Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Domhnall Gleeson on playing the villain and how JJ Abrams inspired the cast

Gleeson finds himself on the side of the First Order, the new nefarious organisation that's risen from the ashes of the Empire

James Mottram
Monday 14 December 2015 19:22
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Dark side: Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'
Dark side: Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

In the last 12 months alone, the 32-year-old Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson has featured in Angelina Jolie's Second World War epic Unbroken, Alex Garland's sci-fi Ex Machina, which claimed Bifa's Best British Independent Film, and Brooklyn, the 1950s romantic drama in which he delivers a dignified turn as Saoirse Ronan's suitor. The latter looks set to be in the Oscar mix this winter alongside The Revenant, a film that “has a real shot at greatness”, says Gleeson. Then there's the little matter of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in which he plays the villainous General Hux.

Factor in appearances for the Coens (in True Grit), in the two-part Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows finale (as Bill Weasley) and cult items like Dredd and Frank, and Gleeson has arguably got just about every fanbase covered right now (he was even considered to play Dr Doom in the recent Fantastic Four flop – which would've ticked off the Marvel box). But nothing quite compares to the astronomically anticipated Episode VII in the Star Wars saga.

Gleeson missed out on the mania that greeted the original trilogy as he was just 13 days old when Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, premiered in 1983. Diplomatically avoiding talk about the maligned prequel trilogy that began in 1999, he was never a Star Wars obsessive: “I wasn't a nut the way some of my friends were.” He came on board The Force Awakens only the day before the infamous table-read cast photo, which broke the web back in April 2014. Gleeson was seated between producer Kathleen Kennedy and C3PO himself, Anthony Daniels.

“One of the joys of the experience was going back,” he says. “I asked for the original trilogy, so I could watch them on the big screen before I shot the film.” Gleeson acquired himself a screening room in Dublin and backers Disney duly obliged, the actor gorging on the first three films – Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Jedi – in one day. “That was amazing. That was one of the big joys of going through and letting the magic seep in. And then, of course, leaving it behind to do the job you're doing.”

Gleeson, in the JJ Abrams-directed The Force Awakens, finds himself on the side of the First Order, the new nefarious organisation that's risen from the ashes of the Empire. As the military-attired Hux, he's sworn to secrecy on characters details – beyond the fact he's alongside Adam Driver (who plays Kylo Ren) and Andy Serkis (who plays, via motion capture, Supreme Leader Snoke). But he's definitely a villain? He nods. “If a good guy is wearing that overcoat, we're all in trouble.”

If Gleeson is holding back on his excitement, he admits the cast weren't allowed to forget what they were doing. “One thing J J is very good at doing is imbuing a whole set with a very positive atmosphere. Every time, before they called 'action', if the adrenaline or energy had dropped a little bit, it would be like, 'Everybody – Star Wars!' Stand up straight. Come on! How great is this!? Come on! Let's go, let's go! Action!' And then you barrel into it.”

Barrelling into things is right in Gleeson's wheelhouse. “If they tell me it's safe, I'll kind of do pretty much anything,” he says. Already wire thin, he lost so much weight on Unbroken playing a raft-stranded pilot that his contact lenses stopped fitting. For The Revenant, in which he stars as the captain of a team of 1820s fur-trappers, he and co-stars Tom Hardy, Will Poulter and Leonardo DiCaprio went into the Canadian wilds for a shoot so tough, one crew member dubbed it “a living hell”.

“There's no point pretending the whole thing was a breeze,” he says. “The whole thing was not supposed to be a breeze. The whole thing was supposed to be difficult. But it wasn't supposed to be difficult for its own sake and it wasn't supposed to be dangerous – and it wasn't. The whole point was to put us in the position in which we had to kind of struggle. But there was never a time when I thought I'd rather be at home on the couch.”

Just to add to his workload, midway through the six-month shoot, Gleeson headed back to Ireland to star on stage alongside his father and brother Brian in Enda Walsh's The Walworth Farce. A former Tony nominee, for his Broadway turn in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Gleeson admits it was “a long-standing dream” to work in theatre with the two other actors in his family (he'd previously directed them in his 2010 short Noreen). “It felt like maybe the best thing I'll ever do,” he smiles.

It was also a chance to work in Ireland, where he still lives. “I love my home,” he says, “Whereas some people do not like either where they came from or who they grew up with, I'm very lucky, in that all of those things were positive to me. I got very, very lucky in the lottery of where you were born.”

The oldest of four boys (Rory and Fergus make up the quartet), his youthful impressions of Ireland were rather different to what's seen in Brooklyn, in which Saoirse Ronan's character grows up in the small town of Enniscorthy. “[In Brooklyn] you see the good in people, but you also see a very bad side of it too, which can be typified as a small-town mentality; where I grew up was a reasonably small village outside of Dublin, but I didn't feel there was a small mentality. It was good place to grow up.”

After studying for a BA in media arts at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Gleeson decided to follow in his father's footsteps, quite literally. In only his second role – in the Martin McDonagh short Six Shooter – he was starring alongside Gleeson Snr. It went on to win an Oscar. If the next five years were rather fallow on screen – bar another turn with his father in the crime yarn Perrier's Bounty – it's been a feast ever since, with roles for Joe Wright (Anna Karenina) and Richard Curtis (About Time) boosting his profile.

Does he feel like he's ascending the Hollywood A-List? He shrugs, looking awkward. “I've no idea. All I know is when you read a great script, you know it. And I've been lucky – over the course of two years I got to read a number of them and got to be in a few. So I'm hoping I can continue that.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Featurette - IMAX

Sitting opposite me in Converse boots, skinny jeans and a thick ginger beard, he's remarkably at ease with the way he's manoeuvred himself into an enviable position – straddling likeable lead and credible character actor. But even he has his pinch-me moments. He confesses getting star-struck on Doug Liman's new thriller Mena, starring Tom Cruise as real-life drug smuggler Barry Seal. “He ran to get something once,” he laughs “And he ran like Tom Cruise runs – and that was amazing. We run in very different ways, he and I.”

As much as he tries, Gleeson still seems unable to quite process the run he's been on. Maybe this is why he likes to collect set mementos. He nabbed a bracelet from Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek's clone tale, and kept his contact lenses from Dredd. And Star Wars – did he take anything? “No, I was way too scared,” he grins. What about his (prosthetic) fingers from True Grit – sliced off in a moment of Coen Brothers brilliance? He practically leaps from his chair. “I should've taken my fucking fingers – goddammit! That would've been amazing.”

'Brooklyn' is on general release. 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' opens on 17 December. 'The Revenant' on 15 January

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