An actor with a lot on his mind
HE DOESN’T SAY who the actress was; he’s too discreet to name names. But Gabriel Byrne does a mean imitation of her Hollywood twang, and an even meaner imitation of her horror-struck visage. He was on a film set, “quite a while ago now”; back, perhaps, when his own twang, that of the Walkinstown variety, was even stronger than it is today. Byrne and the actress in question were going over their lines. “So, you want me to go over to her when I say that,” Byrne remembers saying to the director. Next thing he knew, his co-star was whipping around and staring at him, appalled.
“She said to me, ‘what did you say?’” says Byrne, conjuring up the look of her at that moment: the frozen facial muscles, the tight mouth, the wide-eyed stare (if he could bottle that move, he’d put every Botox doctor in Hollywood out of a job). “And I said to her, ‘I just said that I’ll go over to you’. And she said,” – and here he lets his shoulders drop as though all the air is going out of him with sheer relief, “she said, ‘oh, thank God. I thought you called me a whore’.”
Byrne is a Hollywood name these days, and has been for quite a chunk of the 21 years he has now spent making his living as an actor in the United States. It didn’t take him long, though, to realise that he’d have to modulate a few things about himself in order to get along in that world; his pronunciation of the word “her”, for one thing; his threshold for irritation, for example, in the face of the assumptions with which he met all the time as an actor who happened to come from Ireland.
“They have a very romantic view of Ireland there, a very Emerald Isle view...no idea what has been happening in modern times. Or if you talked to them about the Troubles – you might as well be talking about Lebanon. No understanding, and they didn’t really want to understand, either. But being Irish there marks you out as being a kind of a curiosity. And it gives you, in a weird way, a kind of an identity as an outsider. And Hollywood is just made up of outsiders.”
In truth, Hollywood has been Byrne’s home for only a fraction of the time he has lived in this country; he has been an outsider to the place as well as an outsider within its bounds. It was to New York that he first moved in 1988, following the actress Ellen Barkin, whom he had met on the set of the Spanish thriller Siesta; in New York, the two set up home together, and had two children, Jack and Romy. In New York, too, in 1993, their marriage came to an end, but the split was an amicable one, and while his growing success with films like the Coen brothers’ gangster homage Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Bryan Singer’s crime classic The Usual Suspects (1994) rendered Byrne much in demand in Hollywood, and saw him move there for a period in the mid-1990s, he could never stay away from New York, and his children, for too long.
And if that self-imposed distance from LA didn’t kill Byrne’s career, neither did it exactly keep it fiercely ablaze. Though he continued to average three to four roles a year, he was inching further and further from the headliner slots in Hollywood films. Byrne himself showed little sign of caring about this shift in the pecking-order; it became clear that his interest lay in working on much more independent projects, like David Cronenberg’s Spider, Richard E Grant’s Wah-Wah, and Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne, all films in which he delivered powerful performances. Still, there was a sense that Byrne had slunk into the background a little; that he was not so much talked about anymore in the US, not so much seen. Then along came HBO with a concept for a new TV series about a psychoanalyst and his patients, and up soared Byrne’s stock all over again. As In Treament’s Dr Paul Weston, he’s a hit – and, as of last month, a Golden Globe winner – and he’s very much back to calling the shots. For the show’s second season, currently in production, HBO moved the entire operation from LA to New York, in large part so that Byrne could be closer to home.
In fact, there’s a chance that the new season of In Treatment might move almost unnervingly close to home for Byrne, in that it will see his character settle into a base which sounds like a replica of Byrne’s own; a big old Brooklyn brownstone. But no matter how booming the trade in neurotic New Yorkers (and there’s a market that will never collapse), Dr Weston’s gaff is still very unlikely ever to be a patch on Byrne’s. The place is not just envy-inducing; it’s envy-inventing. Who knew that ceilings could be so high? Who knew that you could fit so many paintings on so many walls? (Drawings and etchings by Picasso and Rembrandt, Soviet art, illustrations from 1920s childrens books, photographs by Doisneau, Cartier Bresson, and the late young Irish photographer Ian Thullier, as well as a lot of newspaper photography.)
Whoever saw Sunday morning light filling a whole ground floor like this; who lit that huge fire in that enormous hearth? (Actually, that’s one question I didn’t ask; Byrne was busy making the tea, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.) The sitting-room is full of books; upstairs, out of the way of the flood waters which have caused him trouble before, are the rare editions he collects, mainly in the Irish language: Máirtín Ó Direáin, Tomás de Bhaldraithe, Seán O Riordain, Tomás Ó Criomhthain. And over the bookcases here, three old piano accordions, one of which belonged to Byrne’s grandmother.
