Me and Mad Eye Moody

By Willie Dillon | The Irish Independent

The first agent Brendan Gleeson met told him he was too fat, too old and too ugly for the movie business. Now he’s the star of the new Harry Potter film.

When Brendan Gleeson was asked if he wanted to play Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody in the latest Harry Potter epic, he engaged a panel of experts to advise him on the nuances of the part.

Before meeting director Mike Newell in Dublin, his sons marked out the sections of Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire in which the paranoid deformed Moody features.

Gleeson has four sons, aged between 16 and 22, who knew considerably more about the character than he did. He took on board their views on how Moody should be played before talking to Newell and accepting the part.

Starring in a Harry Potter movie is what the 50-year-old Dubliner would describe as the popcorn – the fun stuff he likes to do between the more serious parts. It’s another milestone in the colourful acting career of a man who could have easily remained a schoolteacher all his life.

But the early portents weren’t always good. After a prominent role in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart in 1995, he decided to dip his toe into the shark-infested waters of Hollywood. He went to Los Angeles in search of an agent to propel his screen image onwards and upwards.

Instead he was brought down to earth with a massive ego-shattering bang.

The first agent he met told him he was “too fat, too old and not good-looking enough”. In short, he hadn’t a hope of making it in the movie business.

He explodes into a trademark hearty laugh at the sheer bluntness of the guy’s words.

“It was breathtakingly honest. I was a little bit taken aback that he was so direct. But I also thought well at least now I know where I stand. At least it was straightforward. In one way I was relieved. And in another way, it galvanized me. I kind of said ‘okay I’ll show this guy’.”

Gleeson’s subsequent career trajectory, of course, proved the agent wrong. “I wondered would I say anything to him if we ever met again. It seemed a little churlish, because he had called it as he saw it. I actually did see him again and we kind of agreed, tacitly, not to talk about it. It was interesting.”

With a big Harry Potter role under his belt, Gleeson can now afford to laugh. In the decade since Braveheart, his career has blossomed. The roles have come thick and fast. He has worked with some of the world’s biggest directors, including Spielberg, Scorsese, Minghella and Ridley Scott. His lived-in features have become familiar to movie-goers the world over.

And yet his life could have been so different. In his late teens, he started playing traditional music. His first instrument was the guitar. He later progressed to his late grandfather’s mandolin. He busked in Germany and gigged regularly in Dublin. In his late 20s, he took up the violin, which he plays in two movies, Michael Collins and Cold Mountain.

Ultimately the young Gleeson opted for the classroom. For ten years, he taught English and Irish at Belcamp College in Dublin’s northside. “Yeah, I enjoyed that. It’s a long time ago now. It’s receding into the mists of time.

“Occasionally I meet people I used to teach. I was quite prepared to do that for the rest of my life, to be honest. And I actually did like the kids, which meant a lot, even though,” he launches into another full-bodied laugh, “it mightn’t have seemed that way at the time.”

He adds: “That could have been my life really.”

But he was leading an increasingly fragmented existence. He was involved with the Passion Machine theatre group. “I was intensely busy. I was writing and directing and acting in plays. I was teaching and I had the music as well. It was becoming ridiculous. I felt I couldn’t keep all these plates in the air. They were spinning out of control.”

Being nominated for a Harvey’s theatre award was a turning point. He was heading for his mid-30s and feared he would always regret not taking the plunge. Becoming a full-time actor marked the beginning of his “second life”. But his first two movie appearances were low key.

“I think Dear Sarah was the first. I gave Donal O’Kelly a lift in a big truck. Then I did an afternoon in The Field. The whole notion of a camera was very intimidating, to begin with.”

Since starring in John Boorman’s The General in 1998, his life has been an international rollercoaster ride. He prefers to let his work speak for him. “I’ve been lucky to work with good people and that the standard of the work has stayed pretty satisfying.”

He was acclaimed for his portrayal of Michael Collins in the television dramaThe Treaty in 1991. He arguably made a better Collins than Liam Neeson did in the subsequent movie. Some people felt he should have been the obvious lead. “You don’t really expect me to comment on that one,” he laughs aloud again.

