Domhnall Gleeson reveals why he almost turned down Star Wars role

The Harry Potter and Goodbye Christopher Robin star says the fear of fame almost stopped him from playing General Hux

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Domhnall Gleeson latest film is about the trauma of war and the psychological damage that conflict wreaks on men who find they can no longer function in everyday life…

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Oh, and it’s also about a toy teddy bear.

Winnie the Pooh may be one of the most beloved characters in children’s literature but the true story of AA Milne’s relationship with his son Christopher Robin and how it inspired the adventures is less well known.

The tales of Winnie the Pooh that Milne created to bond with his son ended up leaving them estranged after the bear became admired the world over. It is that largely unknown true story that is the focus of Goodbye Christopher Robin (in cinemas on Friday 29 September), in which Gleeson stars as the tortured creator of the most famous bear in the world.

He may not yet be Winnie the Pooh famous but Domhnall Gleeson (it rhymes with tonal) has quietly built up a formidable body of work that has seen him act alongside not only the likes of Leonard DiCaprio in The Revenant, Tom Cruise in American Made and Jennifer Lawrence in mother! but also opposite his father Brendan Gleeson in Calvary.

He also played Bill Weasley, Ron’s werewolf-scarred older brother in the two-part Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows movies. And he was in some film set in a galaxy far, far away.

Milne was sent to the Western Front during the Somme Offensive of the First World War and saw his best friend killed. “War is the most horrific thing that man can do to other men,” says Gleeson, “and Milne saw that face to face.”

To play Milne meant having to get to grips with post-traumatic stress disorder. “It terrified me,” the actor admits. “I didn’t want to go through the process of learning about the damage it does to people.”

I didn’t grow up reading Winnie the Pooh and nor did Gleeson, but I found the film almost overwhelmingly moving because it’s about the magic of play and childhood, and how transformative it can be to an adult willing to let it in.

“It shows how powerful the innocence of a child can be, to rescue a man who has seen nightmares,” says Gleeson. “This film is not for kids but it is about the magic of making things for kids.”

The eldest of four boys and the second son to follow his father into acting – Brian Gleeson is currently in the West End alongside Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Domhnall Gleeson, 34, owes his entry into acting to an act of teenage chutzpah.

Domnhall with dad Brendan
Domnhall with dad Brendan

When he was 16 his father won a film award but couldn’t collect it, leaving his son to read out an acceptance speech. “He sent me a script a couple of pages long but there were too many words for a 16-year-old to say in 30 seconds,” he recalls, “so I went up and made fun of the fact he had written two pages.”

The next morning he got a call from an agent wanting to represent him. Gleeson wasn’t convinced. “I didn’t think about being an actor because I didn’t think I would be any good,” he says. “I thought I would be better at writing and directing.”

He enrolled at the Dublin Institute of Technology, but when he was 19 he was sent a script for Martin McDonagh’s play The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which he played in London and then four years later on Broadway.

“I got nominated for a Tony, and that tells you that you have something,” he says. He was cast in small roles in 2010 sci-fi drama Never Let Me Go and the Coen brothers’ remake of the western True Grit. At the Berlin film festival in 2011, he was named Shooting Star and Variety named him one of the ten actors to watch in 2012.

When the Irish Film and Television Academy named him a Rising Star, the award was collected by his father who joked that it was ironic he was being named a rising star as he had never been able to get his son out of bed in the mornings.

Gleeson says having a famous actor as a father never deterred him from taking the same road. “I didn’t have competition in me towards my father,” he says. “I didn’t have the feeling of ‘what is the point of doing this if I can’t do better than my dad?’ I am not playing the same parts as my dad – I am not going through his career and saying did I do better than my dad did.”

Having worked with the cream of Hollywood’s A-list – and having a famous actor as a father – has made Gleeson wary of the compromises that fame demands, which is why when JJ Abrams offered him a role in his Star Wars film (in which he played General Hux, a role he’s reprising in The Last Jedi, out in December), Gleeson asked for time to consider his decision.

“Why would I have thought of saying no? Fame is the end goal for a lot of people but it is not mine. I worried that the accompanying fame would get in the way of how I live my life.” And did it? “It got a little crazy for a couple of months – for a while, going out and having a drink with my friends was difficult, and then it died down.”

Gleeson does have the advantage of looking utterly different in every role. “I thought I did but the more roles I take, the fewer ways there are to look in my private life that are not recognisable from some movie,” he laughs. “I have a moustache right now for a job so there goes the moustache disguise I had planned for all of next year.”

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Goodbye Christopher Robin is in cinemas on Friday 29 September