This is home; Byrne has lived here for over 10 years. At the moment, with the production schedule for In Treatment requiring him on set for up to 14 hours a day, five days a week, it’s also his refuge. He loves living in Brooklyn; loves the distance from “the noise, the constant toing and froing” of Manhattan, where he lived when he first came to New York. For a long time, like many Manhattanites, he resisted the trip across the bridge into Brooklyn. Now he loves the experience of leaving the city to come home, and of travelling across the Brooklyn Bridge to start another day – or night – in Manhattan. It’s “something psychological”, he says. He loves the quietness of his street, the low skyline, the fact that the buildings are old – his house dates from the 1860s – and that the neighbourhood “has dogs, it has children, it has a lot of writers and actors and artists”. It reminds him of London or of Dublin, he says. “And I have neighbours here, and I’m recognised as a local.”
In this house, last year, Byrne hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, whom he supported for the Democratic nomination. He was pessimistic, afterwards, about Obama’s chances for victory, but celebrated at home with his daughter, now 16, as the results came in; they listened to the radio and to the cheers going up in the neighbourhood. “I said to her, this is a momentous night, and she said, ‘I hope so’. It wasn’t the usual teenage cynicism kind of thing, it was really, I hope so. If it’s not too late.”
IT SEEMS CURIOUS that a star of the screen should turn to the radio for his drama on such a night. Why not the television? Because, he says, he didn’t have one in the house until last month. He “went off” television, he says, in the months following 9/11, when the terrorist alert levels were plastered across every screen. “It was Orwellian,” he says. “People wondering, seriously, if their phones were tapped. The last eight years have been years of constant subliminal fear, everywhere. And you could see it in children especially. That anything could happen, at any time.”
Anna George, Byrne’s girlfriend of over a year, drops into the room to say hello. George is Indian-born, petite and beautiful; she has somehow paired a career in investment banking and hedge fund management with an acting CV that includes TV shows like Law and Order and Sex and the City as well as Peter Jackson’s forthcoming film version of The Lovely Bones. Right now, she’s on her way to church. “I don’t go, I’m a heathen,” shrugs Byrne, as he watches her leave. I tell him that my husband joked about the likelihood of this Sunday morning interview slot clashing with Byrne’s own church-going plans. “Oh yeah?” Byrne laughs. “Tell him I got the seven o’clock Mass.”
He may joke about it now, but there have been times when the shadow of the church over his life has been no laughing matter for Byrne. Famously – and astonishingly – he was sent from his Christian Brothers’ school in Dublin to study for the priesthood at a Birmingham seminary when he was just 12. Last summer, in an interview on RTÉ Radio 1, he talked of how the years preceding that move had been darkened by abuse at the hands of a priest. The revelation made headlines, especially in the US, where it was reported everywhere from the Irish-American papers to the gossip pages of the New York Post. Soon afterwards, Stories From Home, an intimate documentary about Byrne’s life, directed by Pat Collins and combining interviews, photographs, archive clips and home movie footage from the past 20 years, premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh and gave an even starker picture of the darkness with which the actor had shared many an hour.
Byrne talked frankly about his struggle with depression, and with alcohol; he described how he would book himself into a hotel and drink himself into oblivion, sometimes over periods of three or four days. The need to tell these stories, to confess, to reveal, was striking. It was as though Byrne, at 58, had come to a point in his life where he could keep certain realities to himself no longer. In the press coverage which accompanied the first season of In Treatment, much was made of the fact that Byrne, despite his ability to play both an analyst and an analysand so convincingly on screen, had never himself been in therapy. Nor did he seem to hold the practice in much esteem.
But today, Byrne is watchful and quiet when, commenting on his track record on the subject of therapy, I bring up a line from Freud that he has quoted fondly in the past: that the Irish were the one race for whom psychoanalysis was useless. “I don’t think he meant it entirely seriously,” says Byrne, “but that he meant that Catholicism had so brainwashed the Irish that they were beyond therapy, and that, anyway, therapy had already been invented by the Catholic church in the form of confession.” He pauses.
