It has been 30 years since Brendan Gleeson faced a career crossroads and chose acting over teaching, beginning a slow build toward a run of great movie performances. He has starred in films ranging from Braveheart to In Bruges, Gangs of New York, 28 Days Later, The Guard, Safe House and several Harry Potter films. Tonight, Gleeson stars in his first major American television series, the Audience Network drama Mr. Mercedes. Gleeson plays Bill Hodges, a retired homicide detective haunted by the one case he couldn’t solve. When he is contacted and taunted by the psycho who mowed down a crowd of people years earlier in a stolen Mercedes, the depressed detective finds a new purpose in his second chance. Based on the Stephen King novel, the 10-episode series was crafted by David E. Kelley and directed by Jack Bender. Gleeson stars with Harry Treadway, Kelly Lynch, Jharrel Jerome, Mary Louise-Parker and Holland Taylor. Gleeson has managed his career while staying in his Dublin birthplace, where his sons are following in the family business led by Domhnall, the Ex-Machina star next seen alongside Tom Cruise in American Made.
DEADLINE: When l read Mr. Mercedes, I don’t remember the retired detective having an Irish brogue in Ohio.
GLEESON: You probably don’t remember that from the book because it wasn’t there. And we didn’t decide to do it until day one of shooting. There was a lot of to and fro regarding that. I was kind of keen to avoid it at the beginning because I thought Hodges was an American every man. David E. Kelley kind of liked it. Jack Bender was either way about it, but both asked me to consider it. Really, it was only when I got here in January and you realize, there’s so many people here from various places. You can still be an American every man, even having come from a different country. Once I rounded that hidden corner, a friend of mine asked, “Look, would it not leave less in the way if I use my own accent, and allowed the Americanism to move into it?’ Which is what I decided to do. I find when I come here for example that I speak a little more slowly than I would at home and some of my vowels get elongated in various ways. My kids always used to slag me about it. You simulate certain sounds in order to be understood. I decided that that’s where he could be placed. There are a lot of people over here who have not change their accents in 40 years. I decided to be one of those with a little modulation.
DEADLINE: We see British actors like Idris Elba lose their accents when playing Americans. Can you lose your own accent?
GLEESON: Well, I guess that’s where a lot of the accents came from, from our part of the world. Certainly southern accents tend to be easier for the Irish palate. I’ve done American before, the last time I did where I came as close to seamless as I was going to get, was a David Milch pilot called The Money, which surprisingly didn’t go. I was very happy about my American accent in that. It wasn’t really a place I have any problem going to, it’s just that I saw this being a long commitment. We knew we were destined to do the ten episodes as opposed to just hit and hope with the first episode. We knew we were actually doing the series, and we were discovering this character. It felt that this way, I wouldn’t be missing the kind of memories of baseball, softball, all the cultural American childhood things, and I wouldn’t have to create that backstory. I could do a different backstory whereby the things of childhood happened in Ireland, and then he became an Irish American by choice, facing those barriers I’ve seen. Once we accept that the book and the series are going to be different in many aspects, it didn’t feel as fundamental when I decided to do it. That’s all before I made the decision but it didn’t feel at all wrong once I dove in.
DEADLINE: You don’t dwell on it once you see the killer run over all those people with the stolen Mercedes.
GLEESON: That’s what I was hoping for. I remember talking to David Kelly and saying, “Well, look at you know, how can I go about it in a way that would allow me to root around and find things out without people saying, oh yeah, there was an Irishman here about three weeks ago. I wanted him to be able to merge, so people forgot about it and didn’t find themselves saying, “Jesus, who’s this guy? When did he get off the boat?” It didn’t seem remarkable because there are quite a number of accents every day in America in every place.
DEADLINE: You grew up in Dublin a voracious reader. Is Stephen King as big in Ireland as here, and were you a fan of his novels?
GLEESON: I have to be honest here; I wasn’t a big reader of Stephen King before I came to this project. Part of the reason is that I haven’t read outside of my work for about 30 years. When I was young, I did, but I tended toward the Irish authors. As a kid, I devoured everything I could get my hands on. When I got older I found different pursuits that got in the way. Mostly I’ve been so busy that everything tends to be project related, which itself sends me into all different areas. Actually just burying yourself in a book for just pure escape? It has only recently started to happen again after a long number of years. I used to love the movies that came from Stephen King books but I’m not big on the supernatural.
DEADLINE: This was a departure in that it is more a procedural, with a twisted villain but nothing supernatural. Two follow-up novels that could provide plots for future seasons of Mr. Mercedes were closer to King’s wheelhouse, but not Mr. Mercedes.
