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He’s played a Weasley in Harry Potter, a tech wiz in over his head in Ex Machina, and an evil general in Star Wars — but with Goodbye Christopher Robin, Domhnall Gleeson is stepping into a role that’s a little more familiar to whole generations: Winnie-the-Pooh author A.A. Milne.
However, though we know all about the beloved Hundred Acre Wood characters he created — from Pooh and Piglet to Tigger and Eeyore — Milne’s own life, and his relationship with his son Christopher Robin, is more of a mystery. And it’s one that Gleeson and director Simon Curtis seek to illuminate in the forthcoming film. Goodbye Christopher Robin will explore Milne’s experience in World War I, which traumatized him (along with the rest of England), and how his relationship with his young son helped him heal.
Recently, Gleeson hopped on the phone with EW to discuss the challenges of his role, and how he hopes the film will be fascinating for viewers even if it didn’t have such a nostalgia-friendly hook.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this role come about?
DOMHNALL GLEESON: I was working on some other stuff at the time. I don’t like reading other scripts while I’m working on a job. I just like to kind of do one thing at a time. But said, “Look, this one will go away if you don’t get back to them quick.”
I didn’t know if I’d done something like that before. But actually, the more I read it, there’s a very important backdrop of a version of post-traumatic stress disorder, or something like that, in Milne, and what he saw , that I found really interesting. And I had done the father-son thing before, but not so much where I was the father, so I really enjoyed taking that on. Then once I’d talked to Simon about it, he knew what he wanted it to be, and we kind of came at it from slightly different angles, which made it really interesting as well.
What about his angle was different from yours?
Well, I think we’re different people with different sensibilities. His responsibility is to the story and my responsibility is just purely to the character, you know? I think he felt the same way about this, but I didn’t want it to be the Winnie the Pooh story alone. I wanted it to be about a very complicated man and his very complicated relationship , even before their son arrives, his complicated relationship with war and what that had done to him, and where he sought solace and brought solace to so many other people, and how that came about.
My feeling was, if this was about, say, Walter the Pig instead of Winnie the Pooh — some character that no one has ever heard of — it should be just as interesting. And I hope that that’s what we achieved, you know?
How did you prepare for the part?
Ah, man. I’m actually in the hotel at the moment where we stayed while we were shooting some of it, so I’m getting these weird flashbacks. I did a lot of reading on post-traumatic stress disorder. Obviously I read everything I could about A.A. Milne. Ann Thwaite’s book was great, but I also read his autobiography, and I read the Winnie the Pooh stuff again, and I read Christopher Robin’s books that he wrote. Something Christopher Robin talks about is was very stern in lots of ways, and yet could be very funny in a room. Could be quite warm, but could also kind of cut you with a glance. He did not suffer fools gladly, and all that sort of stuff. So it was about trying to fill up the character that I hadn’t played before, and trying to remain true to the man.
I didn’t realize that PTSD was such a part of his life.
Well this is the thing. He fought in the first World War. But in his autobiography, he glosses over it. The autobiography is only about his childhood, for the most part. And then he very briefly talks about working at Punch and being in the war. The war takes up like half a chapter in the book. He just goes through it very but also mentions seeing somebody die — mentions it just in a very offhand way.
He became staunchly anti-war. Once he saw it, he thought it was the most stupid and awful thing that men could do to other men. It really changed him. And so whether you call it post-traumatic stress disorder… they certainly didn’t call it then. He didn’t have the shell-shock that we know from films and stuff, but it certainly affected his life. Christopher Robin described it as, he had his dark sides to him where he would go into himself. He could be quite a loner. Christopher Robin suggests that he basically bundled all those bad feelings up and kind of gave them to the world in the form of Eeyore. Turned them into this really downbeat character who you can love.
Can you explain a little about what the “Goodbye” means? It’s such a melancholy title for what seems like a sweet story from the trailers.
It’ll mean a lot more when you see it, but there’s a side of this where… he adored his son. And his wife loved her son. But his wife had a very strange relationship with their boy. But he wrote this book for his boy, about his boy. He named him Christopher Robin and then he gave that to the world.
At that time, fame was a very different thing. I don’t think we knew how toxic it was in the way that we do now. But Christopher Robin became an absolutely huge celebrity at a very young age. I mean like, the only other people who would have been comparatively as famous in terms of children would have maybe been the royals. He was in newspapers. People knew what he must have looked like, and they dressed him up a little bit. He became a symbol of these books which were wildly successful.
But as a result, he was bullied hugely at school. He really came to resent what his father had done. And then ended up going to war himself, which was the very last thing, I’m sure, that his father ever could have wanted. He actually went missing in action in war for a while as well.
They had a fractious relationship as he got older, or complicated at least. And so the “Goodbye Christopher Robin” has to do with that. Also, they called him Billy in real life. He was named Billy Moon rather than Christopher Robin, so I guess they kind of felt like Christopher Robin was for the whole world… but Christopher Robin ended up paying that price, you know?
Did you do any family bonding with Will Tilston, who plays Christopher Robin, and Margot, or did you specifically avoid that because the relationships are tough?
That’s an interesting question. With Margot, I had worked with her before — I adore her as a person and as an actress. I just think she’s kind of a wonder. And the same with Kelly Macdonald. We’ve all done it before, so then you can really stick the knife in when you need to and kind of push each other around on camera, work each other a little bit.
I’m interested to see how people will respond to it in America. It was a very different time. Like, people didn’t hug each other. They saw their kids maybe half an hour a day in the evening. The rest of the time, it was the nanny bringing up the kid. And people were not scared of their fathers, but they were certainly an authoritative. And Milne was that.
So we had to kind of lay down some pretty strong things at the beginning, and say to Will : “Look, it’s going to feel like we’re not friends sometimes during the day… At the end of every day, we’ll be friends again. But sometimes, it’s going to be hard.” Like, I’ve got to shout at him, and scare him. And he was great, because he was able to do the same thing. We would give each other time and space before getting ready for scenes. But we played all the time. He’s a really funny kid. We made each other laugh a lot. I’ve probably got the sense of humor of a 10-year-old, so that works out well! Lots of fart jokes.
Did your opinion of Winnie the Pooh change at all after going through all this?
No. My opinion of what the stories were did not change at all, because I always knew that they were amazing, that they were filled with real life and real skill as a writer. I mean, came to resent the fact that he was only known for Winnie the Pooh. He had a hard time dealing with the fact that he was a very celebrated writer who then became uncool because he wrote these books, which a lot of people made fun of. They weren’t seen as being serious things, you know?
But my opinion of the man — I didn’t even have an opinion of the man other than he was a great writer. Now I just have such empathy for him. I spent a long time thinking about him, walking around where he was born, where he lived and everything. My idea of where these books came from has changed a huge amount. But the books themselves remain all they were to me before, which is just something full of wonder.
Goodbye Christopher Robin hits theaters Oct. 13.