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Domhnall Gleeson on 'Frank': 'There were so many ways to get it wrong'

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TORONTO - When Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson first read the script for "Frank," a comedy-drama inspired by the life of eccentric English musician Frank Sidebottom, he wondered how the offbeat story would translate to the big screen.

Although not a biopic of the late Sidebottom, the script was penned by journalist Jon Ronson based on his experiences playing keyboards for the cult singer-songwriter, who performed in an enormous papier-mache head bearing a goofy cartoon face.

"When I read the script, I thought it was really funny and unusual, that the possibilities were endless in a way. But there were also only a couple of ways to get it right," Gleeson said in a recent phone interview.

"It's such a strange thing. You're like, 'How the hell do you do this?' And then a sentence (in the script) says, 'They play the most bizarre but beautiful song that's ever been.' You're like, 'Well, it's fine to write that, but...," he recalled with a laugh.

Opening Friday in Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria before screening in other cities, "Frank" stars Michael Fassbender as the title character behind the giant head. Gleeson plays Jon, a hapless amateur keyboardist with more dreams than talent who stumbles onto a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play in Frank's band.

Any concerns Gleeson had about the film's unusual premise were put to rest when he met with director Lenny Abrahamson. The filmmaker also hails from Ireland and his earlier movies, including "Adam & Paul" and "Garage," also dealt with characters on the fringes of society.

"He's made some great films before. I loved all of them," said Gleeson. "When I met him, we were both talking about the fact that there were so many ways to get it wrong and only a couple ways to get it right... Working with Lenny made me more confident. And then once you get Michael on board, you're in very good shape."

Gleeson, 31, son of actor Brendan Gleeson, has landed some plum roles in recent years: Bill Weasley in the "Harry Potter" films, Moon in "True Grit," Levin in "Anna Karenina." Currently, he is filming the upcoming "Star Wars: Episode VII." But while it seems the young actor's star is on the rise, Gleeson remains modest and self-deprecating.

"Obviously I have a lot in common with Jon on the talent front. Ambition can get you a long way," he joked.

"Frank" plays on the contrast between Jon, whose ambitions far exceed his talents, and Frank, who is blessed with musical ability but whose only ambition is to play for his friends.

When Jon first joins the avant garde band, existing members including Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Don (Scoot McNairy) are outright hostile toward him. Then, Jon's suggestion that Frank pursue commercial success by being more "likable" winds up pushing the outsider musician to the edge of a breakdown.

"I think Michael has been talking about the notion that for Frank, music is like breathing. It's something you have to do to exist. The way he survives in the world is by making this music," said Gleeson.

"It's a way of communicating with his friends and a way of expressing himself, whereas for Jon, it's a means to an end. And the end obviously is fame or fortune or respect or love."

Frank's struggle with mental illness, meanwhile, is portrayed not as a crucial element of his artistic ability but as a roadblock. As his mother says in one scene, "Torment didn't make the music. He was always musical. If anything, it slowed him down."

Gleeson said the film "debunks the way people view the outsider artist or the artist who had a very difficult personal life.

"There is a way of thinking out there that is, 'Oh, wow, how glamorous. He's killed himself when he was only however many years old and he's left all this art behind.' And of course, there's nothing glamorous about that at all," he said.

"The troubles that anyone has that they go through are not to be mixed up with any notion that it's cool... I think the film is very clever about being real about that."

As for acting with Fassbender while he was wearing the blank-faced papier-mache head, Gleeson said it was easy because of the Academy Award-nominated actor's performance.

"Michael is phenomenal, that's not a secret. He is amazing at what he does. He inhabits every role completely. It was no different with 'Frank,'" he said.

"I don't feel like, 'I got to do a movie with Michael Fassbender but only kind of.' I absolutely was in every scene with him. He was working the head to his own advantage, to use it just as much as he would use his own face... just through his body movements and the way he held himself. It was amazing to watch."

The film opened earlier this year in the U.K. to rave reviews. Although Gleeson is thrilled by the positive reception, he admitted to being self-critical while watching himself on screen.

"I've never relaxed and said, 'Well, that's exactly it. I absolutely nailed that.' There always has to be room for improvement otherwise you'll stop trying to improve," he said.

"So, I'm extremely proud of the film 'Frank' and I'm proud of my performance in it. I don't watch it thinking, 'Oh god, that's awful, that's awful, that's awful.' But I do always think, 'Well, there's other things you could have tried and there's other ways you could have gone about that.' I just think it's an important thing for me to do to continue to get better."

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