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

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

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.

Brendan Gleeson: Way more than that.

John Michael McDonagh: I know specifically, my father who’s a lifelong church-goer. When the scandals started coming up in the last 20, 15 years. He’s 76 now. He hasn’t gone to mass in five-ten years because of the fallout from it. People like that, their entire lives have been betrayed. Younger people I think are much more cynical about it, because they’ve grown up with one scandal after another.

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 Brad Balfour.

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 Brad Balfour.

Can you talk about the locations and part of grabbing it and how did you capture the bleak atmosphere?

John Michael McDonagh: It’s all shot in a town called Easkey in County Sligo, where my mother’s from. I used to spend summer holidays there. You can probably hear from my accent I’m not actually Irish. I’m from South London. So I used to go on summer holidays. All those shots, in the script you say a few shots of the town and the landscape and that’s down to Larry Smith who’s in charge of cinematography. The symbolic aspect of waves crashing onto a cliff face is something that comes up. You realize after you’ve shot it. I don’t think I had it in my mind when doing it. All of the great helicopter shots of the landscape. That looks amazing now, but that was all done in 25 minutes. We had a great caterer, and I wanted to get back for lunch.

Kelly Reilly: Lunch was the main objective every day.

John Michael McDonagh: The caterer was the second person hired after Brendan. He was the same caterer on The Guard. I was like, we got to get that guy back. We’ve got to secure him. When I got an edit of the helicopter sequence back, I said “That’s amazing, its going to make the film feel bigger at the very start.” I didn’t want to make the film seem like a parochial, small Irish movie. It does expand the whole film and expands it into something mythic, I think.

Brendan Gleeson: There’s also the commitment. I remember he came back slightly dizzy. It didn’t stop him from being in front, first in queue for the catering. It was dizzying about what they achieved up there. It’s a small, very tight schedule and it takes a particular sense of leadership and courage to have to say, “No, we’re traveling to Sligo.” We’re going to take a day out of the schedule to get there and a day out there. All the black cliffs were a part of his plan. He knew where it all was. The split rock, all of these things were massively part of the plan.

John Michael McDonagh: Where Dylan and Brendan had their conversation was where they drop unwanted pets into the waves to get rid of them.

Brendan Gleeson: Yeah, we were talking at The Dog’s Hole. That’s what they used to call it. It was all very much there when we read the thing, but then to go there… John mentioned before, talking about Benbulbin, which is the massive, big rock. There are elements of Monument Valley about that and the feeling that Benbulbin doesn’t care. As somebody told me one time when I went to buy a chainsaw, “It doesn’t care if it’s a leg or a tree.” There’s something about this landscape. We’re huge and we’re tiny in equal measure.

While you were shooting, Kelly where you doing Black Box at the time? Did you have time off?

Kelly Reilly: No, no. I didn’t start Black Box until last October and this was shot…. (to John) When did we shoot this?

John Michael McDonagh: It was October 2012.

Kelly Reilly: The previous October, yes.

Could you talk about the dialogue of the serial killer? That was controversial and this film doesn’t shy away from those topics.

John Michael McDonagh: It was actually loosely based on an interview I’ve seen with an actual serial killer. Where he was clearly insane and he was pedophile murderer and he couldn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to kill children. He was saying things that are appalling, but were comically funny because he has no recognition of his own insanity. I got that element from there and obviously elaborated on it myself. Talking about shifting scenes around. Initially in the script, Kelly’s scene with Brendan in the confessional, which is all about suicide, was right next to the scene with Domhnall Gleeson which is a very dark, philosophical scene, as well. That felt like two confessional scenes back to back, so I shifted them away from each other. Moved a lighter scene in between them. That scene was deliberately placed in the middle of the film to be the dark heart of the movie. What’s interesting about the way it all played and how Domhnall played it is you’re never sure – does he want to be forgiven or not? We’re not quite sure. It’s up for us to decide ourselves.

Kelly Reilly: You remember at the end of the film where there’s the beautiful moving montage of the characters, which I think is so beautiful. The character is sobbing in the pit of despair. The way that you can have sympathy for a serial killer is what makes the film very important.

********SPOILER ALERT******** Major plot point revealed.  Do not read the next few paragraphs until you see the film.

John Michael McDonagh: Also, a reading of the ending is that Chris O’Dowd’s character, who has obviously been a victim of abuse, is now in prison with abusers. They’re wearing the same jumpsuits. You’re assuming he’s in the same prison as Domhnall Gleeson.

