You decided to make “Calvary” while you were still shooting “The Guard,” also directed by John Michael McDonagh. How did this project get started?
We were chatting about the notion of what it means to be a good priest. I had read some stories about priests who had been accused of pedophilia in the wrong. Your life is utterly changed from that moment on. It’s such a heinous accusation. I was thinking about how you would cope with that. Particularly, giving your life to doing good things, to be besmirched with all of that. How would you cope? Then there was the notion of how you carry responsibility for the cloth. You put on the uniform so you’re apart of the army, so if the army is doing something it’s not supposed to be doing and covers it up, you have to take some responsibility for it. So we were really chatting about that. John is very interested with the priests of cinema, like “Diary of a Country Priest” and various other films, and he has always had something in his head about them. He decided to write it and asked if it was something I would do. I said sure, but I wasn’t expecting something with the power of this. It’s pretty amazing.
And just from your experience on “The Guard” you were confident with working with him again?
Totally. Just both as a writer and director, and in different ways. His writing is so precise and he’s capable of great tenderness and then real harsh reality all in the same breath. He has vigor and honesty in his writing. When it comes to his director’s vision, it’s very clear and very separate in a way. He takes the place of writing and it moves into a different area, whereas sometimes writer-directors share the same preoccupations in both stages. But he cast an extraordinary bunch of actors and was collaborative as a director.
Playing a Catholic priest comes with its own set of baggage these days. Did you do any kind of prep work or discuss with him what approach you were going to take with the character?
No. I grew up in Catholic Ireland as a Catholic, so I knew pretty much the culture and context of it. I didn’t have to research, maybe just one or two small things. But I didn’t have real obstacles in that regard. It was about finding the soul of the man, and a large part of that was when the daughter is present in his life, which is not usual for a man to have. It made him secular in a way because he had a previous life, and it became then about finding his core really, and once you found his core it became clear how this journey begins and you see where it takes you.
What was it like to act opposite your son (Domhnall Gleeson)? He plays a very disturbed character in “Calvary.”
Well with Domhnall we didn’t talk for about a week before we went in there. We came from separate corners and we went at it. It was obviously delightful to have him back at the end of the day as my son, but for those moments it was actor on actor and character on character and we had quite a confrontational scene. It was intense and I’m very proud of it because it was proper and satisfying.
Did you have any input during the writing process or in developing the story?
John sent me the first draft, which was great. We chatted about the notion of it and then he went and wrote this amazing first draft. He doesn’t share his first drafts easily, so I was very privileged to be a part of that. I was aware during the writing process of how it was developing. Then as the cast came in and did the reading, that’s when I knew it was going to be a tough gig. I’ll never forget after that day, everybody just brought such personal intensity and such personal engagement to their own parts that I was kind of shattered by it come the end in a way that I haven’t been in a long time. But in a great way, a very cathartic way.
You’ve done a bit of screenwriting yourself. You’ve been working on a a screenplay of Flann O’Brien’s “At Swim Two Birds” for quite a while.
Yeah, I’m taking a break with it. We came really close and then it just didn’t happen at the last minute. I had to get back to the day job and let other people do the worrying for a little bit, so I’m taking a bit of a sabbatical with that one. I still pass locations that I ear marked, but I’m not going to sweat it for the moment. I think it’s important for now to get some perspective and hopefully it will happen at some point before I sign off. I’m just letting the apple fall for the moment, not going to go shake the tree.
How did you like the screenwriting process?
I’m aware of my own amateur nature. You have to work with the craft of writing like you would have to work with the craft of anything else. I would share it and ask different people to look at it. My son has just finished a creative writing course or two and he had a look at it recently and had some interesting things to say. I’m always open to things, but I do have a vision of what it’s going to be. I love the process of it in terms of when you finally get on the right scene and you have created a world that you can now influence, it’s quite exhilarating. But it takes me quite a while to get to a place where I know I’m on sure ground. It’s something that I love, but if I keep getting material like this it will be kind of difficult to find time for it!
You want to direct it as well?
For me, it’s not that I’m mad keen to direct and put it in my CV, I just have a vision for this particular book that is going to be singular and only part of what the book is. It’s going to be my take on it. I get proprietorial about what I want to see on screen. I do know my way around because I’ve collaborated with some amazing people and they have let me in editing suits and I’ve watched the development of a film. I kind of know what I’m doing. But it would be specific to this.
Irish stories are, for some reason, very appealing to American audiences. Why do you think that is?
Well only the ones that get here. I think the standard has to be high enough for it to come over here so that you only see the best of it. We have to keep the standards high at home because we have a very little home base. It’s a tiny country. So perhaps that has something to with it. You only see the best of them. But I do think there’s also a tradition of storytelling that’s alive and we feel we’re good at it, so maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You kind of started out as a character actor but lately you’ve been taking on more leading man roles. Did you ever expect your career to go this way?
I’ve always been tipping away at smaller character roles. I love popping into something and doing a character cause I never want to repeat a performance, it bores me. I’ve had my roles throughout the years but they’ve been smaller projects. But then I did a film called “The General” a long time ago where I carried the film from start to finish, which I love. I love being entrusted with that, but it’s not always easy to get them and certainly not to get them in films that are worth making. I don’t always get the leading roles over here, but lucky enough I’ve been coincided with some great writing at home where I’m trusted a little bit more. And now that’s starting to emerge a little bit more over there. I don’t know what I expected. I only went in when I was 34 and I just hope to keep working, and big or small is always of interest.