There’s a lot of love around Glen Hansard right now. Bob Dylan loves him enough to invite Hansard’s band, the Frames, on tour with him. The public has fallen in love with the bearded Irishman’s portrayal of a frustrated busker and struggling songwriter in the film Once, which was shot last year in two-and-a-half weeks with a tiny budget but a lot of heart and soul. And he and costar Markéta Irglová, who plays the Eastern European girl who comes into his universe and changes it, have found that real life and the make-believe world of film can sometimes collide: After knowing each other for seven years, and despite the fact that Hansard is 37 and Irglová is 19, the two have fallen for each other and now live (and play music) together in Dublin. He shared the story of his journey to Once over a pot of tea on an afternoon between Dylan’s two Sydney shows.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve been supporting Bob Dylan on his Australian tour. Is that a tough gig?
GLEN HANSARD: The good thing about doing the Dylan supports is that it’s an audience full of people like me. They’re fans. But one thing I’m utterly aware of is that at a Bob Dylan show, no one’s there to specifically see the support act. So you don’t try to win them over, because that’s futile. You just do your thing, and maybe people will get it, maybe they won’t.
As he’s so reclusive, I assume you haven’t got to meet him.
On this trip so far I haven’t. But I’ve met him a few times before. We’ve played with him in Ireland and England. I first met him 10 or 11 years ago in a rehearsal studio and spoke to him for five minutes. It was a total accident. I met him in the hallway and I didn’t even know he was in the same building. I didn’t know what to say, so I said, ”Meeting you is what it must have been like for you to meet Woody Guthrie.” That was the only thing that came into my head. And he totally opened up and started talking about Woody. The next day his manager rang up at the rehearsal studio and said, ”I don’t know what you said, but you impressed Bob, and would you like to come and do some gigs with him?”
You used to play Dylan songs and Van Morrison songs when you first started busking in Dublin, after you left school at the age of 13. Were you a terrible student?
[Laughs] No, I was actually in the good class. But luckily my headmaster was a radio DJ and he loved music. Whenever I’d get sent to the office for not paying attention or whatever, he’d say, ”You’re a funny one. You can name the bass player on Neil Young’s Harvest, you can tell me the tracklisting on Bob Dylan’s Street Legal, but you can’t tell me the square root of 9. You’re obviously using your intelligence in an area that’s not academic.” He was quite smart. He said, ”You love music and you can obviously play, so why don’t you start your career now?”
So he was the opposite of every teacher who says that you should stay in school, and music should just be a hobby because it will never get you anywhere in life?
Exactly. He encouraged me to leave school. He said, ”Take your guitar into town and start busking.” His thing was that busking was where you learned your skills. He said, ”I can’t guarantee you’ll be famous, but if you start now, then you’ll always be able to live from your guitar.” And he was right. I have.
So it doesn’t sound like it was much of a stretch for you to play a busker in Once.
It was an area I knew very well. I busked from the age of 13 until I was 18. It was so easy to take out my guitar and do it again.
Incidentally, that guitar you play in the film, with the big ragged hole worn away in the soundboard — is that your old guitar from those days?
Yeah, it is. It’s the first guitar I got when I was a kid.
John Carney, the writer and director of Once, used to be in the Frames with you back in the early ’90s, right?
Yeah, I first met John on the street, much like the character in the film when he’s trying to put a band together to record his songs. John was a robotics dancer on Grafton Street.
I’m sure he’ll be pleased to know that secret’s out.
[Laughs] I’ve heard him tell an interviewer that story, so luckily I’m all right with telling you. Anyway, I heard he was really good on the bass, so he took me into a music shop, because he couldn’t afford his own bass, and he played me a bunch of Mark King [from 1980s U.K. white funk band Level 42] riffs. I said, ”You can obviously play, but you’re not going to be playing that s— in my band.” [Laughs]
He didn’t initially consider you for the main role in Once, did he?
John came to me with this idea and he had a 20-page script and Cillian Murphy [Red Eye, Batman Begins] as the lead character. He asked me to write the songs, and I was very happy to be offered that chance. He was trying to cast a 35-year-old Eastern European woman, but he couldn’t find anyone. I said to him, ”I know this girl from the Czech Republic, who I’ve been playing some gigs with, and she’s really great, but she’s 17.” He said he didn’t think it would work but he’d meet her anyway. So he met Mar, and that was it. She was the one. So John and Mar and Cillian were working stuff out and then about 10 days before the shoot began, Cillian’s agent got in touch with John, and said that something had happened and he was off the project. Because of that, the producer pulled out, so John was left with a script, Mar, no lead male character, a bunch of songs, no money, and no way of doing it. And one evening he called me up and said, ”Glen, I really think you should do this.”
