Domhnall Gleeson, That 'Nasty Piece Of Work' General Hux, Is One Of Today's Brightest Actors

The star of “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” talks about the “Last Jedi” backlash and what it was like to make “mother!”
Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson has had a wide variety of roles in a recent string of movies.
Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson has had a wide variety of roles in a recent string of movies.
Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Domhnall Gleeson isn’t among Hollywood’s go-to leading lads, and yet he has one of today’s most enviable movie careers.

The world took notice of the Irish actor in “Never Let Me Go” and as Bill Weasley in the final two “Harry Potter” flicks. What has followed is a medley of genre-hopping roles ― you try going from “About Time” to “Frank” to “Unbroken” ― and a playful charm defined by his floppy red mane and bashful smile. Gleeson’s nice-guy image is part of what makes him effective as the screechy General Hux in the new “Star Wars” movies; we’re scared of him, and amused by him, because we don’t quite know where all that rage comes from.

That same dynamic undergirds “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” a comedic biopic about the satirical magazine National Lampoon that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week ahead of its Netflix release on Friday. Gleeson plays Henry Beard, the gifted, witty, pipe-smoking misanthrope who co-founded the Lampoon after graduating from Harvard University. This is one of seven movies in the span of five months to feature Gleeson. In a couple of weeks, he’ll also star in a big-screen adaptation of “Peter Rabbit.” As usual, he’s never done anything resembling either project.

At Sundance, I gabbed with Gleeson about the polarizing reactions to “mother!” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which of his movies he knew he’d like before seeing them, and how thrilled he is for his “Goodbye Christopher Robin” co-star Margot Robbie’s Oscar nomination.

You had a nice 2017. Between September and December, “American Made,” “mother!” (even if it didn’t do bonanza business), “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” “Crash Pad” and “Star Wars” opened. Now that we’re seeing so much of you, looking back, is there a moment when you felt your career had broken through?

Yeah, but it’s all in retrospect. It never feels like it at the moment. These are stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives afterward, to put it in some context — and actually it’s not the way things really were at the time. It’s funny. It’s why I think, unless they’re diaries, no autobiography can really sum anybody up.

Getting a job with the Coen brothers [in “True Grit”] was massive for me. Even though it was a small part and did not have a big effect on my career per se, working with them, I could have retired. I mean, I would have been stuck for money forever, but that was a high point. Working with Martin McDonagh [in “Six Shooter”] at the very beginning, huge. That was my first job. It was massive. And then doing “Anna Karenina” made me a better actor. Working with Joe Wright made me a better actor. And then, in 2015, I got to do an Alex Garland movie, “Ex Machina,” and there was “The Revenant” and a few things that came out around the same time that felt like, oh man, things came together, and I was in some stuff that mattered to people.

And you say “mother!” did not do bonanza business. I don’t know whether they made their money back or anything like that, but more people saw “mother!’ than have seen most films I’ve been in, and I think that’s amazing. I adore that film. To me, that’s a total success, that movie, from top to bottom.

Gleeson in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."
Gleeson in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."

In terms of your public profile, I think the shift happened between “Ex Machina” and “Brooklyn.” That’s when people started knowing your name and anticipating what was to come for you.

Yeah, which is strange, though. That’s never really been the way I’ve thought of being successful as an actor, or breaking through, or anything like that. All you want is to contribute well to good pieces of work. That’s really the big thing. And I had done that before those films, and I contributed, even though it may have been small, to “True Grit” and to “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” the Martin McDonagh play. It’s funny the way it’s perceived and the way that it feels.

So let’s talk “mother!’ for a bit. Your role is small, and you didn’t do much press for the movie when it was opening. Did you keep up with the polarized reactions that came out of it?

I loved it. I think anybody that had a problem with the movie has the right to have a problem with the movie. I understand why people would not enjoy that piece of work, in the same way that, with some of the great artists in a gallery, I will not engage with a painting that’s seen to be a masterpiece, and then I’ll walk up to the next one and maybe not everyone else likes it but I’ll spend an hour in front of it. It’s the same thing.

The experience of making it — first of all, I got to make it with my brother, [Brian Gleeson]. We got to walk into a room to rehearse with Darren Aronosky, Jennifer Lawrence, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris, Javier Badem ― these giants who operate at such a high level. And me and my brother are nervously standing there before we went in to take this on. Even though it was only for two minutes of screen time, it was as exhilarating as anything else I’ve done in my life when it comes to work. It was a privilege to be a small part of that.

Saoirse Ronan and Gleeson in "Brooklyn."
Saoirse Ronan and Gleeson in "Brooklyn."
Fox Searchlight

Whatever anyone’s opinion of it, there aren’t many movies like “mother!” As you observed it, what was the technique used to create its mounting chaos?

