‘Frank of Ireland’: Brian and Domhnall Gleeson on their zany new sitcom

As rude as 'Peep Show' and as clever as 'Fleabag', the brothers' latest project reflects their anti-Hollywood upbringing. The best thing about acting, they say, is the biscuits

On looks alone, you probably wouldn’t realise that Domhnall and Brian Gleeson are brothers. Brian (pronounced ‘Bree-uhn’), 33, looks exactly like their father, the actor Brendan Gleeson – so much so that he played the younger version of his dad in Assassin’s Creed. He has the same round face, sweep of sandy hair and magnificent beard. Domhnall (pronounced ‘Doh-nul’), 37, is more angular, his hair deeper red, his beard a bit less full (sorry Domhnall). As soon as they start speaking to each other, however, the sibling relationship is obvious. Matey, teasing, laughing loudly when the other says something even slightly wrong, their closeness is clear. Due to lockdown, they’re in different places and on different windows of our Zoom call, but it doesn’t stop their sentences tumbling over each other or the occasional family in-joke. Frankly, it’s probably a good thing they’re not in the same room as it might be a struggle to get a word in.

The reason NME is intruding on this family catch-up is to talk about their new sitcom, Frank of Ireland. Though the brothers have worked together before, on various shorts, a couple of films and a theatre production, this is their biggest joint project. Frank of Ireland has a flavour that combines the comedy of Fleabag, Derry Girls and Peep Show, with some twisted elements all its own.

“We wanted to work together – we just needed an idea”
– Brian Gleeson

Brian plays Frank, who is technically in his early-thirties but approaches life with the mentality of someone about 20 years younger. He lives with his mother – a sexually voracious boozer, brilliantly played by Pom Boyd – and does very little of use. He is ostensibly a singer, in the same way that many waiters are ‘actors’, but the bulk of his time is spent pining for an ex-girlfriend (Sarah Greene) who he’s not sure he wants to be with but who he definitely doesn’t want to be with anyone else. He whiles away his days making a mess of various things with his best pal, Doofus (Domhnall), a cheerful idiot. It is very funny and extremely silly.

“We knew we wanted to work together before we knew what the project was going to be,” says Brian, who offscreen is the quieter of the two brothers. He pauses to think over his answers before speaking. “Then we had to come up with an idea.” While they didn’t want to be as literal as writing a show about brothers, a show based around two men with a brotherly bond seemed the right place to start. Writing was a collaboration with Michael Moloney, who Domhnall had worked with on the sketch show Your Bad Self, and with the mentorship of Catastrophe co-creator Sharon Horgan, who produces. “It took us a long time to come up with the flavour of the show,” says Domhnall. “We went through a lot of different versions that [didn’t work].” He says Horgan helped them finesse it – “She’ll tell you what’s good, so you can do more of it, whereas most people just tell you what’s bad” – and eventually they arrived at the core of the show. “We realised that Frank is basically a 13 year old. He’s in arrested development and has this temper. He thinks the world is a good place but that it owes him something. And if Frank is 13 then Doofus is nine, looking up to his cool cousin… I think a little bit of our childhood must have influenced it.”

Frank Of Ireland
‘Frank Of Ireland’ casts the two brothers as cousins. CREDIT: Channel 4

“No, our childhood definitely wasn’t like that,” Brian interjects. Domhnall apologises (“I’ve had too many coffees and can’t stop talking.”) It’s certainly hard to believe that the pair spent their childhood like their characters, being generally aimless, ruining social events and consistently disrespecting their mother. It seems their path to performing was set from a very early age, thanks to a father they both adore.

Their dad Brendan didn’t start acting until he was 34, when Domhnall was about six and Brian just a toddler, but he was successful almost immediately. He had small parts in films like the Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman froth Far and Away, then Braveheart, then later films like Mission: Impossible 2, Gangs of New York and 28 Days Later. Both sons vividly remember their dad making films and it set an interest in the industry, if not initially acting.

“I wish we’d had more biscuits on-set”
– Domhnall Gleeson

“I preferred coming up with stories and stuff when I was a kid, as opposed to performing,” says Domhnall. “I studied film and broadcasting in college, rather than acting. That’s where I saw myself, hopefully… I was always amazed at Brian’s ability to perform other characters. Even as a kid, he was just great at being somebody else.” Brian agrees he was the more natural performer. “I think any kid spends a lot of their time pretending to be something else,” he says. “I guess the work was just trying to make it better.” Having a dad who had made a success of it, made working in ‘showbiz’ seem like an achievable dream. “I think being able to look at an example of someone who was able to do it is huge,” says Brian. “It appearing to be a realistic ambition is everything. Seeing how hard dad worked when we were kids also instilled an understanding that it didn’t just happen. You’ve got to work like a demon to have any kind of shot.”

They recall their dad’s work frequently crossing over with their normal life. “I remember a lot of different haircuts,” says Domhnall. “I remember he collected me off the bus once and he’d shaved his head and he had these massive sideburns. I thought, ‘Well, this is a ridiculous job. What the hell is he doing?’ I remember being almost scared of how he looked… And I remember him coming to watch me play football once. He was shooting a comedy and he had these outrageous sideburns… I thought, ‘People are going to know that’s my dad and that’s going to be crazy.’” Having a dad who knows movie stars and works on Hollywood movie sets has its obvious benefits, of course. Both boys would regularly visit their dad on set and it was a visit to the set of the TV movie The Treaty that really opened seven-year-old Domhnall’s eyes to the glamour of the acting world and a possible future career.

