The Irish love to come home. Give a British artist – from Alfred Hitchcock to Anthony Hopkins – a sniff of international success and they’re off to Hollywood, seldom looking back until financial ruin or old age overcomes them. But take an Irish icon like Brendan Gleeson, who has seen success in the US (Gangs of New York, Troy) and the UK (as Mad-Eye in the Harry Potter series) and he’ll come running back to the old country at the drop of a decent script.
Of course, it helps when that script is as good as The Guard. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (brother of In Bruges writer Martin) and set in Ireland’s ‘wild west’, Connemara, the film follows the adventures of a deeply unconventional police officer – Gleeson’s vice-loving, authority-baiting Sergeant Gerry Boyle – when a gang of international drug smugglers and a by-the-book FBI agent pitch up on his turf.
The film was shot in and around the scenic seafront town of Galway, so it seems only fitting that its Irish premiere should take place in the same spot, as part of the area’s annual Film Fleadh. Cast and crew have gathered at flash local hotel The G – location for one of the film’s sauciest scenes – to celebrate their achievement and present the film to the Irish public. Every one of them seems thrilled to be back.
‘There’s a difference between going to visit somewhere and having a good time there, and working in it,’ Gleeson enthuses before the premiere. ‘Just working every day in Connemara, it felt like we were part of the place. The country is a character in the film.’
It seems appropriate that, as the crowds gather for the premiere, the skies open and Galway is doused in black sheets of Atlantic rain. The weather was even worse during shooting. ‘It was November and December, the worst winter in something like 300 years,’ says Gleeson. ‘The days were short and the Atlantic was being bucketed at us, horizontally. There were a few particularly blue-lipped night shifts! But the people were brilliant: incredibly helpful, incredibly practical and really accepting. We all missed it when we left.’
So how does Gleeson think people are going to react to a film which depicts their local Garda as either drug-crazed or seriously corrupt? ‘I’m pretty confident they are going to get a good laugh out of it,’ he chuckles. ‘The producers got 40 Guards into a room and showed them the film and they laughed their heads off. Before we made it, I wasn’t quite sure – would they get insulted by the drugs and stuff? But they saw themselves as having Boyle’s integrity.’
Was Gleeson inspired by any particular Garda officer to create the character of Boyle? ‘When I was about 19, I was hitching not too far from here and there was a Guard in full uniform sitting at the bar. He bought us a pint and asked us what we were up to. It was a small village, here were two lads coming in from Dublin and this guy knew exactly what our business was without ever putting us up against a wall. There was a way of policing the country at that point that worked. And these guys would talk about anything under the sun – religion or China or anything. Gerry is of that generation, a bit gnarly and a bit provocative, but very widely read and a big film buff. But you’ll never hear him admit he’s well-read – he’s going to hide it as well as he can! I don’t know, I think maybe that’s changed.’
The Garda aren’t the only thing in Ireland that’s changing: with the downturn in the Irish economy, is there even more pressure on a film like The Guard to be successful? ‘Well, in a recession films are a relatively cheap way of being entertained,’ Gleeson muses. ‘So the industry itself is not necessarily in trouble. For me, it’s just about keeping the standards up. We’re a small country so we have to punch above our weight. I’m not a great man for doing something just because it’s Irish, and you never know what’s going to work. But as long as we keep the standards up, people will continue to invest in films. It’s as simple as that.’
At the party following the premiere, there’s certainly no sense that this is an industry on the rocks: bubbly flows, hors d’oeuvres circulate and Sharon Shannon’s version of ‘Galway Girl’ blasts from the speakers. Gleeson stands chatting with legendary Irish comedian Pat Shortt, glad-handing the punters and generally looking happy to be back.
Does he feel some kind of responsibility to keep returning, to ensure the continued success of Irish film? ‘Ah, no! I feel privileged! This part of the world is where I come to get my soul back in shape. But I don’t come back to do garbage. I try to keep my own standards up, as well. I don’t want to get all misty about it but I do genuinely like being here. I find it inspirational. I don’t think you’d have found a character quite like Gerry Boyle anywhere else!’ Or indeed, I want to add, a character quite like Brendan Gleeson.