Domhnall Gleeson on battling invisible animals for Peter Rabbit and the future of Star Wars
The Irish actor just wants to make kids laugh in the new Beatrix Potter adaptation - and he hopes he keep up the comedy in Episode IX
It’s fair to say that Domhnall Gleeson is having a bit of a moment.
After making an early mainstream film appearance as Bill Weasley in Harry Potter and the Death Hallows in 2010 (alongside his actor father Brendan, who played Mad-Eye Moody), in recent years his star has only risen thanks to roles in the modern Star Wars trilogy, Ex Machina and American Made and awards-friendly fare like Brooklyn, Frank and The Revenant.
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Now, he’s starring in the new live-action adaptation of Beatrix Potter classic Peter Rabbit, where he plays the great grand-nephew of regular villain Mr McGregor (Sam Neill) and finds himself growing to love the countryside and his winsome neighbour (played by Rose Byrne) – if only the pesky rabbits would stop trying to drive him out of his new home.
We caught up with Domhnall in London to find out exactly what attracted him to play the uptight younger McGregor, where he sees General Hux going in Star Wars Episode IX and exactly why he spent so much of the shoot imagining small animals were punching him in the face. We tried not to rabbit on too much, though.
Domhnall, here's a crucial question – were you a Beatrix Potter fan as a child?
No! Didn't know it, didn't know the books at all. And it's funny, I wondered if that was something I had told myself, and just didn't remember, but I was just having lunch with my brother Fergus and he said “No, we didn't have any of those books growing up.”
But you absorb it a little bit through the culture, don't you?
You know that it exists and that it's a "Thing". And a couple of the images – the image of him eating the carrot, you know where his head's back, and it's lovely, or the image of Mr McGregor chasing after him.
Those two images were in my head, by...not by osmosis, whatever the word is. But no, I hadn't read the books.
In Peter Rabbit, you’re obviously not the original Mr McGregor – Sam Neill plays that character. Your version feels quite sympathetic, quite human. Do you agree?
I think he starts off as the villain. There were two things that really interested me about the script – one was the fact that there was a lot of physical comedy, which I hadn't had the chance to do so much of before, and I really wanted to try that out.
And second of all was the fact that he starts off as the villain, and I really thought it would be good to have a guy who kids would not like and all the rest of it, and then slowly turn him into somebody who, if he makes you laugh enough and he falls in love enough, that maybe you might become more empathetic towards him.
So yeah, I think there's a little bit of a journey there. Despite the fact that it's a kids' film, and really it's just there to make kids laugh!
I kind of related to him earlier on, when he was passed over for a promotion at Harrods despite being super-competent.
That's very funny – I know! Here's the thing, I think there was definitely a worry that he'd be too unlikable, and that you wouldn't want to spend time with him.
My point of view was, he's just been passed over for a promotion, nearly everybody has felt like they've been absolutely screwed over in that regard. And second of all, if somebody's funny, in places at least, I think you'll end up liking spending time with them, even if they don't seem that great.
You've brought this up yourself, but I was surprised by what a physical performance this was – was there any training or prep?
Yeah we did a lot of prep, for a couple of reasons. One was that because the rabbits aren't actually in the room, obviously - they haven't trained rabbits to wear jackets and beat the crap out of me, and speak and stuff – the reactions had to be really planned out in advance. If he runs up your leg and punches you in the face, you have to react in a chain reaction that looks like it's natural, but is also funny, and can work with all the stuff that's happened before.
So that had to be trained. And then the comic beats of just working out what's actually funny, any not leaving it to the day. But that was all really good fun. I loved all that stuff.
If Peter Rabbit had a follow-up, would you be interested in coming back?
I think the ending of this one feels final. But look, one of the reasons I wanted to do it was it reminded me in some ways of films like Home Alone. I love Home Alone, it made me laugh so much as a kid and still makes me laugh as a grown-up. And I thought there were elements of that in Peter Rabbit.
And, Home Alone 2 is amazing. You know what I mean? So if they found a way to do it and it was just as funny and all the rest of it, of course I'd be into it, yeah. Especially if I got more scenes with Rose [Byrne].
You touched on this before, but was it nice to play a more comic role after playing villains and romantic heroes for the last few years?
I've had a real brilliant time of it in terms of playing different stuff in different sorts of movies. And this was another thing which was so different. And I thought, I'd kill to be in something where the only purpose is to make kids laugh.
And, the amazing thing is at screenings kids have been laughing. And even talking to a couple of the journalists today and stuff, they went to a screening on Sunday and they said kids really were going mad for it. That's a reason to do something in of itself.
You did some comic stuff with General Hux in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, who was played much more for laughs than in Episode VII. Is that something you'd like to continue with that role as well?
See, the thing is I wasn't expecting that to be the way it went in VIII, at all. It really surprised me. And I'd say rather than played for laughs, it was written for laughs.
