Brendan Gleeson at Foyle Film Festival

Read a Q&A with the award-winning thespian and find out why 'being an actor is like being a goalkeeper'

The Guard, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh and co-produced by his brother Martin (writer/director of In Bruges) received a special screening at the 24th Foyle Film Festival this month.

Featuring the internationally-acclaimed actor Brendan Gleeson as no-nonsense garda, Sgt Gerry Boyle, and Don Cheadle as a stern FBI agent, the hard-hitting comedy has enjoyed impressive box office success since its release in 2011.

Following the screening at the Nerve Centre in Derry~Londonderry, Gleeson gave a question and answer session with film fans. Here he spills the beans on The Guard, playing Winston Churchill and how actors should approach auditions.

So how was The Guard for you?

It was great fun. We filmed for six weeks in Connemara, then in Wicklow for two more weeks. The weather was absolutely savage, though. At times we felt like we would be blown across to the Isle of Man. Me, the McDonagh brothers, and the rest of the cast were used to it, but not Don Cheadle! He couldn’t believe we were filming in such conditions.

Any reaction to the film from lifeguards?

Quite a bit. They all fell around laughing when they saw it!

How did Don Cheadle react to all the racism in the film?

Don is actually an extraordinarily bright gent. He understood Gerry’s crassness immediately, recognising that my character was skirting the bounds of political correctness. He was also an absolute professional on location, genuinely embracing the daftness of the Irish culture. And he had a real fondness for golf. Of course, his reaction to the weather was something else entirely...

You’ve now worked with the McDonagh brothers on Six Shooter, In Bruges and The Guard. Would you do so again?

In a heartbeat. They’re really vigorous and hard-edged film-makers who don’t tolerate sloppy writing. We’re actually talking about making a film featuring a good priest living in a village that vilifies him.

Of all the genres you’ve worked in, is comedy your favourite?

That depends on the kind of comedic writing. I like working in character-based comedy best of all, as it shows that there’s so much more to the genre than simply making people laugh. The Guard is as full a character exploration as I’ve ever done.

When you’re portraying someone, do you prefer it if certain aspects of your character remain a mystery?

Yes, where it’s appropriate. I don’t need to explain everything about every character I play, because that’s not how people are. A person is judged not by what he is on the inside, but how he reacts to situations. Hence it is up to the actor to know his character inside out, to get as close to their heart as he can.

You have a lot of experience in the film industry (watch one of Gleeson's earliest film performances in the full version of I Went Down above). What advice can you give to today’s aspiring film-makers?

How long have you got? No, seriously... Never wait for success. This island’s not big enough for everyone’s commercial needs. If you want the right amount of money for any project, you’ll need to look abroad. The important thing is, though, to get out there and do your own thing. Keep working all the time. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself waiting forever.

Would you rather work on a 'big film' or a 'small film'?

Big budgets mean lots of time to work with, but all the extra paraphernalia robs you of crucial time to explore your character. You really have to make the best of what you’ve got.

There’s a big hierarchy in the film business. When I was filming Braveheart, I ended up hanging around a lot, because if you’re not 'important', they don’t want to tell you anything. Being an actor in a trailer is like being a goalkeeper – no matter how quiet things may seem some of the time, you have to be ready for whatever is thrown at you.

I think if I had a choice between the two, I’d pick smaller films, because I really get to flesh out my characters. It’s better than being a Womble!

What techniques have you displayed when playing your characters?

I don’t have any, really! Even when I was playing Sgt Boyle, I was worried how I’d 'get into his head'. But then I thought about something John Hurt said: 'Make the character a part of your DNA.' Every character I’ve played is a different challenge to me. It’s not just about mimicry. You get to explore all sorts of ways of looking at the world in this business.

Of all the directors you’ve worked with, who do you respect the most?

I’d be closest to John and Martin McDonagh, but I also got great experience under John Boorman. Paul Greengrass was also a very interesting director to work with. When filming The Green Zone, I found that to serve Greengrass’s directing style, I would act out a scene in front of him, and if I realised that wasn’t what he wanted, I’d throw out that method and start all over again. It was an exhilarating way of working.

Do you enjoy biographical films?

Yes. What I love about portraying renowned non-fictional figures is the freedom you have when playing them. You don’t need to suspend disbelief. I think there’s a certain arrogance when it comes to performing someone else’s life, as you need to put your own spin on the character.

As was the case with Churchill, in the TV movie Into The Storm?

Truthfully, I didn’t know if I could manage Churchill. I wondered, even if I had the cultural knowledge, could I age into the role fast enough? But once I saw the possibilities there, I knew that I would have been mad not to do it. You don’t learn anything unless you 'cross the road', so to speak.

How would you advise up-and-coming actors to approach their auditions?

The bottom line is if they can use you, and your part will work in the context of their film, you’ll get lucky. But if they smell the 'acting fear', your desperation, you’re in trouble. Prepare properly, far too many people will want a similar job. Be ready for knockbacks. And above all, keep trying, as you’ll always get work from work. Don’t let anything do your head in, as you can only do your best.

We hear you’re hoping to direct.

Yes, I got the rights to do a film about Flann O’Brien, which I need financing for. It’s about the dearth of love. Watch this space.

Will you ever make a film in Derry-Londonderry?

Why not?