The big man with the delicate touch

The actor Brendan Gleeson was once dismissed as too old and too ugly for Hollywood. So, asks Ryan Gilbey, just how did he end up with roles in Steven Spielberg's A.I. and Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York?
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Five years ago, Brendan Gleeson found himself outside the offices of a prominent Hollywood agent, scratching his chin. To say that the meeting hadn't gone according to plan would be an understatement.

"He said I was too old and too ugly," he remembers with a shudder. And while it's true that, at 47, Gleeson is now past the point where he could play a convincing or tasteful bedroom scene with Jennifer Love Hewitt, that's no reason to discriminate. As for looks, he has one of the great modern movie faces; broad and bright, evoking a collision of toughness and doughy vulnerability that recalls James Cagney or Nick Nolte. He clearly has physical might, but the soft eyes, and the softer Dublin accent, suffuse even his most unpleasant characters, such as the debt collector in Saltwater, with an intriguing ambiguity.

But that agent's damning assessment still smarts. It wasn't even as if Gleeson had yet to earn his stripes: he had just appeared as Mel Gibson's sidekick in Braveheart. "This guy told me that Braveheart was Mel's movie," says Gleeson, "and that he couldn't see anyone else making it out." Where is that Braveheart cast now, eh? Catherine McCormack is lying in a gutter somewhere, with only her part alongside Robert Redford and Brad Pitt in The Spy Game to keep her warm. Sophie Marceau took the female lead in The World Is Not Enough. Hard cheese for Sophie. And Peter Mullan faced the indignity of being named Best Actor at Cannes for My Name Is Joe. Call it the Braveheart curse.

And none have felt it more than Brendan Gleeson. In the last 18 months, he has worked with Martin Scorsese (on Gangs of New York), Steven Spielberg (A.I. Artificial Intelligence) and, for the second time, John Boorman (The Tailor of Panama). He is currently completing work on Danny Boyle's new film, 28 Days Later, about a deadly virus that sweeps the world.

Today, of course, it's Spielberg who's on his mind. "The chance to meet him was enough in itself. I said 'Well, what would you like me to do? What do you need to see?' " It sounds quaint, as though he was prepared to produce his O-level certificates or do the dagger scene from Macbeth. "He said, 'I was kinda thinking of just offering you the job.' I thought, 'Oh, I suppose I could fit him in.' He's incredibly fast. He gives you the stuff, you go in the next day and just do it. It has the immediacy of theatre."

Gleeson's part in A.I. is only small – yes, all right, there are no small parts, only small actors, but this is a two-and-a-half hour movie we're talking about. He plays an impresario who hunts down robots to use and abuse in a disreputable circus called the Flesh Fair. "He's a showbiz-head," he says. "A bit sleazebally."

Gleeson makes a memorable entrance in a motorised balloon disguised as a full moon. But you can't help wanting more. "That's a good sign, isn't it?" he replies. "I love the film, though obviously, I'd like to have a go at it again with a bit more meat. I just want to work with people who make me better – who make my work better."

Needless to say Scorsese falls into this category, even though, as Gleeson admits, he wasn't the director's first choice. "They kept running checks to make sure I was still available. And after the third check, I was getting fed up, so I asked to go out there and meet him." The shoot itself was a slog. "It was a huge production. Six months in Rome. The amount of screen time wouldn't ordinarily justify that. But with him, I wouldn't have minded if it had taken six years."

Having his capabilities tested was what he found so inspiring about acting in the first place, back in his college days, when he was performing with theatre groups and gazing in awe at his friend Paul Mercer, who was full of mad, untempered ambition. "He somehow got a revolving stage on a student budget." He shakes his head. Even when Gleeson began teaching English and Irish at secondary school, he was still moonlighting as an actor. When he reached 34, he couldn't bear it being a hobby.

"I had always said that I didn't want to turn 35 and regret my life. So I just thought: what are you waiting for? My wife encouraged me, even though we had four kids to support. And for a while it was tough. I'd had 10 years of knowing when the money was coming even if it was never enough. Now there was no money. But I was invigorated by the world that I found. I thought everyone was going to be backstabbing to get parts. But people were incredibly idealistic. You have to be. You don't do it for the money."

In the beginning, he was writing plays too. "I was afraid of my own personality – afraid that I might doss the day away. So I thought, if I'm going to be waiting for the phone to ring, I may as well be busy." But he was too successful as an actor to continue writing.

There were small parts in big films, such as The Field and Far and Away, and big parts in small films, such as The Treaty, in which Gleeson played Michael Collins five years before Liam Neeson did. After Braveheart, he says, "some of the scripts were just unspeakable". He appeared in the noisy, nasty hijack thriller Turbulence. "That was a weird one," he muses. "I did it because of the thought of working with Ray Liotta." There can have been few other reasons. And did anyone, including Gleeson, really emerge unscathed from Mission: Impossible II?

But Gleeson's brushes with Hollywood have been mostly well-judged, such as his endearing turn in the killer-croc movie Lake Placid, where he played a twinkly eyed, Twinkie-munching sheriff, and got a peck on the cheek from Bridget Fonda for his troubles. He doesn't seem to mind whether it's pulp horror such as this or the calmer waters of his films with Conor McPherson (I Went Down and Saltwater) or his upcoming role as a TV chef who gets a personality makeover in Wild About Harry. What counts is that he feels stretched.

"I'm almost too scared to be involved with anything that isn't good," he admits, his face drenched in sunlight that bleaches out his strawberry-blonde hair. "My own confidence is too fragile to put up with those situations. It's just too intensely embarrassing when it goes wrong. Sometimes a director will say 'play vulnerable' or 'play angry' like they're dealing cards from a deck. And they can't understand why you won't do that. 'But you did it in that other thing! What's the problem?' "

True to his word, Gleeson has just turned down a script that offered only limitations. "The part was just a baddie," he sniffs. "I don't enjoy playing baddies that are written as baddies." It was precisely this compassionate approach to characterisation that defined Gleeson's performance as the Irish gangster Martin Cahill in John Boorman's magnificent The General.

It was a gamble to ask viewers to empathise with Cahill: in one scene, he nailed a suspected traitor to a pool table; in another, he dropped a sleeping child's toy train into his swag-bag. But with Gleeson in the role, timidly hiding his face behind his splayed fingers, or curling up to obediently receive a beating, the audience had no other option.

The material could be too close to home at times. "When I was doing the screen test, I found myself going to a place I didn't want to be in, so I pulled back. John said, 'It's a great mimic, but it's not a person.' So I had to go deeper. I had to go back to a time when I was afraid of people, when I'd been in situations where I knew I was out of my league. I really didn't want to be opening those doors again, but I had to if I was going to do it justice. I'm not a violent person, but when it comes down to it, we all know that exhilaration, don't we?"

'A.I.' is released Thursday 20th September 2001. 'Wild About Harry' opens on 26 October 2001. 'Gangs of New York' opens next February 2002.