Housing

Hampstead star Brendan Gleeson: "The notion of a home is hugely important"

Harry Hallowes' story is important, but he didn’t want it to be told. Brendan Gleeson – who plays Hallowes in Hampstead alongside Diane Keaton – explains why he felt people should hear it anyway...

Brendan Gleeson is a familiar face to millions. Known for playing Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter films, he has appeared alongside the great and good of the film business in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, 28 Days Later, Mission Impossible II, In Bruges, Suffragette and Calvary, and later this year stars in Paddington 2 as shifty-sounding ‘Knuckles’ McGinty. But his latest film is something new.

Hampstead is a gentle romance, in which the Dubliner stars as Donald Horner, a man living quietly and self-sufficiently off-grid in a shack on the edges of Hampstead Heath. Dismissed as an eccentric, ridiculed, ignored – or worse, beaten up by local youths and dismissed as a ‘tramp’ – Horner is living an isolated life.

Harry Hallowes, in 2007, outside the Hampstead Heath shack where he had squatted since 1986. He had just been awarded deeds to the land after a battle with developers.

A combination of Diane Keaton as wealthy local widow Emily, who comes into his life and sees the man beneath the gruff exterior, and property developers hoping to remove Horner and his shack from the patch of prime real estate on the edge of the Heath bring him into the spotlight.

While the slow-burn romance between Horner and Emily is entirely fictional, the story of a man living off-grid ending up in court defending his right to the place he calls home is based on the life of Harry Hallowes.

I like the fact that the film is addressing something that is often swept under the carpet.

“I found it really interesting. I know when I start reading the lines in my head as if I’m already filming it that something is happening,” says Gleeson, who is taking time out from work on Stephen King’s TV series Mr Mercedes in South Carolina to call The Big Issue.

“Then when it got to the trial, I thought it is so bizarre, I bet you it is true! That is when I started getting really interested. I looked up the story of Harry Hallowes, where he won the rights to stay on his spot.”

In real life, Harry Hallowes, also known as Harry the Hermit, claimed squatters’ rights and was allowed to remain on his camp, having lived there for 12 years and become an integral part of the community.

“The notion of a home is hugely important,” says Gleeson. “And even if it is a shack, the idea that you can just displace people to make profit – which is happening at a ferocious rate at the moment – is just shocking.

Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson in Hampstead

“I don’t want to overblow what we did in regards to that. But sometimes a smaller pointer is more effective than banging the drum. Both are needed. I like the fact that the film is addressing something that is often swept under the carpet.

“It is really important that legally we put things in place that protect the humanity of our society and that people can’t just be treated like bits of waste paper.

“The idea that people are expendable is not actually the truth in law. And isn’t that great!”

However, realising that his character was based on a real man left Gleeson on the horns of a dilemma. He recalls wondering ‘where is this film ethically?’, and seeking out the real Harry Hallowes, who died last year aged 88, before accepting the role.

“Are we robbing some man’s life without him knowing what is going on? I made an attempt to talk to him and he wasn’t interested. I wrote him a letter and just said I didn’t want to be stealing his life from him or compromising him in terms of his privacy. I wanted him to be aware that this was happening. He gave our go-between a letter saying thanks but I want nothing to do with it. But not in a bad way, in other words – do your own work and research! So I felt liberated by that. The fact that he told me to bugger off and that he didn’t want to talk to me just made me want to do it more.

When people get older, they can get ostracised in lots of different ways

“I just found him really interesting as an individual. But then I had to break away from him to find the character for the film because the romance is fictionalised.”

The romance is also between two people a little older than we usually see in films.

“Your heart doesn’t die at 55,” says Gleeson. “It is never too late for isolation to be combatted or offset.

“When people get older, they can get ostracised in lots of different ways. People get isolated in lovely homes as well. We all know the middle of the city is the loneliest place in the world. I think you have to make yourself available first. There is a certain bravery involved in allowing yourself to think that maybe it is possible.”

Brendan Gleeson as Hogwarts professor Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter film series

Gleeson, 62, has never been more in demand than he is now. Two of his four sons are also making waves – Domhnall also appeared in the Harry Potter films as Bill Weasley and plays General Hux in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, and Brian was in Assassin’s Creed. Gleeson senior says that while he is on such a roll he is loathe to turn down work.

“You get slightly proprietorial if you are offered something special,” he says. “There was something I turned down last year and I have yet to get the fortitude to go and watch it. Some part of me wants it to be bad – and I know that is really unworthy! I don’t actually want it to be bad but I am kind of hoping so because otherwise it is going to grieve me, you know? I am trying to fight that.

“But I do love it. I sincerely do love the work. All the nonsense around it I could do without, like living away from home. But when you are working at a particular level with the best people around you, everything gets elevated.”

Hampstead is in cinemas now. Brendan Gleeson also stars in Alone in Berlin, which is out on June 30.

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