GLEESON: I’m not a big sci-fi fan; I tend to go for the human or the practical. What I found most interesting is how the characters were grounded on the earth. The profusion of characters, each with separate lives, and the empathetic nature of his writing was really fascinating. Then, you add David Kelley to that and it becomes stupendous in terms of characters written to the highest quality. I’ve always wanted to work with David Kelley, since Lake Placid. That was the first thing I did in America really, and as soon as I got the script I said, “Ah, so that’s where the writers are hanging out.” People kind of took that oddly when I said it, because the movie is about a giant crocodile. But the quality of his writing, of his dialogue, was so witty and understated, and showed such humanity. I like the plots that Stephen King comes up with and the characters that he invents. There’s a kind of humanity to the mix of it that I find just irresistible.
DEADLINE: We learn very early on that the killer who mowed down those people as they waited at a job fair, hounded the owner of that stolen Mercedes into killing herself out of guilt. You soon realize he is doing the same thing with the detective who tried to catch him but couldn’t, and who is now not acclimating well to retirement. Give a sense of that interplay between cop and killer, and what it does to your character.
GLEESON: The challenge is to humanize his struggle. In the opening pages of the book, he’s verging towards suicide a little more than he is in the series. We played with that a little bit. To an extent, he is just slobbed out, definitely in a bad, bad depression and stuck in a very, very deep rut and to one extent he was about to pull the trigger on himself. You see so many retired detectives do away with themselves, because their profession often costs them their family and then they find themselves utterly alone. People say it’s like that for retired priests or people who have to give up the business we’re in. How do you navigate after that? Whatever age it is, 60, you have this cop who has chucked in the badge after he sacrificed everything for it. The emptiness is of particular interest to me, and then you add the fact that somebody’s trying to manipulate that to push him over the edge.
DEADLINE: There is a rejuvenating aspect to that?
GLEESON: It has ultimately the opposite effect on him [than the killer intended]. It completely galvanizes him. It gives him a purpose. To a certain extent, he had been out of control with his former colleagues and they’ve gotten a little suspicious of him. He lost his job, basically, over his obsession for this particular case, so he’s easily pushed. It galvanizes him because he sees what to focus on. He sees the enemy, and he sees the beast, and now he knows what to attack. The point of this? What was going to push him over the edge was pointlessness. And suddenly he has a point: the fact that a guy is trying to do it to him just increases the challenge and ups the stakes, too.
DEADLINE: There are enough books with retired detective Bill Hodges to fuel three seasons, as the character continues with Finders Keepers and End of Watch. Had you harbored a secret ambition to be a TV star in America?
GLEESON: Not at all. In fact, I went for this for the same reason I did with David Milch. Quality of writing. For a long time, it was thought that television was second rate, and that changed over a number of years with the resources and the skill level involved. Now, it’s like the difference between a poem and a novel. I was talking to John Boorman about this recently, and that was his image. He prefers the short form and to be honest up until now I’ve always preferred the short story rather than the novel. But movies, the short form, limit the journey you can bring somebody on and compresses it. Long form television gives you time. It’s crazy to imagine the possibility of three years with those books, but the first one was complete, in itself. With great people involved. Jack Bender has been sensational to work with. He’s so quick, so tasteful and so in the moment. He’s got such incredible drive. you need all those elements in place. I was reluctant to jump before I knew the many elements in place, and then was ready to jump off the cliff with this. It has been fantastic.
DEADLINE: You clearly respond to great scripts. I thought the one Martin McDonagh wrote for In Bruges was practically flawless. What was your reaction when you first read it?
GLEESON: I had worked with Martin already on a short, you see, and Martin’s first short won him an Oscar. When Martin first gave me the script, I really wanted to do Colin’s part, actually.
DEADLINE: Colin Farrell’s suicidal junior hit man who runs afoul of his boss played by Ralph Fiennes? He seemed younger than your character, Ken, the seasoned assassin.
GLEESON: I really did want the other part. I thought I could age him up a little bit. I said, I know Ken and doing him is like falling off a log for me. But would you think about giving me a go as the other fella? This was before Colin was ever cast. Martin said, ‘I think you’re underestimating Ken.’ That’s all he said to me. So I said, “Okay.” I figured there was no harm in asking. And then when Colin came on board we just became something. It was one of the highlights, for sure, if not the highlight even though you can’t really pick out one movie above all. A wonderful experience with a script that was flawless from the beginning. We did two weeks prep, which was straight rehearsal with usually just the three of us in a room in Bruges. I got to Bruges and we spent the first two weeks and that was probably the most joyful experience of the whole thing. The more you probe and more you find out, the more you explore the backstories. It reminded me the first time I did a professional play, the depth of exploration. You explore, and then you find another level underneath that, if the writing is good enough to stand up to that kind of examination.
