Brendan Gleeson, an actor often more known by his face than his name, is earning some of the best reviews of his life with his latest film, "Calvary," in which he stars as the unlikely and unafraid Catholic priest Father James, who ministers to a small Irish town. The actor's name, though, is now coming up with such frequency and passion as a potential lead actor Oscar candidate that surely it will soon be ringing as many bells as his face — currently bearded, with shots of gray in his reddish hair.
It was a role the 59-year-old actor says didn't require a lot of research, just some digging into his memories.
"I grew up in Ireland; I grew up as a Catholic. When I put the vestments on for Mass, it became quite emotional. All I could relate to was my 7-year-old self, where you make your First Communion, after having made your first confession and you come out and the slate is wiped clean and you're now clean of all the horrible sins you can do as a 7-year-old."
Gleeson laughs heartily and easily over a meal; in his films, he rarely gets to be so amused. In "Calvary," his priest serves a wind-swept and tight-knit community on Ireland's northwest coast. In the film's opening scene, an anonymous man in the confessional tells Father James how he was abused by a priest as a child … and that, as retribution, he's going to kill Father James, "a good priest," the next Sunday.
It's a ticking-clock plot that also allows for a look at the tragic abuses and true service of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, where the benefits of tradition have to be weighed against the crimes of a few. "One of the strongest themes in the film is having someone [like Father James] who cares about the community, who you can go to and say, 'I'm having a bit of a problem here,'" Gleeson says. "What do we replace that with? An ATM machine? It's a pretty undervalued commodity, the ability to listen, I think."
"Calvary," which takes its name from the barren hillside where Jesus was crucified, reunites Gleeson with writer-director John Michael McDonagh after 2011's "The Guard," in which he played an Irish policeman opposite Don Cheadle's American FBI man. His costars here are equally talented, including Kelly Reilly as Father James' daughter and Gleeson's own son Domhnall Gleeson as an imprisoned killer.
Father James, as written, was widowed before joining the priesthood; as Gleeson notes, that unconventional path to the altar made it easier to walk in his shoes. "I thought it was brilliant. On a personal level, I thought, 'I'm a parent and not a priest.' I understand the priest thing from my upbringing, but I'm not a priest. In the same way it's kind of hokey for a priest to talk about marriage in an all-knowing way when he's never been married, it was easier for me to play a priest that had been married."
Gleeson, who's worked with directors as varied and venerated as John Woo, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, will soon be seen in Ron Howard's whaling epic "In the Heart of the Sea," and at this point, he says, his wish list of directors is short: "I'd love to work with the Coen brothers — there are very few people where I'd say, 'God, I'd love to work with them.' I worked with Scorsese, Spielberg, Paul Greengrass — I'm extraordinarily lucky in the people I've been working with.
"It's always about the work. Again and again, rather than striking something off the bucket list or adding it to the C.V., the older I get, I want to be challenged by things and doing work like 'Calvary' where I'm being given challenges all the time, is really where I want to go. I'd love to just kind of limit what I'm doing to things where I get something real to sink my teeth into. Something that means something."