So we did it with an eye on the comic elements of it. But what was brilliant was that that was unexpected. And I've got a feeling that what JJ [Abrams, writer and director of Episode IX] does may also be unexpected – but I've got no idea because I haven't read a script.
I have no idea what direction he'll take it in, or even if he'll use me. So I'm hoping that if I'm in the next one, I'll get to do [some more comedy]. Because JJ's writing it, I know that if I'm in it I'll get to do something exciting. So that would be nice.
Definitely the thing that everyone said about The Last Jedi was that [director] Rian Johnson didn't go the way anyone was expecting, and I think Hux worked brilliantly in that way.
Thank you very much – it worked in a completely different way to how it worked in the previous film, and I think that's really cool.
It takes real imagination and confidence to say what happened before – I mean JJ knocked it out of the park with VII – and then to have the confidence to say "I'm not just gonna copy what JJ did, I'm gonna develop my own thing." I just thought that was fantastic.
And not unexpected I suppose, or shouldn't have been, because Rian is so distinctly his own filmmaker.
Are you excited for what he's got coming next, his own Star Wars trilogy?
That's what I heard! I mean I asked him about it and he wasn't giving anything away, himself and Ram [Bergman], his producer. But yeah, that's very cool.
Have you found any pressure from being in films in the public eye, like Star Wars? What do people say to you when they come up to you in the street?
It depends on a few things, one of which is which they’ve recognised you from. So the Harry Potter fans tend to be quite different to the Star Wars fans, then they tend to be different to the people who recognise me from the comedy sketches I did when I was younger in Ireland. So it just depends.
People generally are nice. And then sometimes, if there's been a lot of drink taken it can be a different thing. If they're messy! But I don't think anyone's ever come up to me and said "I hated that last film you did." I'm sure lots of people have thought it, but no-one has thought to come up and say it.
I think you also change a lot in the way you look between projects – in Peter Rabbit or Brooklyn you look quite different to how you are today, or in the Star Wars films.
Yeah that's true. And that's something that I can enjoy. I did a film recently called A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which is a comedy also and is on Netflix, which I recommend actually, it's very funny. Will Forte is the lead, I'm not in it a huge amount, so I'm allowed to say that!
But I look very different in that as well. I quite like the element of being able to shift in and out of things as well. I think it's good for your personal life and also good for your career to be able to continue to just be different.
Back to Peter Rabbit, a few weeks ago there was a bit of a scandal about the berries, where Peter and his friends give McGregor a serious allergic reaction – was that something you expected, the backlash?
No, I didn't expect it. And then when it happened, I thought it made sense – you know, if your child suffered with that you would be more sensitive to it. But Sony released a statement, apologised for any offence caused, and I hope that's the end of it. We certainly didn't film it with any intention of setting a bad example.
Yeah, you can understand why people are sensitive to it. Equally, though, you shouldn't smack people with rakes...
No, or in Home Alone where they blowtorch the top of someone's head. But if they felt it felt like bullying, that's a different thing, and I get the distinction. I understand it.
More positively, what was a highlight of filming Peter Rabbit? Apart from imagining CGI rabbits.
That was not a highlight! That was a lowlight. The imagining rabbits thing I did not enjoy. There were two things: getting to work with Rose was brilliant, I'd always wanted to work with her.
That was great, and then the physical stuff. Working that out. And working out those beats, and trying to just work it to make kids laugh. There was a joy in that being the object of going to work every day.
Looking forward, have you got any other interesting projects coming up?
Yeah, I do, in that I did a film with Lenny Abrahamson and all his projects are interesting. He is a wonderful filmmaker.
You did Frank together, right?
We did Frank together, and I think that worked out really well. It's one of the things I'm proudest of. Then he did Room, and he got nominated for an Oscar for that, and the film got nominated, and Brie [Larson] won, brilliantly.
But yeah, I did a kind of a ghost story, psychological thriller-type thing with him, with Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter and I think that has a chance at being really good. It's called The Little Stranger.
So finally, why should people go and see Peter Rabbit this weekend?
The elevator pitch is that if you want to hear your kids laugh, then take 'em. Because it sounds like at all the screenings, and the one screening I've been at so far, the kids were just going crazy for it. And the sound of kids laughing is pretty amazing. So I would say that's a good reason to go.
And will you now read Beatrix Potter?
Well I read the books before we did the movie.
Yeah, huge amounts of research. Really got into the mindset – “What would Jemima Puddleduck do in this situation?”
No, I read them in the run-up to it, and they're beautiful, and they're referenced heavily in the film with these hand-drawn animation elements. So I like the fact that you can get that from it – you have this CG new version of it, but you also get the older version of it too, which is actually very sweet and beautiful.
There's a couple of illustrations in the books that are just like a hardwire back to when you were a kid, and there's just something beautiful about that.
Peter Rabbit is in UK cinemas now