Brendan Gleeson: How do I look?

The Holywood actor discusses his 'very odd relationship' with style
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The Independent Culture

I'm always described as a burly redhead. I remember once saying to a friend, "I wonder if that girl actually knows who I am because of the red hair." And he said brutally, "All the girls I know don't like red hair." The first time I went to see an agent in America, he told me, "You're too fat, too old, not good- looking enough" - that I'd never make it basically. I went away and felt fantastically relieved after 20 minutes. I thought I don't have to bother with that individual any more, I can move on. I'm not going to be waiting until the end of the week for a phone call that isn't going to happen.

I'm always described as a burly redhead. I remember once saying to a friend, "I wonder if that girl actually knows who I am because of the red hair." And he said brutally, "All the girls I know don't like red hair." The first time I went to see an agent in America, he told me, "You're too fat, too old, not good- looking enough" - that I'd never make it basically. I went away and felt fantastically relieved after 20 minutes. I thought I don't have to bother with that individual any more, I can move on. I'm not going to be waiting until the end of the week for a phone call that isn't going to happen.

I was never disillusioned by America, because I never expected them to come in and lift me off the street for some kind of altruistic reason. I thought, why would they bother to employ me unless I'm of use to them? And then I became surprisingly busy and I have found it's possible to make a living in this industry without following the star route.

I have a very odd relationship with style. In fact I was a semi-hippie when I was young. I decided the whole notion of judging a book by the cover was wrong. In my teens I tended to be a combat jacket sort of person. I was trying not to bow to the vanity of it, and then of course that completely screws you up as a person, because you can't figure out why nothing's working. I tend to be a bit sloppy, but when I first went over to the States, someone told me, "Americans are very judgemental. If you wear jeans to an audition, people think you've got no choice. If you go to a premier in jeans as a star that's cool." So I went off and bought some ludicrously expensive clothes for the first time in my life. I do get a kick out of wearing cool suits, but I'm afraid when I get back home I go to seed a bit.

And it's really hard finding things to fit me. So I've been shoved into wearing more conservative clothes than I like, just because they sit better on middle-aged men, they allow for a certain paunch and girth.

I came to professional acting late. I was a teacher until my thirties - although I was involved in a theatre company. At first I got a reputation for playing "funny" characters, then I kept being cast as the bouncer. Because of my size I've had to be careful not to get drawn into situations where I beat people up in every film. I remember after Braveheart, I went over to America and Mel [Gibson] said, "Actually when you come to the premier you should maybe keep the beard, it's one way to go" - which I didn't do because I didn't want to be the beardy guy. But then, of course, absolutely nobody at the premier recognised me.

When I played the criminal Martin Cahill in The General, I had a terrible balding haircut. I had to lose the peak at the front of my head - I think my passport still has the peak half cut off. Women found Cahill oddly sexy - when someone completely takes morality and chucks it out the window, there's something very attractive and devilish about that.

Gangs of New York was wonderful to make. The film is set in the 19th century, but it starts with this amazing battle of battles. I had no idea how they were going to achieve it, but then when the costumes came out - one half these primeval Celtic things with lots of fur hanging round, the other dressed in top hats - it was a fantastic leap to make.

My latest film, Dark Blue, is a thriller set against the 1992 LA riots. The script is very brave, because I don't think Americans tend to dwell on those nasty divisive parts of their history. I play a corrupt official called Jack Van Meter. He's someone that I kind of recognise - you know that whole nod and wink philosophy; there's been a lot of scandal in Ireland in terms of people getting backhanders, and dirty politicians making dirty decisions.

Jack's quite genial and has a certain charm, so people feel privileged to be part of his team. I think normal, rational people find it hard to believe that anyone can be premeditatively evil. It was a big risk for the director Ron Shelton to bring an Irish guy over to play an American cop. I was trying to get the accent right and something wasn't sitting quite right - the character wasn't old enough. So they took out some of my hair and greyed it up. It made an awful difference and Jack assumed a kind of gravitas. I also decided he was quite a snappy dresser, so I got a few Armani suits and a leather jacket, which was rather too small. I didn't want him to be a bog cop, I wanted him to have aspirations. He's quite vain in an undemonstrative way.

I'm currently shooting Troy in Malta. I play Meneleus, the guy who gets dumped by Helen for a younger man - every man's nightmare, really. The film is so well written, with great complex, flawed characters. One of my sons read the script and said, "I can't tell who are the goodies and the baddies" - and I thought, "Exactly!"

'Dark Blue' is out in cinemas now

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