Gabriel Byrne


Gabriel Byrne is standing before a hundred people in the tiny Phoenix cinema in Dingle watching two men struggle towards him bearing the Gregory Peck Award, a weighty collision of granite and engraved glass. With a theatrical stagger, Byrne takes the sculpture in both arms and sets it down on a table beside him. He gives a tender, sincere speech about how honoured he feels, how Peck is one of his inspirations, how even hearing his name in the same sentence as the great actor makes him humble. When he is finishes, the crowd rise to applaud him. He waves and smiles, genuinely delighted, standing for photographs and shaking every offered hand.

Ten minutes earlier, Byrne was slumped in his seat, gripping his girlfriend’s wrist, his eyes fixed on the floor. He shifted uncomfortably as the host gave an introduction and we watched a reel of highlights from his film career. The moments flickered past; a rousing speech from Miller’s Crossing, the shoot-out on the boat from The Usual Suspects, a spiteful row from Jindabyne. As the montage continued, the actor sank lower in his chair. It was a mild night in September but watching himself on the Phoenix’s crackling screen, Byrne looked flushed, almost embarrassed.

The moment the lights came up and his name was called, all that unease evaporated. Byrne straightened his spine and squared his shoulders and strode up to the podium. A look of infinite calm fell across his face and stayed there. He spoke fluently, with tremendous charm.

From two seats down in the same row, I watched Byrne’s transformation and wondered what it means to be an actor, to smoulder in the wings and glow on stage.

Earlier the same day, I sat with Byrne in a comfortable room in Emlagh House, by a vast window filled with slate autumnal clouds, looking out over the bay. In the broken afternoon light, he doesn’t look much like a man approaching his fifty-ninth birthday. His handsome face has taken on a crease or two and his black hair is fringed with grey, but the actor looks fresh and vital. I ask him if he can recall his first impressions of the cinema and he sips his coffee. “I grew up in a world before television”, he says. “The main source of entertainment for young kids of my age in working class Dublin was the cinema and there was one on every street. We’d go as a gang maybe three or four times a week to the Apollo in Walkinstown, The Star, The Leinster or The Kenilworth in Harold’s Cross. I liked cowboy movies, gangster films, comedies. My imaginative life was lived in the picture house. I was transfixed then and I still am, sometimes. Cinemas are magical places.”

The spell wasn’t broken when the credits rolled. Byrne recalls how his gang would re-enact scenes from the films in the streets around the neighbourhood, each of his pals taking a role and playing out their understanding of the plot. “One of the lad’s fathers was a plumber and had a garage. When he wasn’t there we’d sneak in and use it as a playground. I remember there was one old war film that made a big impression on us. Afterwards though, there was a problem. We fought each other to be the captured pilots but one poor fella had to play Rhonda Fleming, a spy interrogating us about where the guns were buried, or whatever. Our casting choices were limited.”

The first time Byrne realised that movies were made in the real world by working professionals, he was nine or ten. “I was on the mitch from school, on a bus going down through The Coombe. There was this enormous traffic jam and everyone was leaning out the windows, trying to see what was going on. Word came down the street that they were making a film called Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx, so I got off to get a proper look. There was this throng of people in St Patrick’s Park surrounding Gene Wilder, who was sitting on a bench. I pushed my way through to the front of the crowd and watched Wilder eating an onion sandwich for the scene. If he ate one sandwich he ate twenty of them, repeating the same facial expressions every time. I heard them call “cut!” and Wilder relaxed completely. He sat there quietly by himself until they shouted ‘action!’ again and his face lit up. That was the first time I had ever seen an actor working.”

“Very few films were made at that time in Ireland. I remember these stories that were going around about Ryan’s Daughter; whispered legends seeping up to Dublin from Dunquin about the nine months David Lean was kept waiting for this dramatic storm he needed for the finale. It was 1969 or 1970 now and I was in Sinnott’s pub one night. At around ten o’clock the door burst open and Archie O’Sullivan swept in. Archie was this great old Dublin actor who had a small part in the movie. But there was nothing small about Archie. This particular evening he had come all the way from Kerry to King Street in a taxi, for a pint. He nodded his order and lifted out of his pocket this big blue note, a fifty. Nobody had ever even seen one before, at least not in my circle. The bar fell quiet. Archie held the fifty aloft like a prize and let it flutter to the counter. ‘Film money’, he boomed. Jesus, I thought to myself, I am in the wrong job.”

