When Brendan Gleeson was not quite 7, a Catholic boy growing up in Dublin, he had it all figured out. “One of the teachings was that you reached the age of reason at 7, I think. Something like that. Up till then you were still a child and you couldn’t really sin as such, certainly not mortal sin. So I figured if I could commit suicide at 6 and three-quarters, I’d go straight up there, no problem.”
Gleeson laughs at the memory. In the new film “Calvary,” reuniting the versatile and prolific actor with his writer-director on “The Guard,” John Michael McDonagh, he plays Father James, unlikely spiritual leader of a morally bereft County Sligo village.
In the opening scene, Father James is hearing confession and is told by an unseen character that he’ll give Father James one week to live, to get his house in order and make his peace with God. Then he’ll be killed. The rest of the film affords Gleeson’s character little peace but lots of droll and mournfully funny encounters.
The actor has a fantastically rich speaking voice, an imposing frame and a face, as one commenter on Ain’t It Cool News affectionately put it, reminiscent of “a well-loved dog cushion.”
In an interview, the 59-year-old Gleeson spoke of confession, his profession and other topics.
“It was fantastically interesting to play a good man without schmaltz, a heroic figure,” he says. “This guy has his demons, but his commitment to goodness is total.”
The villagers, played by a rich supporting cast including Chris O’Dowd, Isaach De Bankole and Marie-Josee Croze, may revile the man, but the man, Gleeson says, is an unfashionably “clean” hero, though a rather unorthodox priest, with a grown daughter (Kelly Reilly) and a late wife shadowing his sense of mortality.
Married with four grown sons (Domnhall Gleeson plays a convicted serial killer in “Calvary”), the actor has enjoyed a far-flung career.
He didn’t act professionally until his mid-30s. His first uncredited screen role came in 1989; he was a prison guard in the Dolph Lundgren vehicle “The Punisher.” His make-or-break opportunity came a few years and many films later, with “Braveheart.”
Since then Gleeson has worked with a full complement of A-list directors, among them Steven Spielberg (“A.I.”), Martin Scorsese (“Gangs of New York”) and the late Anthony Minghella (“Cold Mountain”). Of all his films, he says, Gleeson had the toughest time shaking “Calvary.”
“It’s the one that’s taken the most personal toll on me as an actor,” he says, “absorbing all that pain and angst and feeling of – I don’t know, treachery, I guess you’d call it. That feeling that everyone (in the film) is so cynical and disillusioned and angry, yet here’s this one man fighting against it.”
While various good people in his life informed the background work on “Calvary,” it was Gleeson’s mother, he says, who led the way, with her “good-humored humility.”
His father, a civil servant who worked in a Dublin tax office, followed a sterner route. “His notion of religion was driven by fear, and I didn’t find it particularly healthy,” Gleeson says. Yet he admired his father’s exacting sense of right and wrong.
And his gallows humor. “He used to say: ‘Anybody can die for Ireland. But son, living for Ireland, that’s an entirely different thing.’ ”