Domhnall Gleeson was feeling pretty good when I talked to him in New York a few weeks ago-- the night before, at the New York Film Festival premiere of About Time, he had gotten to indulge in a baked potato. An entire baked potato.
Gleeson isn't one of those insane Hollywood dieting types, I promise. He was in the midst of preparing for his role in Unbroken, the World War II drama directed by Angelina Jolie in which he plays one of three soldiers who crash land in the Pacific Ocean and end up in a Japanese POW camp. Gleeson and his co-stars, Finn Wittrock and Jack O'Connell, were in the midst of shedding weight to shoot the scenes from later in the film, when the soldiers have been stranded at sea for weeks (two of them survived for an incredible 47 days). So Gleeson, already wiry and tall, was losing weight to the point that "I don’t think I look particularly nice with my shirt on or off at the moment." And a baked potato was even more exciting than the New York premiere of his latest film.
Not to say About Time wasn't a thrill for Gleeson, who had done sketch comedy before making his name as a screen actor, first as the eldest Weasley in the final few Harry Potter films and then with wide-ranging roles in True Grit, Never Let Me Go and last year's Anna Karenina, in which he played the lovestruck farmer Levin. Gleeson was still shooting Anna Karenina and sporting that bushy Russian beard when he auditioned for About Time, something that director Richard Curtis told me made it tough to cast Gleeson. Lucky for both of them, though, he did, and Gleeson became another in a long line of goofy, endearing romantic heroes from Curtis films-- think Hugh Grant in Four Weddings in a Funeral and Notting Hill or Colin Firth in Love, Actually, but with a time-travel twist.
You can read excerpts from my conversation with Gleeson below, and read our review of About Time here. It's now out in limited release and expanding further this weekend.
Richard was just telling me that you auditioned with your Anna Karenina beard.
He’s been fucking telling that to everybody, man. He’s hilarious.
Well, not like you could do anything about it.
No, I was in the middle of shooting, and I come in and I’ve got my Irish accent, and we were talking last night about how he hadn’t cast people before with perfectly good accents, just because he couldn’t get past the thing of going from one into another. So, I just got really lucky, I don’t know, the casting director Fiona or his partner Emma or the producers or somebody convinced him just to give me a shot. So, I just got really kind of lucky with it.
Is that really hard to be in the middle of one thing and then audition for another?
Yeah, I don’t like it at all and often times I don’t do it. Often times, I just do a job and tell my agents, I’m in lockdown now. I won’t talk to anybody about anything else in the mean time and I think that’s generally the way to go because I also like to have a gap in between jobs. I don’t like going straight from one into another, and if you audition while you’re doing something, often times it means you’re straight onto set at the end of it. And look, I understand that I’m lucky to be working, cause I’ve spent plenty of time not working and I know in the future I’m going to spend plenty of time not working, but I think I work better when I have a little bit of a gap. But there’s a difference between what I was doing on About Time and what I’ve done the last couple movies which is being in every day on every scene. There’s a difference between that and say, Anna Karenina, where I would have a week off and then do two days and then a week off and then five days.
So, after this, did you take time to not be in front of the camera for a while?
Let me think. Well, no, because I auditioned for something. I’m an idiot. There's a TV series called Black Mirror, that goes on in England. It wouldn’t be a thing here. It’s like Twilight Zone. So, they made three episodes and then I loved a couple of them. I just thought they were brilliant television. I don’t watch a lot of television and then I heard they were casting for it, so I asked to read it and I thought it was fantastic. It was everything I’m interested in and so I went straight on to that afterwards. For my life, I probably shouldn’t have, but for being an actor, I should have, because it just ended up being a really good hour of television. I’m very, very proud of it.
So you can look back at it and be proud that it happened, but in the process you’re…
Yeah, but I did learn a bit of a lesson. I was very tired when I made it and you just look at it and you think, ok, I’m not bad in it, but like I, you know, I don’t know. I like film sets to be happy places and when you arrive tired, it’s just not a good. We all had a fantastic time in it, but it’s just never a good recipe when you arrive on a job tired. I think you want to arrive like, let’s fucking go.
Yeah, amped up.
Cause you expect it of everybody else, so if you turn up and you’re even 90%, it’s just not a good place to start.
You’re prepping for Unbroken now. What are you putting yourself through to do something like that?
Yeah, yeah. We’ve got a great nutritionist, basically. So, we’re shooting the weight loss stuff first. I’m two and a half weeks away from my low points. The idea is to have enough energy to do the scenes and to do them well, and to have enough energy to be able to do the prep and get everything in order, and simultaneously to look right. So, it’s an interesting one, you know. I think the performance is more important than…
Than the physical stuff?