DEADLINE: You’ve mentioned finding character backstories several times. Was McDonough helpful, since he wrote the script and directed the film?
GLEESON: Oh, Martin always said, ‘I don’t do backstories,’ when you asked him for those. ‘You do them,’ he would say. Basically Colin and I found out something. The fellows say in the opening scene, it’s a shithole, it’s not a shithole. We were actually operating as two different parts of Martin McDonough’s brain. One half felt the place was a shithole and the other half felt it wasn’t. We thought that was beautiful. It was just one of those great experiences. When you get quality like that, there’s no going back on it. It just never stops giving.
DEADLINE: It is funny that when people talk about quality writing, it is now used more to describe television than features, especially those made on a studio level. It seems all those dialogue guys who weren’t getting movie jobs wound up in television.
GLEESON: It’s really hard to get the good stuff made now. I mean, you’ve got 39 different goddam company banners up on the screen before you even start the film at all. It just takes so much juggling and plate spinning to try to haul all this stuff, to tell a simple story. And then everything gets complicated in the distribution of it. My first love, as of now, would be properly written movies because I think there’s nothing better than a communal experience, like what theater has. But a lot of the movies are being watched at home anyway. The screens have gotten bigger and so TV has been emerging as its own form. For me, there is nothing like being in a cinema and having that experience where everybody finds something funny or heartbreaking and you get that depth of communal feeling. TV is not meant to be viewed like that. But it has become almost like reading. Instead of a novel, people are going into the TV room on their own with a boxed set and you don’t see them for three weeks. It’s very much a personal interplay that’s going on. As for movies and TV, I find the two forms are merging now.
DEADLINE: The lines are blurred. You chose acting over a teaching career. What if we had been talking back then and I told you that you would someday be the patriarch of a clan of actors and writers?
GLEESON: Que sera sera. I don’t know how it happened, or how any of this happens. I remember standing once with John Toll, the great cinematographer who did Braveheart. Mel Gibson pretty kindly brought us all out to the premiere on the Paramount lot. I remember The Chieftains were playing at this massive gathering of people out on the lot, maybe 2000 people. I was talking to John and saying, this is ridiculous. I was jet lagged off my head and said, “I’m from Dublin. This kind of thing just doesn’t happen.” And he said, “No, it’s easier for you. You have something over there. I’m from Middle America. It’s more ridiculous for me to be here.” I thought it was a brilliant observation, and something people should never forget. In fairness, a lot of them don’t forget. [Movies] is this great American cultural gift to the world and for people in small town America to be able to do movies and larger television programs and having a word with the audience, it’s remarkable. If you are in a long run of a play, maybe 60,000 people will see it if it’s a really successful run of a brilliant piece. In three years on the stage, you would never reach and communicate with the audience for one good movie or TV program. I do really see I’m kind of luckier and blessed than all the rest. That’s a huge gift.
DEADLINE: After Braveheart wins Best Picture, how easy was it for a big guy with an accent to carve a career? You have said one guy said you weren’t handsome enough to make it. How did you overcome the odds?
GLEESON: There was one guy I mentioned, but I’m not going to again. He more or less told me it wouldn’t happen. I came over with the attitude that I didn’t want anything off anybody. I wanted to see if they had anything that I would be useful to them for and that I found interesting for me. I honestly didn’t come with the feeling of I need a break, I want a break. In the back of my head I thought it would be really cool if it happened obviously but I remember I came over and I got a part in Turbulence. It was pretty interesting but then I had a full month when I had to hang around LA. I was down in Marina Del Rey, out by the pool and I remember I got terribly sunburned. Two weeks in I just was like, I guess I better find a job before I go home. I always remember my attitude changed when I realized I’d better attack these auditions. I saw the change immediately. Before, it was like, here’s this needy Irishman. They could smell that on me, before I came in the door. And it’s the last thing they want to see. I thought, this isn’t going to happen, ever again. I said I’d never come looking for stuff either to London or New York or anywhere unless I came with work. And then I’ll meet around and say, if I can help you out in any way…for about two weeks I lost the plot a bit and started getting all needy. It was the wrong way to go and it would have led to anywhere but home.
DEADLINE: You have managed to stay prolific and you’re your base in Dublin. Ever tempted to move the family to LA?
GLEESON: Not really though the committed, my four boys, came to me at one stage and said, ‘Listen dad, if you want to go to America, it’s okay by us.’ I think they were just mad to get over here. But no, I didn’t. I was invested in home, culturally; I was in my late 30s before Braveheart happened. It didn’t seem necessary to move, if I was prepared to travel. A lot of people that I know who moved to LA, they’d spend half the time packing their suitcases to go elsewhere to shoot movies. I’m happier at home and it gives me a stability, and I never lost myself. And Dublin is a mad place. What can I say?