Brendan Gleeson
Dad Brendan Gleeson makes a brief cameo on the show. CREDIT: Channel 4

“I remember there being biscuits,” says Domhnall wistfully. “And I remember thinking this might be the best job in the world… I realised that the biscuits are there for the actors, so obviously I decided I had to [become an actor].” Although his career has gone from strength to strength, Domhnall has found that biscuits have not featured as bountifully as he’d hoped. “There really weren’t a lot of biscuits on Frank of Ireland and, looking back, I wish we’d changed that. I wish there had been a conversation about that earlier. If I could go back and change one thing it would be having more biscuits.”

The Gleeson performing dynasty is even bigger than just Brendan, Domhnall and Brian. There are another two brothers in reserve. Domhnall is the eldest brother. Then there’s Fergus, a consultant radiologist, who appears in Frank Of Ireland, singing. Then Brian. Then there’s Rory, who Domhnall calls, “a tremendous write.” He wrote a short, Psychic, that Domhnall and Brian appeared in. Rory was also recently a contestant on the gameshow The Chase. “He did the family proud!” says Domhnall, beaming. “We all tuned in! He didn’t tell us what happened ahead of time… it was all very, very exciting!” (He is being kind. Rory did quite poorly and went home with nothing, except the unwavering support of his siblings).

“I tried running during lockdown… but it’s more power-walking”
– Brian Gleeson

Though Domhnall is objectively the most famous brother, both he and Brian have ticked off some very impressive projects in their respective careers. Domhnall’s been a Weasley brother in the Harry Potter films and a Star Wars villain (no spoilers), as well as appearing in The Revenant and Ex Machina. Brian has appeared in Hellboy, Peaky Blinders, the acclaimed TV show The Bisexual, and worked with living legends Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day Lewis on Phantom Thread. They worked together in Darren Aronofsky’s bonkers Mother!, playing Cain and Abel-esque brothers. Have they ever been envious of any parts the other has played?

“Domhnall’s worked with amazing people,” says Brian. “Like, proper top of the line.” Domhnall, stuttering in a slightly abashed way, interrupts, “Maybe I’d be more envious if I looked at [parts he’s played] and thought, ‘I could have done that’. But the stuff Brian’s done and the people he’s worked with, it’s on stuff I wouldn’t have been able to do. It’s admiration more than envy. Maybe when I look at him working with Steven Soderbergh (on Logan Lucky) and Paul Thomas Anderson…there’s maybe a little bit of envy.”

Frank Of Ireland
Brian stars as Frank, a rude man-child – and Domhnall plays his submissive cousin Doofus. CREDIT: Channel 4

Domhnall says this while sitting in front of a poster for Punch Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 romcom. Which suggests really quite a lot of envy, actually. “Maybe I keep it here just to keep myself hungry?” he laughs, when we point out the poster. “I’ve realised while doing Zoom interviews that having this poster up makes it look like I had something to do with Punch Drunk Love. It looks like I think I directed it. I don’t. I just really like the film. I realise it looks like I’ve lost my mind.”

Well, who hasn’t lost their mind a bit in the past year? 2020 decimated the film and television industry, with countless productions having to shut down production or cancel entirely. Shooting schedules are only now just starting to get back to anything like normal. Frank of Ireland did not escape the pandemic. “We got shut down in March [2020]…It just became clear it was the right thing, the safe thing, to do,” says Brian. They’d shot five weeks of the planned six week shoot and it was not 100 per cent clear when, or if, they’d be able to finish it. He says it was hard at the time, but ultimately a positive for the series. “It afforded us the luxury of being able to look at the show again and see what it needed.” Domhnall adds, “I think it brought this perspective of, ‘Holy shit, aren’t we lucky to be able to make this?’ I think I found the first part [of shooting] much more stressful, and then the second part was much more joyous, really.”

“I’ve learned no new skills this year, I’ve just got better at sleeping”
– Domhnall Gleeson

The past year, as for most people, has been a combination of feeling very stressed and very bored. They’ve had the editing of the show to occupy them, albeit remotely, but neither has worked much otherwise (Brian has shot one project he won’t name). “I have been trying to develop a passion for running,” says Brian, “but it’s more power-walking. I would go out and do it for a long time, but just because you’re outside for ages doesn’t mean it’s a proper run.” Domhnall has not managed even that level of exertion. “I don’t think I’ve developed any new skills,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of sleeping. I’ve got even better at that.”

Both brothers say that, for all its COVID-induced strife, they would repeat the experience of Frank of Ireland and work on something together again. Although Domhnall has one stipulation. “If myself and Brian and Michael do something together again, I think we should set it in America.” Because of the broader canvas? The chance to tell another side of the Irish story? The ready availability of a greater pool of actors? “There are way more biscuits in America. They’re not as good, but there are more of them, and I’ve always been more about quantity than quality, with biscuits.” “I agree,” says Brian. “I think a larger plate of biscuits is where we need to be looking.” Look out Hollywood(‘s biscuit aisles), here they come.

‘Frank Of Ireland’ debuts April 15 on Channel 4