CALVARY is about as tough a film to pin down as you’ll find this summer or this year. It’s about many things, but overall, it’s shows us the collateral damage of the ongoing scandals in the Catholic church, when one of the now-grown victims of childhood molestation confronts a priest (played by Brendan Gleeson) in his small Irish community and says he’ll kill him in a week’s time. Bear in mind, this particular priest is actually one of the good guys, but according to his would-be assassin, a price must be paid—guilt by association. And did I mention that this film is also a pitch-black comedy, a family drama and a story of alcoholism.
In other words, CALVARY has a little something uplifting for all of us, with its incredible cast that includes Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Dylan Moran, Aidan Gillen, M. Emmet Walsh and many others, under the guidance of writer-director John Michael McDonagh (THE GUARD, also starring Gleeson), brother of award-winning playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh (IN BRUGES, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS). Sitting down with these two fine gentleman was a great pleasure, and although I don’t know how to explain it any better, getting a chance to speak with Gleeson in particular was akin to looking into the face of the Irish Mt. Rushmore (feel free to suggest who the other three heads might be).
CALVARY is easily among Gleeson’s best performances, and I think the dark heart of this film is in many ways countered by his Father James being the only truly good man in the community, and even he has some weighty issues to contend with, not least among them is his possible untimely death. I sat down with the pair last week in Chicago and had a grand time picking their brain about the film’s sly literary references, the death of religion and the grain of hope in this rather bleak but brilliant film. But before we dive into the movie discussion, Gleeson talks about a painful incident that happened to him that very morning—one that will likely impact him for the rest of his life. Please enjoy my chat with Brendan Gleeson and John Michael McDonagh…
Brendan Gleeson: I had a battle with a couple of poached eggs this morning.
Capone: Who won?
BG: The poached eggs. I swear to God, I rang down and I just wanted poached eggs on toast, which is great. We’ve been joking about all of the uptown complaints we have on this junket, and they put us up in these five-star hotels. So I asked for a side of poached eggs and a side of toast, but it came up, and I noticed it was on a tray. Normally they bring you food on a whole thing with wheels and drawers opening and all that stuff. It was refreshing that it was just a little tray. But I noticed it was two little side plates, and the toast was actually bigger than the eggs. It was like eating poached eggs and toast off a saucer, so one of them didn’t quite make it. The Great Poached Eggs Wars. [laughs]
Capone: It'll go in this history books for sure. I’ve seen the film twice now. The first time I watched it, I noticed that Kelly Rilley’s character was reading this Lovecraft book, and I thought, “That’s a nice shorthand into her mental state.”
John Michael McDonagh: Yeah, I think you see it a bit on the big screen, the picture on the cover of that book, which I think is “The Dreams in the Witch House.” It’s a maiden lying on a bed and there’s a little homunculus on top of her chest.
Capone: But then I noticed the second time I saw it that many of the characters either have a book or some other piece of artistic endeavor that identifies them.
JMM: Right, there’s “Moby Dick.” Obviously, the villain has read “Moby Dick.” With the M. Emmet Walsh character, the priest brings him a couple of books, including “HHhH”. And then obviously in the relationship with the daughter, Kelly Reilly, there are lots of literary references.
Capone: Did you deliberately do that as a back up to what you’ve written?
JMM: Yeah, it’s a way of amusing yourself as you’re writing, but it also gives something to the audience who like to find those little bits and pieces throughout. It’s like with the Hans Holbein painting that has the image of the skeleton going across it [“The Ambassadors”], it’s not just chance that they’re put there, and people can read into what they mean themselves.
Capone: It’s not even just books, like you said, there’s art, even one character who does a James Cagney impersonation, which is this funny thing that I don’t think a lot of people are going to understand.
JMM: Yeah, I know. Well see, as a big film buff, I thought everyone would get that he’s putting on a Cagney persona. Also, a lot of his use of language, that character, is very David Runyon-esque—a turn of phrase I lifted straight from David Runyon. But I think that is one character that is going to go over the heads of a lot of people.
Capone: It’s still funny.
JMM: It’s still funny.
Capone: It seems to me that this priest character, his days might be numbered in this community even before the events of this story, at least as a spiritual figurehead, even before the church is burned down.
BG: I don’t know. That’s an interesting question. I haven’t thought about it before, other than to say it feels that he actually has the measure of these guys. Until his daughter shows up—that whole thing is such a belly punch, and then an open death threat, but I think he’s well able for them, actually. I think his faith is a sufficient strength, and that he’s sufficiently of the word, not to be blindsided by any of these things coming at him. I think he’s well aware of the challenge of it. But I suppose the ultimate thing then is just being associated with the people who covered up pedophilia, which is appalling to him, as much as it’s appalling to anybody. So maybe that’s the one that tips it; there are a few things that tip it. I understand what you mean, but I think he’s well able for them too.
JMM: In the sequence where he’s giving the communion, you could be led to believe that there are lots of people at this mass, but we’re only seeing the main characters. But actually there were other shots that made it clear that these were the only people who show up.
