“Isn’t that the most perfect pint you’ve ever seen?” he asks. We’re sitting in the Merrion Hotel, Dublin, and mine is the final interview of a day-long junket promoting his new movie, About Time.
Created by Richard Curtis, king of the feel-good rom-com, this is the director’s last movie, with a coup of a role, one that could propel Gleeson from the position of indie stalwart to Hollywood heartthrob. I’m intrigued to see how he feels about being on this cusp.
“Looks like rain,” says Gleeson, not unlike a line from a Curtis movie. I hadn’t noticed, I inwardly joke. We are looking to see if there are free seats in the hotel’s courtyard — instead we settle into the lounge area. “We have as much time as you like,” he says.
The last time we met was just before last Christmas; he was about to begin filming Frank, the upcoming Frank Sidebottom biopic, opposite Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Back then he was promoting Immatürity for Charity, a series of very silly, bold sketches he co-wrote and produced in aid of St Francis Hospice, Raheny. Made at his own expense, he sold them to RTÉ and also asked TV audiences to donate online.
He hoped they would make around €10,000; at time of press Immatürity for Charity has raised just over €66,000 for the hospice. Gleeson says that he wants to hit the €70,000 mark, he tells me there is a loose agreement that Fassbender will shoot a silly sketch if they reach this target, a prospect he is gleeful about. It is a project like this one which speaks volumes about him; as well as being one of our most talented actors, he has a conscience, he hasn’t lost himself on the journey up.
Today, he is still a messer, still smiley, slightly goofy, prone to digression, swearing and fits of big laughter, but his look is different, more groomed, more leading man. His light eyes, angular jaw, milky skin and pale ginger hair create a striking kind of handsome. Gleeson is tall too, all gangly arms and legs which fly about when he gets excited, which happens a lot, despite it being the end of the day.
His CV is built of solid career choices. On it, along with other choice roles, is a small part in the Coen brothers’ True Grit, the part of Levin in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, which earned him glowing reviews. TV work in the form of a turn in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series further raised his profile. So a rom-com, a Richard Curtis rom-com at that, seems like a bit of sugary curveball compared to the outsider roles he is known for. Gleeson agrees: “It’s terrifying; off the top of your head you can think of 10 other actors who can play the part better than you can.” What was he afraid of? “People saying: ‘What the fuck is he doing in a romantic comedy?’ People not believing me, people not finding me funny, people not finding me romantic, letting down what is Richard’s last film.” He tails off.
Frightened or not, Gleeson really wanted the role of Tim, a man who discovers he can travel back in time to change the moments of his life which didn’t go to plan. He has a genuine affection for this film, calls it “beautiful” and says its message and exploration of family ties changed him as an actor and a person: “It made a difference in how I think about love and how I live my life.” Corny as this sounds, because it’s Gleeson, you tend to believe him. Of co-stars Rachel McAdams: “I have a huge crush on her, as an artist”; and Bill Nighy: “He’s a very sexy man and dresses really well, he’s got it going on.”
He admits: “I missed them at the end of it. I haven’t said that yet and that feels slightly embarrassing to say out loud.”
Early reviews of About Time have been positive and, famously, Richard Curtis launched Hugh Grant’s career as the loveable, bumbling male lead. I wonder if Gleeson is ready for such attention. He sips the pint and pauses.
“The thing that I’ve learnt with Dad [actor Brendan Gleeson], is that you cannot guess what the thing will be that will kick that off. With dad you’d assume Harry Potter would have been that; it was In Bruges. The Guard is the same, it kicked things up another level for him, much more than Harry Potter. You don’t know, so you can’t plan for that.”
He continues: “All I’m interested in is trying to do good work. And, this might sound incredibly arsey, it probably does, but leaving something behind, leaving something decent behind, through family or work.”
He turned 30 this year, I comment. “Fuck you,” he interjects, jokingly offended and we laugh. I ask whether this made him look at life differently. At his own admission, and rather surprisingly considering his cheery demeanour, he says he has always had a bit of a dark soul.
“It is really embarrassing, I wept the night I turned 20, I always thought the next step was the one that would be the last one...” He elaborates earnestly: “I like Philip Larkin an awful lot, I really like his view on life and I really connect to it. Sometimes, it’s too much for me, but it is totally there, that sense that time is marching on.”
I am intrigued as to why he is frightened of the future.
“I find looking forward scary because you might die. Second of all, it’s terrifying! You get that fear that you’ll plan something that doesn’t come to pass. The idea of having dreams that don’t come true is really terrifying.”
Gleeson is quick to say how much his friends and family mean to him, how lucky he is to be surrounded by good people and still be able to call Dublin his home.
I can’t help but think of something quite Ferris Bueller-esque he said earlier about About Time.
“Life is difficult for everyone, everyone has bad days, everyone has trouble in their life, because it doesn’t matter how rich you are. Sickness and trouble and worry and love, these things will mess with you at every level of life. Taking a moment every now and again to say: ‘Let me look at something beautiful, let me notice something beautiful.’ The film encourages that.”
Maybe this is how it changed Gleeson. I tell him he looks happy right now. He agrees; he has work for the rest of this year — Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is currently filming, and he’s just been cast in Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of Unbroken — it is good work, the kind he is proud of, that he knows he is lucky to get.
As if he doesn’t want to jinx things, he is quick to joke, “This is all an act, I’m actually on a drug, a drug so new you haven’t even heard of yet! It’s so devastating for your pancreas that I am fucked!” Then he laughs that big, deep, messer’s laugh, “But I’m happy... ”
* About Time is out on Sept 6. To donate to Immatürity for Charity visit Immatürityforcharity.com.