Brendan Gleeson: One of the great things, I put a lot of emphasis when talking about this film about the sense of hope at the end. One of the other things in equal measure that you get from the film from Chris O’Dowd’s performance is the knowledge. I remember seeing Deliverance and understanding what rape meant finally. Because you see it happening. In this film you understand that child sex abuse is a lifetime sentence. In that scene at the beach, I still at that point that this man, was as much victim. There was no feeling of who’s the killer and who’s villain? It was gone. It was much more disturbing. He lived his life in pain.

I was wondering, was there always the inevitability that he would pull the trigger for you when you were conceiving the story?

John Michael McDonagh: He was always going to die, but I wasn’t sure until I was 2/3rds done who was going to be the killer though. It’s interesting, the scene right at the end in the original draft when Kelly’s character is trying to encourage him to pick up the phone, in the original draft he doesn’t pick up the phone. I thought this moment, we’d gone through this journey, lets have elements of growth in both characters. He picks up the phone and we end with a great final shot of Kelly. This is me going “Don’t do the nihilistic ending” Do something.

Kelly Reilly: You reveal yourself, sir. You’re a black soul. There’s hope for you.

*********SPOILER ALERT OVER!*********

Why did you leave a mystery with the dog?

John Michael McDonagh: I like those things in the movie where there’s thing one thing that isn’t explained. It is explained in the film.  There is a clue in the film.

One of the things that’s so strong about the film also is all the supporting characters and I don’t have to tell you that Ireland is known for a lot of its eccentrics.

Brendan Gleeson: It exported a lot of them too.

And we have a few here thanks to you guys.

Brendan Gleeson: Met a couple earlier on, actually.

That’s a whole story for another time. Can you talk about the development of some of these characters?

John Michael McDonagh: Well, I’m a big of Preston Sturges’ screwball comedies, which had lots of fast talking supporting casts. I’m a big fan of working with actors again and again as well as repertory companies. so there are a lot of people like Pat Shortt and Gary Lydon who were in The Guard. I actually found all of those characters quite easy to write in a way because they’re all confrontational towards the priest. But what I tried to develop was there had to be something deeper about them. The rich man appears to be a completely appalling person who has no feelings for anyone about anything but in the end, he’s the only one that asks for help. Aiden Gillen’s smirking, atheistic doctor is an appalling person, but he is helping the community out. He is a doctor. He’s saving lives. It’s not one reading. I’m trying to add subtler readings to each character. I think that appeals to actors, honestly, because they may have two or three scenes but they’re actually quite meaty scenes going on with their characters in it.

Do you know people that are not unlike the characters that you talk about?

John Michael McDonagh: Aiden Gillen is a smirking atheist character. The bishop is played by Dave McSavage who’s a confrontational Irish comedian. He has his own show called The Savage Eye. Pat Shortt is probably the wealthiest man in Ireland though he doesn’t like to talk about it. He’s just doing my brother’s [playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh] play The Cripple of Inishmaan. He’s a very popular comedic actor. A lot of those supporting actors are known for comedy. I just like working with those sorts of people. There’s a slightly different energy about them. I always found them quite committed.

Brendan Gleeson: So you looked for the eccentricities of your cast to inform the eccentricities of your characters.

John Michael McDonagh: Yes, just to help the weakness of the writing. I cast oddballs.

What about those characters with the conflict with the church. Did you put all of your conflicts of what you think of into a hat and pull them out?

John Michael McDonagh: In a way. There’s usually a rich man in town. Maybe he’s one that’s responsible for the financial crash but he got away with it. So you go, I’ve got a character that I can play around with that is also subject to dealing with all those kinds of elements as well. So that is a kind of way you structure the script so it goes along.

So not the seven deadly sins?

John Michael McDonagh: No, its loosely based around the five stages of grief, so its denial, bargaining, which is when he goes to get the gun, anger, depression is his lowest point in the bar, and then acceptance.

What was the intention with not following up with Jack’s character as a theme for his child, rather than not following up on the priest himself?

John Michael McDonagh: Because that’s a whole other movie. I’m trying to make the characters rich enough that you can follow each character off into their own film. You can tell Jack’s story. That would be a film in itself. But to deal with those issues, to me, to do it properly and to face it head on, which is the only way I’d want to do it, you’re basically making a horror film as far as I’m concerned. Which is fine, I just don’t want to make a horror film. I want to deal with those subjects a bit more obliquely.

Do you view the protagonist as a Christ figure beyond just the surface similarities?

John Michael McDonagh: I guess he becomes one in the end, but that wasn’t my intention starting out. Anyone who takes on a burden of suffering, and doesn’t react violently to it becomes a Christ figure I suppose.

Let’s talk about casting. How did you decide on those particular actors and talents?