Darren explained to us the way he was shooting it, which was on Jen the whole time, and then over her shoulder and POV’d. They were going to be the three angles used in the film. I was like, “Fucking cool! Sign me up.” And then you get him to go about that business, and you concentrate on trying to be good in the scene. All of those actors have different ways of working. They all have different energies, and then I’ve got my own thing going, and so does Brian. So it was more about how we fit into the room, you know? That was the joyful thing. And when you would really feel it sing and you would hit it, it was just brilliant. I knew in the shooting of it that I would like the film, which I never know.

You’ve never felt that on anything else?

I knew I would like “Anna Karenina.” I knew I would like “Ex Machina.” I didn’t know whether anyone else would like them, but I knew I would. For some reason, those are the three things. Oh, and “Frank,” [directed by] Lenny Abrahamson.

You’re in Lenny’s next movie, “The Little Stranger,” based on the Sarah Waters novel. As a horror fan, I can’t wait. Is it terrifying?

I don’t know. I think it will mean something — I think that’s more important. And the book is not terrifying. The book is disquieting and odd. There’s an edge to it all the time — it’s just there, and it kind of vibrates. I hope the film has something of that in it.

Will Forte and Gleeson in "A Futile and Stupid Gesture."
Will Forte and Gleeson in "A Futile and Stupid Gesture."

I don’t know if you keep up with what people say about you online —

I try not to.

The internet —and I include myself in that — likes General Hux a lot. Partly because he’s an interesting character for that universe, but also because he’s just so screamy. He’s teed up at every turn. It’s fun to watch. What were your conversations with J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson about the kind of screen presence you would bring to that role?

Well, J.J. needed him to occupy a certain place in the first movie. He needed him to be the Peter Cushing type in that film. But because they cast it so much younger, it didn’t make sense to try to give him all the gravitas that Cushing had. Instead, he gave him a kind of mania about maintaining his position. He wants to succeed Snoke, but he knows Kylo Ren is the favored son. It’s this deep insecurity, and they’re the worst bullies. The guy who gets beaten up at school then goes home and kicks the shit out of his brother, you know what I mean? They’re the worst. And I think that was the kind of thing that we wanted him to have. He knows that he’s always on the edge of losing everything. He’s just desperate to maintain position and to improve, and as a result he’s just a very nasty piece of work.

That was with J.J., and then Rian had this thing where he wanted to use that in a different way in the second film. He was really smart. The one thing I didn’t want to lose was the possibility that he could still matter to the story. He could still do something that could change things, not just be a punching bag. And Rian said, “OK, well, if a dog is kicked enough, when he eventually bites, it’s going to be hard.” So that’s what we tried to put in there, to have all the fun with it that he wanted to have but still maintain the [original concept]. We thought, if he had a knife, he would gut you like a fish. I think that’s the place we wanted to go with the second one.

I was really happy with it. If J.J. decides to use me in the third one, I just can’t wait to see what he’s got planned, because he’s so smart.

Is there a question about whether he’ll use you?

I think there’s a question about whether he’ll use anybody. You just don’t know until they send you a script.

Are you not contracted for a third movie?

Everyone had to sign up for three, as far as I know — or at least that’s what I was told. But you don’t know; it could be that you die in an explosion in a ship that nobody sees and they go, “Hux is dead!” So I’m waiting to see.

Did you keep up with the so-called backlash surrounding “The Last Jedi”?

Yeah, I’ve heard about it, of course. I respect anybody’s opinion to not be happy with something. If you pay your 10 bucks and you go and watch the movie and you don’t like it, it is your right to express that online. It’s your right to not like somebody, or to not like the whole thing, or whatever. All I know is how I feel about it, and I’m really glad that Rian changed things up and brought some of himself to it, in the same way that J.J. brought himself to it. I really like Rian’s films. I think this is a “Star Wars” film and it’s also a Rian Johnson film. And both of those things excite me equally.

Have you seen “Jupiter Ascending,” the Wachowski siblings movie?

I’ve not, no, but my friend Eddie Redmayne is in it.

Well, funny you say that. There are similarities between Eddie Redmayne’s villain in that movie and General Hux. They both have a loud, manic, bitter energy. I was curious whether you’d ever heard that comparison.

No, I have not. I haven’t talked to Eddie for ages, which is a pity because he is the nicest man and the most brilliant actor. I really hope to catch up with him soon. I’ll be sure to bring it up with him next time we talk.

Please do. Tell me if you disagree: “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” is your most traditionally comedic role yet.

Yeah, well, perhaps in terms of it being an out-and-out comedy, except really Henry Beard in this film functions as a dramatic constituent, as well as having a couple of funny moments. It was a joy to play with these people. Matt Walsh is an absolute genius. Will Forte is just amazing. All of these great people who I got to be around and do scenes with. I loved it. But I’m aware of my weaknesses, and ad-libbing genius one-liners, which is what Henry Beard would do in real life, is not my forte, if you’ll excuse the pun. Luckily, the script took care of all that for me. I loved it. The world was very distinct.

Jerry Seinfeld was talking recently about what the best sitcoms have, or the best movies, and it’s a good universe. It’s a world you want to spend time in. It understands itself. They understood the world so well, so I felt I understood it. Fitting into it was lovely.

