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Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly and John Michael McDonagh Take a Dark Look At Religion In Calvary

Updated: Apr 30, 2020

Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly and John Michael McDonagh at the New York press day from "Calvary" at the Crosby Street Hotel, July 25, 2014.  Photo copyright 2014 Jay S. Jacobs.

Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly and John Michael McDonagh at the New York press day from “Calvary” at the Crosby Street Hotel, July 25, 2014. Photo copyright 2014 Jay S. Jacobs.

Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly and John Michael McDonagh

Take a Dark Look At Religion In Calvary

by Jay S. Jacobs

When Irish actor Brendan Gleeson and writer/director John Michael McDonagh worked together on the surprisingly popular 2011 hit The Guard, a movie dream team was born. Gleeson and McDonagh saw a kindred spirit and mixed their quirky senses of humor with a slightly morbid fascination with humanity’s dark side.

However, while The Guard was a whip-smart and highly cynical action comedy, it gave no clue of the gravity that would suffuse their follow-up film.  Calvary is a gorgeously bleak look at faith and religion in a cynical world.  Gleeson does stunning work as Father James Lavelle, a man who joined the priesthood late and though he has an unconventional style for the clergy, he is a truly good man who is dedicated to his flock.

As Calvary opens, Father James is taking confession from a congregant who tells him of a childhood being abused by a priest and threatens to kill the father in one week to get some sort of deluded moral justice.  Instead of running or even turning the parishioner who made the threat in (Father James says that he does know who it was, though the audience doesn’t), the priest stays in his small Irish village.

As the week passes, the Father deals with the cynicism and disrespect of townspeople, including an angry butcher (Chris O’Dowd), his cheating wife (Orla O’Rourke), her African lover (Isaach De Bankole), a privileged businessman (Dylan Moran) and several other eccentrics.  In the meantime, he tries to repair his strained relationship with his estranged daughter (Kelly Reilly).

A week before Calvary has its US premiere, following critical applaud in Europe, we were on of several sites who were able to sit down again with Gleeson and McDonagh (we had spoken with them for The Guard as well) and got to meet their new co-star Reilly. Here’s what they had to say.

Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly and John Michael McDonagh at the New York press day from "Calvary" at the Crosby Street Hotel, July 25, 2014.  Photo copyright 2014 Jay S. Jacobs.

Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly and John Michael McDonagh at the New York press day from “Calvary” at the Crosby Street Hotel, July 25, 2014. Photo copyright 2014 Jay S. Jacobs.

Approaching a topic that is so hard hitting and touches on lots of nerves, did you discuss beforehand about how you would address issue, or was it just unabashed or uninhibited?

John Michael McDonagh: No. In terms of writing, I don’t think about the ramifications of what I’ve written. I think the actors just play the characters and not the themes, whatever their themes are. That’s the way we approached it. You’re trying to play human beings and trying to tell a story. That was the approach.

You had to bring it to life. Its tough to connect with those feelings of lack of appreciation and understanding this issue.

Brendan Gleeson: Of the larger issue? No, not really, I grew up in Ireland, see. The whole thing, the whole scenario was immediately familiar. We had chatted about how difficult it must be for a man to maintain his sense of commitment to the cloth when there’s been such heinous things committed and covered up. Its not that we were blind to the issues, but as it emerged, the script was very, very dense. There were so many paths you could follow. I remember being absolutely exhausted at the end of the reading when all the different actors came in. Everybody had invested in it. Everybody brought something to it, so there’s an intensity in it. There’s no questioning the level of intensity that was involved. Every stage grew into itself. It wasn’t something where you do this and we’d do that. We had preparation, but ultimately we were allowed. It was a testament to John’s leadership and his collaborative methods that we founds things in the scene. Everytime we went in we found new stuff.

Kelly Reilly: My character Fiona, she’s… luckily, I think… she’s not part of this community. She walks into it with a different energy. She doesn’t really even know the world that he lives in. It exists, in these people and this community. She says after Veronica in the café “You have to put up with this shit on a regular basis.” Quite frankly, I think she should have taken her out. Actually, in one version of that scene she did.

John Michael McDonagh: Oh, that’s right. There was a slap.

Kelly Reilly: It was a slap. She said something quite provocative to him. She took it upon herself to say, “Excuse me, you know he can’t respond, but I certainly can.” I just love that about her, I don’t know why it didn’t make the cut.

Brendan Gleeson: Because you slice her with your words.

John Michael McDonagh: If you look at those big emotional scenes between Brendan and Kelly’s characters, they’re not to do with any of the scandals. They are to do with personal issues. They’re the most moving sequences in the movie.

Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly and John Michael McDonagh at the New York press day from "Calvary" at the Crosby Street Hotel, July 25, 2014.  Photo copyright 2014 Jay S. Jacobs.

Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly and John Michael McDonagh at the New York press day from “Calvary” at the Crosby Street Hotel, July 25, 2014. Photo copyright 2014 Jay S. Jacobs.

There’s striking the balance between empathy and these churches dealing with the particular issues. On a larger scale, what brought you to the project?

John Michael McDonagh: The initial idea was just to tell the story about a genuinely good person and not be ironic. There’s too much irony in movies these days. I’m guilty of it myself, but the intention was to deliberately get away from that. To have a completely sincere leading character. It developed into: There’s probably going to be a lot of movies made about these scandals. Let’s make a movie about a good priest rather than a bad one. As a way of flipping it on its head. That was the initial discussion and it just grew from there.

Brendan Gleeson: My fascination as a character was imagine being a good man. There were two priests that we knew of that were accused of pedophilia in the wrong. I said God almighty, imagine committing your life to something that is positive and then to be besmirched with this thing. You never recover from that accusation. The way people think of you is shattered forever. There’s always someone going to think there’s no smoke without fire. How do you maintain? How do you maintain faith, or anything in that regard? That’s where I came to it from.

Brendan Gleeson stars in the film "Calvary."

Brendan Gleeson stars in the film “Calvary.”

This film is obviously much darker than The Guard, but like that film it does have some extremely funny parts and lines. Was it hard to balance the humor with the blackness of the situation?

John Michael McDonagh: I can’t speak for the actors how they balanced it. As a writer, as I said, I don’t think too much about it when I’m writing. I write very quickly. I like to get over and done with this as quickly as possible. It’s a very boring career sitting in a room alone for three or four hours a day.

Brendan Gleeson: You’re talking to a bunch of writers! (Everyone laughs.)

John Michael McDonagh: I like to sit down and just churn it out, in the space of three weeks if I can. I only start thinking about those kinds of… let’s say tonal balance… in the editing suite. So it would be a case of: Okay, I just realized there are three incredibly dark scenes in a row. Maybe we should shift them around and have some light relief in between. There is a sort of episodic nature to the script in the movie. I knew that in the writing I could shift that without compromising the narrative flow really. I could move scenes around. How you play it, I guess, I assume, the actor’s play the character rather than the tonal shifts.

Brendan Gleeson: Yeah, I think it’s an aspect anyway. Certainly at home it’s a big thing. There’s great hilarity at funerals and things like that. It’s a very cathartic way of releasing a little bit of tension out of something. The relationship between myself and between Kelly… between Fiona and Lavelle… they share kind of a soul mate ship that has been fractured and has lost its way. One of the things they do is make each other laugh.

Kelly Reilly: There’s a banter.

Brendan Gleeson: There’s a banter, yes. And it’s a little quirky under the mouth.

Kelly Reilly: And it reveals how well they know one another and how similar they are.

John Michael McDonagh: They’re very erudite people.

Kelly Reilly: I think it’s a useful tool to release some of the pressure and the discomfort.

Brendan Gleeson: Yeah, they’re in a trauma really, aren’t they? That happens a lot. A lot of people say very hurtful things through humor in this piece, too. They get a funny ha-ha…. It’s half funny and half serious, or totally serious. The barbs come through, but also the tenderness can be facilitated through humor. So it becomes integral. I certainly don’t split them up. It’s part of the way you negotiate through this murk.

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson star in "Calvary."

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson star in “Calvary.”

Speaking of tone, the first scene of the movie sets the tone for the film. Where did the idea come from? Is that how you wanted to start it?

John Michael McDonagh: I always knew the opening line was the opening line. I like pre-credit sequences. That’s my version of a Michael Bay pre-credit sequence.

Kelly Reilly: It doesn’t cost as much money to do.

John Michael McDonagh: No, its just one actor and some good dialogue. So you’re trying to write a shocking opening pre-credit that will hopefully nail people to their seats. They will want to know what the conclusion is. You’re telling the audience you’re not going to get The Guard 2, if that’s what you’re expecting. You tell them in the opening line. We showed it at Sundance and there would still be laughs at the opening line, and then people would go “Oh God, this is going to get serious.” Then it gets funny again. People are completely wrong-footed right from the opening scene. You’re setting the tone for the entire movie right there in the first piece.

Often times a priest can be judgmental even though they try to stand on a common ground there.

John Michael McDonagh: Well the priest at one point says, “Yes, I am judgmental, but I try not to be.”

Brendan Gleeson and Chris O'Dowd star in "Calvary."

Brendan Gleeson and Chris O’Dowd star in “Calvary.”

After the opening scene, you expect he can be judgmental because of that notion. How do present that a priest can stand in a common ground at the same time as he can be judgmental?

