What's the best way to keep an actor's ego in check? Easy put him in front of a classroom for 10 years. ''I remember coming in the day after I had been on television,'' recalls Brendan Gleeson, star of The General, who taught English literature at an Irish Catholic school until his acting career took off in 1990. ''There was discussion about whether I had been on. I said, 'No, I wasn't,' just to see what they'd say. One of the boys said, 'You were, sir, but it's okay. It's no big deal.' I was suitably humbled.''
Nothing could have knocked Gleeson, 44, down more pegs than playing Martin Cahill, the charismatic yet violent Irish gangster who filched over $60 million before being assassinated in 1994. Still, he had doubts about accepting the part. ''I didn't want to dance on anybody's grave,'' says the Dublin-born actor, who picked up prizes from both Boston and London critics' groups for his striking performance. ''There are still people hobbling about Dublin in pain from the things he did.''
Another source of trepidation is his latest role as a sarcastic Maine sheriff in the croc thriller Lake Placid. ''I'm quite nervous about the accent thing,'' he admits. ''At home I could go county by county. But a standard American accent is actually the hardest to do.'' He's currently on safer ground in Australia sporting a British lilt to play a villain in Mission: Impossible 2, a movie his former students would no doubt think is a big deal.