Domhnall Gleeson hopped at the chance to play a part in the new Peter Rabbit film, writes Esther McCarthy.
A little boy, Domhnall Gleeson would watch Home Alone on rotation and laugh at the misfortune that befell some unpleasant adults at the hands of a savvy Macaulay Culkin.
It was a movie that came straight to mind when he was approached to star in Peter Rabbit, in which he plays a devious villain who wants to exterminate Peter and his friends. The opportunity to wrestle with a rabbit, fall over a lot and make kids laugh was too good to turn down, he tells me.
“It had a bit of Home Alone about it and it had a bit of Mary Poppins about it, and I think it was a chance to do something that would make kids laugh. I hadn’t really done that before,” says Gleeson. “I’d played around with humour in sketches, and I’d done [stage plays]The Walworth Farce, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and stuff, but none of those were for kids. With this I thought: ‘Oh man, you could actually make some kids laugh with this, which would be kind of delightful’.”
Memories of his own joy at watching Home Alone as a little boy fed into his decision. “Just adults getting hurt is like the funniest thing. It doesn’t matter how much we move on and how kind, or pretending to be kind, our culture gets, there’s just something funny about seeing somebody hurt themselves — as long as they’re ok,” he adds with a smile.
“I’d laugh at any fart gags basically, I still do. Then (when he got older) I got into the Farrelly brothers. As soon as I saw Jim Carrey, I knew that I was just happy. It’s the way he’s able to contort himself into a cartoon for a split second, then he’s back to being human. There’s something so amazing in that.”
Comedy is an area Gleeson takes very seriously. Before he became one of our biggest exports, staring in movies like Ex Machina, Star Wars and The Revenant, the Dubliner would supplement acting gigs with sketch work, most notably the series Your Bad Self. He’s aware of the audience pleasure that can come from a great physical gag or punchline — and the missed opportunity of a potentially good joke that doesn’t land.
For him, it’s all about the preparation, especially when it came to a hilarious fight scene where Gleeson’s Mr McGregor takes on Peter and his friends.
“There were so many jokes, and sometimes all you want is the clean line through, so you know where all the jokes are. Also with the physical stuff, I really need to know my beats, I really need to know what the joke is, and clear everything else out of my head. That clarity can be hard to get on set when there’s so much going on. How do we get there and sell that one joke the best?
“We worked on it for a couple of weeks before we started, all the stunt stuff. I love a physical gag, I adore a physical gag, it’s one of my favourite things and being able to play around with that a little bit was lovely.”
He agrees it can be trickier on set to know whether something is working in comedy than, for example, drama.
“With drama, they’ll say sometimes: ‘Don’t do the crying on screen, leave that to the audience’. There are all kinds of things they say, which is bollocks sometimes. But with comedy, it’s to do with really being succinct with the gag, being clear about what it is, and then just making it work. You might only land it once.”
It’s the second fine and funny Gleeson performance we’ve seen this year, following dad Brendan’s brilliant turn as a tough prison chef in Paddington 2.
“My dad was so ridiculously like an Irish Clint Eastwood. I don’t know what he is exactly but he is just fabulous in it. Everyone in it is so good. I absolutely adore those films.”
When he made his breakthrough as the lead in About Time, Gleeson endeavoured to make the most of it, notching up roles in impressive projects like Frank, Brooklyn, and The Revenant. In fact, over a two-year period he made no fewer than seven films, including his first outing as the fearsome General Hux in a movie set in a galaxy far, far away. Can anything prepare you for the awe of a first day on a Star Wars set?
“My first day on Harry Potter was so scary that I think it did. There were still terrifying days on Star Wars — there are on every set — so it always happens. I think the day when you’re not terrified at some point is the day when you think you’re better than you are. And you’re resting on your laurels a bit.
“But Star Wars, yeah, there’s a grandiose thing going on. It was more a question of making sure I understood the tone, you know? I’d never worked on a Star Wars film before JJ and I didn’t know what to expect. Getting attuned to somebody, that takes a little bit of teasing out. I’m very happy with the way the two films have gone.”
He recently finished a short called Psychic with his dad (also directing) and brother Brian. “It’s a father and two sons — surprisingly! — and he is a psychic, and you get the impression that they’re about to break through into making some real money in this thing they have going. ]
His sons are pushing him perhaps a little too hard. It’s his first time directing a film, he directed plays when he was younger.”
We will next see him reunite with Frank director Lenny Abrahamson on The Little Stranger, a drama mystery based on Sarah Waters’ acclaimed novel about supernatural occurrences in an old mansion.
“I’m really excited to see that and if all the work we’ve put in adds up even to more than the sum of its parts, then we’ll have done something special.”
But after that, he has (deliberately) little lined up at all, and after a few years of working on so many movies, he’s happy to enjoy time with friends, matches and gigs and pottering around his hometown.
“I just thought I needed to take some time to recharge a little bit. Fully recharge, not get to 70 per cent. You know the way the battery on your phone always seems to go from 30 to zero? I thought I just need to get back to 100 again, before I even think about doing something else.
“Walking in an out of town is just my favourite thing to do. Going around with my earphones in, drinking in the city, because it’s an amazing place to live.”
Peter Rabbit is in cinemas on Friday