Though the two actors are hilariously combative onscreen, in real life they share an obvious affection and respect for each other. They also share similar views on the business of acting, despite having taken different paths to their careers: Cheadle started at a young age, attending California Institute of the Arts and landing his first film role in his early 20s, whereas Gleeson didn't make his film debut until age 38. But in recent years, both have become sought-after character actors. A favorite of directors as varied as Steven Soderbergh and Brett Ratner, Cheadle veers effortlessly from heavy drama ("Crash," "Hotel Rwanda") to lighthearted action (the "Ocean's" franchise, "Iron Man 2"). Making up for lost time on screen, Gleeson has amassed an impressive résumé running the gamut from gentle giants ("28 Days Later," the "Harry Potter" films) to powerful historical figures ("The General," "Michael Collins," "Into the Storm"). And both have played their share of cops, though perhaps never with as much humor and irreverence as in their current collaboration.
Back Stage: How did the script for "The Guard" come to you and what drew you to your roles?
Brendan Gleeson: I'd met John at the Globes. He was with Martin McDonagh and we'd been nominated for "In Bruges." He said he was going to send me a script, and it came, and I read it, and I decided: "This is going to happen." Then I heard Don was going to be doing it, as well. I think we got it the same week and both said yes.
Don Cheadle: Yeah, literally within hours of each other.
Gleeson: It happened really fast. It was about eight months from when he wrote it to when we started shooting.
Cheadle: That never happens.
Back Stage: Don, how did you come on board as a producer?
Cheadle: It was one of those situations where they said, "If you can come on and help us get this made, we'd appreciate it." It was a similar thing on "Crash." I said, "Absolutely." I was willing to do whatever I could, because I was incredibly impressed by the script. So we came along and started doing what we do, beating the bushes to see what we could make happen.
Back Stage: Obviously, the film isn't going to work if its two leads don't have great chemistry, and you two work together so well. Did you two know each other at all, and did you work on that chemistry, or did it come about naturally?
Cheadle: The first time I met Brendan about the movie, he was here for the Golden Globes, with ["Into the Storm,"] the film where he played Churchill. John and Brendan and I met in a hotel. We had set aside two days for rehearsals, but we started acting, and at the end of the first day, we just kind of looked at each other like: "That was great. Do we really need to come back tomorrow?" We just kind of hit it off, and we had a very similar approach to the material.
Gleeson: Yeah, there's a similar ethic. I think the fact we both responded immediately to it says something. I mean, I think you'd have to be slightly deranged to not get the script. But we both immediately saw what it was and what it could be. The only barrier would be if we had different ways of working.
Cheadle: You did have that one rule where I couldn't look you in the eye for the first week.
Gleeson: Yeah, yeah, but that's just my eye. [Laughs.] The best part was Don had to come over to Connemara [in Galway County, Ireland] and deal with that weather. We shot in November and December—
Cheadle: —the wettest season in recorded history.
Back Stage: Was it a difficult shoot?
Gleeson: It was, but it was kind of hilarious. There were times it was so cold that your lips would not form the words.
Cheadle: I love how whenever you do scenes like that, you're never dressed for it. You're never supposed to be cold in the scene. People will say, "It's coming out a little cold, Don." Yeah, no kidding!
Back Stage: "The Guard" features heavy Irish and Gaelic accents and is full of local terminology. Did you have any concerns that the film wouldn't translate to American audiences?
Gleeson: There was some concern. But even before anybody says a word, people are laughing at the opening scene, where there's this horrible car wreck. You could tell some people were fighting with it and trying to get into the rhythms of the language, but what's great about film festivals is people actively go at it—they want to get into it. They're not passive and dismissive. But when Don arrives in the movie, it was almost like a little angel flew down and said, "Give me your hand; I'll bring you through the film."
Cheadle: Yes, I'll enunciate. You can understand me. [Laughs.] I do think there are certain colloquialisms that kind of go by, but so many things are universal.
Gleeson: One of my favorite things that happened on set: There's a scene where we're talking about poltergeists, and Don actually wondered if "poltergeist" was a Gaelic word.
Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson in "The Guard." (Sony Pictures Classics)
Back Stage: You've both played your share of lawmen before; did you do anything special to prepare for this role?
Cheadle: There's so many little clues—conflicting ones, even—in the script for this character. He's from Kenosha, Wisconsin, but stationed in Tennessee, and now he's in Ireland. So it was fun for me to come up with a backstory and history to understand why he has such a stick up his ass. Sometimes you see these scripts, and it's hard to make sense of a character. But he just made sense to me in a way I got right away. I've played many officers of the law, and I have people that I talk to for that. Sometimes you get a script and it's a lot of work trying to figure out who the guy is. But sometimes you get a script and don't feel like you have to do a lot of work.
Gleeson: It was the same for me. I knew this guy immediately. I've met versions of him. I probably am a version of him. Sometimes people second-guess themselves and say, "I'm not working hard enough with this." And you're actually already in the center of it. Then it's fun to try and figure out a backstory on your own. My backstory for him was that there weren't a lot of men in his life growing up. So in some way, John Wayne or Gary Cooper was what he thought it meant to be a man. And he was always looking for his "High Noon."
Back Stage: What do you consider to be your big break as an actor?
Gleeson: I think you just have to be prepared to be your best as an actor, and if something breaks, it becomes a great opportunity. But you've got to prepare for it. Waiting for a big break is a mistake. I knew I would go to seed waiting for a break, and I didn't go full time as an actor until I was 34. And after I did my first thing as a full-time actor, I realized I had nothing else lined up. So I did a one-man show. You can't sit around waiting for the phone to ring; you have to make your own work. Just do it, do it, do it.
Cheadle: Big break implies that it's done now, you've gotten it, and now you're in. We know you're never in. You're in, then you're not in. Then you're back in, then you're out again. It's those stages of the actor's career you've heard about: "Get me him. Get me a young him. Get me a him type. Who is that?" You're always on some part of that scale. There are very few actors—you could probably count them on one hand—that you know aren't going anywhere.
Gleeson: And a lot of the time, that has very little to do with acting. There's a type of star quality or charisma where someone is always themselves to a degree. Some of them are brilliant actors, some of them, not so much. I really do think you make your own break. Then you do get to a particular level and start working with really good people and you have to rise to the occasion because they make you look good. The secret for anybody who hasn't broken through yet is to continue to work. And your work continues to grow. It's the thing of, if you're waiting for a bus, it's not going to happen.
Cheadle: That's really true. If there wasn't something to do, we'd rent a theater and do a Fugard play. We were doing "Blood Knot" at this little theater [the Complex] in L.A., and we found someone to run the lights and do the house managing, and we were playing to seven or eight people a night. And afterwards we'd come out and say, "We're all going to get some Thai food, if you want to come." And we'd take the audience and all go eat Thai food. That was the ritual every night.
Back Stage: Sometimes the smallest houses can result in amazing performances.
Cheadle: One night there were two people in the audience and we came out and said, "Do you guys want to see this?" And they were like, "Hell yeah!" Okay, so we did it. And we had a great time; it was one of our best shows.
Gleeson: I remember a friend who sent a stagehand into the audience so they could just have someone to perform for. There's great joy in performing. Someone once said to me, "There's a great responsibility in theater. When you go out, there could be someone in the audience and it's possibly their first play, and there could be somebody and it's possibly their last play." You've got to keep that freshness every night you go out. I was never one for cracking up onstage or having little in-jokes. It gets really dull if you're watching it, and it used to drive me mad when I'd see it. People get bored with their own performances and start messing up. It's okay if it happens naturally. But to actually take over the collective mind of a body of people who give it to you willingly is a massive responsibility. It's not about your own therapy or your own showboating; it's about making the journey interesting.
Back Stage: Don, is producing a way you create your own work?
Cheadle: No question. It's about finding those things that are hard to get made because all they have going for them is they're good. And a lot of the time, that's not enough. Whenever actors ask me if I have any advice, I always say, "Do you write?" Because it's so important to create opportunities for yourself—not to sit and wait for somebody to hand you parts, but to take your fate into your own hands.
Back Stage: How are you at auditioning, which can sometimes be a completely different skill from acting?
