The first time the Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson tried to go to Coney Island, it was February, he was 22 and he never actually found the place. A few years later with his brother Brian, he had better luck, sort of — feasting on hot dogs at Nathan’s Famous, then boarding what he recalled as a tame-looking “whirly” ride.
“As we got on, I said something like, ‘I think this is for kids,’” Gleeson, 38, said late last week at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo, a sleeker corner of Brooklyn than the setting of his tale. “My strong belief is that the person running that machine heard me, because it spun us in three different directions for like an hour and a half, and I’ve never been so sick in my life.”
Ridiculously entertaining, thoroughly self-deprecating, his anecdote also involved a ride on the old wooden roller coaster (“like being put in a paint shaker”) and his younger brother’s far sturdier constitution. But Gleeson was only telling it because I asked if he’d ever been there.
“How dare you bring up traumatic pasts,” he joked, “when I’m doing a play like this?”
In Enda Walsh’s “Medicine,” running through Dec. 12 at St. Ann’s, and streaming live Nov. 28 and Dec. 5, Gleeson plays John Kane, a psychiatric inpatient whose apparent drama therapy session with two visiting actors and a drummer trawls through traumatic episodes from his life. Absurdism abounds.
It is not, then, the safe fare you might expect from an actor known for playing General Hux in the “Star Wars” franchise, Tim in the time-travel rom-com “About Time”and Bill Weasley in the “Harry Potter” films — in which his father, Brendan Gleeson, played the gruff, good-guy wizard Mad-Eye Moody. Domhnall (rhymes with “tonal”) has also been seen recently opposite Merritt Wever in the HBO drama “Run,” and with his brother Brian in the Amazon comedy “Frank of Ireland,” which they spent part of the pandemic making.
He proved his stage chops in New York before any of that, though, making his Tony-nominated Broadway debut at 22 in Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” in 2006. His affinity for Walsh’s work has history, too; in 2015, at his instigation, he, Brian and their father starred in a Dublin revival of Walsh’s 2006 play “The Walworth Farce.”
But Walsh wrote “Medicine” for Gleeson and the rest of its cast: Clare Barrett, Aoife Duffin and Sean Carpio. In the script, John describes himself as “a tall ginger man,” which Gleeson, at 6 foot 1, very much is. “And pale, too,” John adds, which is also true.
Drinking Throat Coat tea and bottled water to preserve his voice, Gleeson was cautiously game as he talked about his life and Walsh’s work, hyperaware of the danger of saying the wrong thing or seeming arrogant. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Tell me about you and Enda Walsh’s plays. What is it about them?
I really didn’t understand Enda fully, I don’t think, or get the full dose of him until I saw “The Walworth Farce.” Which I saw in a tiny room in Galway. It blew my head off in a way that was totally new. I was shocked to my core by it.
It’s a father and two sons, and he forces them to put on this farce every day. And what we’re watching is one day when the farce breaks down. They’ve been doing it for like 15 years, 20 years, this farce, and this other person arrives into their midst, and things just go off the rails. I left like, shook, really shook. I’d laughed so much, but I’d also never fully cried — like fully just wept, twice.
In a theater, you hadn’t ever fully cried before?
No. I’d been moved to tears, maybe, but not like this. Not mouth agog and tears just going as you were still engaged. And I was like, I don’t know what this is. Enda makes me react in a way that I don’t understand, and I just love that about him.
When people ask what “Medicine” is about, what do you tell them?
It’s a play partly about how we treat those that we describe as mentally ill. And the role of empathy in that and the role of medicine, good and bad, in that, and the importance of care, you know, and love. I think that’s at its core what it’s about. But it certainly doesn’t let you know that up front.
I mean, the lobster costume is a distraction.[Laughs] Yeah, I know.
Your character, John, dreams of being invisible. Are you able to go out and be a regular person around here, anonymous on the street?
There are days where you feel much more anonymous, in a nice way. I’m living close to the theater, so just getting to see the skyline and feel New York and all the rest of it, it’s amazing. Being able to walk around and feel like you just disappear into the fabric of that is gorgeous. I love that. It makes me feel very young and reminds me of when I was back here when I was 22. I just love soaking up that energy, and I love the cold air. And then other days you do feel a little bit like, “Oh, no,” conscious that maybe people have recognized you.
When you played Bill Weasley, you’re the one who said, “Mad-Eye’s dead.” How was that?
I think I would feel differently about it now. At the time, I would have maybe lost one grandparent — who I love very deeply. But I was in my mid-, late 20s maybe? I was like, this is a hilarious thing to announce in a big movie. I probably wouldn’t find it so — maybe I would still find it funny now. I think my dad would find it funny, so yeah.
What does theater do for you that film and TV don’t? If anything.
Oh, no, it does. What happens in the theater, the live connection is what’s paramount. That crackle when the work is good, there’s nothing like it. That feeling in the air, and with somebody like Enda, a sense of threat, of possibility — possibility of hilarity, of huge sadness, huge anger, chaos breaking out. It feels like it’s spilling out of control.
I read something about you scheduling other projects around “Medicine,” that it’s been a priority for you.
It’s just that I believe you only live once, right? I had the opportunity to do this thing that, in my life, I want to have done. Because Enda means so much to me, the notion of being in the first version of one of his plays, the fact that he wrote it for us, I mean, God. Of course.
You don’t know when you’re going to get sick, you don’t know when you’re not going to be able to do things. You don’t know when the work will dry up. You don’t know when people will decide they’re not interested in you expressing yourself anymore. That all can happen really fast. If there’s something you want to do, then do it now.
I would also say backing out on theater at the moment would be bad form. Theater needs people to back it. Theater needs actors to do it. Crew to do it. And right now, more than ever, it needs audiences to turn up. There are many places on a knife edge. If you care about it or if you think it might be interesting, then now’s the time. Go.