After supporting slots in the likes of Harry Potter and the Coens’ True Grit, Domhnall Gleeson finally takes centre-stage in the risqu
It used to be so easy for the dedicated actor. Just ask Robert De Niro.
You could move from movie to movie, throwing yourself, body and soul, into each new role, anonymous and magnanimous, and audiences were always happy to believe.
Today, thanks to the cult of celebrity, and round-the-clock secret internet surveillance on a movie’s second-by-second evolution, audiences now know all your tricks long before the curtains have parted. And they also know what coffee you like to drink. And what credit card you approve of. Oh, and how beautiful you and your new spouse looked on your wedding day.
For Domhnall Gleeson, the joy of making movies is all about, well, making movies. This part of the process – meeting handsome young journalists like myself – is another matter entirely.
Having grown up in the considerable shadow of his father, the indomitable showman Brendan Gleeson, Domhnall realised early on that he didn’t want to spend all his spare time kissing hands and shaking babies.
“The idea of being in something that has elements of fame attached truly, truly holds no interest for me,” says the 28-year old Gleeson Jr., who, like his brother Brian (The Eagle, TV’s Love/Hate), shares his pop’s acting genes and red hair. “Because I’ve seen my father cope with fame, graciously, and I just don’t fancy it, at all. So, that’s not an issue. But what you do want to do is work that’s successful, so you can work again.
“There is a line that you have to tread. As long as you’re not giving anyone your personal life, I think it’s going to be okay. Also, I’m not, you know, your typical leading man. I don’t have to deal with hordes of screaming girls, or anything like that, and I never will. So, that’s not as much of an issue for me as it might be for someone else. I don’t think Robert Pattinson is looking upon me as any kind of threat.”
Funnily enough, it was Robert Pattinson who pipped the 20-year-old Domhnall to the post when he auditioned for the role of Cedric Diggory in 2005’s Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. The young Gleeson lad – a dedicated Potter fan – had also auditioned, unsuccessfully, for the role of Stan Shunpike in the previous Potter outing, The Prisoner Of Azkaban, eventually getting lucky with the part of Bill Weasley in the final big-screen, double-bill adventure for the boy wizard, The Deathly Hollows. But that’s another story. For now, let’s talk about sex. Baby. In what might just be a first for a mainstream Irish film, Domhnall Gleeson’s debut as a leading man, Sensation, features a rather large dosage of full-frontal nudity. And unbridled rumpy-pumpy.
In the midlands, no less. And on the big screen. Outrageous. Up – and down – with this sort of thing.
As anyone at the Irish Film Censors office will tell you, such sexual shenanigans are traditionally supposed to be viewed only within the confines of one’s own home. With the door locked. And the cat put out.
And it should never, ever involve anyone with ginger hair.
Then again, that could be a rule that most, if not all, countries adhere to.
Written and directed by Tom Hall (November Afternoon, Wide Open Spaces), in Sensation, Gleeson plays lonely farmer’s son Donal, made all the lonelier when he returns from a quick check of the sheep – and a quick wank with his secret porn kit (jazz mag, kitchen roll, hand sanitizer) stashed in a hedge – to find his father slumped in the chairlift. Determined to finally enjoy the pleasures of actual flesh, Donal books himself a ‘delightful dinner companion’, Courtney (New Zealand actress Luanne Gordon), and the two strike up a strange and strained relationship. How much of it is business and how much of it is pleasure soon becomes an issue when the unlikely duo set up an agency of their own.
‘It’s not Pretty Woman’, runs the movie poster tagline, and they’re right. It’s Risky Business meets Glenroe.
“Risky Business meets Glenroe?” Gleeson exclaims. “What the…? Yeah, okay. Unfortunately, I’m not Tom Cruise. I fit into the Glenroe part though.”
So, what drew the young Gleeson to Sensation? The role of Donal? The script? Knowing the man behind the camera, Tom Hall? Or maybe it was just the chance of seeing ladies naked?
“It was mainly about getting to see ladies naked,” deadpans Gleeson. “Actually, it was an Irish movie about sex, so, that was a good starting point.
“I always think sex is one of the most important, and one of the most hilarious, things in the world. So, the fact that we hadn’t really trod that ground before was interesting. To try and do it in this way I thought was really interesting; in a way that could be funny and odd. So, that was a reason to do it. Also, it was the lead in a movie, and I hadn’t done that before. And I do know Tom, and I trust him implicitly, so, that made it easy as well. And it was just a very, very funny, odd script. So, I was more than delighted to hop on board and offer whatever I could.”