John Michael McDonagh: Obviously, Brendan and I have worked before. I saw Kelly in a movie that wasn’t widely known called Eden Lake. Talk about horror movies, it’s one of the best performed horror movies I’ve seen. It was Kelly and Michael Fassbender. I’m not sure how widely released it was. The director James Marsh, went on to do Woman in Black which became a big hit. This was his first movie. So I’ve seen Kelly in that. Just one night I was watching Above Suspicion with Kelly and Ciaran Hinds and I thought “Oh, I’ve always liked Kelly. She’s got red hair, so she could play Brendan’s daughter.”

Kelly Reilly: That was my one quality. (laughs)

John Michael McDonagh: That was it. Gingers stick together.

What happened to it? (Her hair is now blonde.)

Kelly Reilly: Oh, I’m just hiding for a while.

John Michael McDonagh: I also had it in my mind for some reason, I wanted Kelly to wear the green coat that she wears, because I wanted to make a visual reference to [Michaelangelo] Antonioni’s Red Desert. I thought if people compared Kelly to Monica Vitti, they’d compare me to Antonioni.

Kelly Reilly: That’s a lot to put on my shoulders.

Brendan Gleeson: Marie Croze?

John Michael McDonagh: Marie Croze, she’s French Canadian, and I’ve seen her in lots of films like Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Tell No One. I like to watch a lot of movies. I like to have unexpected people show up, like M. Emmet Walsh. He’s in some island off the coast of Sligo. I joke about the Irish actors but Aiden Gillen I’ve known him for almost 20 years. Chris I didn’t know that well. I saw him be very funny but also abusive in an award ceremony where he’s a host and I thought “Oh, I’d like to work with a guy like that. That might be interesting.” Orla O’Rourke who plays Veronica was completely unknown to me really. I’ve always been really lucky with casting.

How about the altar boy?

John Michael McDonagh: The altar boy, that’s Mícheál [Óg Lane]. He was in The Guard as well. I just love that he’s got the face of a 65 year old man. He was a lovely kid on The Guard and he got really cocky when he showed up on Calvary. He was sort of slapping Larry Smith on the back. Giving Brendan line readings.

Brendan Gleeson: He was doing that in The Guard.

I always find it bold when you use these black characters in this world.

John Michael McDonagh: Yeah, well Isaach, again, I love Isaach De Bankolé from Jim Jarmusch movies. I just want to get away from, in America, islanders seem to be populated by lots of light haired, ginger people, because its not like that. I just wanted to get away from that, get away from that sort of image.

Brendan Gleeson: It’s not devoid of them.

John Michael McDonagh: It’s not devoid of them no. I want an easy life, I like to cast actors who are probably quite decent people and who drink a lot. And Kelly fit that.

Kelly Reilly: You didn’t know that.

John Michael McDonagh: Not at the time. I said something.

Brendan, what was it like shooting those scenes with your son, was it the first time you worked together?

Brendan Gleeson: No, we had worked together before. We had done a couple of things. We were in the Harry Potter thing, just very briefly. He announced my death I think, which was a dream come true for him. We had done a short, with John’s brother Martin “Six-Shooter,” which won the Oscar [for Best Short Film] actually.

John Michael McDonagh: That was a low ebb in my life.

Brendan Gleeson: Yes, I know this is what spurred all this creative genius in John. So to answer your question, we chatted about it. We were both huge admirers of John’s work but it began to emerge, we did the reading but we had a brief chat about it. I could find that he was sauntering off the perception and the vision of what was happening and the way that he was going to be. He was accessing a lot of stuff that was based in reality. He was looking for his own research base and things like that. We found that we weren’t really helping each other. So for about a week, we didn’t really speak. So we went to our different corners in the ring. Then we came in and just duked it out. It was almost confessional thing. John was saying that he set up his table in the center of a huge cell, a large holding area, in the jail. It was compromising and not really. I knew, I no longer had that particular son, for that particular time. I was in a rage about what I felt was his blasé attitude, his superficial kind of entertaining of this thing that he wasn’t sincere in his search for redemption or forgiveness. He didn’t really give a damn about the people whose lives he destroyed. I was enraged by it, so we didn’t really talk much in the beginning. Domhnall afterwards said it was the first time he saw me really kind of in it, in a bit of a state. He was determined to come back at me. One of the things I was really proud of him afterwards was that for everything I slammed at him, I got it right back in the face. It was fantastic. I know John was worried a little that it would take people out of the movie, but even people who knew his work didn’t recognize him in it. That was the main thing, that you don’t want to be compromising the film by saying “Oh, that’s his son.” A lot of people afterwards were asking “Who did Domhnall play?” It was proper actor to actor, which was a great bonus.