“And, yes, I had resisted therapy up until, perhaps, six months ago. But having read around it and discussed it with other people, I found that my resistance to it was based on old thinking. On that idea that talking about yourself and trying to find out who you are, and talking about your childhood and so forth was all just kind of American self-indulgence.” So he’s seeing a therapist; a European, a former student of Foucault, a “really intelligent, well-read man who uses everything from Aristotle to modern pop songs to make his points”.
Presumably, he doesn’t add references to In Treatment to the mix? Does Byrne’s current immersion in the role of a therapist make for a strange dynamic in their sessions? “Well, do you know, I’ve never brought it up with him,” says Byrne. Obviously, they have bigger fish to fry.
And Byrne certainly has a dose of Catholic guilt heady enough to keep any therapist in business for quite some time. Guilt, it turns out, even about therapy itself.“There was this notion, that I grew up with in Ireland, that you didn’t talk about certain things,” he says. “Don’t be drawing attention to yourself, and what do you want to be talking about that for?” Which is where a writer like John McGahern came in, he says; in McGahern’s 1965 novel of an adolescence lived at the mercy of Catholic Ireland, Byrne found a startling mirror of himself, he says. (He reread the book on the set of Jindabyne in Australia, and found it just as powerful; he wrote to McGahern to tell him, and received, in reply, an invitation to Leitrim, but McGahern died soon afterwards.)
Listening to Byrne talk about his decision to go into therapy, it’s clear that he hasn’t managed to shake off that old reprimand just yet. He knows why he is in therapy – he decided it was time for him to look at where and what he came out of, at his schooling, at his religion, at his culture; at why he left Ireland, at the “conflict” he had about “being both Irish and not Irish”. At the same time, he’s finding it hard to shake the feeling that Ireland would not approve; that what he’s doing would be seen as self-indulgent, as claptrap, as very, very American. He’s at pains to point out that it’s not like that; that his therapist is not American, that they don’t talk about feelings, that there’s no “upbeat, untrammelled fake optimism of a lot of the American self-help stuff”, but it’s striking that he feels driven to point all this out at all. And it’s striking that, in the middle of a conversation about why he has decided to go into therapy – to learn to be a better person, he says, to have a shot at being, not happy, but contented – he begins suddenly to talk about the economic downturn in Ireland. About the job losses, the struggling towns, the new emigration. About the “horrific, horrific news” he is reading in the Irish papers everyday.
He seems defensive, I say. He has had his troubles with depression, with alcohol, with marriage breakdown; does he think that people would begrudge him the chance to reflect on his life, to come to terms with things? No, no, he says; but the next day, in an e-mail, he says that, yes, he feels defensive. He doesn’t want to sound self-indulgent, he says, at a time of pain for so many people.
BYRNE ISN’T PAYING lip-service to the crisis in Ireland. He keeps up. In the course of conversation, he mentions a story on the Dell lay-offs; the story of an Irish-American man found dead in Queens over Christmas; a meeting of Irish actresses in Dublin discussing the dearth of parts for women over 40; Fintan O’Toole’s recent column on the buried hypocrisy of attempts to claim Obama as Irish (no, I don’t ask him if he’s heard the No One as Irish as Barack O’Bama song), and the 125th anniversary of the GAA.
His biggest preoccupation when it comes to Ireland, he says, is one he’s spoken about before; the state of the hospitals, and the indignity with which the ill and the dying are treated in the Irish health system. He’s a spokesperson for the Irish Hospice Foundation, and he’s not alone in his anger; his fellow actor, Brendan Gleeson, has raged on the issue also. “I think the Late Late Show would be terrified to let the two of us on together,” says Byrne. “They’d have to sedate us. But the state of Irish hospitals . . . if there is such a thing as a sin, that’s a sin.”
Though Byrne has lived in America for over two decades, he is not a citizen, nor does he intend to become one. Nor does he see himself as Irish-American, though the Irish-American community is one in which he is very interested (he has been a spokesperson for the drive to establish an Irish Cultural Centre in New York). He loves America, but he’s suspicious of the country’s vision of itself; that last sentence of Obama’s inauguration speech, “America is ready to lead again”, gave him real pause, he says. “This notion that Americans have, that they are the leaders of the world, and that they don’t have to do anything other than be American in order to lead. That’s very pervasive in the culture, it goes very deep into how they see themselves here.”
Here, everywhere he goes, he’s the actor with the accent. But here’s what nobody seems to realise, he says: they all have accents, too.