Capone: That was my interpretation.
JMM: Yeah, that it might be on the decline anyway is a reasonable suggestion.
Capone: The priest is great as a member of the community, but as the spiritual head of it maybe that’s gone by the wayside.
BG: Yeah, I get that completely, and I think it’s in the balance for sure. Where’s the shaman, and what’s going to replace the shaman? So he has a social function that’s way beyond just the spiritual, I think. But there is a thing where all these people are disillusioned. I do think that they’re tying to break him up, so they can finally try to ditch all notion of anything but despair, but actually they’re hoping that maybe he will swing them around, that in the end most disillusioned people want to be re-illusioned, if that’s a term. They want to be--
JMM: Spiritually reinvigorated.
BG: Yeah, exactly.
Capone: Born again with their illusions.
BG: Yes, exactly. [Laughs]
Capone: By giving this particular character, a life before the priesthood, we are sort of given glimpses into what might have been for him with his wife and daughter. As it stands, this guy never really catches a break in the course of his life.
BG: Well, maybe with his wife up until she croaked, and he had a beautiful daughter. H had everything going, except the demon drink. He has beauty in his life, that’s for sure, which is important because he has a foundation of understanding that there is beauty possible in the world. And then it all, as you say, hits the fan.
Capone: I almost feel like that realization makes him sadder.
BG: Totally. Well, that’s the genius of what John did with this man; he took him out of a naive seminarian position, gave him a proper life with a proper sense of challenges in the real world, and then he’s more equipped. A late vocation means he’s committed in the full knowledge of what he’s committing to.
Capone: Is that a more common thing now, late vocations?
JMM: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s common, but when I went to school, the headmaster of my school, he had that life. His wife had died, and he became a priest afterwards. I was saying to Brendon recently that I recently discovered that there are actually examples of Catholic priests who are married. I don’t know if it’s all around the world, but in Britain, if you’re an Anglican or you’re in the Protestant faith, and you decide to convert to Catholicism, Anglican priests were allowed to marry. So if you convert, you’re allowed to bring your wife with you.
Capone: That’s the loophole.
JMM: That’s the loophole.
Capone: You mentioned the troubles that the Catholic church has been having with these priests, and when I sat and watched the film, I had no idea how that element fit into this story, but it slips in like a fog over everything. And every once in a while, you’re reminded that that’s there, and it never goes away, and it impacts the ability for him to do his job even though he’s not a part of that.
BG: Well, he says at the very opening thing he hasn't got the answer. He doesn’t know what to say about that. It’s so appalling. He doesn’t pull his punches. He says, “Go bring him to court. Get your day in court.” “Well, the man’s dead.” He actually hasn’t got an answer for it, which I think is the best way to go with it, because rather than try to pontificate some nonsense that would be just holding up his side of the debate, he’s quite open about it. But I think the power of it in the film is ultimately that you understand that it’s a death sentence. The fact that this kind of abuse in childhood really does screw you up for life. It’s not just something that you forgive and forget. It’s there and it’s a cancer, and it ain’t going away.
Capone: Have you ever played a priest before?
BG: I did. I played a priest in BUTCHER BOY.
Capone: Oh right, Neil Jordan’s film. When you put on the uniform and you feel the weight of it and the constricted nature of it and see yourself in the mirror, what does that do to you?
BG: It’s different. I really had goosebump experience when I put on the vestments for mass. Not so much the cassock aspect, but when I put that on, it’s actually just a pretty cool way to go around the place. There are touches of Sergio Leone, you know? They don’t really do that very often at home anyways. They’re usually in slightly toned down versions of it.
But putting on the vestments for mass, putting on the whole thing, it really did feel like a suit of armor, and I really felt that I was a protector. Suddenly it’s, okay, you’re the protector of whatever you find. Whatever your notion of decency, whatever your notion of optimism is, our faith in humanity, anything you deemed to be good, you’re in charge of it now. I didn’t feel that when I did the priest in THE BUTCHER BOY; it was a different character. But with this one, it was the oddest thing, because I don’t really do method, but this was personal. That’s what happened. It became suddenly very personal, very universal, and it had less to do with Catholicism, then actually putting on… John said he was like a samurai, adn it was. Saying okay, you’re now the protector of whatever you think of as decent.
Capone: A samurai is a good metaphor for what he is and does. He is a protector, as much as he can be. He’s a good man even though he almost never smiles in the whole film. He’s a positive force.
BG: He smiles when he dances with his daughter.
Capone: I was going to say, the second time seeing it, I noticed that’s the only time he smiles.
BG: Well, he doesn’t catch a break in this movie [laughs].
Capone: That’s exactly right. When you have the threat of death over you, it’s hard to smile.
JMM: Somebody gave us an image. It was the image of Father James on the beach with the robes flowing next to an image of Toshino Mifune from YOJIMBO when he’s got the samurai robe, and he’s walking into the town to face the opposition. Yeah, it was a funny juxtaposition.
Capone: He does have a gun for a brief while.
