Brendan Gleeson had just finished another movie and showed up, “exhausted,” to don a cassock to play an Irish Catholic priest in “Calvary.” He’d done his homework, as always. And he’d be working with his pal, playwright turned writer-director John Michael McDonaugh. They made “The Guard” together. But “Calvary,” a darkly comic tale of a good priest told he’s to be murdered for all the sins of the Catholic Church, was a workout the Great Gleeson wasn’t prepared for.
“Not for the pummeling I got, in every scene, day by day,” he says, laughing. Every village member of Father James Lavelle’s flock insults him, treats him with nothing but over-the-top comic contempt.
“Relentless,” McDonagh acknowledges with a chuckle. “And funny, I hope. Now, don’t let that change your travel plans. You’re not going to get that if you drop in on a small town in Ireland.”
Adulterers smirk and flaunt their sins. Wife beaters, drunks, an atheist doctor — almost to a one, they tear into the priest. It got to be a bit much.
“At one stage, we shoot a scene where Father Lavelle goes in and finds Aidan Gillens and Orla O’Rourke, their characters, sniffing coke in the loo, and I’m to walk straight back out again,” Gleeson recalls. “It was the last scene on a Friday, in the third week of shooting. I’m out on my feet and I needed a break. But, John, in his wisdom, whispered to Aidan, on one of the takes, to call me a name as I was going out. Which Aidan duly did.”
McDonagh admits to this. The ugly name? Let’s just say it rhymes with “trick.”
“I got outside the door,” Gleeson says, sounding more irked as he recalls the story, “and I very nearly went BACK in. I’m not joking you. ‘WHAT did you say? WHAT?’ I had to take a walk and count to 10 and stuff, because it was pretty full-on and I’d had enough of just this relentless abuse, I must say.”
“Calvary” has been called “a meditation on Ireland and its religious disillusion” (Siobhan Synnot, The Scotsman newspaper). But McDonaugh, who like his playwright/ filmmaker younger brother Martin (“In Bruges”) has made dark Irish comedies with religious undertones his stock in trade, would like that clarified.
“To me, it’s not an anti-religious film, it’s an anti-authority film,” McDonagh says. “The problem with the Catholic Church is its power in Ireland ... They were colluding with the police, colluding with the government, to such a degree that you had pedophile priests covered up by the police and the government ... That’s been true, to a lesser extent, with this scandal, all over the world.
“So the film’s not an attack on the church. It’s an attack on authority.”
He had an idea of doing a trilogy of pictures with Gleeson, probably best-known as Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter films. And “one night in a pub, in Galway, as we wrapped up ‘The Guard,’ it struck me that we should do a movie about a good priest, kind of go against the grain of what the news is full of — bad priests.”
Father Lavelle would be a widower with a troubled adult daughter, a man who drank and threw punches in his younger years. And he’d wear an old-fashioned full-length cassock.
“I was a big fan of those old Italian spaghetti Westerns, which always seemed to have some sort of ‘whiskey priest’ — a stock character,” McDonagh says. “So ‘Let’s have Brendan wear a cassock, grew a beard, stand on the beach and wait for his doom.’”
The film’s dread-filled opening scene, with Father Lavelle listening, patiently and calmly, as an unseen man in the confessional tells him he was molested as a child and will kill the only priest handy — Lavelle — in a week, was filmed last. That gave Gleeson time to get a grip on how to play it.
“That notion of absorbing people’s pain, the idea that you think you have a bottomless well of optimism and finding out there’s a bottom to that well, I got that from all the weeks of abuse from the other characters on the set,” Gleeson says. “Other people are taking these buckets of optimism out of your well can make you run dry. You’ve got to be self-protective.”
Gleeson has been praised for giving “a performance of monumental soul” (Justin Chang in Variety), and “Calvary” has earned rave reviews in those countries where it’s opened. It opens in the U.S. on Friday.
Meanwhile, the director and his big redheaded muse are plotting a third leg of the trilogy. It is to be titled “The Lame Shall Enter First,” McDonagh says, “and Brendan will be playing a really amusing paraplegic — angry, funny, and in a wheelchair.”
Gleeson laughs and speaks of “trepidation” about that collaboration
“John, he continually giggles when he starts describing to me the picture of me crashing and banging into doors and cars and everything that gets in your way when you’re in a wheelchair,” Gleeson says. “He has some point he’s going to make, his malicious reasons for doing that, I am sure.”