This is one of several movies that uses meta storytelling, with the older version of Will Forte’s character narrating scenes in person without actively participating in them. I’ve seen a couple others at Sundance that break the fourth wall, and “I, Tonya” did it in a big way last year.

Oh, that was brilliant. Brilliant. Margot Robbie, fucking hell.

I’m glad she got the Oscar nomination.

Oh, I know! I just heard about it. Fucking hell! It’s like I’m excited for her, but she deserves it, you know what I mean? It’s amazing.

But here’s the thing: The meta thing I have limited patience for a lot of the time. When a genius does it, like Charlie Kaufman, he comments on the way the story is being told. He does it with soul. The whole world understands itself.

Like in “Adaptation.”

“Adaptation,” yeah. It’s beautiful what he does with that. I think when it’s used cheaply, it feels really cheap. I think “I, Tonya” uses it really, really well, reminding people that just because we’re telling you this story that does not mean that’s exactly what happened. They use it really well. And I think this film used it for all the right reasons and in all the right ways. So that makes me happy. But when a film starts to be happy with itself because it believes itself to be clever, I have very limited patience.

Gleeson in "Ex Machina."
Gleeson in "Ex Machina."

“Peter Rabbit” opens in a few weeks. What is the appeal of that role for you as an actor? I haven’t seen it yet, so that’s not meant as a value judgment.

Oh, I haven’t either. Rose Byrne was attached.

That is a good appeal.

That’s a reason to do any job. Will Gluck was directing it, and I really love “Easy A.” The script was really funny, and it was just a different thing for me to try. I’d never done a kids movie, or anything like that. If it makes kids laugh, what’s purer than that?

In the same way that some people aren’t crazy about things that happen in “The Last Jedi,” I’m sure there will be people who “Peter Rabbit” means a lot to who’ll be unsure. But I will understand that. I’ve got a feeling that the limited number of young children I know will laugh at it, and if you make a kid laugh, I don’t care how you do it. I think it’s smart and clever, and it has a heart. I hope it’s funny. I want to watch it with a room full of kids. That will tell me whether it works.

Do you often have that experience, where your movie is opening in a matter of weeks and you haven’t laid eyes on it yet?

You always see bits and pieces in ADR and stuff. With “Peter Rabbit,” it’s different because all the animated stuff is in post-production, so they’re doing their own thing. Yeah, I didn’t see “The Last Jedi” until I was in the theater watching it the first night. The same with “The Force Awakens.” “Mother!” was the same. It often happens. And it’s exciting. Watching it with an audience is the way to do it.

And with the others, do you just get a screener and watch it at home?

Yeah, and you just hate yourself. It’s better to watch it with a bunch of other people who can tell you whether they hate you or not. It’s the sad reality.

The marketing campaign behind “mother!” was so enigmatic. At the press screening at the Toronto Film Festival, at 9 a.m. on a Sunday, everyone was giddy because we knew very little about the movie. It’s a stark contrast to “Star Wars,” which teases its characters and certain plot points months in advance. The “Force Awakens” trailer came out more than a year before the movie opened. That’s blockbuster culture in a nutshell, and I’m curious what you make of that saturation, compared to the mysterious “mother!” rollout, knowing that you didn’t see either until you were with an audience.

Well, I think a script is always going to be very different than a movie. I’d only read the script, and I got a sense of what was happening on the set, but no, the escalating madness of “mother!” sat me back in my seat and had me overwhelmed at times. I had felt that way reading the script. I had to put the script down, take a walk, go back to the script, because it was so full-on.

But one of the great joys in seeing something that you don’t know much about is not knowing the ending of the thing before you see it. There’s a reason that watching “The Usual Suspects” and knowing the ending is different than watching “The Usual Suspects” for the first time. Those are some of the moments that you live for, like, what the fuck is happening? And when something really takes you with it, that’s a special moment.

But when you have a train that is just barreling forward, some people are not going to stay with it. Some people are going to get off. And if it doesn’t stop, they’re not getting off politely — they’re going to be thrown and roll 17 times down the ditch and say, “What the fuck was that?” I think that’s the effect of “mother!,” but I’d rather be in something like that instead of something where you’re like, “Huh, that is lovely.”

Your episode of “Black Mirror” is often ranked among the show’s best. Have you watched the new season?

“USS Calister,” [the first episode of the season], is the only one I’ve seen. Cristin Milioti is an absolute delight in it. “Delight” sounds cheap, actually. She’s just fucking brilliant. It’s brilliant acting. And Jesse Plemons is wonderful. I thought it was a fantastic piece of work. It’s so cleverly judged as well, because when Jesse starts doing that voice [at the start], you’re like, this is amazing — am I watching this for a whole episode? And then when he walks into that office and he looks so different! Oh man, it’s just absolutely brilliant. And Cristin judged that journey, that arc so well, with such humor, in the middle of it all. When “Black Mirror” gets it right, it gets it so right.

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