Poke around YouTube long enough and sooner or later you’ll find a video of Domhnall Gleeson having sex with a horse. It’s the final punch line in a bit featured on Your Bad Self, a short-lived, profane, pretty funny sketch comedy show that ran on Ireland’s RTÉ Two in 2010. In the sketch, Gleeson plays a young actor who wows casting agents during his auditions but has trouble following through on set thanks to ill-founded assurances that, sure, he knows how to scuba dive and, of course, he knows how to sword fight. He doesn’t. But he does, it turns out, know how to ride a horse. And though his form of riding probably isn’t what the script called for, the directors seem pleased anyway.
It’s a silly bit, but also a telling one for a couple of reasons. Based on the audition scenes, Gleeson’s character appears to be ready to play any sort of role and skilled enough to pull them off—even selling a Spanish accent and ridiculous lines like, “It wasn’t that I didn’t like the rain. I just never saw the rainbows.” And, when we finally see him act on set, we witness an actor totally committed to the part. No half-hearted horse-humper, he twirls one hand in the air before grabbing his partner’s haunches in a fit of passion. When the director calls “cut,” Gleeson’s character suggests the scene might benefit from another take—“just to kind of mix it up a bit.” Ten years later, Gleeson has returned to TV with the new HBO series Run. In the decade dividing those shows, he’s never stopped mixing it up.
Your Bad Self aired during what looked like a breakout year for Gleeson. In 2010, Gleeson played Bob Geldof in the Irish TV movie When Harvey Met Bob and starred as a farmer in love with a New Zealand call girl in the Irish indie Sensation, neither of which were popular (or easy to find) on this side of the Atlantic. The same can’t be said of his other 2010 projects. Gleeson had small but significant roles as a clone in Mark Romanek’s moody science-fiction romance Never Let Me Go, as a shady character in the Coen brothers’ True Grit remake, and, most prominently, as Bill, the eldest Weasley sibling, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 1.
But a question lingered: What kind of breakout was this? There’s not really much to unite those roles apart from the actor playing them. They’re calibrated to serve the needs of different sorts of movies and to fit into settings as disparate as an alternate version of the late 20th century, a dirt-caked Old West, and the magical halls of higher learning. Ultimately, it’s Gleeson’s quicksilver-like ability to slip into virtually any sort of film, and any sort of role, that’s defined his career.
That same ability has also kept him from getting stuck. Gleeson’s whole career can be seen as a series of escaped traps, starting with his family ties. The son of the great Brendan Gleeson, Domhnall could have eased into the family business, specializing almost exclusively in scene-stealing supporting roles. This seems to have been the lane he saw for himself when he started out, including stops like 2012’s Dredd, in which he played a tech-enhanced computer expert. Then Joe Wright’s daring (if not entirely successful) adaptation of Anna Karenina, released the same year, asked him to take on some romantic glamour. Gleeson rose to the occasion as the earthy, lovestruck aristocrat Konstantin Levin, a romantic turn that helped ensure character parts would be just part of his repertoire.
A different sort of breakthrough came in 2013 with a lead role in Richard Curtis’s romantic comedy About Time. Gleeson plays Tim, a shy lawyer from Cornwall who learns he’s inherited an ability to replay and change time from his father (Bill Nighy). Though others disagreed, Gleeson saw the role as a leap, telling The Guardian at the time, “I’m not built like a leading man. Richard’s taking a bit of a risk casting this face in that role. Conventionally handsome is not really where I’m at.” True or not, the part demanded more than just leading-man looks, and Gleeson’s deft performance not only makes it easy to believe he could snare the heart of Rachel McAdams’s Mary—it takes Tim from yearning youth to the hard-won wisdom of loss and adulthood.
With the wrong lead About Time could have seemed maudlin or, worse, manipulative. The naturalness Gleeson brings to the performance doesn’t so much push back against Curtis’s sentimental tendencies as give them a little bit of friction. He plays Tim as a good-hearted man who is mostly interested in using his extraordinary gift to achieve the modest goals of companionship and stability. When Tim comes to recognize that time will eventually steal them away no matter what, Gleeson plays the realization as both devastating and clarifying—all while generating considerable chemistry with McAdams. A future in witty, poignant romantic comedies seemed ahead of him.