Byrne wasn’t doing much of anything at that time in Dublin. “I had come back from a working holiday in Spain and trained to be a teacher. I was working away but there was this thing in the back of my mind all the time. I knew I wanted to keep travelling and see a bit of the world. Then I started going to the Dublin Shakespeare Society - which sounds much grander than it actually was - because I didn’t want to spend every evening in the pub. I discovered there were people that were into a lot of the same things I was into.”

With this, Byrne leans towards me, as if to impart a secret. “It was unusual, to say the least, to express a desire to be an actor in those days. Only about a month after I joined the Shakespeare Society the car bombs went off in Dublin and Monaghan. The walk up Parnell Square brought you along streets with cars parked on both sides, each of which now seemed like a threat. I remember feeling that my desire to go out and talk about Shakespeare was greater than my fear of a bomb going off. There was something driving me to go out and do this, something more than just the notion of acting or performing. It was half instinct and half uncontrollable passion.”

Byrne gives a throaty laugh at his own grandiloquence. For an actor habitually described as ‘brooding’, he laughs a lot, coughs of amusement that punctuate his steady, rolling conversational manner. He has the actor’s habit of voicing both sides when quoting conversations, dredging old encounters and memories for illuminating moments, which he then describes in a few precise words. Listening to him speak about his past I get the same sense of emotional recall that jumps from the pages of first volume of his memoirs, 'Pictures In My Head', written over a number of years and published in 2001. It is a book about childhood, mostly, vividly drawn stories about his childhood in 1950s Dublin as the eldest of six children.

When I mention the autobiography, Byrne tells me he is working on a second volume, picking up the story in Dublin in the 1970s and his beginnings as an actor, training at the Project theatre and the Abbey and his first big break, a role on rural soap-opera The Riordans. “In those days, there was only one channel so everyone watched that show. They didn’t have a choice. When my role finished, I found myself having somehow become a proper working actor. There was a spin-off called Bracken and when that came to an end, I knew the time was right to move to London. I was thinking to myself, if you can get away with doing that here, maybe you could get away with it on a bigger stage. I wanted to keep going.”

Byrne tells me there were a couple of factors involved in his making the first move abroad. “Television was more real to people in those days. I’d be stopped on the street and they used to say to me, ‘You’d better watch yourself. Benjy knows what you’re up to with Maggie’. I couldn’t deal with that kind of recognition at all. It wasn’t what I wanted.” The other aspect was his relationship with the late Áine O’Connor. “Áine was a presenter on RTE and was very well known and very popular. We were sitting in a pub one day, talking about my future and she turned to me and said, ‘Life is very short. Take your chance and don’t have any regrets’. She gave up her job on television, which was an enormous sacrifice to make, and came to London with me. We were together for ten years and were the best of friends. When she died [in 1998], I felt a huge loss.”

By the time he made the move to London, Byrne was almost thirty years of age. I ask him if coming relatively late to acting gave him any advantage over his competitors and he shakes his head emphatically. “Not a bit. Sometimes young actors ask me, ‘what do I need to do to make it?’ I tell them to prepare themselves for long stretches of unemployment and get their heads around the fact that they’ll spend a lot of their time not working.” He was out of work for eighteen months before being accepted into the Royal Court Theatre. “My father was made redundant at the age of 55 and I saw first hand what effect that had on him and his friends. When I was unemployed in London, I started to recognise those same signs in myself. We are all defined by what we do. One of the battles I have had in my life is trying to disengage who I am from what I am, if you follow me. If you’re not acting, can you call yourself an actor?” Doubt started to creep in, in himself and his plan. “That insecurity will always be there, no matter how successful you are. Months and years without the prospect of a job is hard for anyone’s self esteem.”