John Michael McDonagh: It was also the one day my brother Martin turned up, and he hadn’t read the script. He’s watching the monitor as the opening dialogue plays and he turns to me and says “I thought this was supposed to be a comedy.” Which is the way I was promoting it at the time.

Well, you mentioned that you don’t like writing, I’m wondering what did you did to get through it, and if you have any advice for someone who wanted to go into writing, does there need to be a calling, do you think?

John Michael McDonagh: Possibly, I think you need to have read quite a lot of novels to be a good writer yourself. I’ve never suffered writer’s block because I’m not going to sit there with nothing to do. You can go to the pub. You don’t have to sit in a room. I always have the first 20 minutes and the last 20 minutes in my head. I know the virtually the first act, and I know where I’m headed in the last act. So it’s more or less working out that middle section for me. I never sit down, I would usually write one day and the next day I would look at what I’ve written, think about it, write the next day. If I sit down again and have no ideas, I’ll get up again and do something else. Its not a heavy-going career where you sit there and brood all the time. I don’t feel that way at all. Listening to music, watching other great films, give you ideas. Sometimes you can watch a really bad film and it could have one good scene that wasn’t explored properly and you can get something out of that. That’s the way I approach it. a calling, I don’t think of it in that way. I just knew I could never do a nine-to-five job, and I wanted a job where you can get up at half twelve in the afternoon and then not have to say “yes sir” to anybody, so that was why I became a writer basically.

Do you have any plans?

John Michael McDonagh: This goes back to having scripts in your head, I’ve got the beginning and the end to the third one in planning. Hopefully, I’ll write it next year and its going to be about a spectacularly abusive paraplegic. So Brendan would be in a wheelchair in South London, going around. He hates anybody whose able-bodied, so he basically hates the entirety of society. Which, I guess that comes from me. It’ll be a dark comedy and it will have a crime element to it, because he tries to get his life in order by solving the murder of one of his disabled friends. He believes the police aren’t investigating it properly because the guy was disabled. That’s the overall sort of thing and I’ll be sitting down to do that in the first quarter of next year. Its called The Lame Shall Enter First which I stole from a Flannery O’Connor short story title.

Brendan, have you been preparing for this?

John Michael McDonagh: Yeah, he’s been sitting around a lot.

Brendan Gleeson: I like to believe that I have fantastic reservoirs of bile that I can kind of tap into easy enough. So crashing about into things and not being able to get access to things should be beautiful.

Will Kelly get her opportunity to bash about as well?

John Michael McDonagh: I’ve been thinking about Kelly playing a psychiatrist. She’s the girl who’s trying to get the man’s back on track and failing.

So that must be an interesting foot sight because you were the psychiatric patient in this film.

John Michael McDonagh: Hopefully it will have those kind of confessional sort of element to it.

Kelly Reilly: That’s it now, you’re committed.

Brendan Gleeson: Now you have to do it.

I won’t hold you to it.

Kelly Reilly: You have it on tape.

Are there things you have underway especially because you television career has been happening, can you talk about?

Kelly Reilly: Black Box just had its finale last night which I’m very proud of. I’ll see if that gets picked up, but I don’t think it is. We didn’t get the ratings. Its difficult times to get ratings in this country. Its not official. I don’t know. They could turn around and say yes. I just played in Caitlin Thomas in a film about Dylan Thomas. It’s the fiftieth anniversary of his death. He died in the streets of New York. It’s a very small little independent film that’ll be shot in Wales. I’m taking the summer off because I need to breathe and enjoy my life.

Brendan Gleeson: I just finished the Heart of the Sea, the Ron Howard movie, played with Ben Whishaw which was great. I got to sit around again, was good, I’m the narrator. They had to go into flashback, and fighting whales, getting thrown into water. I think that’s going to be interesting. I did Suffragette earlier in the year with a whole plethora of brilliant women actors. Meryl Streep dropped in. Sarah Gavron is the director. Carey Mulligan, Romola Garai, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter…

Kelly Reilly: That’s a lot of powerful women.

Brendan Gleeson: Oh yeah, it was a fantastic day. I was a CIA guy who was going about spying on them. I mean: dream job. That was that. I just finished another thing called Trespass Against Us which is set with English traveling people, Roman travelers in the Cotswolds. So that’s what’s in the cards.

Copyright ©2014 All rights reserved. Posted: August 1, 2014. 

Photo credits:

#1 © 2014 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.

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#4 © 2014. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.

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#9 © 2014 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.


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