Gleeson was born in Cork, Ireland. He attended Gonzaga College in Dublin from 2004 to 2010. Gleeson is a student of Trinity College, Dublin, studying philosophy and theology and he is also a member of DU Players. In 2012, he was awarded a scholarship at the same university.
Gleeson began acting at the age of seven in the Independent Theatre Workshop. His first roles were in films such as Reign of Fire in 2002, Batman Begins in 2005, Shrooms in 2007, and A Shine of Rainbows in 2009. In 2010, he appeared in a leading role in All Good Children. The reviewer for Variety magazine considered Gleeson "the pic's big discovery".
Gleeson starred as Joffrey Baratheon in the first four seasons of the HBO series Game of Thrones. He cites Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal of Commodus in Gladiator as an influence on his performance. He is the founder and artistic director of Collapsing Horse Theatre Company, which is based in Dublin.
In 2012, Gleeson indicated an intention to retire from acting to pursue an academic career once his work on Game of Thrones was finished. In 2014 Gleeson confirmed he would be temporarily retiring from acting after concluding his work in Game of Thrones.
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