You’d be forgiven for not knowing who Domhnall Gleeson is, or even for not knowing how to pronounce his name (it’s pronounced “Doe-nal”, by the way). But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve to be a household name. Since 2010, Gleeson has been quietly building a portfolio filled with franchises and critically-acclaimed material. The variation implies that he’s searching for a good fit in terms of genre – but it’s far more likely that he’s just trying to demonstrate his acting chops. Judging by the films he has slated for 2018, it looks like Gleeson has finally found his niche, and will soon finally jump from up-and-coming status to one of the finest actors of his generation.
Before looking at Gleeson’s career progression, it’s worth mentioning that he happens to be following in the footsteps of his father, the illustrious Brendan Gleeson. Again, not necessarily someone you would consider a household name – yet recognisable to a huge range of audiences for his appearances in the Harry Potter franchise, to Gangs of New York, and his Golden Globe-nominated roles in The Guard and cult classic In Bruges. With such a long and acclaimed career in film, it’s hardly surprising that his son decided to follow suit. And lest we forget, they’ve actually been in a few films together. In fact, one of Domhnall Gleeson’s earliest film appearances was alongside his father in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 (2010).
But setting aside his familial connections, it’s abundantly clear that Domhnall Gleeson has gotten to this point on his own merit alone. In fact, it wasn’t really until 2014 when Domhnall really hit his stride. Aside from blink-and-you’ll-miss-it parts in Never Let Me Go (2010), the Coen brothers’ True Grit (2010) and Dredd (2012), up until 2013’s well-liked About Time, Gleeson Jr. was still very much in a state of flux – he was appearing in the right films, he just wasn’t getting the right parts. He was always playing Bill Weasley (literally), when really you want to be playing Ron.
But that all changed in 2014 when he acted in a small film that received widespread critical approval. Co-starring Michael Fassbender, Frank tells the story of Jon (Gleeson), who is invited to play in an unpronounceable alternative band called The Soronprfbs. And that’s where the story starts to get bizarre. Fassbender leads up the cast as the titular Frank, who constantly wears a papier-mãché mask over his head. And that’s pretty much it. But despite its utter peculiarity, Frank was a hit on the festival circuit, becoming an instant cult favourite, and catapulting Gleeson to stardom – in certain circles, anyway.
But 2014 didn’t stop there – from Frank, Gleeson went on to appear as a deranged killer in Calvary (alongside his dad), Unbroken, and, most notably, Ex Machina. And here we start to see what sets him apart from the rest. Ex Machina saw him play an intelligent, but somewhat reserved, programmer, who wins a contest and is given the opportunity to discern if Oscar Isaac’s robot creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), is a true example of artificial intelligence. The subtlety of this role wasn’t wasted on Gleeson – what the film doesn’t convey in dialogue, is skilfully portrayed by its cast to ensure every emotion is felt. However, while Gleeson’s performance is impressive, it’s here that we start to bear down on the root of his issues. Despite the many well-known films he’s been in since 2010, and the incredible performances he’s given, Gleeson has always been overshadowed. In Ex Machina, he was unfortunately outplayed by Oscar Isaac, with his creepy but ultimately seductive performance. In Frank, it was Michael Fassbender – but let’s face it, it’s hard to draw your gaze away from that blank papier-mãché face.
It’s hard to say why Gleeson’s performances are generally overlooked. Maybe it’s the fact that his characters are generally on the weaker side, falling into line behind whoever happens to be the star of the show. It’s probably unlikely that Gleeson will ever be an action hero – even as an expedition leader in The Revenant, he simply lacks the gusto for such roles. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t great at what he does: softer, kind-hearted characters, which are predominantly the roles we’ve seen of him so far.
However, this pigeon-holing might soon come to an end. With a second and (fingers crossed) considerably more substantial appearance as General Hux in Star Wars: The Last Jedi on the cards at the end of this year, his recent performance in Mother!, and upcoming horror drama The Little Stranger set for release in 2018, it looks like Gleeson is finally going to show us the other strings to his bow. He’s certainly not an A-lister yet – but he’s definitely getting there.