Brendan Gleeson: ‘Hampstead Heath is such a gift to London’

Brendan Gleeson in Hampstead. Picture: Nick Wall

Brendan Gleeson in Hampstead. Picture: Nick Wall - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton talks to Brendan Gleeson about playing a role inspired by a squatter on the Heath

Brendan Gleeson in Hampstead. Picture: Nick Wall

Brendan Gleeson in Hampstead. Picture: Nick Wall - Credit: Archant

There’s a scene in Brendan Gleeson’s latest movie where he brusquely blanks a Ham&High reporter.

Thankfully, the affable actor is in a chattier mood when this Ham&High journalist asks about his role in Joel Hopkins’ latest film Hampstead.

His tramp Donald is inspired by Harry Hallowes, the Irishman who won squatters rights over a corner of Hampstead Heath.

After landing the part, the In Bruges and Harry Potter star tried to contact the reclusive hermit.

Brendan Gleeson and Diane Keaton in Hampstead. Picture: Nick Wall

Brendan Gleeson and Diane Keaton in Hampstead. Picture: Nick Wall - Credit: Archant

“I approached a park ranger who spoke to him but he didn’t want to talk to anyone from Hollywood,” says Gleeson.

He later wrote via an intermediary and was “happy with what I heard back”.

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“Although it wasn’t a biopic, I was always a bit uneasy, I didn’t want to crush his privacy or rattle his cage,” he explains. “The fact he passed away before we started shooting was liberating to me in that anything I did couldn’t harm him. I felt I was carrying a torch for him.”

The film sees Donald foraging fish and leaves from the Heath and Gleeson drew on people he knew who had lived “off grid”.

in the film, an American widow played by Diane Keaton stumbles upon a hermit, played by Brendan Glee

in the film, an American widow played by Diane Keaton stumbles upon a hermit, played by Brendan Gleeson, who has lived quietly in a shack on the Heath for seventeen years. Photo: Nick Wall - Credit: Archant

“There’s a huge dignity in the way they approach life, they are very self aware. Donald made the decision to live outside the norm in the full knowledge of what he was doing.”

Featuring an entirely invented romance with Diane Keaton’s cash-strapped widow, the movie is as much a celebration of late life romance as the charms of Hampstead village.

“The idea that everything switches off at 65 is so old hat,” agrees the 62 year old. “Pretty soon, people will live until 100. It’s about maintaining curiosity and interest in the world. If you have a young heart and soul you are only as old as you allow yourself to be.”

Working with the Annie Hall actress was “a delight”.

Calvary starring Brendan Gleeson

Calvary starring Brendan Gleeson - Credit: Archant

“She’s a force of nature!” he says warmly.

“A thinking person, generous of heart and spirit. She brought a quirkily joyous, mad energy to it. I grew to enjoy the zaniness of the way a scene could go. There I was thinking it through in a different way, but that’s why it’s fun.”

Just as Harry was pursued by would-be developers of Athlone House, Donald’s shack is under attack from speculators wanting to build luxury homes. The Dubliner feels strongly about the capital’s sky high property prices.

“They’re crazy! It’s the same at home in Ireland. The basis by which houses are vehicles for making money to me is immoral and wrong. It’s difficult enough to house people without turning it into a money making exercise.”

He points out that while media reports placed a £2m price tag on Harry’s plot “to him it didn’t mean anything”.

“People talk as though if you can’t own something there is something unfair about it, but you don’t have to own a house in Hampstead to appreciate that you can walk over the Heath. Hampstead is such a gift to London. The whole city breathes better for the Heath. You can look down on London from Hampstead – I’m sure there’s a metaphor in that.”

Gleeson not only wanted to respect Harry, but also the Hampstead folk seeing their community on screen.

“When Donald can’t grow something he barters. Even though he is battling these forces, he is at one with the village. Harry himself wasn’t a total hermit, he had interaction with the community – on his own terms – and from what I understand the people of Hampstead embraced him.”

The father of four whose son Domhnall is making his own waves as an actor, was nervous about audience reaction at last week’s premiere:

“I know when Dublin is in a movie, people get very proprietal, saying ‘you can’t walk into that street from that street’ but it didn’t feel like that. I felt Hampstead embraced the film.”

Having made both big budget movies like Braveheart and Gangs of New York, and art house movies like The Guard, Gleeson bases his choices on “the quality of the writing” but adds: “I mostly like what I haven’t done or done recently”.

“In as much as you have a choice, I made a promise to myself not to turn into a grim head and at the same time not to be involved in the fluff of entertainment – it’s crucial for a film to be entertaining, why talk to an empty chair? – but every year I want to say I have done something with clear purposeful artistic merit.”

Hampstead is out in cinemas on Friday.

What’s next for Brendan?

Upcoming projects include playing a baddie in the Paddington sequel - Gleeson loves making children’s films “full of fantastic creatures” like Harry Potter or just the “daftness” of The Smurfs.

“The joy of cinema is making up stories,” enthuses the former teacher. “Going into the imagination, making adults feel like kids and kids feel like adults.”

He’s just wrapped US TV series Mr Mercedes based on a Stephen King story, in which he plays a grizzled retired cop taunted by a demented young killer.

“I did TV so I could make space for film but after five months shooting I feel completely wrecked. I don’t want to see another camera for as long as I live!”

Though exhausting he enjoyed “teasing out a character and going into their contradictions at length. It’s like the difference between a novel and a poem.”

As his career continues apace, he disagrees with Scottish actor Brian Cox’s recent complaint of a kind of Celtic conspiracy, a “caste system” against non English performers like himself or Welshman Antony Hopkins.

“It was there before I came along,” he agrees. “Richard Harris had to speak with RP. But I didn’t start until later in life - I got inspiration from Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne - and by then regionality was fashionable. If ever I came across that nonsense I didn’t want to work for those people anyway.”

He’s just glad that good writing is coming back into this highly visual medium.

“A picture tells a thousand words but that’s nonsense without proper dialogue,” he adds wryly “I’m glad there’s a recognition that dialogue’s a useful feature in movies.”

Acknowledged as one of our best actor, able to elevate even a mediocre script like Hampstead, he’s still enthusiastic about his day job.

“There’s something about the intimacy of film that’s undeniable,” says Gleeson. “I’ve done theatre before but it’s a more interesting exploration to go into that atom rather than out into the universe.”