Domhnall Gleeson is the face of “Frank.”
Not the head. That's fellow Irishman Michael Fassbender encased in the papier-mache, cartoon noggin throughout almost the entire movie. He's the musical genius of the title, leader and main composer of an art rock band so inaccessible that its name, The Soronprfbs, is the most commercial thing about it.
Gleeson plays Jon, a young English pianist and would-be songwriter whose dreams far outreach the grasp of his ability. When The Soronprfbs' keyboardist attempts suicide before the band plays in Jon's hometown, he's drafted into the group. An innocent among wolf artistes, Jon's lack of creative ability is evident to all — except the tender, troubled Frank, who buys into Jon's scheme to debut more mainstream music at South by Southwest.
Not a good idea, as it turns out. Even Gleeson feels that the naïve, bullied Jon turns out to be a terrible influence on these creative hermits. But it's a great role for the 31-year-old actor, who carries the bulk of this funny, intellectually challenging and ultimately heartbreaking film.
“What are you trying to say?” Gleeson replies, laughing, when asked how he could play an uninspired but still aspiring artist. “Because he's in every scene apart from the last one, as long as someone is interesting, I think you'll always be able to empathize with them. All the way through, with the cast and the director (Lenny Abrahamson), we just had to remind ourselves that as long as he kept trying, we wouldn't hate him too much, hopefully.
“He is a malevolent presence for the band,” Gleeson admits. “But I could totally empathize with him. He's trying very hard and not getting to where he wants to go. He's in a room full of people who he's worried are more talented than him, but he still has to step up. I suppose it's something that we all feel at various times — but of course, I just hope that I have slightly more talent than Jon does.”
Gleeson's career has been on a steady rise since the start of the decade. He played Bill Weasley in the last two Harry Potter films, had tasty roles in the Coen brothers' “True Grit,” the 2012 “Anna Karenina” and others, and co-starred in last year's romantic fantasy “About Time.”
Gleeson also has a riveting exchange with his formidable father, Brendan Gleeson, in the critically acclaimed current release “Calvary.” Plus, he'll soon be appearing in a slew of prestigious and intriguing productions, among them Angelina Jolie's “Unbroken,” Alex Garland's sci-fi thriller “Ex Machina,” Alejandro González Iñárritu's frontier epic “The Revenant” with Leonardo DiCaprio and a little thing they're calling “Star Wars: Episode VII.”
For “Frank,” Gleeson applied some old skills he had at playing Irish fiddle to Jon's keyboard stylings. He says that musical rehearsals, which included Maggie Gyllenhaal on a mean theremin, for the project were where the actors really got comfortable relating to Frank-headed Fassbender.
“Michael brought the head in so we would have our conversations and whenever he would start to sing with the head on,” he recalls. “You could see the change of Michael turning into Frank, which I found fascinating. People ask if it was easy acting opposite a guy wearing a big, unchanging head, and my answer is that Michael could be funny when he wanted to be; he could be aggressive when he wanted to be. But part of the deal was also that my character often did not know what the hell Frank was thinking.”
One might think it was more challenging to play Gleeson's one scene in “Calvary.” Brendan Gleeson plays an Irish priest who is given one week to get his affairs in order before an angry parishioner has vowed to kill him. Father James dutifully goes about checking in on his wayward flock, the worst of which is imprisoned serial sex killer Freddie Joyce, played by Domhnall.
We know they're professional make-believe makers and all, but could it have been easy portraying an unrepentant, despicable character across the table from one's father?
Yes, it could.
“My job was to understand my man and to bring that to bear against my father,” he explains.
But Gleeson goes on to reveal: “We didn't talk for a week or two beforehand.”
“We kind of went our separate ways, consciously, so that it was OK if we're not friends — if we're not father and son — on that day, because our job was to go into battle in whatever way that had to be done,” he says. “We usually get on like a house on fire, me and my father. We're always going for a pint and a laugh and all those things, but on the day that just wasn't going to help. Then, after we attacked each other — in a good way — we were able to hug and say thank God we're father and son again.”
Gleeson finally gives up a real trial by fire when discussing “Unbroken.” In the biopic of the late Southern California hero Louis Zamperini, Gleeson plays Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips, the pilot of the bomber that crashed into the Pacific with both men on board during World War II. Zamperini and Phillips, as well as one other, survived 47 days at sea before the two were captured and sent to separate Japanese POW camps.
“It was an intense physical thing to go through because you had to lose a lot of weight in the process,” Gleeson notes while praising co-stars Jack O'Connell and Finn Wittrock, Jolie's focused direction and the Coen brothers-generated script. “I've never done a job like that before and I don't know if I will again, but it was very inspiring to be on that movie set.”
As for J.J. Abrams' highly anticipated “Star Wars” sequel, Gleeson says: “They sent us a sheet of paper saying what we're allowed to say, and literally all we're allowed to say is that we're really excited to be working on it. Sorry.”
The eldest of four brothers, Domhnall (pronounced like tonal but with a D) Gleeson is understandably excited about where his career is going. And while it looks like he may be the next big name out of Ireland, he's perfectly satisfied at the moment to be mentioned in the same breath as artists he admires.
“A lot of Irish actors — Michael, my father, Saoirse Ronan — have really shaped their careers by doing amazing films with the best in the world. I consider them and a couple of other guys to be the best at what they do,” he says. “I'm a ways away from that, but I think that over the last couple of years, due to the people I've worked with, the quality has just continued to get better and better. If you don't get better working with those people, you must be some kind of moron. If it continues like this, I will be a very, very lucky man.”