t so keen – is another example. Gleeson played Tim, a man who inherits the ability to time travel, and who tries to edit his past in the hope of improving his future. The actor recalls being struck by the extent to which the film’s director, Curtis, wears his heart on his sleeve. “It was a lesson for me that living your life with love is super important. It had a big effect on my life, doing that film, and working with Richard. All that stuff in his romantic comedies? None of it’s fake. It’s how he operates in the world.”

He remembers the reviews being mixed. One critic called him a “ginger Hugh Grant… in lieu of the real deal”. “It had been a long shoot and I worked my ass off on it,” he says. “We all had a brilliant time and I believed in the message of the story. And then when it came out, people were definitely sniffy about it, which is their right. And fair enough, I don’t love every romcom either. That’s all fine. But I wanted it to do well, not just for selfish reasons, but because I loved it.” He says he feels like the appreciation for About Time has grown over the years, and fans often approach him to talk about it. “But ginger Hugh Grant?” he laughs. “I love Hugh Grant and I’m ginger so there’s nothing to complain about there. If they were saying it in a sniffy way, then f*** them!”

Rachel McAdams and Gleeson in time-traveller romcom ‘About Time’ (Translux/Kobal/Shutterstock)
Rachel McAdams and Gleeson in time-traveller romcom ‘About Time’ (Translux/Kobal/Shutterstock)

There are some projects he wishes were more popular – like the sitcom Frank of Ireland he made with his brother, Brian. It aired on Channel 4 for one season in 2021. “It’s the stupidest show ever, but I’m really proud of how stupid it is,” he says. “It didn’t catch on the way we had hoped.”

Stupid, or rather silly, rather suits Gleeson. He’s naturally at home playing the clown. He does not sit still. One moment, he appears to be attempting a vertical version of the “crab” position, his long pale arms thrown back behind his head and hands pressed flat against the window. The next, he’s stretching his wingspan right down the sofa, his fingertips hanging over the edge. He’s charming, slightly gangly and terribly apologetic. “I talk too long and in too many circular sentences, it’s a nightmare to have to deal with later, I’m very sorry.” After we speak, I go down to the foyer to work, and he creeps up beside me, making me jump. “I wanted to see what you were writing about me!” he blurts out, then scurries off laughing.

In 2015, when several of his films were nominated for awards, Gleeson decided to skip the ceremonies as he ‘didn’t fancy it’ (Freddie Miller for The Independent)
In 2015, when several of his films were nominated for awards, Gleeson decided to skip the ceremonies as he ‘didn’t fancy it’ (Freddie Miller for The Independent)

He strikes me as very much a homebird. He still lives in Dublin, where he grew up, and he skipped all the awards ceremonies in that huge career year, 2015. “I just didn’t fancy it,” he says. “For the most part, you just have to sit there for four hours while stuff happens, and that’s grand, I’ll never complain about it.” He says he’d prefer an evening in the pub with friends.

He’s spent a lot of time in Ireland over the past year and a half, having taken a big chunk of time off after Alice & Jack. “I’ve really got to be at home with the people that I love… I’ve got a nephew on the Gleeson side, it’s the first one, and I want to be around for that.”

Has he ever considered a move to Hollywood? “Everybody wants their career to be in a better place, so there is loads of stuff I wish I was doing, and loads of work I wish I could find. I’m like, would I be closer to it if I was in America? But I’d much rather have a good life than a good career.” He laughs. “I’d f***ing love to have both.”

‘Alice & Jack’ will premiere on Channel 4 at 9pm on Wednesday 14 February