Michael Fassbender may be the face of Frank, but it’s Domhnall Gleeson’s mug you’ll be seeing the most in their movie. The 31-year-old Irish actor stars in the irreverent comedy as Jon, a wannabe-famous musician who drifts into the orbit of Fassbender’s unusual Frank, who fronts an arty indie band and keeps a wide-eyed papier-mâché mask over his head at all times. The film explores the desire for (and pitfalls of) fame, which is appropriate since Gleeson’s about to become lightyears more famous himself: He’s currently shooting J.J. Abrams’s eagerly anticipated Star Wars: Episode VII. Gleeson recently chatted up Vulture about both projects and how he’s preparing for the upcoming onslaught of attention.
Alongside your co-stars Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal, you and your fake Frank band recently guested on The Colbert Report. I love that you’re real people playing in a fictional band for a real talk-show host playing a fictional character.
It was a big deal, you know! We all had such a great time. I heard it afterwards, and I think it could have sounded a little dirtier, but I think it was a pretty decent performance, which is nice. The rush I got from performing onstage was tempered slightly by the fact that my keyboard skills were purely developed for this movie. I’ve got severe boundaries on that! We made the film a year and a half ago and I hadn’t played keyboard since then, so it was hilarious to go back into rehearsals, not having touched a keyboard for that long.
Frank is a delightfully absurd movie. Were there ever moments where you shot something, fully committed to it, and only realized later how ridiculous the thing was?
There’s a quick clip in a montage of Frank chasing me with a shovel, and they just needed a shot of Michael running in a field. I was there watching him, because I enjoy watching Michael work, and he ran into a boat. They kept rolling because it was too good not to film, and then he gestured at me to run into the frame … and as I got close to him, he pulled this shovel out of the rowboat and tried to hit me with it. [Laughs.] That’s when I started running away! He was wearing this big head and couldn’t see very well, and he’s sprinting after me with a shovel, and then he jumped on my back and I gave him a piggyback ride. It was absolutely crazy. At the end of that day, I thought, What just happened? If somebody had asked me, “What did you do last Tuesday?” I would have had to say, “I got chased around in a field by Michael Fassbender and I thought he was going to kill me.”
And that can’t be an easy mask to run around in. You can barely see out of it.
This may sound foolish to say, but that’s a small example of how Michael works. Yes, it was a dangerous thing to run in that mask — you risk falling on your face and making a fool of yourself — and Michael ran full-tilt every time. That’s just the kind of actor he is: He takes the risks, and they pay off.
The mask seems like the sort of thing that would get passed around a lot on set to try on.
Everybody gave it a go, but I was surprised to find that my head was too large. There was a little helmet attached to the inside of the mask, and it fit Michael’s head perfectly, but apparently my cranium is far too big.
You’ve dealt with fame before, especially since your father Brendan is a well-known actor. With much bigger projects like Star Wars looming, what do you make of the way it touches your life?
If someone complains about having success, you might think, What the hell are you talking about? You’d want to laugh. But the reality of it is that when I was younger and we’d go out, you’d get somebody who’s drunk who’d come up and wouldn’t leave him alone, or who’d try to take photos of us when we’re out as a family. I did find it stressful sometimes, and I found it annoying that he couldn’t go certain places because of what people would do. But the reason he’s well known is because he does very high-quality work and people like what he does, so it may be a futile thing to have a problem with.
Is a there a part of you that consciously knows how your life may change if you take on certain roles or projects, and course-corrects accordingly?
Good question. Something like Star Wars, you think about how it will affect your life, and then you realize you’re overthinking it. I was in Harry Potter, and nobody on the street recognizes me from that. Nobody on the street has ever stopped me from Harry Potter! People stop me for a comedy sketch I did where I was shitting in a bottle — that’s what people back home recognize me for.
Does your perception of yourself change based on the roles you are pursued for?
That’s a funny one. When I was younger, my father told me not to pigeonhole the way that I perceive myself. I’m not always that confident in the way I look — that was a much bigger thing when I was younger — but my dad said, “Don’t decide you can’t be in a romantic comedy,” for example. “There are other people in the world who will decide that for you, so don’t decide it for yourself ahead of time.” And it was a big deal, because when I got cast in Anna Karenina, it was in a romantic part that I wouldn’t have thought of myself for. The director was able to see something in me that I wasn’t able to see myself — he said, “No, you can be romantic, you can be attractive to somebody in a film and have that be a natural thing.”
Domhnall, stop! You’re handsome.
Not that I’m trying to pick you up or anything.
[Laughs.] I think everybody’s got their insecurities and hangups. Everybody! Unless you’re an idiot. I’ve gotten work based on how I look and I’ve not gotten work based on how I look. It’s all good.
How does it feel to know the top-secret plot of Episode VII and all the new characters, and yet you have to keep it completely secret from your friends for years?
My brother gave me some really good advice about it. He said, “Don’t tell anybody, because if you tell one person, it won’t feel as bad to tell a second person. If you tell no one, everything will be okay.” So I’ve told no one, and it’s working out fine. I do feel a wave come over me when I hear those two words, “Star” and “Wars,” said together. I feel tense, shut up, and stare into the middle distance.
Even beyond the fact that it’s a Star Wars film, the cast is stunning. I would see any movie that had you and Adam Driver and John Boyega and Oscar Isaac and Lupita Nyong’o.
And then you add Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher and everybody else! It’s just phenomenal. I am pragmatic, I think, when it comes to work, and the reason for me to do the film isn’t because it’s Star Wars. The reason for me to do the film is because it’s being directed by J.J. Abrams! It’s because Lawrence Kasdan is involved! It’s because of all those actors — God, Oscar Isaac is going to be in it! And that’s what you want, you want to work with the best people, so it’s just an absolute joy to be a part of it.
Do you feel any pressure as one of the very few redheads in the Star Wars universe?
I didn’t know they had redheads in space! [Laughs.] I think it would be wrong to put too much pressure on myself as a ginger, you know. Let other people decide that stuff, and I’ll just keep doing my job.