Gabriel Byrne: 'There's a difference between a great star and a great actor'
Gabriel Byrne on the "repressive and unexciting" Ireland of his youth, on resisting the Hollywood hierarchy and on retaining his Irishness after 30 years as a New Yorker
“Hollywood stardom isn’t about great acting. It’s about being a brand.” Gabriel Byrne pictured at the photocall for the film Louder than Bombs at the 68th Cannes Film Festival. Photograph: Christine Poujoulat/Getty
Gabriel Byrne is discussing the business of being an Irish actor abroad during the 1980s. He’s got plenty to say.
“There was a notion in British casting circles that you had to become a RADA-type actor,” he says. “The era of Albert Finney and Alan Bates had passed. There was nearly an anti-working class thing. There was definitely a prejudice against the Irish actor. If they had a choice to choose an English or an Irish actor they’d choose the English one.”
The phrase “good talker” can mean several things. Sometimes, we are merely suggesting that the subject won’t shut up. Gabriel Byrne, who overcame those early prejudices to become a rare Irish movie star, is something else together. He crafts sentences into disciplined paragraphs that nest within one another to form long elegant arguments. He was a teacher in the 1970s. He would have made a great lecturer.
“There weren’t many of us around then – maybe just me and Liam and Pierce,” he continues.
It’s true. In the late 1980s, Byrne, Neeson and Brosnan were among the very few Irish stars who could sell tickets. A smart, working-class lad, raised in Dublin during the hard-edged 1950s and 1960s, Byrne had graduated from amateur theatre to the Project Arts Centre to local fame on The Riordans to a starring role in the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing. It doesn’t sound as if he’s ever been dazzled by the acclaim.
“There is a hierarchy in Hollywood,” he says. “There has always been a difference between a great star and a great actor. Hollywood stardom isn’t about great acting. It’s about being a brand. They are built up now as brands. You have to surrender something that allows you to be that homogenous brand around the world.
“American society is very fractured, but American cinema doesn’t reflect that fracturing at all.”
Byrne still does the work that matters. As we speak, he is shattered - though not resting his voice much, apparently – following early previews of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Broadway. He appears alongside Michael Shannon and Jessica Lange in the enormous American saga.
“There is a tension there you don’t get with film,” he says. “The other night Jessica was doing her final soliloquy. A very moving speech. And there was this guy banging on the door with a pizza. Ha ha! You have those extraordinary accidents.”
Social media vortex
This week, domestic viewers can see him in Joachim Trier’s fascinating, frustrating Louder than Bombs. Byrne is superb as a widowed father who finds himself separated from his son by the old confusions and by newer obsessions with technology. Byrne’s two children, born in 1989 and 1992 to his first wife, the actress Ellen Barkin, were probably a few years too old to be swallowed by the social media vortex.
“That was the beginning of the whole computer thing,” he says. “Adolescents have to break away from their parents and they have to embrace a certain amount of secrecy. Part of that secrecy is tied up with technology. The less that parents pull back from that the better. I hate that thing: ‘Oh I don’t know how to send a text. Amn’t I great that I don’t know how to do that?’”
Yes! I loathe that habit of being slightly proud of one’s ignorance.
“Yeah, exactly. Ha ha ha! I’m really proud that I can’t do something.”
Byrne goes on to wonder about the enormous generation gap that opened up between parents and children during the 1960s. That was his era. Having rejected notions of the priesthood, he veered towards UCD in the last years of the swinging decade. Did the summer of love reach Ireland?
“Not really. Much as I loved Dublin and still do love Dublin, I found it a very repressive and unexciting place,” he says. “Though I had an excitement about going to university after school, I found that to be so oppressive. It was a continuation of the secondary school experience. It didn’t require thinking for yourself. It required you to regurgitate what you’d been given by often very bored lecturers.”
Young people may not realise how slowly Ireland caught up with cultural shifts in those decades. You could argue that the 1960s didn’t happen until about 1978 and, even then, they didn’t set in very convincingly. Still, the torpor did inspire people like Byrne try to make things happen. In his mid-20s, then a teacher, he began drifting towards acting companies such as the much-storied Focus. By the end of the decade, he had secured a role in the staggeringly successful RTÉ soap opera The Riordans.
“The only reason I went into acting was because it was a choice between doing that and going to the pub every night,” he says. “There was so little choice. You talk about the summer of love. There wasn’t much to do in Dublin. The pubs closed at 11. Then you’d have eight people getting into a mini and then driving – all with no seatbelts, pissed out of their heads – to the Embankment in Tallaght.”
Sombre good looks
He gave up teaching in 1977 to do a small play in the Project. In 1981 he played Uther Pendragon in John Boorman’s Excalibur. Four years later he took the lead in the admired British thriller Defence of the Realm. His cyclonic, sombre good looks and deep brown voice have been in demand ever since.
He has been seen recently on TV in hits such as Vikings and In Treatment – for which he won a Golden Globe. Byrne has been resident in New York for more than 30 years, yet there is not a trace of a trans-Atlantic variation to the Dublin vowels.
“I do not feel even one per cent American,” he says. “My children are, I suppose, American but they have a great respect for the culture I come from. I don’t think emigration means what it used to.”
He pauses for a deep chuckle.
“I’ll leave you with this,” he says. “There’s this guidebook which says: ‘You shouldn’t miss a trip to Grafton Street, Dublin’s premier pedestrian shopping district. If you’re lucky you might book into home-grown stars like Daniel Day-Lewis.’ I was coming out of the bookshop there and this American woman said: ‘Oh my God!’ and showed me her guidebook. If she’d gone down the street she’d have seen Daniel Day-Lewis in Brown Thomas.”
Fáilte Ireland should pay them to lurk there all afternoon.
- Louder than Bombs is out February 22nd, 2016 on general release
FIVE OVERLOOKED PERFORMANCES BY GABRIEL BYRNE
HANNA K (Costa-Gavras, 1983)
Fascinating and controversial film concerning an Israeli lawyer (Jill Clayburgh) defending a Palestinian in the occupied territories. “Played brilliantly by the Irish actor,” the great Edward Said wrote of Byrne’s turn as the district attorney.
GOTHIC (Ken Russell, 1986)
It was something of a sensation at the time, but Ken’s study of the house party that led to the creation of Frankenstein has slipped from the canon. Shame! Byrne is deliciously charismatic as Lord Byron.
LITTLE WOMEN (Gillian Armstrong, 1994)
Reasonably enough, the female stars – Dunst, Danes, Sarandon, Ryder – got most of the attention, but Byrne was sombrely sweet as the German professor who charms Jo.
SPIDER (David Cronenberg, 2002)
Eugh! Cronenberg’s adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s great Oedipal nightmare features a queasy turn from Gabriel as the hero’s hulking dad.
JINDABYNE (Ray Lawrence, 2006)
Lawrence’s fine follow up to Lantana revolves around the discovery of a body in a remote river. Byrne owns the film as the man haunted by a subsequent bad choice.