Gabriel Byrne is not a man to shy away from a strong opinion. Of the Gathering national homecoming festival in 2013, he said it was a way to "shake down" the Irish diaspora. The Government, likewise, was accused in 2014 by the actor of paying "lip service to the arts" with its Culture Ireland initiative.
And while many of his male counterparts in the industry have hedged their bets with anodyne, noncommittal and ill-thought-out remarks about the recent #MeToo movement that has followed revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and others, Byrne has been remarkably candid.
In December, Byrne commented that "sex pests" and "abject sexism" were rife in RTÉ in the 1970s. That same month, he spoke out in the wake of sexual assault allegations concerning Kevin Spacey, his former co-star in The Usual Suspects. Speaking to a Sunday newspaper, Byrne said he did not know at the time why production on the 1995 film had been halted, yet had since found out that it was because Spacey had been accused of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards a younger actor.
In an opinion article written for The Irish Times in October, Byrne's reflections on the number of men and women speaking out against sexual abuse and harassment were little short of powerful. That he has previously worked with Spacey and Harvey Weinstein – who is accused multiple times of sexual harassment – only served to add further weight to the piece.
“Although the spotlight is currently shining on Weinstein, sexual violence is a societal and cultural problem we all urgently need to address,” he wrote. “There are his likes closer to home, in Dublin and London, who should be feeling nervous in the wake of the expose of Weinstein.”
Byrne was the star and one of several producers on Into The West, the 1992 Irish movie that Weinstein, as executive producer, almost fully funded. Much of Weinstein's orders were carried out at a geographical remove, but every so often he would descend on the Irish set of the movie and, according to lore, throw his weight around.
One film executive, Laura Madden, made a formal complaint to British police over an alleged sexual assault by Weinstein said to have happened during filming of Into The West.
“None of this was known about Weinstein at the time . . . All those things happened behind closed doors,” says Byrne. “There were vague rumours. What was known was that he was a violent bully, a horrendous bully. There were accounts of ashtrays flying across the room in his office. I didn’t know of that [at the time]. He was intensely disliked, but he had such power that everyone had to be like, ‘well, it’s Harvey’.
“My friend went to see him in this hotel, and he opened the door in his dressing gown and said, ‘Come in and give me a massage’ and she said, ‘You must be f***ing joking me’. She left immediately . . .. As a woman at that time she was so used to fending off eejits like that. Had she gone into the room though, it would have been a different story.”
As to what Spacey was like to work with, he says: “He was tremendously entertaining, a brilliant and gifted mimic who played that character as if it came out of himself. There was a certain self-assurance that bordered on arrogance, but that’s not a crime. As I said, there was nothing to link him to anything at the time. Nobody even understood quite why the film shut down.”
On the day that he is to receive an Ifta Lifetime Achievement Award, Byrne (67) is in reflective mood about the current atmosphere in the industry. A sole figure in the residents’ bar of the Shelbourne Hotel, he is a calm, gentle and unassuming presence – a distinct contrast to the fervour and passion of his viewpoints on #MeToo.
“In relation to Weinstein and Spacey, someone has said, ‘The pendulum has swung too far’, but in my opinion, it hasn’t swung far enough,” he says. “Some say, ‘It’s too much, it’s about attacking men who just put their hands on your knee’. Yes there is collateral damage, but this is a major moment in social and cultural history. Anyone who says it’s a witch-hunt needs to remember that’s when they took women and set fire to them.”
Does he feel that many fellow actors have been hesitant to speak out for fear of saying the “wrong” or inadequate thing in the current climate?
“I think there’s an element of that,” he notes. “You can’t say, ‘I’m behind this, but I don’t really know why’. I think some actors got into trouble for that because they hadn’t thought through what they wanted to say and they got attacked for it. Even Matt Damon said, ‘Okay, it’s time for me to stop talking’. It was almost like people said, ‘We’ve had this for years. Unless you have something to say, shut up. Just be quiet and hear us’.”
Hollywood and #MeToo
As to whether #MeToo has changed the atmosphere within the industry’s power corridors, he adds: “Hollywood doesn’t care about gender or colour or anything like that – if they think there is money to be made at the box office about addressing those issues, they will do it.
“But the idea that for women to become equal, they need to be playing a female James Bond or put Jennifer Lawrence in a Superman costume – it’s bulls**t. What you need to see on screen is human beings relating to each other.”
Almost a decade ago, Byrne revealed he had experienced sexual abuse as a child. Have these experiences framed the way he has reacted to #MeToo.
“Yes, I suppose so,” he says. “As soon as you become shameful, you take the blame of the perpetrator on to yourself. That’s why it’s so incredibly important for women to speak out.
“[This has] allowed people to be aware that it’s okay to say something, and to speak out. People are becoming aware of the possibility that maybe one day, if they want to, they could say something. That’s gigantic.”
This week, Byrne was the toast of the Irish film industry at the Irish Film and Television Awards, and receiving a lifetime achievement award has certainly given him opportunity to pause and take stock.
“It’s nice to be honoured abroad, like winning a Golden Globe or being nominated for an Emmy, but there’s something really special about this award coming from here. It’s meaningful in that it’s made me look back over that period of time when I left Dublin, not knowing what I was doing, really, not compared to some of the young actors now who are lawyered up and have managers and publicists,” he admits.
Byrne’s plan as a schoolboy – he was brought up in Walkinstown – was to look towards journalism, a job that would allow him to drop in and out of different people’s lives. Famously, Byrne had been working as a teacher in a Dublin school and dabbling in amateur dramatics before, at the age of 29, he finally embarked on full-time stage work at the Focus and Abbey, where he was soon in thrall to the familial atmosphere of the theatre.
After appearing in RTÉ's The Riordans and its spin-off Bracken, it wasn't long before the siren song of London, and then New York, began calling.
“I needed to go to London to test myself and see how I got on, and I always had that thing, ‘I could always go back to teaching’,” he recalls. “In a parallel universe I would be a teacher and would have been really happy doing that, but that decision to leave Dublin changed my life completely.”
By his own admission, his decision to embark on an acting career was “ridiculously foolhardy”.
“There was a time when Ireland was culturally introverted, and that limited the access of young people to that world. I used to see these actors at the cinemas in Dublin and then next thing, I was sitting down and having a drink with them, or working with them.
“In one case, I went from the dole office to a hotel suite in Venice on the same day. All the while I was thinking, ‘what the f**k is going on with my life?’ I was trying to change the dole money into lira.”
He shows little sign of slowing down; he has just starred in Hereditary, a standout entry at this year's Sundance Film Festival that's being described as "the new Exorcist" – "Someone told me that in a room of 1,000 people, all they could hear were gasps and screams," he smiles.
Byrne's son with his ex-wife Ellen Barkin, Jack (28), is a successful musician based in LA, while his daughter Romy (25) is starting off in the acting business (he also has a year-old daughter with his current wife Hannah Beth King).
“You have to be 100 per cent behind her,” he notes of Romy’s foray into the industry. “You can’t say to someone at 25, ‘Here, this is what’s in front of you’. You have to let that person do what you were doing, which was to jump off and embrace whatever’s coming down the pipe.”
With more than 40 years in the business behind him, he does have some good advice for her and other newcomers: “If you go to Hollywood and everyone’s telling you’re brilliant, that’s not good.
“Fame doesn’t change you, but it does change everyone around you. Fame is like being trapped in a drum, with people banging on it constantly. If your ambition in life is to say, ‘I want to be famous’, you really don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ll be in for a bit of a land.”