Martin McDonagh on Brendan Gleeson

In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh speaks about his regular star, the underrated Irish actor.

"He'd seen all of my stage stuff. I had a trilogy of three plays on about 10 years ago and he was there for that. I'd actually worked with his brother, who was the head carpenter and stagebuilder on three of my shows back in Ireland. In a roundabout way, I knew him from back then.

Probably I Went Down (1997) and The General (1998) were the first times that he really stood out and was better than anyone else around at the time. I'd seen him in smaller parts in Hollywood stuff, but I think it was the first time, particularly in the context of playing Irish parts in Irish films. There was an honesty to his performances in those parts and almost like a joy, although he was playing reprobates. There was something joyous and honest about that guy – that was one of the first things that came through to me. Up to that point, there weren't a tremendous number of Irish films that I liked or that I found cinematic or honest. I don't think, at the end of the day, I Went Down is a complete picture, but I think his performance in it is brilliant. The General was an excellent all-round film: visually it was great, and Brendan's performance was amazing in it too.

I think he was something like 34 when he started acting, which is very late for an actor. But, of course, he's bringing into play all that he's learnt in those 34 years of being a real person in the real world, and I think that stands him in good stead. When you know what it's like to just go down the shops, pick up your kids from school, feel angry at stuff - not as an actor using it as a tool, but as a person in the real world. I think that's probably helped everything that he's done.

He brings an honesty and a truth to his work, certainly to both of things he's done with me. He's very curious as an actor. He's always trying to work out why this guy is in this situation, why he's saying these lines at this time. There's a naturalness to him, and there's a way he can throw things away and a way of delivering a line where it doesn't sound like a line, or it sounds like he's making it up. All the best actors have that. Just working with him, he's got a very strong will, which you need on the set, and he's very open but he won't suffer producers gladly. He'll stand up for what he believes and he'll fight your corner whenever you need him to.

I remember on the short film, Six Shooter, there was a scene the producers wanted to cut because we were running behind schedule. I was a bit of a wuss and said "OK," but then I told Brendan that we were cutting a scene. Literally five minutes later, the producers came to me and said, "The scene's back in." He'd gone and said, "If you cut this scene, I'm walking." It turned out to be the best scene in the short, the one where he's arguing with the kid who's got the trolley on the train.

With In Bruges, we had three weeks of rehearsal at the start, which was pretty much just him, Colin Farrell and me in a room in Bruges, just analyzing the script, talking and reading it through and acting out little scenes, talking about the histories of the characters: how they met, were they related. [It was] a pretty intense amount of work which meant by the first day of shooting, there weren't any questions we needed to ask of each other, we just went ahead and filmed everything that we'd learnt. On Six Shooter, it was just a couple of days, it wasn't quite the same set-up, but Brendan always brings something to the table. I'll write something, it's kind of fleshed out, but he'll put all of the meat and the soul of the character that I've kind of sketched. He'll really flesh everything out. With In Bruges, it was him that pinned down the fact that it was the death of his wife that made the character the kind of person that he is. In the original script, it was hinted at. It was a fact, but even in my mind it wasn't to the forefront. He kind of latched on to that and realized that that's when his life went astray.

Our sense of humor is very much the same. It's kind of a blackest-of-black sense of humor. We look at the world and laugh at the world in the same way, we empathize with the same things and find the same things ridiculous. I'd love to work with him on stage, but it's hard to afford him nowadays."