It’s a strange fish of a film, the comic and tragic getting into bed together and creating a double-headed little monster that’s as much Carry On as it is arthouse. Which, at the very least, sounds like a wild night. Ben Dover does Ken Loach.
“I think both myself and Tom enjoy comedy a lot,” says Gleeson, “but the idea was to deal with something that, on the face of it, is very, very serious – prostitution, and the world around it – and to deal with that in a way which gave it its full due, in terms of what it was. But I think we were always going to lean towards, if you can make something entertaining, people will want to go and see it. The whole social realism, hitting you over the head with a message didn’t interest us at all. Because I wouldn’t want to see that movie.”
As the movie progresses, we are led to question escort Courtney’s true intentions, Sensation bringing a new potency to the term ‘cute whore’…
“Yeah, the alternative title that never came into existence,” laughs Gleeson. “I think it works on the levels that we wanted it to work on, and hopefully, audiences will feel that way too. I enjoyed it myself…”
Glad to hear it. From the outset, Hall and Gleeson knew that stepping into the world of the delightful dinner companion-for-hire would be a tricky subject to tackle, and one that has to be handled with care. Especially when you’re playing for laughs.
“You have to give respect to the subject matter,” nods Gleeson. “It sounds completely wrong, but we did a lot of research. There are message boards where people talk openly about their experiences, because there are no identities revealed. You can read what it is people really feel about this world, and the people they’re dealing with. And Tom talked to a few girls who were escorts as well. So, no, I don’t think we treated it flippantly, at all.
“At the same time, when you’re dealing with loneliness, and pornography, and all this kind of stuff, you’d better have some sense of humour about it. Otherwise, people would just leave the cinema annoyed, and depressed. That’s not what you want.”
In the name of equality, Sensation’s unlikely pimp stands just as naked as his fine ladies, emotionally, at least. It’s got to be tough, keeping a straight face whilst masturbating in front of a curious kitten.
“I think you’ll find that I masturbated not only in front of the kitten but also in front of some sheep.”
I think the sheep come as no surprise – they’ve seen worse, I’m sure, especially in the midlands. The fluffy kitten is something new though…
Sure thing. Comedian Frankie Boyle reckons owls are the best, because, no matter which way you turn them, they maintain eye contact.
“That’s horrific,” says Gleeson, with a chuckle. “That’s absolutely disgusting. I just think the whole thing’s funny. I think the act of masturbation is one of the most hilarious things in the world. As an Irishman masturbating, in a field, in front of a kitten, wherever – just shoot it, and have a good time…”
Whilst not forgetting the quiet desperation of the situation too, of course. When Donal’s years of sexual longing are finally answered, his exclamation of “You f**king c**t!” during the moment of orgasm reveals that deep frustration and seething anger…
“This is a man who has seen everything sexual there is to be seen and that can be done,” says Gleeson. “He has seen all of it, on the internet. All before he even got a handjob.
“His wealth of knowledge is so huge, and so perverted by the weird rules and set-ups of pornography – which can be quite violent – he’s got that already. And he’s looking up all the way up to the top floor. He hasn’t even been in the building yet, but he’s seen what’s on the top floor. That’s somebody who’s lost. Who’s anxious and lost, and angry and lonely, and with a huge amount of self-loathing. And then to have sex for the first time, that’s a really complicated thing. You have to act out all that stuff, and you have to describe it. And I think we did. It’s kind of an ugly scene, really, but in the best possible away.”
Our time is almost up. So, given that he’s just been in three highly notable movies – Oscar fave True Grit, arthouse fave Never Let Me Go and multiplex fave Potter – along with his first leading role in a feature film and a well-received turn earlier this year as Sir Geldof in TV’s When Harvey Met Bob, is avoiding the camera by sticking largely behind it (writing and directing two shorts, 2009’s What Will Survive Of Us and the recent Galway Fleadh-winning Noreen, plus writing and starring in the TV sketch show Your Bad Self) no longer the refuge it once was? Or is Domhnall Gleeson finally ready for his close-up?
“I think I’m beginning to feel entirely comfortable on film sets. I feel excitement whenever I go on a film set, which is great – to go to work, and you’re thrilled, and you’re nervous, but you feel like you’ve got something to offer. Being the face on the poster is a very different thing. This will be the first time that’s happened, and it may very well be the last, you never know. And, you know, I can live with that. For a while, anyway…”