The concept of identity within music is wonderfully varied. Some artists are an enigmatic mesh of flamboyance and image in which the individual’s ‘real’ personality is masked under layers of symbolism. Others flourish by presenting themselves as little more than the duckin’ and divin’ geezer next door, even if the actual truth can be somewhat different.
And then there’s the late Chris Sievey, who achieved a cult level of adoration for his alter ego Frank Sidebottom: an unlikely alternative to the pop star model, whose over-sized papier-mâché head was frozen in a perma-half-smile with a quizzical look expressed from deep within his cartoonish eyes.
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Now, an approximation of Sidebottom is immortalised in film with Frank. This Frank, based on the spirit of Sidebottom rather than the man himself, is played by Michael Fassbender in a casting move that obscures one of film’s most famous faces under a fibreglass head. Co-written by Jon Ronson, who himself toured with Sidebottom’s band, the film plays on the contrast of Frank – a talented musician for whom success is measured solely on his ability to perform with his friends – and his new keyboardist Jon, played by Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson.
“It’s very rare that people actually make something and don’t have any need to have it liked by the rest of the world,” begins Gleeson, discussing the character of Frank. “Whenever anyone puts out an album, they say that it’s ‘just for us’. So why are you releasing it, if it’s just for you? There’s some desire to connect with other people. But actually, as the film progresses, you realise that it’s Frank’s way of expressing himself, but only with the people who he loves.”
Jon joins the mad world of Frank almost immediately after his predecessor leaves the band in the keyboardist equivalent of Spinal Tap’s bizarre gardening accident. Before long, Jon and the band (The Soronprfbs) engage in a protracted, experimental recording session in a rural outpost before heading to South By Southwest, the film and music festival held in Austin, Texas. All the while without discovering much about Frank’s backstory.
“Jon’s ambition is much larger than his talent, and he hasn’t come to realise that yet. Or if he does, he’s suppressing it way way way down in an attempt to pretend that he’ll one day write a hit song! It’s just not going to happen.”
Throughout the film, Jon documents everything to his growing social media following. As Gleeson continues: “I have friends in bands who every now and then I follow on Twitter and I think they’re quite good on it: they don’t really give anything about themselves away that ruins it.”
Part of the fascination of Frank is that it anti-mythologises the outsider artist. As in reality, Frank is talented in spite of his problems: not because of them. “There are a lot of people who have made brilliant music who have had troubled lives,” he concurs. “If it becomes a way of expressing yourself that’s all well and good. But the myth that it’s totally because of that... I think the film does kind of call bullshit on that a little bit.”
Elsewhere, though, Frank is inspired by elements of rock ‘n’ roll hedonism. “The Stones did go away to live by themselves in this crazy chateau [Nellcôte, a villa in the south of France] and made great music. The Velvet Underground led crazy lives but when they got together they were their own little being.”
Prior to Frank, Gleeson appeared in supporting roles in films including Harry Potter, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina and dystopian drama Never Let Me Go. His first major lead role was in last’s year About Time, in which he starred alongside Rachel McAdams in the final film from Richard Curtis.
Although the characters of Jon and About Time’s Tim share a surface level of awkward, nerdy charm, they’re ultimately very different. Or, as Gleeson argues: “In About Time, his only real trouble is to do with women, whereas that’s one of an incredible number of problems that Jon has in Frank. You never get to see the woman problem. He’s probably fucking at the weekend, I’d imagine.”
The release of About Time saw Gleeson plastered on billboards everywhere opposed a radiant McAdams. “Doesn’t Rachel just look so incredibly happy in it?” he grins. “Technically I’m the lead in the film and I was as far out to the side and as blurry as they could make me. ‘There are no gingers in this movie! Don’t worry about that! Rachel McAdams is in this movie and she’s as brilliant as ever.’ That was the selling point of the movie, and I was happy with that.”
Although Domnhall’s father Brendan is an exceptional character actor (In Bruges, The Guard), he didn’t grow up in an acting environment as Gleeson senior was still working as a teacher for most of his childhood. Apart from visiting the set of Braveheart, it was an entirely normal upbringing.
“When I got older and decided that I wanted to be an actor, having dad as someone I can talk to for advice is just amazing, and he’s incredibly generous with it. People outside of the family define him as an actor but to me, he’s my dad first.”
There’s plenty on Gleeson’s horizon: Unbroken, with Jack O’Connell and Garrett Hedlund, which is based on the life athlete Louis Zamperini, and is directed by Angelina Jolie (“A really really really good director”); a lead role in Ex-Machina with Inside Llewyn Davis’s Oscar Isaac (“I’d be first in line to see that movie, so to act in it is just amazing”); and an adaptation of Nick Hornby novel’s Brooklyn. Oh, and some small little thing called the new Star Wars movie, Episode VII.
Domhnall Gleeson knows his own mind, and, to be frank, that’s more than enough.
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Words: Ben Hopkins
Photography: Polly Brown
Fashion: Lola Chatterton
Frank is out now on Curzon Film World.
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