Unemployment and his new life as an exile in a hostile and unpredictable London had a formative effect on Byrne. “I didn’t know who I was or where I was, really. I had come from this incredibly close-knit society to a city that I didn’t know and didn’t care to know me. Being Irish in England at that time was hard. Going for a job as an actor, you had to be extremely careful about how you presented yourself because as an Irishman, you did not have the advantage. The IRA was in the middle of a bombing campaign and Arthur Scargill and the miners were being baton-charged in the streets. Thatcher was on the television every night, stoking the flames. I had a real sense, sitting in my digs in Wimbledon, that England was falling apart around me.”

His break, when it came, brought him home again. “Out of the blue, I got two auditions and, naturally, both jobs started on the same day. So I had to choose. I went for Excalibur with John Boorman and came back for the shoot in Wicklow. It lashed rain every day but I didn’t give a damn. Afterwards, I went back to London with a real sense of peace in myself. Then, very quickly afterwards, I made Defence of the Realm, which I still think is one of the best films about the relationship between the press and the government. I hadn’t seen it since it came out but I caught it on the television recently and watched for a while”. I ask him if he watches his old films and he shakes his head. “Almost never. With a film I always try to say to myself, ‘when it’s done, it’s done’. I’d hate to be the kind of person who will look at something and say, I should have done this or should have done that. I just let it go. The character doesn’t belong to me anymore, and whatever people make of him when the film is released, I can’t do anything about that.”

He takes a moment to sip his coffee and I ask him if he has, after thirty years, come up with his own theory on what an actor does. “My theory of acting is different to the way that I’ve heard other people talk about it. I believe that my job as an actor is to let the camera into those areas that are private to me. It’s not about make believe, it’s about telling the truth.” Earlier, Byrne had mentioned how his instincts drove him to seek out work as an actor, so I ask him how much of his work is intuitive and how much is craft. “I think it is all instinct. Anybody can learn the craft of it, somebody can teach you the nuts and bolts of acting, or you can read a book. But instinct is what makes the difference between proficiency and excellence. A cabinet maker putting together a sideboard will know what model to follow, but it’s his individual thought processes that makes the difference, knowing where to shave off another millimetre of wood. Instinct as an actor is something you have to learn to recognise and learn to trust. Sometimes it can be wrong but sometimes it can be absolutely right but either way, you have to go with your gut. It’s the only way it can be real. We all feel joy or sadness or regret. Those are the raw materials that an actor works with.”

When Defence of the Realm was released and became a hit, directors started to notice Byrne both for his good looks and his intense presence. He took a string of roles that established him as a natural romantic lead, playing a half-mad Byron in Ken Russell’s florid Gothic and the old flame in Mary Lambert’s sex-and-death drama Siesta, where he met his ex-wife Ellen Barkin. After filming concluded, the couple moved to America and set up home in her native New York. “Brooklyn suited me”, he says, “because it was like a small town that was part of this enormous city and I thought it was a great place to raise my children”. But the marriage wasn’t to last and the couple separated in 1993, after five years together.

By then, Byrne had established himself as a major force in American films playing the tortured gun-for-hire Tom Reagan in the Coen Brother’s extraordinary noir homage Miller’s Crossing. "When that film came along in 1990, it was an incredibly lucky break for me and dictated a lot of what happened in my life after that. I remember arriving at the audition and seeing this tall, nervous girl pacing the floor, smoking cigarettes. I said hello and asked if she was there for the part of Verna. She said ‘yes’ and that her name was Marcia Gay Harden. So the two of us ran our lines outside and went in together and we got the parts. The script was extraordinary. The Coens had each word in its place; each sentence had a rhythm to it. On some films, you can play it loose with the words, but that just doesn’t happen with the Coen brothers. They’d stop a take to say, ‘Gabriel, there’s an ‘and’ there that you missed’.”

Byrne’s Tom Regan is the central figure in a power struggle that sets two rival gangs of mobsters against each other. “Tom was a watcher”, says Byrne, “always aware of what was going on and seeing all the angles. I felt that the audience should always know what he was thinking, or at least have this idea that they knew what he was thinking.” As he’s telling me this, I notice Byrne is wearing the thick silver Claddagh ring, studded with rubies, that Tom Reagan wore in the film. He says he never takes it off.