“No, I hadn’t got the kudos. You have to work to get to be in that position. And Liam worked to get in that position. There wasn’t the slightest resentment or anything like that … there’s no point moaning about this kind of stuff. You have to get yourself into a position where you can throw your hat into the ring for these things.”

Balancing work and family can be difficult in the movie business. There have been times when he has been away from his wife and children far longer than he would have liked. Filming Gangs Of New York in Rome took five months. “That was a long stretch, in that I could have done what I had to do in three or four weeks. I was let home a couple of times. But Scorsese is just a master and you don’t turn that kind of thing down.

‘I get very uneasy if it stretches on too long. I don’t feel happy within myself. I don’t enjoy it. Ultimately if I had a choice, family would be number one. It’s just always a balancing act.”

He was involved in the Harry Potter shoot for six months, on and off. Initially he feared the tightly-knit cast would view him as an outsider coming in. But it didn’t turn out that way at all. They all looked out for each other. He describes the younger actors as “properly brought up”. They were encouraged to be themselves without being precocious.

But what impressed him most on the set was the use of handmade props. He describes the entire experience as very British and “almost Victorian” in the use of skills and craftsmanship. “There was a deep integrity about the whole thing.”

Despite now being part of the Potter pantheon, Gleeson is adamant he is not a star, but an actor. Sometimes the two things mix successfully; sometimes they don’t.

Speaking of stars in general, he says: “Some of them are just charisma without any great acting talent. But it doesn’t really matter, because they inhabit who they’re supposed to be on screen. I would prefer to be an actor.”

There is nothing currently to suggest the work is in any remote danger of drying up. He stars in a movie version of Studs, directed by his old theatre buddy Paul Mercier, to be released in February. He is in Neil Jordan’s forthcoming Breakfast On Pluto. He has just finished work on a high-tech movie version of the old English poem Beowulf, directed by Robert Zemeckis. In January, he hopes to start work with his friend John Boorman on The Tiger’s Tale, a thriller set in Dublin.

So does the soft-spoken, 6ft2in tall actor now think he made the right move when he gave up the teaching? “I guess so,” he laughs again. “I guess so.”

Harry Potter and the goblet of facts

*Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the fourth and by common agreement the darkest of the Harry Potter films so far.

In the latest installment of the movie franchise, the young wizard Harry is tested to the limit in a magic triwizard tournament. It is a competition featuring three dangerous tasks.

The film has been ruled unsuitable for under-12s to watch unaccompanied by an adult, the first of the Potter films to get such a rating.

*Irish censor John Kelleher said the movie contained “dark/scary scenes and images of fantasy”.

*Director Mike Newell, who also made Four Weddings and a Funeral said: “I remember being terrified of some teachers at school who were violent. The teachers would clout us. But I also remember things being absolutely hysterically funny, because there was such anarchy.”

*In Britain the film has already been labelled “Scary Potter” by the media. Child psychologists have warned that bringing kids to a film such as Harry Potter at an inappropriate age may even cause long-term psychological damage.

Goblet is estimated to have cost $130 and $170m. It could be a good investment, however, considering that the first three films earned $2.5bn.

*The once-penniless author JK Rowling is laughing all the way to the bank. Having sold over 300m books as well as their film rights and merchandise, the author is reckoned to be richer than the queen with a fortune of ?750m.

*Daniel Radcliffe, the 16-year-old London actor who again plays the role of Harry, has grown up with the role. When he starred in the first film, he was 11.

*The latest installment sees the teenage schoolboy sorcerer taking an interest in the opposite sex for the first time. He has his first screen kiss with another trainee wizard.

*According to some accounts, Radcliffe’s parents tried to persuade their son not to go into show business.

*The idea for Harry first came to Joanna Rowling (the initials JK are used on her books so that she does not alienate boys) when she was travelling on a train in 1990.

*It was seven years before the first book was completed and published.

*On the popular website, MuggleNet, a writer known as Rainycat looks at “Irishisms in Harry Potter”.Ireland won the Quidditch World Cup in The Goblet of Fire. Quidditch teams include the Kenmare Kestrals and Ballycastle Bats. A character in Harry’s class is Seamus Finnegan.

*The Pope has reservations about the Harry Potter phenomenon. Earlier this year, before becoming Pontiff, he gave his endorsement to German author Gabriele Kuby who wrote a book criticizing the JK Rowling tales.