Cheadle: I got to the point where I was pretty good at it, because I learned how to work the room. I also realized fairly early on that if you walked into that room and you were giving out the vibe that you really needed it, that was not attractive to people. So I really worked on talking myself into believing I didn't need it.
Gleeson: Right, it's about having confidence but not arrogance. Arrogance is a real turnoff.
Back Stage: Do you recall how you got your SAG cards?
Cheadle: I was Taft-Hartleyed when I did a movie with Jennifer Tilly and one of Bill Murray's brothers—not Brian Doyle-Murray, another one. "Moving Violations." Yeah. I played "Juicy Burger worker." And I knew I was on my way. [Laughs.] What's so funny is, I was talking to a friend the other day, and we were laughing about our early credits. But you know at the time when you got the job, you were like, " 'Juicy Burger worker'? I booked it! Yes!"
Gleeson: I think it was for "Turbulence," an action movie on a plane. I remember I had to throw someone out of a plane at 30,000 feet, and I thought, "There's no over-the-top in this one." What's interesting is, we got everything finished and they had booked me for a month ahead, and the only thing I had left to do was show up and fall out of an overhead locker. And I think they got a stuntman, because I couldn't even fit in the locker. But I had a month on my own in L.A. and started going around to meetings. And I had a very different attitude. It was just that I didn't care: I'd come to L.A. to work, and if something else came out of it, it was great. But I had no expectations. So I'd go meet people, and we just chatted about "Braveheart" and "The General." But a week before I had to go home, I suddenly panicked and felt like, "I have nothing else lined up. I have to get something!" And it's just like Don was saying, once I had that desperation, I became so unattractive to people. It all changed. People were crawling out of windows to get away from me. I was so needy. They were afraid I would infect them with my neediness.
Back Stage: What's been your most difficult role to play?
Cheadle: Some bad movie, probably. I'm serious: The hardest ones are the ones that don't make sense and you're in there going, "How the hell am I supposed to say this?"
Gleeson: I suppose it was Churchill, because I had to make a decision about whether or not I wanted to do it in the first place. I had a lot of baggage I had to be willing to get rid of if I chose to do it—because I'm Irish and he didn't exactly distinguish himself in our eyes by threatening to bring in 300,000 troops and wipe us out. Also, I had to age to 70 and didn't feel totally comfortable with that; it was a big leap. I wasn't entirely sure that I wasn't miscasting myself. I was really worried. So we did a camera test. And I found the dramatic possibilities of it were such that whatever baggage I had in my head had to go.
I worked with a director recently called Daniel Espinosa [on "Safe House"], and I think he's going to be one of the greats. He said to me, "You never play any good guys." I said, "Of course I do!" I got really irritated and suddenly realized that what I like to do as an actor is find the good in a bad person and find the bad in a good person. And I only realized it after he said this. There aren't really any all good or all bad people—Mother Teresa, maybe. So I said when I went to play Churchill, "I'm not going to look at this man as a hero; I'm going to find the criminal in him." And when you find the criminal, you find the human.
Don Cheadle Outtakes
- Nominated for an Academy Award in 2005 for his performance in "Hotel Rwanda," won an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe in 1999 for playing Sammy Davis Jr. in the TV movie "The Rat Pack," and won a SAG Award as a member of the "Crash" ensemble in 2006
- Appeared opposite Jeffrey Wright in the Off-Broadway production of "Topdog/Underdog" in 2001; when the show went to Broadway in 2002, Cheadle's role was taken over by Mos Def
- Named a United Nations Environment Program Goodwill Ambassador in 2010
- Stars in the new Showtime series "House of Lies" as a cutthroat consultant
Brendan Gleeson Outtakes
Won a 2009 Emmy Award for his performance as Winston Churchill in "Into the Storm" nominated twice for Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for "Into the Storm" and "In Bruges"
Studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and later performed at the Royal National Theatre, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon
Played IRA leader Michael Collins in the TV film "The Treaty" in 1992; he then played Collins' collaborator Liam Tobin in the 1996 film "Michael Collins," opposite Liam Neeson as Collins