BG: Yes, he does. It’s one of my favorite things in the movie, chucking that gun into the sea. That’s the practicality. I started off as a pacifist, and then you begin to think that something like the Bosnian War happens, and you say, “Well hang on a second.” The notion of protecting yourself is a tricky one. It’s all compromise. But the idea of actually chucking the gun, and saying “That is not my mission, that is not me,” it’s a massive gesture. It’s quite a long shot really, so it’s not made overly dramatic, but for me it’s a massive thing to do.
Capone: It’s not overly dramatic but you really heave it.
BG: He had me throw the real gun. It was fantastic. It was a beat-up old gun, but it was had the full, proper weight on it, so you were able to give it a good chuck.
Capone: You’ve cast a lot of these comic actors and given them the most evil passages to read. You always hear about that dark side of the comedy mind, but they also deliver some of the funniest lines. There’s a great balance that you strike.
JMM: Yeah, the guy that plays the bishop, David McSavage, he’s got a very dark sense of humor. Pat Shortt, he’s the bartender, the very aggressive Buddhist bartender. He’s a very jolly man. Chris O’Dowd, I’d say, is in between them. So I think they run the gambit from broad comedy background to a really dark satirical comedy. But on set, they’re all very focused, committed actors. The main thing for them is they’re actors. They don’t see themselves as a comic actor or dramatic actor, because obviously one form of acting is as tough as the other if you’re trying to get it right. The timing is interesting, and overall they’re very good actors who are able to do both. It interested me to cast people like that just as a way of throwing off the audience, particularly with a film like this.
BG: It’s a good place for them to find common ground, I think. As you said, there is a black comedic touch to a lot of what happens here. It’s very difficult for comic actors to be accepted. I remember when I started out, I got a few roles that were kind of funny roles, and all of a sudden everyone wants to pile “the funny man” on you. And it’s very difficult to resist it, because once you do it, your credibility is undermined, so people say, “Oh, I love him. He’s hilarious. When’s the joke coming?” And nobody’s taking it seriously. Whereas a film like this, the guys that are main players are quite suprirsing. Chris O’Dowd, for example, I think is a huge shift in terms of where his career is.
Capone: He just wrapped up on Broadway this week doing an even more dramatic role.
BG: He did “Of Mice and Men.” You see the power in him and Dylan Moran, all of them. Pat Shortt had done GARAGE before. But this is the perfect place, because you’re never quite sure how to take these characters, because they all have a smart, sharp word. But you have to take them seriously, because every one of them has a dark soul, and it’s a perfect place for people to drop being just a comic from this expectation.
Capone: It’s when they’re delivering their funniest lines that you fear them the most.
BG: That’s absolutely it, yeah.
Capone: You mentioned that you tried to avoid being pigeon holed early on. I think the one thing people can say about you is you’ve never repeated yourself as an actor. Although, the one thing I can say about a lot of the roles you’ve been doing lately, especially the ones I’ve seen you in just this year, I think I’ve seen you in like three movies in the last couple of months [including EDGE OF TOMORROW, THE GRAND SEDUCTION], is that you do seem to get cast as the voice of authority or man of authority. And you do it so well. I don’t want you to self analyze necessarily, but have you noticed casting directors of late saying, “We need you to be this military leader, we need you to be the mayor of this town”?
BG: Well, that was weird. Doug Liman is the most amazing director. That happened after CALVARY, and I was completely shattered and they said to me, “Do you want to spend a week on this film with Doug Liman [EDGE OF TOMORROW],” and that’s a different thing. Who wouldn’t want to be general of the world. You’re not dumping on some colonial thing; it’s the aliens you’re fighting, but it is a smart film.
But about being authoritative, the way he works you can never be quite sure. I said, “I can not be authoritative if I can not understand my own authority.” Because he shifted from, “I think he’s just a big bureaucrat, he’s not a big-deal general after all.” I said, “Hang on a second, now!” So yeah, that was a struggle in fact. I think if you can find your own sense of being in character. It’s interesting, I taught for 10 years. The first year I did it, they ate me alive. And then you find out that you actually have to be sure of yourself in that situation, take control of it. Yeah, authority is something I don’t know. I’m rambling now. I’m trying to not repeat myself [in terms of the roles he selects], and I hope that it doesn’t become boring at this point.
Capone: I hate talking about the ending, but it’s got to be something that’s come up in these interviews, because it’s so important. And I know there has been a lot of discussion about whether Father James strolls out on that beach, knowing what’s going to happen.
JMM: Well, whatever is going on his mind, he does have the sequence with Dylan Moran where he says, “I’ll speak to you later.”
Capone: Yes. And he’s making plans to see other people as well
JMM: Yeah. It’s not a suicidal action, really. He’s hoping he’s going to survive, but he knows he may not, I suppose.
Capone: But is there a sense of the inevitable in a way that it ends, do you think?
BG: Well, with the name, you’re kind giving it away.
JMM: There’s a clue there with the title [Calvary is the name of the site where Jesus was said to have been crucified].
Capone: The poster gives it away a little bit too. Well, it was really great to meet you both.