Action with heart

Jack Gleeson on the legacy of Joffrey, working with the greats and In The Land Of Saints And Sinners

by Jennie Kermode

Jack Gleeson and Liam Neeson in In The Land Of Saints And Sinners
Jack Gleeson and Liam Neeson in In The Land Of Saints And Sinners

In US cinemas now and coming to Netflix on 26 April, In The Land Of Saints And Sinners, directed by Robert Lorenz, marks a real return to form for Liam Neeson, who gets a chance to remind viewers what he can do as an actor after playing a string of underwritten characters in Hollywood actioners. He plays a retired hitman who falls in with a young up-and-coming assassin played by Jack Gleeson, who will be most familiar to viewers as Joffrey Baratheon from Game Of Thrones. Having arranged to meet up with Jack for an interview, I begin by thanking him, as I really enjoyed the film and might have missed it otherwise.

“I guess this is a nice meeting ground between the style of film Liam Neeson's been known for recently, a big action film, but then it also has a heart,” he says. “It allows him to do what he's actually really good at, acting and carrying emotional scenes and just telling a great story. So I think it's like a perfect middle ground film.”

Jack Gleeson in In The Land Of Saints And Sinners
Jack Gleeson in In The Land Of Saints And Sinners

He’s very good in the film himself, but before we get to that, I have to ask how he dealt with playing one of the most hated people in the world when he was barely out of his teens.

“I just really enjoyed playing Joffrey,” he says. “I just had a blast filming it. I guess now the parts that I tend to play do tend to be bad guys, but I like that. I don't really mind if I only play bad guys for the rest of my career. I mean, maybe it'll get boring, but I'm not bored yet. I just enjoy it, and maybe that's just what I was put here to do, you know?”

There were several things that attracted him to this role, he says.

“Definitely the character. I thought he was quirky and off the beaten track, and I could see that he had something unique, something original about him that was attractive. And then also, knowing that Liam Neeson was going to be in it, I mean, I'm not going to lie. And getting to film in beautiful northwest Donegal, which was honestly one of the highlights of the whole filming process. It was just so, so beautiful. And so it was kind of a no-brainer. I mean, I just really wanted to do the part, so I did the audition and was just lucky enough to get it.”

It has an amazing cast. Right from the start of his career, he’s worked with some superb actors. What has that meant to his own development?

“It's completely priceless, really, to share scenes with people of such a high calibre of acting. It's worth its weight in gold in terms of progressing as an actor, and learning. So, yeah, to share scenes with Liam Neeson, it is kind of like hitting the jackpot or winning the lottery because you're just picking up everything. Sadly, I wasn't able to have any scenes with Ciarán Hinds, who is one of my favourite actors as well. I was able to share a scene with Colm Meaney, who's also a complete icon or legend, and Kerry Condon as well. So, yeah, I just feel so lucky that I get to work with these amazing actors because it's not every day that you do that. I just feel like being in their presence makes me better. And they make you look good as well because they're good in the scenes.”

Kerry Condon in In The Land Of Saints And Sinners
Kerry Condon in In The Land Of Saints And Sinners

I suggest that that enthusiasm is something he can let show a bit in this role, since his character is something of a fan of Liam Neeson’s character.

“Yeah, definitely. There was a bit of that art imitating life, so, yeah, that was cool as well. And to play all the different ups and downs of the relationship, the spiky beginning and starting to show more fondness and even maybe a paternal bond. Every scene was a joy to do because of that.”

Jack’s character, Kevin, is quite complex. He may be a villain but it feels as though there's some potential for redemption there, or that he's maybe a villain because he's not known anything else. Was that how Jack saw him?

“Definitely, yeah. Yeah. I mean, Kevin talks about just getting into a pub brawl. Then Colm Meaney's character, he just kind of picks him up and says, ‘Oh, will you do this for a few hundred quid?’ And I think there are stories in real life of people just being a bit vulnerable and slipping through the cracks and maybe not having a support network there. They're not sociopaths. They're not born to be sadistic and there's something that's still human about them, but they're doing these very inhuman things that you become a bit inured to.

“As Kevin says himself, you know, he's only doing this for a bit of money. He's not really a crazed killer, like he would gently call Liam Neeson's character. So, yeah, there's definitely still a lot there to be redeemed in Kevin. He just needs his chance.”

He's a character with a lot of energy and a lot of impulsivity. Was that important to the way that Jack carried his body through those scenes?

