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"There's a great liberation in playing someone who doesn't care what other people think of him and who makes his own rules," Brendan Gleeson says.
Gleeson should know. In the course of his 22-year acting career, the 56-year-old has played a wide variety of colorful characters, many of whom followed their own codes of behavior. His career-making role in The General (1998) was a master criminal, for example, and in Gangs of New York (2002) he played a mercenary-turned-politician.
In his new film, The Guard, opening across the United States through August, the Dublin-born Gleeson plays Sgt. Gerry Boyle, a policeman in a small Irish town who crosses paths with a drug-trafficking ring. Forced to team up with an American FBI agent (Don Cheadle), Gerry resists behaving in a rational way -- or at least that's what his new partner thinks.
"Gerry is a character to die for," Gleeson says, speaking by telephone from the West of Ireland. "Gerry's a lonesome individual, more smart than dumb. There's a certain amount of wastage happening, and large doses of cynicism have crept in. He was an interesting guy to go at, because every time you thought you knew him there was something else around the corner.
"I suppose it's a buddy movie and a character study," he adds. "And obviously it's a comedy, but it also has a certain depth unusual in straight comedies. If people don't find it funny, that would be pretty offensive."
"Offensive" is an interesting word choice, because Gerry directs many offensive racial remarks toward his new partner.
"He doesn't mean any of it," Gleeson insists. "What's behind it is mischief, not malice. It can constitute a kind of bullying, but I don't think Gerry takes on people incapable of standing up for themselves. If I thought malice was behind it, I wouldn't say it.
"Gerry is trying to wind Cheadle's character up," he continues, "but the penny drops pretty quickly. They both know nothing is behind it.
"Half the idea is to play it straight so people aren't quite sure," Gleeson adds. "It happens a lot in Ireland. People tell tall tales and see how long they can make people believe them."
Before Gleeson became a professional actor, he taught Irish and English at a school outside Dublin for a decade.
"Teaching and acting are basically the same job," he says. "It's just a question of having a captive audience or not. I enjoyed teaching and, if acting hadn't been pressing in, I might have been tempted to stay at it."
Gleeson switched careers in 1989.
"I was acting from the time I left secondary school but not getting paid," he says, referring to his years performing while studying at University College Dublin. "You have a different attitude when you go full-time and have to support a family." (He and his wife, Mary, have four sons, two of whom -- Domhnall and Brian -- are actors.)
Gleeson quickly found work in movies, including The Field (1990), Far and Away (1992), and The Snapper (1993). His first big role came in Braveheart (1995), in which he played a warrior fighting side by side with William Wallace (Mel Gibson) against the English.
Then director John Boorman cast him as criminal mastermind Martin Cahill in The General.
"It was the first time I'd been asked to carry a movie and felt competent at it," Gleeson recalls. "Boorman was a great director, and he pushed me into deeper places than maybe I would have gone without him. I realized the challenge that was there and realized that, if I worked hard enough at it, I could rise to it."
Soon Gleeson was appearing in almost every Irish movie made and a number of Hollywood productions as well. He was a business executive in Mission: Impossible II (2000), a traveling musician and father of Renee Zellweger's character in Cold Mountain (2003), and Menelaus in Troy (2004). He also continued to work in Europe, playing a criminal on vacation in In Bruges (2008) and Winston Churchill in Into the Storm (2009).
He also joined the Harry Potter franchise in the fourth film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), as Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody, the surly, eccentric professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts. The character became a fan favorite, returning in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) before meeting his death in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010).
"People now refer to me as 'the guy from Harry Potter,' " Gleeson says. "I had a lot of fun with those films. When I started, I didn't realize how big the whole thing was.
"The great thing about Harry Potter is that they weren't afraid to frighten the kids and show that there are bad things in the world," he adds. "I didn't mind not being in the final film, because my character was dead. It would have been really boring. If there was no proper function for me there, I didn't want to be there."
He might not have had time anyway. Gleeson has four films awaiting release: In Albert Nobbs, starring Glenn Close, he plays "a doctor in the hotel (where Close's character works)," he says. "He's running away from a situation in Belfast, where he had two women instead of one. He's drinking himself to a certain comfort zone in the hotel and is also a paternal influence."
In The Raven, a fictional take on the last four days of Edgar Allan Poe's life, Gleeson plays "the father of the girl (Alice Eve) that Poe (John Cusack) is courting," Gleeson says. "He doesn't think Poe is a good suitor."
In Safe House, a thriller starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, Gleeson plays a CIA agent. And in The Cup, based on a true story, he plays an Irish horse trainer who goes down to Australia with a horse to try to win the 2002 Melbourne Cup.
"It can be more fun to play baddies," Gleeson says. "But I'm glad to be able to cross over. Baddies can be so seductive that you begin to feel, 'This is the only place that's cool.' But there's another way of looking at the world. So I like to balance it out."
To widen his opportunities, Gleeson has begun writing screenplays.
"I wrote a few plays when I was working with a drama company that encouraged me," he says. "They weren't great literature, but I knew there were certain things I could do."
So, after buying the film rights to Irish writer Flann O'Brien's novel At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) seven years ago, he began working on the screenplay. The book is about a young writer whose fictional characters rebel against him.
"It's been a huge challenge and has been occupying my head for far too long," Gleeson says. "The book is not an easy read. It's quite anarchic. The characters are pretty insane and hilarious. I'm trying to get a structure and hold onto the madness, which is quite a challenge."
Nothing seems to daunt the actor, although he admits to a few worries.
"Sometimes I fear I've (only) scratched the surface of things," Gleeson says. "As an actor it's OK to become obsessed by something for a while and then move on to another thing. You can spread yourself too widely and actually achieve nothing. But you can have a lot of fun."