John Michael McDonagh: Specifically, the scene where he goes to the rich man’s house, Fitzgerald, I think that was originally written as quite a confrontational scene. Brendan said “You know, he’s still trying to help the guy and save him, so I don’t think he would react as confrontationally as you’ve written it.” So I finessed the dialogue a little bit there and dealt with it. The priest is a good man, but he’s very acerbic and he’s prepared to sarcastically put down people who are threatening him, or verbally trying to abuse him. He’s not a weak character. He’s not a naïve character. He’s the direct opposite of the other priest, who’s basically a pointless priest.

Brendan Gleeson: I think there’s a case there where taking a death threat focuses the mind. I think he was that way anyway. He’s lived a life where he doesn’t sweat the small stuff. There are a lot of things I’d be asking, I’m not sure if you can sanction that. Like where’s he talking and he asks “Have you ever used porn?” Rather than actually killing people.

Kelly Reilly: You think that’s part of the death threat?

Brendan Gleeson: Sex and death. What can you say? Yea, I do think that he doesn’t sweat it. I’m not sure he would put that out there.

Kelly Reilly: Also, he wasn’t always a priest. He became a priest later. He was a normal red-blooded man. He has a child and has been married. And that’s what makes him so extraordinary.

Brendan Gleeson: Exactly, John opened the door. He wasn’t a naïve seminarian who knew nothing else, only prayers. He was somebody who had experience with life. Whether that’s acceptable with the Catholic Church or not, I’m not sure. There was a dialogue that was going on, so understand I your question. What’s been interesting is for people who are Catholic; they wish priests were more like them.

Brendan Gleeson stars in "Calvary."

Brendan Gleeson stars in “Calvary.”

Since Sundance and the other screenings in the UK, have the clergy or groups of clergy had a chance to see it? Have they responded in a way that you would like to share about?

John Michael McDonagh: As far as I’m aware, there’s been no official response to it. We have gotten a lot of positive reviews in Christian magazines and newspapers. It’s been appreciated as this sincere, questioning film. Anecdotally, one of the actors who plays the policeman who has the sort of gay hustler in his house, he went to mass. The local priest recognized him and shook hands with him and said “I really enjoyed your movie.” Then, in the sermon at mass, he encouraged everyone to go and see it. That’s individuals isn’t it? We think about the church as this hierarchal organization but its made of human beings so all of their responses are going to be different.

Brendan there seems to be a moment in the film where you have an epiphany of what you’re going to do. Get the gun, it seems like self-defense and you’re taking on this person. You want to live, but there is a moment where you decide not to. I’m not sure why you got rid of the gun. Could you explain that?

Brendan Gleeson: Yeah, maybe it’s different in Ireland than in America. There’s been too many guns. I don’t think it’s who he is. We’ve looked at the issue of self-defense with Milo about the whole notion of joining an army at peacetime. I think that’s an anathema to who he is. It’s not what he’s doing. He absorbs the pain of others. He doesn’t deliver it. There is a tipping between the notion of his responsibility, for example to Fiona, by going down and putting his life in danger that way. Is that yet another betrayal? Is there any death wish? I never felt the death wish. I always felt he was trying to put an end to that despair and absorb the pain if necessary. And death if necessary. That’s where his strength was. Not in aggressively fighting back with hate or with violence, but to absorb it.

John Michael McDonagh: He has the moment of weakness where he gets the gun. That’s his bargaining with his own life. The question of self-defense is a tricky one. Most of us what probably defend ourselves, but obviously he comes to the conclusion at the end that he shouldn’t do that. You also should remember that after he throws the gun away, he has to meeting with the Dylan Moran character and he says, “I’ll talk to you later.” He’s still hoping. He’s not expecting to be killed. He’s hoping he’ll still be around.

Do you think he’s going there thinking he can save this guy?

Brendan Gleeson: Oh, totally. I think that’s totally it. He keeps saying it’s not too late. Even after he’s shot the first time, he’s still saying he’s not going to look away; he’s going to present himself there. I didn’t feel Christ like moving through this film, at all even though it’s Calvary, that’s where He was crucified. But on the beach was a certain amount of hanging tough and saying it’s still there if you want it. There’s still hope. That’s what’s so beautiful about the end scene with Fiona. It’s such an exhilarating thing to have a film that actually commits itself to forgiveness and hope, possibly.

John Michael McDonagh: The character we eventually reveal is going to be the killer, he has the scene on the beach with his wife where he says “No one is a lost cause.” He’s going down there trying to save the man, not expecting to be killed.

Kelly Reilly stars in "Calvary."

Kelly Reilly stars in “Calvary.”

When did you first become aware of this issue in the Church and how does it make you feel?

Kelly Reilly: I feel I’ve always known about it, all my life.

Brendan Gleeson: So have I.

Kelly Reilly: It feels like it’s been something that as long as I’ve been a thinking adult, it’s been around and talked about.

John Michael McDonagh: It’s been the last 20 years, at least.