It never arrived. Instead, Gleeson seemed to seek out every other sort of film. For a moment, it looked like he’d be a go-to actor to play ordinary men thrust into extraordinary situations. In Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, Gleeson plays Jon, an aspiring songwriter who chucks a humdrum life to join Soronprfbs, a band with an unpronounceable name fronted by a singer named Frank (Michael Fassbender) who never removes a papier-mâché mask. Jon ably serves as an audience surrogate, offering a way into Frank’s bizarre world, but Gleeson also finds ways to keep suggesting that Jon feels more at home with Soronprfbs than in the straight world.
In Alex Garland’s 2015 film Ex Machina, Gleeson’s Caleb serves a similar purpose. A seemingly unremarkable tech company drone invited to the isolated home of his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Caleb finds himself playing a central role in a drama about nothing less than the definition of humanity. Only it’s not quite the role he imagines for himself as he sets about trying to rescue an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander, making this an Anna Karenina reunion). Gleeson again plays a seemingly unremarkable man, but it’s Caleb’s doomed attempts to turn himself into a hero that ultimately define him. The character has been made to feel special—and has allowed himself to believe that to be true—when the truth is that he’s devastatingly ordinary. For Gleeson, Ex Machina is the movie that clarified the kind of added layer he could bring to seemingly straightlaced characters. Even his everymen ended up getting twisted or destroyed.
Ex Machina would also help make 2015 another big, impossible-to-define year for Gleeson. His other work included a major supporting role in The Revenant that found him covered in dirt and snow (and eventually blood) and a polar opposite part in John Crowley’s Brooklyn, which cast him as Jim, a well-heeled man whose romantic attentions and promises of comfort and security threaten to coax Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis into abandoning her plan to return to the life she’s carved out for herself in America. It’s not an easy part to pull off, especially since everything that’s preceded Jim’s arrival in the story has pushed viewers to root for Eilis to settle down with the nice Italian boy (Emory Cohen) who loves her in America. Gleeson has to make Jim seem like a viable, even preferable, alternative, while turning a symbol for the charms of Ireland itself into a flesh-and-blood character. His character’s soft, sincere, insistent act of seduction may fail, but the actor succeeds.
That same year he reached audiences that would dwarf the viewership of Ex Machina, Brooklyn, and The Revenant combined via Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first of three films in which he played the villainous General Hux. In the process, Gleeson put aside all the elements of his craft that made relatable, often attractive, characters seemingly easy for him, instead portraying the intergalactic fascist leader as a recognizable, insufferable prat. He brays, kowtows, schemes, and uses authority as a mask for the insecurity he can never quite hide, particularly when sharing space with Kylo Ren. It’s a big, bold performance that somehow, even surrounded by grotesques and murderers, makes Hux into the most detestable person in the galaxy. (That he meets such an abrupt, unsatisfying end in The Rise of Skywalker isn’t that film’s biggest flaw, but may be its most nagging.)
With Star Wars, Gleeson proved he could successfully leap away from smaller movies by taking a more significant blockbuster role than Harry Potter had offered. But sometimes actors who make such leaps have a hard time jumping back. For Gleeson, it’s proved to be yet another trap he can slip out of whenever he wants. The ability to show up anywhere seems to be part of the appeal. In 2017, the year of The Last Jedi, Gleeson played a CIA agent with an agenda opposite Tom Cruise in American Made, a murderous sibling (opposite brother Brian) in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, and Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne (opposite his About Time costar Margot Robbie) in Goodbye Christopher Robin. The following year, in a 2018 interview with The Independent, he spoke warmly about getting the chance to play broad physical comedy in Peter Rabbit while waxing rhapsodic about Home Alone. (A choice quote: “[I]f I arrive home tired and there’s a movie on TV … If there’s an amazing masterpiece or Home Alone? Home Alone’s also kind of an amazing masterpiece. I don’t say that with a raised eyebrow, that’s how I totally feel about it.”) It’s not the sort of résumé that makes him easy to pin down, beyond his commitment to whatever role he takes on.
In that respect, Billy Johnson, his role in the Vicky Jones–created Run, represents the quintessential Domhnall Gleeson part. The less the viewers know before watching the show, the better—even down to the basic premise that explains why Billy starts traveling cross-country with a woman named Ruby (Merritt Wever, a similarly mercurial actor doing some of the best work of her career). Suffice it to say it’s hard to get a read on Billy, who can seem cocksure in public, vulnerable and frightened in private, and mostly seems driven by a need to transform into somebody else. But of course Gleeson kills a role that requires him to swap so many personalities. He’s built a career on that impulse.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.