August 22, 2014 at 1:00 am

'Calvary' priest takes toll on Brendan Gleeson

Playing the heroic priest in 'Calvary'left an impression on Brendan Gleeson

Brendan Gleeson says that his role as a priest in 'Calvary' is 'the one that's taken the most personal toll on me as an actor.' (Patrick Redmond / Fox Searchlight)

When Brendan Gleeson was not quite 7, a Catholic boy growing up in Dublin, he had it all figured out.

“One of the teachings was that you reached the age of reason at 7, I think. Something like that. Up till then you were still a child and you couldn’t really sin as such, certainly not mortal sin. So I figured if I could commit suicide at 6 and three-quarters, I’d go straight up there, no problem. I remember mulling over how best to do this, to find this shortcut. But then after I came out of my first confession, it was like: clean slate. I came out feeling great, just bounding out, the lightness of having a clean soul. I just floated out of there.”

Gleeson laughs at the memory. In the new film “Calvary,” reuniting the versatile and prolific actor with his writer-director on “The Guard,” John Michael McDonagh, he plays Father James, unlikely spiritual leader of a morally bereft County Sligo village.

In a recent interview in a downtown Chicago park, the 59-year-old Gleeson spoke of confession, his profession and other topics.

“It was fantastically interesting to play a good man without schmaltz, a heroic figure,” he says, behind sunglasses, stretching out as comfortably as the wee Chicago Park District benches allow a big man to stretch out. “This guy has his demons, but his commitment to goodness is total.”

The villagers, played by a rich supporting cast including Chris O’Dowd, Isaach De Bankole and Marie-Josee Croze, may revile the man, but the man, Gleeson says, is an unfashionably “clean” hero, though a rather unorthodox priest, with a grown daughter (Kelly Reilly) and a late wife shadowing his sense of mortality.

Married with four grown sons (Domhnall Gleeson plays a convicted serial killer in “Calvary”), the actor has enjoyed a far-flung career.

He didn’t act professionally until his mid-30s; he worked for years as a secondary-level teacher of English and Gaelic, then explored all sorts of classical and contemporary stage work.

His first uncredited screen role came in 1989; he was a prison guard in the Dolph Lundgren vehicle “The Punisher.” His make-or-break opportunity came a few years and many films later, with “Braveheart” — a project he nearly didn’t get because it conflicted with a theater commitment.

Everything worked out, he says a touch wearily, as if the pain of the near-miss is still fresh.

Since then Gleeson has worked with a full complement of A-list directors, among them Steven Spielberg (“A.I.”), Martin Scorsese (“Gangs of New York”) and the late Anthony Minghella (“Cold Mountain”). Of all his films, he says, Gleeson had the toughest time shaking “Calvary.”

“It’s the one that’s taken the most personal toll on me as an actor,” he says, “absorbing all that pain and angst. And feeling of — I don’t know, treachery, I guess you’d call it. That feeling that everyone (in the film) is so cynical and disillusioned and angry, yet here’s this one man fighting against it.”