“Yeah, definitely. He does kind of have that jittery impulsive, unpredictable quality. I was wearing these very Seventies jeans and this leather jacket, and I think all of that impacted how I held my body and saw the character and, yeah – I guess Liam Neeson is such a big, imposing figure that maybe there's something comical about the fact that I'm a lot smaller and he's a lot bigger, so playing with that physical dimension as well.”

Ciarán Hinds and Liam Neeson in In The Land Of Saints And Sinners
Ciarán Hinds and Liam Neeson in In The Land Of Saints And Sinners

There's that scene early on where Kevin walks into a hallway and stuffs his face with scones that he’s stolen. A lot of actors are hesitant to actually eat anything onscreen, especially if they have to do lots of takes. So how did that go?

“It's a good question,” he says. “I mean, it's so true because you don't want to shoot yourself in the foot and you don't want to just make yourself sick. I mean, sometimes that does happen, but I hate it when you see an actor fake eating on screen. Maybe only other actors notice that stuff. But I think for that particular scene, I was able to take a bite and then spit it out. That makes you commit more to the biting because if you know that if you take a huge bite of the scone and you're going to have to eat it take after take, maybe even subconsciously you go for a slightly smaller bite. Whereas I knew that I could just spit it out, so I was able to let loose.”

I tell him that I think the thing that comes across as most challenging about the character is that he's got quite an incoherent life and sometimes he behaves in quite an incoherent way, but he still feels like a coherent character all the way through that. We recognise him as a complete person who's just a bit scattered.

“That's very kind of you to say,” he says. “I mean, that's the goal, really, in any part, to try and make the audience believe that they could meet this guy in a pub or they could meet him on the street.” He hesitates. “Maybe you wouldn't want to meet him on the street, but you could. Yeah, you could picture him existing in the real world. I suppose there were a lot of things about the character that are in the script that I could draw upon. For instance, his love of music and guitar playing. He likes playing bingo and he likes going to the pub. So these are very kind of real things, these are things that a normal person enjoys doing.

“Perhaps I was imagining him more like that kind of person. More like a person who likes simple pleasures in life, instead of being this crazy killer who gets up in the middle of the night to go to the forest to shoot somebody in the back of the head. That wasn't really how I pictured Kevin. I pictured Kevin more like someone that happened to have this disturbing job, and maybe that helped with framing.”

Jack Gleeson and Liam Neeson in In The Land Of Saints And Sinners
Jack Gleeson and Liam Neeson in In The Land Of Saints And Sinners

We talk about the ongoing challenge, in cinema, of dealing with Ireland’s difficult past.

“I think when you tell it. When you tell a story like that, especially being an Irish person telling a story like that, you have to be incredibly sensitive,” he says. “I don't think this film was ever trying to be necessarily a Troubles film. I think the Troubles are the scenery and the backdrop and they create a certain dramatic tension, but I don't think the film was ever trying to give an opinion about the Troubles. You just have to be very sensitive and not fetishise it either or create too much of an entertainment product out of it. But I think this film does a good job of handling a difficult topic.”

He’s spent a lot of time on the stage over the past ten year. Is it the stage or the screen that calls to him most, going forwards?

“I love doing both,” he says. “It's kind of the cliché that once you've done a lot of stage work then you really want to do screen stuff, and when you’ve done a lot of screen work then you want to do stage work. So the grass is always greener. But yeah, I'm up for doing anything. I'd love to work in London on stage. That's where I live, and there are loads of theatres in London that I look up to and admire and would love to perform in. So, yeah, that would be great.”

Before we finish, he has a message for the people from the beautiful part of Ireland where the film was shot.

"Thank you to the great people of northwest Donegal and Killybegs and Glencolmcille, because I just had the best time filming there and living there. I lived there for about a month and I felt very accepted and welcomed by the people there. I spent a lot of time in the pubs making friends. And it's such a beautiful location with lovely people. So I hope that they like the film as well because it's also their film, because they gave up their their little slice of heaven for this film and I hope they're proud of it.”

Share this with others on...

Her own anchor Haley Bennett and Thomas Napper on Widow Clicquot

Under gaslight Tatjana Anders on identifying toxic relationships and making Your Reality

In the moment Alice Englert on planning, instinct and letting rip in Bad Behaviour

Full throttle emotions Antoine Chevrollier on exploring the violence of the teenage 'bubble' in Block Pass

Collaboration and fighting dictatorship Director Emin Alper and producer Yorgos Tsourgiannis on their working relationship

Sundance reveals finalists for new location Cities in Georgia, Colorado, Ohio, Kentucky and New Mexico vie with Utah for contract

More news and features


More competitions coming soon.