It was a role in another modern gangster classic that set in motion what Byrne calls his ‘Hollywood Period’. “After The Usual Suspects I made a run of studio movies and a few of those were commercially successful. I did them for a variety of reasons but mainly for money. Hollywood is easy if you’re successful and I was, I suppose, for quite a while. I was there for eight years before I knew it, time that passed very quickly now that I look back on it.” Thinking about Los Angeles sparks something in Byrne and he leans back in his chair, with another sip of coffee. “I enjoyed my life in LA very much. It was a good life, and I’m not just talking about making films. The sun shone every day. I’d pick the oranges off my trees in the garden in the morning. If you did three movies, that’s about six months work in the year. The rest of the time is relaxation. I spent a lot of time travelling. I loved to visit San Francisco or drive up the coast to Big Sur. California is a remarkable place.”

Although he lived the life of a movie star with his house in Beverly Hills and parties with Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, Byrne was never consciously trying to secure the position of a romantic leading man. “When I was starting out, I never thought about my marketability as an actor. I just wanted to work. I had no great career plan and didn’t do films just to get noticed by Hollywood. Most of my film career has been in independent, lower-budget projects and those are the ones that had, I thought, something to say. The problem though, is that those films don’t pay terribly well and I have two kids to put through school.” Somehow, Byrne balanced the Schwarzenegger movies and swooning period dramas with a series of cutting-edge films with directors like Jim Jarmusch, David Cronenberg and Wim Wenders. “Like I say, there was no real plan.”

In 2005, the international success of a low-key film he made in Australia re-established Byrne as one of the best actors working. Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne is a drama about a marriage that disintegrates over a moral issue. It marked the third time he worked with Laura Linney, an actor like himself, who started in the theatre. I make the observation that his character Stewart is the part that is the closest Byrne has come to playing himself on screen, and the actor nods his head. “There’s a pivotal moment in Jindabyne where my character finds the dead body of a young woman. Just before we shot the scene, I took Ray aside and asked him how an action hero would react when he spotted that body?’ And he replied, ‘Well, I don’t know, what do you think?’ I said to him that in my experience, a movie guy would marshal his faculties and calmly sort things out. But what if an ordinary guy, out fishing with his mates for the weekend, encounters the same situation? He loses it. He cannot cope. He is afraid and is scared and makes a mistake. That is much more me.”

“Even after all this time, acting continues to hold my fascination because it allows me to show who I am. If there is one common thing that I have noticed over my career and the choices I have made it’s a certain kind of emotional uncertainty. I’ve come to realise that there is nothing as simple as black and white. I can’t be just heroic or cowardly, happy or sad, because there is conflict in the heart of everything and there is certainly conflict in me and the camera sometimes can pick that up.”

Byrne’s latest success, the HBO series In Treatment, is all about conflict and emotion. He plays a psychotherapist, Dr Paul Weston, who takes weekly sessions with his various patients, seeing them through their crises while creating new ones of his own. Having seen Byrne describe his battle with depression and alcoholism in Pat Collins’ intimate documentary Stories From Home, I wondered if he had ever been in therapy? “No”, he says, “I have not. But doing the show has enlightened me about the process. My feeling about it is this; if you can share who you are with another human being, and acknowledge that contact, your problems lose their power over you. You can put the issue on the table and step away from it and get a new perspective. Or at the very least, you will find that whatever your troubles are, you are not alone in them. There are other people that feel the very same way, or have gone through the very same problem. The human condition, when you boil it down, is that we are all feeling the same way at one time or another.”

A long post, but worth it, I think. Photo courtesy of the Dingle Film Festival.

6 comments:

heather said...

Wonderful interview with a fascinating man. Thank you!

SusanDaly said...

Hey John - meant to congratulate you on this last week. Really insightful.

Stella said...

Great interview and great news about part 2 of the autobiography. Thanks for sharing this and thanks for asking him such good questions. Susan is right: very insightful!

Zazie said...

Great interview. I really, really enjoyed!

Christine Catonné said...

Thank you for this great interview. It means a lot to me. Thank you!

Christine Catonné said...

Thank you for this great interview. It means a lot to me. Thank you!