For a while Domhnall Gleeson didn't think he'd become an actor. As the son of famed Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, he had every young person's urge to separate himself from his parents-- even as it became clear to him that acting was what he wanted to do anyway. And he figured it out just in time too, since with his long red hair and freckles, Domhnall was pretty much perfect to play a member of the Weasley family in the Harry Potter movies-- a franchise his father happened to be part of already.
So while the wider world may know him best know as eldest Weasley son Bill, Gleeson has been making a name for himself both onstage (in Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore) and in striking supporting roles onscreen, as the doomed young thief in True Grit, as one of the tragic clones in Never Let Me Go, or as the blind tech geek working for the evil gangster in Dredd. Now he's got his first big shot as a romantic lead, as part of the star-studded ensemble of Anna Karenina, the sumptuous new film from Joe Wright. Though Gleeson says that Wright showed "a huge amount of faith in casting me," he's perfect as Levin, the idealistic farmer who's a bit removed from the high society world of Imperial Russia, but who falls hard for society girl Kitty (Alicia Vikander) anyway.
A few weeks ago I spoke to Gleeson about how he adjusted to the theatricality of Wright's Anna Karenina adaptation, how he learned to finally enjoy rehearsal and choreography to prepare for the film, and how on the Harry Potter films he was never sure if what he was doing was actually acting. Take a look at our conversation below, and see Gleeson in the marvelous Anna Karenina in theaters now.
More so than even in the book, Levin seems like the relatable, earthy center of this movie. Did you know he would have such an increased role when you talked to Joe about the movie?
When I first talked to Joe about it, the theatrical setting , that wasn't part of the script, that hadn't happened yet. The first thing Joe told me was that Levin was a farmer, that he wanted him to be more than another love interest in the story, he wanted him to be a man obsessed with ideas and a better way of living. One of the ways of living he finds it love. I was trying to concentrate on making him a ma who was striving for honesty. All you can do is look to your own experience and look to the book and mesh those two in certain ways.
How did the change to the theatrical setting affect the way you were developing the character?
It didn't change it at all. Tom Stoppard wrote this perfect script. The fact that the script was so perfect was the reason Joe could change it so late; the structure was so strong. It held up to being investigated on that level. My character was so well draw by Tom, and Joe had been so direct and helpful and supportive and helping me get to the right place, it didn't change my thinking at all. The only thing that changed slightly was the physicality. Joe had his choreographer, on board. What was it like learning all of that choreography?
I've never done anything quiet like that. I've done some plays that had amazing choreography, particularly choreography of violence in a play I did with Martin McDonagh. But this was quite different. The emphasis was quite different, creating something that was beautiful and at the same time compelling. Especially if I'm the guy who messes up. You don't want to be the guy who drops his line and the whole thing comes crashing to the ground. You really felt the energy on set that day.
Was there a lot of rehearsing required to nail it?
We did some really interesting physical exercises. You watch the film and the whole point is that it's invisible. We did incredible stuff in terms of who were the aristocrats and who were the servants, and where did the power lie. We investigated all that physically. Then I spent a lot of time with Alicia [Vikander], a lot of time with her trying to create a feeling that physically these two people were meant to be together. Being aware of each others' bodies and how we moved and the rest of it. I hadn't done that before. Joe likes working in a different way and pushing himself in different directions, and bringing the actors along with him.
Did that level of rehearsal compare to the theater work that you've done?
It did, but funnily enough I'd never bought into that before in theater. I didn't hate people who did [those physical exercises], I just hated them because they didn't do anything for me. This was the point where that made sense for me. I realized I had to be physically in tune with it. Once it started working, everything opened up all of a sudden. It's not your normal way of doing a film. I think Joe is really good at making people better than they might ordinarily be.
What do you mean by that, that he makes people better?
He did create an ensemble atmosphere, which is really great. You don't have anyone being greedy. Everybody's working really hard to the same ends, and that goes across the whole crew as well. I think just the way he talks to people, and how much he cares about the characters themselves. It's an interesting mix of being really cinematic-- you see films that are cinematic, but the performances get left behind ,and then other films there's very little thats cinematic about them. Joe mixes those things very well.
You've been doing a lot of supporting work in various films in the last few years, and now this is a pretty big step up to a major part. Did that feel like a natural progression or was it a big leap?
It's funny, it didn't feel like a natural progression. When I read the script, I couldn't believe I was being asks to audition. I'd met Joe before and he showed a huge amount of faith in casting me. I can't imagine I was at the top of anybody's list, much less his. It was certainly a step up in that regard. Then I felt like I did have to match it. I always work hard, but then I felt like I had to match that with the faith shown in me. It was a big step up, but I cherished every second of it. I loved every day on set. I just loved working hard, I was lucky that since then I've gotten to do bigger roles. Working hard is kind of a joy.
The set of Anna Karenina is pretty elaborate, and you've got experience on the mammoth Harry Potter sets. Is there any comparison between the two?
Harry Potter was one of the first films I did, I was only in the last two. But really I felt kind of overwhelmed by the production. I really loved it, but I never knew whether what I was doing was acting or being an extra with a wand over my head. I never knew which was which. If Ralph Fiennes has to do a take again because you slip on your ass, that's probably not a good thing. For me the responsibility on Anna was that I felt it a lot more. I was more exposed.
You had said you didn't really want to be an actor because your dad was. What was the moment that you changed your mind and realized you should be an actor anyway?
It was never really what I meant. As a young man, you don't want to be defined purely by what your parents do. I read a script when I was 19 that made me want to be an actor, a Martin McDonagh script, and if the material is good, it's all I want to do. It's when you're not working that being an actor becomes a very depressing thing to be. In the last three years I've gotten into my stride a bit.
Well if you keep working with Martin and John Michael McDonagh, you'll never run out of work anyway.
Those two guys are mad geniuses. I will forever be grateful