What was your immediate reaction?
My immediate reaction was, ”Oh, f—!” Two reasons — I don’t consider myself an actor on any level, and I didn’t want to let John down. So I said yes. And then what became exciting for me in an abstract way was the fact that suddenly there was no money. It felt like we could now see this project through without interference from anybody from the outside. John pared the crew back to about six or seven, and they all agreed to do it for nothing. So we shot the film in 17 days. Halfway through shooting the film we were still writing songs for it.
NEXT PAGE: ”I think we fell in love a couple of years ago, but nothing happened until recently. To be honest with you, I felt that even back then this girl had become so prominent in my life that she would probably be the girl I’d marry one day.”
You’d known Mar for a while, hadn’t you?
I met her when she was 12. Mar’s father, Marek, was a good friend of mine. He was a fan of the Frames, and he invited us over to play some small festival in the Czech Republic. Then he invited me to stay in his house for three months and write songs. Mar came into my life very similarly to how she does in the film. She was very young, but she came up to my room one day when I was singing one of my songs, and said, ”That song you’re singing, did that really happen to you?” And I said, ”Well, yeah, kind of.” And she said, ”Did it, or didn’t it?” And I said, ”Well, it’s kind of poetic license.” And she was like, ”Well, why are you singing it, then?” And I said, ”Well, as a songwriter you’re allowed to do that.” And she said, ”Well, I don’t agree. I think you should be singing about what happened in your life.”
And how did you start playing music together?
While I was staying at Marek’s place I was playing these shows and I’d get Mar to come up and play some piano and sing with me, because she was a great pianist. She was 13, 14 at this time. Over the next few years we started to do more and more songs together and eventually we did full sets together. Just as that happened, John came up to me with the idea of Once. That’s the thing that clinched it for me — Mar was already cast in it. She’d never even acted before. So the idea of being in Once with her was an attractive option, because it documented my friendship with her. John had wanted a kiss scene and I insisted it couldn’t be done, for a few different reasons, but mostly because I was uncomfortable with it.
And the irony is…
The irony is that Mar and I have been thrown in the deep end with each other, and it’s developed into something else. It’s like life imitating art, and art imitating life at the same time.
When did you two officially get together?
In April. I think we fell in love a couple of years ago, but nothing happened until recently. To be honest with you, I felt that even back then this girl had become so prominent in my life that she would probably be the girl I’d marry one day. But you keep that in the back of your head. That’s why I’m so open about Once, because there are a lot of parallels in it to my own life and a lot of magic around it and my relationship with Mar.
Did this make it a fine line between you and Mar in real life, and the characters you played on screen?
I think John was clued in to the fact that there was something between us, and he kept talking about the chemistry. He said, ”There’s something going on here and I’m really glad I’m getting it on film.” He wouldn’t let us watch the rushes. He said, ”No matter what it is that’s going on, I don’t want you knowing what it is. I want you to be natural.”
One of the refreshing and unusual things about Once is that even though it isn’t strictly a musical, the audience hears entire songs played out rather than a verse and a chorus then a fade, or a snippet of something being played on a radio.
Exactly. And John is a real critic of that in movies, where a great song comes on and they use a bit of it and then cut to another scene. He’s a real lover of music. And I said, ”But John, you cannot have nine full songs in a movie.” We challenged each other in this area. We pushed each other to be braver. He’d say, ”Sing the full song.” I’d say, ”Don’t chicken out. Don’t put a kiss scene in there. How boring would that be?” We were all demanding more of each other.
Of course, back in 1991 you mixed music and acted by playing the guitarist in The Commitments. Is it true that you regretted doing the film?
I don’t regret doing it. It was brilliant. I just regretted having to talk about it forever. It overshadowed my own band. We got to the States and it turned into this big indie film. I remember on my first day in America to promote it, I got out of a taxi in New York, where it had been raining, and there was a full page ad for The Commitments floating in a puddle. And I remember thinking to myself, ”There’s a life moment. Don’t take this too seriously.” I spent the next 10 years in interviews talking about The Commitments and not talking about the band I was in.
After your experience in Once, is acting something you might now pursue more?
Well, playing a guy who writes songs and busks on Grafton Street in Dublin and falls in love with Markéta Irglová wasn’t very difficult for me. There was very little acting going on. I won’t say I’ve closed the door on acting. Since Once has come out there have been a few offers that sound interesting, but I don’t have time to do them right now. The experience with Once and with The Commitments is vastly different. I wrote all the songs, it was written and directed by a very good friend of mine, and everything about it feels very personal. If someone was to criticize Once it would hurt, because so much of me is in it and the stakes are higher.