Yeah, but I think if you have the choice of two extra pounds of body fat but full performance, then I’ll go for performance. But we’ve all hit our target weight already, so I don’t think I look particularly nice with my shirt on or off at the moment. So, that’s the way it’s going, but it’s just part of the job. You just tell yourself to get through it. It’s a strange, it’s a fucking weird thing to do with your time. It’s a weird way to spend seven weeks prepping for that.
Obsessing over calories.
Yeah, yeah. Like I’m not used to it. I like drinking what I like and eating what I like and going out when I like, like going to a premiere last night was a weird thing. It was baked potato last night because I had to re-feed. You re-feed. You carb up every five to seven days to kickstart your metabolism, so I was allowed a baked potato last night. I had the fucking best time of my life. Everyone was like, "How are you enjoying tonight and I was like, "It’s amazing!" They were like, "Premiere in New York?" and I was like, "No, baked potato!"
No one can understand.
It was really kind of grim. But there are two guys in a raft and Jack [O'Connell] is the lead, and then it’s me and Finn [Wittrock] are kind of doing our own thing, but supporting Jack obviously and I’m just kind of looking forward to getting out there and working on it. It’s exciting. I didn’t think I’d get a shot at being in these kinds of movies and I can honestly say that’s not false, like self-deprecation or false modesty. Myself and all of my acting friends spent a lot of time unemployed and you just don’t expect to get opportunities like this.
So, I talked to you on the phone for Anna Karenina, and you were talking about the same thing. Like every time you get a role you, you’re like, "They’re never going to put me in this," and then they put you in it. Does that start going away at any point?
I don’t think so. I know that I can do an OK job on some things, like enough people who I respect have trusted me at this point that I figure it’s not like-- I don’t think I’m terrible. I mean, I’m sure I’ll do some bad stuff, like everyone does.
You feel confident you were worthy of getting work.
Yeah, but then I also know I was worthy of getting work when I was unemployed and I know a lot of people who I know, who are exceptional actors who are out of work. So, like, you just don’t know which way it’s going to go. So, each one you just say, I’m going to give it my all.
The rom-com, it’s not the physical challenge, and it’s not Anna Karenina, where you’re learning the choreography. But so many people, especially men I think, get into rom-coms and just look adrift and miserable, like they seem like they just wandered into these sets by accident. What is that mental preparation for yourself to just throw yourself into this?
First of all, I love comedy, and for all that he is the center role and the straight man to a certain extent, he also gets a lot of nice jokes and he gets a lot of that lovely, awkward humor which I Iove. When I read this script, I laughed out loud. That’s kind of where you put your hooks in. Also, I’d only really done the love thing once before and that was in Anna Karenina, and I hadn’t been in every scene in a film before. Then I met Richard and he knows his way around a gag so well. He’s really romantic himself, you know, like he’s really generous with his time himself. I stayed in a house close to where he lived when I was making the film and he dropped in for tea a couple times and I spent time with his family and his partner and children and everything and got to know him a bit. There was lots to get your teeth into, and then creating a believable relationship with the most beautiful woman in the world. That’s another challenge. We just have to make this feel like it’s a real relationship. You obsess over that. You worry about that. Creating the father-son thing, which in the script I thought, "OK, this can really work if we land it right." And then seeing what Bill [Nighy] was doing, making all of the relationships work. There are big challenges and I think making them flow evenly and go in and out of each other and making the comedy work with the drama and being able to do both. They were all challenges that I really enjoyed. And going to set with the idea that you had to make something really funny was really, that’s a big challenge.
But don’t people say that the key to comedy is not trying to be funny?
See, if the material is funny, than you don’t get in the way of the material, but if somebody just says the line, straight and doesn’t put anything onto it at all, if you just say it blank, without moving anything of your face, I mean, you have to be invested and you have to understand why it might be funny, I think, for it to expand out and for the laugh to grow. So you know, you just have to get into that headspace.
You have a lot of physical stuff, not like falling or anything, but there’s a lot of reaction shots, just looking at you and you just looked pained, like you find yourself not in your own body.
Exactly, just wondering how have I gotten myself here and all that stuff. It’s Laurel and Hardy type stuff, but there’s so much fun to be had with it. You can feel that if you push the desperation an extra half millimeter. At the same time, you have to remain kind of, attractive enough, not physically, but as a personality that people will still be able to enjoy him and not feel pained for him.