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Interview with Brendan Gleeson

Brendan Gleeson smiling

HBO

How did you prepare to play this man?

Brendan Gleeson

When it was broached, I had to think about it. I had to confront my own baggage in terms of where I was coming from (Southern Ireland, where Churchill's reputation is not quite the same as in England) and whether I could actually achieve this or not.

With somebody like Churchill, who wrote speeches that are so iconic and so well known that people do impressions of him in their baths all over the world, I was less worried about the naturalistic thing than having to nail it first. [voice coach] Joan Washington was irreplaceable in that regard. We went down to the west of Ireland for a couple of days at a time for two weeks before we came over here at all, and that broke the back of it. She said "Okay, we have to get into your pitch." Most people think of Churchill has having a deep pitch, but she played some recordings and showed his pitch was actually higher than mine at times. That kind of knowledge got me through the wall. She asked me at the end of the first week: Are you looking forward to this at all? And I said: "Absolutely not. I'm terrified." At the end of the second week, I said, "Actually at this time, I really am looking forward to it." I owe her a big debt

HBO

Was the terror whether you were able to be him? Or was it about who he was?

Brendan Gleeson

I did a film a few years ago called 'The General,' which is about a criminal, Martin Cahill, and there was a similar issue: Do I want to take on this man? Because when you take on a role, you fall in love with the person. There's no way out of that because you're fighting in his corner, you're looking at the world through his eyes and hoping to represent him in the world. You have to be bonded to him, and with Martin Cahill I had the question: Why do that with somebody who enjoyed hurting people? With Churchill, I had to say, why do I want to take on this man who's an imperialist, who divided Ireland? In ‚¨‹Michael Collins' I played an aide to Collins, who was in negotiations across the table from Winston Churchill at the time, so I knew what it felt like being on the other side. I actually had a lot of issues to confront in myself. I wasn't in awe of him in that regard. I also had to demystify him because there was a certain mythic thing about the other way of looking at him that was equally dangerous.

[Director] Thaddeus O'Sullivan [who is also Irish] and I have been very honest in our approach, in the sense of knowing we have a lot to learn. He's so revered here [in England]. People constantly come up to me and say "You must be very honored to play this man." In a way I am. But in another way, I'm not. I'm actually really curious about him. The more I work on the film, the more honored I feel. But it's earned. I haven't made the common assumptions because I'm from another place.

People constantly come up to me and say 'You must be very honored to play this man.' In a way I am. But in another way, I'm not.

HBO

You and Janet McTeer (who plays Clemmie) spent a lot of time working on the relationship.

Brendan Gleeson

It became more and more clear that this was not a war movie, it's about Churchill and who he was during the war. Integral to that is his life with Clemmie. The more footage you look at, it's amazing how often she was there. It wasn't just a question of going home and weeping on somebody's sympathetic shoulder.

HBO

He's shown as a human being.

Brendan Gleeson

†I've always found that heroic acts are best expressed in terms of the ordinariness of the person who manages to gain this particular height of achievement. It's much more interesting and enriching if you understand that this is a person like us, and there was a sense of greatness that happened partly through circumstance, partly through breeding, partly through conviction. Of course, ultimately, in terms of what he pulled from himself and the people around him, he did achieve greatness.

HBO

It seems like Churchill understood theatrical acting.

Brendan Gleeson

Absolutely. There's a beautiful scene where he comes up with one of his immortal lines. He thinks to himself: Hey, that's a good one, I might use that. That encapsulates the truth of how he writes. Here's somebody who understands his own power with words. He manipulates it for common consumption, but it doesn't mean he doesn't mean what he says. I think his grandson said if it was fifty minute speech, there were fifty hours of preparation. He understood and prepared and even had the pauses marked out. It's all very theatrical, but that just meant he understood the power of communication. It's kind of reassuring for our profession - just because your spontaneous off-the-cuff remark has been well rehearsed, doesn't mean you don't mean it. [LAUGHS]

HBO

He's a large personality, full of contradictions.

Brendan Gleeson

That is what's fantastic about this challenge. You realize there are so many different films you could make about this person. I find his contradictions oddly consistent in a peculiar way. I don't know if that's a delusion, but it doesn't surprise me that I'm surprised by him. He could bark, or he could say a kindness - mostly he barked, but you never knew quite new what was going to come out of him. And in a way, I don't think he did himself. His spontaneity was his immediacy. That's what made him so attractive as a person - you had to listen to the end of the sentence because you were never really sure where he'd end up. Utterly unpredictable. The same with his speeches. When you think he's going to start pumping up the volume, he hangs back with restraint and lets the words do the work. Other times, he's in there and you can hear and feel the passion.

HBO

What do you say to people who say "We don't need another film about Churchill"?

Brendan Gleeson

Nonsense! It's like we don't need another Hamlet! It's absolute rubbish. There will never be a definitive Churchill. There can't be. So the more variations, the better.

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