It’s a sentiment the 36-year-old wrestles with daily.
On the one hand, he’s a massively successful star who’s juggled two blockbuster franchises with awards season fare like “Brooklyn” and “The Revenant” and playing Mr. McGregor in “Peter Rabbit.” On the other, he’s a fiercely private Irishman who doesn’t understand why anyone should take an interest in his life off-set at all.
But these are strange times, and the lanky redhead whose first name rhymes with “tonal” has been stuck in his apartment for weeks. While he would normally be jetting to New York and Los Angeles to promote his new HBO series “Run” ahead of its April 12 premiere, he’s instead doing at-home yoga (“outrageous behavior”) and cooking amatriciana with guanciale he bought from a shop down the street “just to show off.”
There’s been a comforting living-room double feature of “Mary Poppins” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” favorites from his youth growing up in the Dublin suburbs with his parents (his dad is acclaimed actor Brendan Gleeson, who co-starred in “Braveheart” and played “Mad Eye” Moody in “Harry Potter”) and three brothers. And the now-familiar gasps of horror while watching TV shows where people gather in large groups and hug on the street. “You find yourself shaking your head and saying, ‘For God’s sake, will they not maintain social distance!’ ” he said. “It is absolutely bananas how the world suddenly seems so different.”
In fact, the entire premise of “Run” now feels like a relic from our not-so-distant, pre-isolation past. Created by “Fleabag” and “Killing Eve” collaborator Vicky Jones and co-executive produced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the series stars Gleeson as Billy, a motivational speaker who reunites with his college ex Ruby (“Unbelievable” star Merritt Wever) 17 years later as they fulfill a pact that if either of them texts the word “RUN” and the other replies, they’ll flee their existing lives and catch the next train out of Grand Central together.
It’s a rivetingly twisty series and a far cry from Gleeson’s previous romantic comedy turn in Richard Curtis’s 2013 tear-jerker “About Time.” Crackling with sexual tension, “Run” teases its characters’ dark secrets and doles out nuggets of sordid backstory as Gleeson and Wever run, jump and attempt to have train sex on their cross-country Amtrak escape. The “stunty stuff” delighted Gleeson, despite having just undergone hernia surgery a week and a half before shooting began.
His attraction to the show was threefold: the chance to work with Jones and Waller-Bridge since, he said, “‘Fleabag’ spoke to my soul”; the connection to his own U.S. railway experience during “a time of upheaval” when he wanted to run away from “a couple of things, which are probably too personal to talk about”; and doing a show about love.
Gleeson loves love. But apart from a few anecdotal references to unnamed ex-girlfriends and some fans’ insistence that he’s long been dating Irish producer Juliette Bonass, he’s never publicly discussed his relationship status.
“I find it strange that people want to know about those aspects of my life. And then I also find it odd that I’m quite so defensive about it,” he said. “I think I hate the notion of anybody being defined by anybody else, and that seems to be what happens when anybody who happens to be in the public eye goes out with anybody else. Some things are precious. Why on earth would you share them?”
Gleeson is, in many ways, the anti-celebrity. He talks unapologetically about his distinct lack of abs and social media presence. ("My friend sent me a link to TikTok the other day and I was like, what is this newfangled technology? It seems to be like Twitter?") Even this phone call is painful for him. He dropped his phone six months ago and left the screen shattered — the bits of broken glass that cut his ear and fingers a masochistic reminder to spend less time on his device.
It helps to understand that, despite his acting pedigree, this career wasn’t a given. Gleeson played Doody in his high school’s production of “Grease,” and inadvertently snapped up an agent at 16 thanks to a charming speech he gave while accepting an award on his father’s behalf. But along the way, there were jobs at a supermarket and a gas station, and a degree in Media Arts from the Dublin Institute of Technology.
After dabbling in Irish TV and movies, and giving a Tony-nominated Broadway performance in 2006’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” he broke out in 2010 playing the eldest Weasley in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 & 2.” “Anna Karenina” and the critically acclaimed “Ex Machina” followed and, in 2015, a bumper lineup of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Brooklyn” and “The Revenant.”
As the self-effacing actor’s profile grew, his cherished anonymity shrunk — especially among the rabid Star Wars fandom that hung on his every word during promo tours for the sequel trilogy, which ended with December’s “The Rise of Skywalker.”
“Everything about the Star Wars experience was amazing for me apart from being a little bit better known for a while, which is a little scary,” he said, careful to emphasize his gratitude. “I wasn’t happy about that, but every other aspect was incredible.”
He often finds himself looking to Margot Robbie, his “shining light” and repeat co-star from “About Time,” “Peter Rabbit,” and “Goodbye Christopher Robin” for guidance.
“Margot Robbie is like 100 times more famous than I will ever be, and I’ve never heard her complain once about [being a celebrity],” he said. “There are parts of it that she probably doesn’t enjoy, but she just gets on with life and concentrates on all the good things. So I’ve tried to be more like Margot, in that and several other ways.”
When Gleeson first started working overseas, he learned to temper his thick Irish accent. Talk a little slower, a little clearer. "You do become aware that people need to understand what you're saying," he said, noting that "Run" is one of the only projects that's allowed him to use his native accent on screen. "When I first went to meet my agents in America, they didn't know what the hell was going on when I started talking."
Still, he speaks at a rapid clip, trailing off from one sentence to the next and pausing only to laugh heartily or offer a “get out of jail free card” should what he’s about to say be misconstrued. He issued one such warning when the subject turned to working with a mostly female creative team on “Run.” (In addition to Jones and Waller-Bridge’s involvement, six of its seven episodes are directed by women.) While Gleeson has previously spoken out about male toxicity in Hollywood and also worked with female directors like Angelina Jolie on “Unbroken” and Andrea Berloff on “The Kitchen,” he stressed that he’s not making a point to seek out such collaborations.
“If you speak about these amazingly talented people as being women, then it sounds like you’re almost doing a favor or bowing down and saying I chose to do it because they were women — which is not the case. But then if you don’t talk about the fact that they also happen to be women, you’re ignoring that an amazing thing is happening, which is that, perhaps too slowly, women are having a stronger voice in the industry,” he said. “I read the [’Run’] scripts and said, ‘This is absolutely amazing. The people involved are amazing.’ And then at the end of it, you go, ‘Oh, and the fact that they’re all women is f---ing brilliant, as well.’”
For the foreseeable future, Gleeson can be found “lolling around” at home. The pandemic forced him to cut short production on his upcoming Amazon comedy series, “Frank of Ireland,” a passion project with his brother Brian, and postponed the theatrical release of “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” until August. He was also lining up a summer play, but that’s now in limbo, too.
“I can afford to kind of sit out the next few months. I’m okay in my apartment, but there’s so many people in the industry who may have trouble paying rent already, and then this on top of it, it’s just an absolute nightmare,” he said. “But I believe we’ll get through this and, on the far side, there will be an even greater need to be with people. I can’t wait to go to the cinema and be annoyed by the person sitting next me eating popcorn.”
On a recent walk in his neighborhood, Gleeson was confronted by an excited young boy who recognized him first as “Mr. McGregor” and then began reenacting “The Rise of Skywalker,” all while maintaining a six-foot distance.
“He said that Kylo Ren was his favorite, which, you know, that was fine. And then he started doing some of my lines, and it was the sweetest, nicest, everything-you-would-hope-for-from-being-in-that-sort-of-film reaction,” he said. “The notion of mattering to somebody else through the work that you do, that’s kind of cool.”