Domhnall Gleeson has quietly racked up a formidable résumé — acclaimed stage work, tertiary roles in two of the biggest cinematic franchises ever to storm the silver screen, indie successes running the gamut from cerebral sci-fi to hanky-dampening melodrama — but he still uncomfortably chuckles whenever he receives a compliment. He’s a thoughtful guy, ready with a lucid analysis for seemingly any entry on his filmography, but he’d rather get into that textual nitty-gritty than prattle on about himself. Which makes for easy, illuminating conversation, as he amply proved one morning, over the phone, from his home in Ireland. Vulture chatted with Gleeson about his latest, The Little Stranger, an unusual and unusually well-executed new horror film, but the chat spun out into an survey of his body of work, from Star Wars to Harry Potter to Black Mirror.
In the course of my research on The Little Stranger, I read that Sarah Waters’s original novel was intended as a commentary on postwar culture in Britain. Being from the U.K., I thought you’d be able to provide some insight on that.
When you talk about the culture after the war, what you’re really talking about is the class system, and how there had been big changes to it. Wealthy families had these huge houses, and they’d keep them even after the war left them flat broke, letting them fall into disrepair rather than part with them. These people had a sort of social wealth, and yet at the same time they didn’t have the money to maintain that lifestyle. It was a strange crossing over, families living in mansions when they could barely afford to eat, just for the sake of maintaining appearances. For many people, these houses would eventually become expensive tombs. When we meet Doctor Faraday [his character in Little Stranger], he hasn’t lost the golden image of what the Ayres family represented to him as a child, even though their circumstances have totally changed.
Oh, sure, we’ve got that in America — Grey Gardens and all that.
Yes! [Co-star] Ruth [Wilson] was the one who brought up Grey Gardens first of all, and that made total sense to me. Places like this are the perfect location for a ghost story, with all the crumbling façades slowly revealing the horrors within.
Did you have any familiarity with the novel before taking this job?
I had not read the novel, but that was for the best. It meant that when I read the script, all I was reading was the script. I didn’t have anything in my head hanging over it, so I didn’t have to second-guess any of how I felt. When I did read the novel, I was taken by these characters that I just couldn’t make head or tail of. The question of whether there’s a ghost in the house that’s helping them destroy themselves, or whether they’re simply driving each other mad — I loved that the novel refused to give answers about what’s real and what isn’t, until the final page. Rather unusual, to see a story where the climax comes very nearly on the final word of the final page.
The Little Stranger is unorthodox for the horror genre, even among the ranks of gothic horror, which got me thinking about how the movie’s been sold to the public. It seems like a difficult project to advertise. A lot of the people who saw Crimson Peak, which is in a similar tonal register, found that it wasn’t what they expected. Do you have any thoughts on the matter?
It’s … hmm. You are right. It is a difficult sell. To be honest about it, once you start using the phrase “hard movie to describe,” most people immediately tune out. Viewers don’t want to go see a movie if they’ve got no idea what it is. And having seen the movie, I can say that it’s also quite different than how I thought it’d be while we’re shooting it. There are a couple of great filmmakers that I’ve had the privilege to work with —Alex Garland, I’ve worked with a few times — and this is my second time with Lenny. I really do think he’s one of the best filmmakers in the world, and in an ideal world, all you’d have to say is “it’s a Lenny Abrahamson movie” to get people out for this. He was nominated for the Oscar! Of course, it’s not that simple. The movie’s scary, there’s a mounting sense of dread, but it’s tricky. [The production team] has been having a real interesting debate over how to talk about it, because part of the pleasure is how it unravels itself and gradually reveals what it really is. It gains strength as it unravels, and then hurtles through the last half-hour as it progresses to that final big moment. I’ve said it’s a bit like The Others. It’s like Downton Abbey’s weird cousin down the row, who they don’t invite around anymore. There are ways of talking about it that convey how interesting it is, and we’re figuring them out.
You’ve made a habit of identifying talent early on. There’s Lenny, you worked with Martin McDonagh in your very first film and he was all over the Oscars last year, you were with Alex Garland even before he got the nod for Ex Machina. What’s your sixth sense for telling who’s going to make it like that?
I would say that each of those filmmakers was far more progressed in their respective careers than I was in mine when I first worked with them. Martin McDonagh was already a phenomenon by the time I did Six Shooter. His writing holds a special place in my mind and my imagination. He was a superstar to me, and so was Alex, who had written just the sort of genre movies I cherish with 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal were both eager to work with Lenny on Frank, too; he had made a pair of phenomenal films called Adam & Paul and Garage that caught our attention. So there’s really no sixth sense on my part, these people had proven themselves. It’s just a matter of recognizing the excellence that maybe the whole world hasn’t seen yet.
Your first onscreen credit, Six Shooter, ended up winning an Academy Award. How’d you keep from developing an ego?
Oh, I had a very small part in Six Shooter, and that’s not being self-deprecating. I pop in and out of that movie incredibly quickly. So that definitely helped. Nothing grounds an actor quite like this: I’d done a play on Broadway with my favorite playwright, won a Tony, all this great stuff was happening in my life, and I arrived back in Dublin afterward at age 22, hoping to get work. I was then unemployed for ten months, just looking for a role for nearly a year. I pretty much started over from the bottom. I figure that could happen to me again at any time. If anything keeps an actor in check, it’s the constant specter of unemployment. That’s my truest answer.
I interviewed Christopher Plummer earlier this summer who said that he’s gotten tired of people coming up to him to tell him how much they love The Sound of Music, because he’d done so much other work he was proud of. I’m curious if you’re in the same boat at all, regarding your parts in the Star Wars or Harry Potter movies.
That’s very honest of him!
He’s been pretty open about it over the years. What surprised me was that he suggested he was starting to warm up to it, and that he’s glad to be recognized at all.
Right, yeah, that’s my thinking. If you’re an artist, and anything you’ve done makes an impact, you count yourself lucky. Harry Potter mattered to me even before I was in his movies! I totally get why people would be excited to see someone they know from their favorites. At the same time, I also feel like there are a couple of films I’ve done that have really hung around though you might not expect it. I did a romance called About Time, and I get approached about that one a lot when I’m in the States. I’m really proud and appreciative when one of the non-blockbusters has that staying power.
All right, lightning round. Which shoot was more intense, The Revenant or Mother!?
The Revenant, for sure, but that’s just sheer time. That was seven months in the freezing cold, all out in nature, and I was on set for about a week on Mother!.
You were in A Futile and Stupid Gesture back in the winter, an account of the National Lampoon’s heyday. What never fails to make you laugh?
Alan Partridge, the series. It’s a masterpiece. It’ll be here forever, like Hamlet. I love Steve Coogan, all of the The Trip pictures as well.
Did taking the job on Black Mirror change how you think about technology?
Yes. There’s one moment where my character’s desperately searching for his phone. He just stands in the hallway and looks around blankly. I forget what the stage direction was, but it was really good. That’s when I realized I had done the same thing so many times, looking for my phone and feeling lost without it. So, yeah, I’ve tried to use my phone less since then. Sometimes, I fail. But at least I’m mindful of it.
Care to spoil the entirety of Episode IX for us right now?
I’d love to! If only you’d asked this first, the whole interview would have been an in-depth discussion of the various plot twists and earth-shaking revelations. But unfortunately, you saved it for last, and I just don’t have time to sum it all up. I’m terribly sorry. It is now time for my breakfast.
This interview has been edited and condensed.