- 16 Mar 07
Whether starring in popcorn blockbusters or thoughtful art-house movies, Gabriel Byrne is a reassuring presence on our screens. But he reserves his deepest passions for keeping alive the flame of Irish culture among the diaspora.
Last year was one of Gabriel Byrne’s most prolific and exhausting in an acting career that dates back to the '70s. Apart from spending four months performing in an award-winning Broadway production, Byrne circumnavigated the globe to work on film projects in France (Emotional Arithmetic), Australia (Jindabyne), Russia (Leningrad), and the UK (Played).
The hard work is set to bear fruit in the coming months. The critically acclaimed Jindabyne, which opened last month’s Dublin Film Festival, is the most successful domestic grossing movie in its native Australia in over a decade, with Byrne receiving a best actor nomination from the Australian Film Institute. Indeed, Byrne had numerous accolades bestowed on him in recent months, including the prestigious Outer Critics Circle Award for his performance in Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet on Broadway. The 56-year-old Dubliner was also the recipient of a cultural service award presented by the US Chamber of Commerce, as well as an 'Honorary Patronage' of Trinity College's Philosophical Society.
Byrne is passionate about culture. Late last year, he approached the Irish government with a proposal for an Irish-American Cultural Institute in New York and received an enthusiastic response. He is now chairing a committee of 20 influential artists and businessmen, who will draw up a report on the idea to be submitted to the Irish government.
Byrne worked as a teacher prior to opting, at the relatively late age of 28, to concentrate on performing. He had major roles in two of RTRs most successful television shows, The Riordans and Bracken, before emigrating to London in 1982. “It wasn’t like a career step. I had always wanted to travel and to live in London, so I went,” recalls Byrne. The next eight years was a fruitful period as he notched up credits with some of the period’s most influential, European-based, directors, including Ken Russell, Ken Loach, Michael Mann, Nick Broomfield, and Costa-Gavras.
At 40, in 1990, Byrne decided to break into Hollywood. It was a struggle as he jostled for roles. But his determination paid off and he went on to star in several Hollywood blockbusters, including The Man In The Iron Mask, The Usual Suspects, End Of Days and Stigmata. Apart from these commercial successes, Byrne has also collaborated with some of cinemas’ most influential independent directors in recent years, including the Coen Brothers (Miller’s Crossing), Wim Wenders (The End Of Violence), David Cronenberg (Spider) and Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man).
JASON O’TOOLE: Tell us about the idea for an Irish cultural institute in the US.
GABRIEL BYRNE: I had the idea for quite a few years. But last October, when I was the recipient of a cultural award at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, I gave a talk about the Irish-American identity – historical and cultural – there was about 750 people in the room and it really seemed to strike a chord. Every single person that I have spoken since to has been 100 percent enthusiastic about it.
What's been the response of the Irish government?
The last time I was home I came to see the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern and the Minister for the Arts, John O’Donoghue. They have been enormously supportive. Minister O’Donoghue came to New York and has been instrumental in helping to move it forward. It’s accelerating at an incredible pace. It excites me very, very much. I am going to spend a lot of time on this project.
What are its main aims?
It would aim to do the same work as say the Spanish Cultural Institute. Irish-American culture isn't reflected anywhere, apart from one or two small places like the Irish Repertory Theatre or The Irish Arts Centre – but a building that houses the culture of the Irish-American community in the United States does not exist. So I'd envisage a building with rehearsal spaces; a theatre; an art gallery; a computerised historical records of Ireland; exhibitions from Ireland to America and from America to our island. I would include film-making; screen rooms; and also workshops for filmmakers. I don’t think there is anything more important than the interchange of ideas, and to bring fresh, young artists to New York and bring them from New York to Ireland.
Would this be a joint funded venture between the two governments?
It will be up to them to decide what kind of government involvement there will be. Certainly in terms of theoretical backing, the government in Ireland are 100 percent behind it.
It sounds like something that could also benefit Irish tourism?
Absolutely. Actually, one of the people on the board is representing tourism. What I am trying to do is raise an umbrella under which I can bring all the existing, at the moment, fractured Irish business and cultural interests in New York. And then to have satellites around the States. It would also go a long way towards breaking down those barriers of misinformation – cultural misinformation that tends to get passed back and forward. I have tendency for wanting things to happen yesterday, but I would like to see it opening within five years.
You seem to be going through a very fertile film period.
I think Jindabyne is an exceptional film. I just finished a film with Susan Sarandon called Emotional Arithmetic, which is by a Canadian author with a novel of the same name: Susan and I play childhood sweethearts who are re-united after many, many years. It' a beautiful story, with a small cast, so I’m very proud of that one. Also, Wah Wah, which I did with Richard E Grant – I’m very happy with that. I was married to Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Laura Linney, and Susan Sarandon in my last three films, which is not a bad combination of women to be married to!
Jindabyne is actually the name of the place where the film is set. It is based on So Much Water So Close To Home, a short story by Raymond Carver.
That was already made as part of Short Cuts. Did you have any reservations about going back to a similar story?
In Short Cuts Robert Altman took, I think, maybe eight or ten of the stories and he combined them into one narrative that takes place over a day or two in LA. So I didn’t feel we were repeating Short Cuts. The story is about a man and his two friends who discover a dead body and they decide not to report it until their fishing trip is over. The story is really about morality. We tend to think, in absolute terms, ‘This is right; this is wrong’. But the film examines the complexity of it. From the men’s point of view, what they do is morally justified but when they come back to their families their action is interpreted in a completely different way by people who weren’t there.
Carver’s story is profoundly emotional.
Well, it's a tremendously emotional film dealing with many themes: marriage; the way men respond to grief; the way women respond to grief; how communities are fractured by something as horrific as a murder. It is also about the nature of guilt and innocence and how, for example, the guilty can often go free, and it is the innocent who often suffer the most in the end. The central relationship of the film is between myself and Laura Linney, whose marriage is in trouble, and the effect of finding that body on our marriage.
You did PS with Laura Linney.
I worked with Laura on a film called A Simple Twist of Fate with Steve Martin: we played an unhappy couple in that. And in PS, she asked me if I would play her husband. I never saw the film but I think I’m gay in it; I’m not sure (laughs)! She's an old friend, so we kind of knew what to expect from each other, but we had never played such emotionally complex roles together. Ray Laurence (the director) works in a very peculiar way. He does one take of everything. So we just took the bull by the horns and went for it.
You also recently made a London-based crime movie called Played, with Val Kilmer, Vinny Jones and Anthony LaPaglia.
That was written, financed and directed by a friend of mine called Mick Rossy, who made this movie himself, with his own money. I just did a very small part as a favour to him. I was thrilled to do it. A lot of great actors came on board.
You have another new film, Leningrad, which is also set to be released this year.
Leningrad has been shooting for two-and-a-half years. It’s a Russian epic and the government was involved in the financing of it. They reconstructed Leningrad, which is St Petersburg, to 1942. I came in and out of that for about five months. I would fly in, do a couple of scenes, then leave again. But they are still editing that.
What motivates you when selecting your movie projects?
It is usually the director. Then I would try to be involved in stories that I would have a personal opinion about politically, or otherwise. For example Wah Wah: Richard E Grant asked me if I would depict his father’s life on screen and that was such an amazing compliment to me – that a man who was telling his father’s story on screen would ask me to do it. Jindabyne: the director said to me, ‘I am not going to make this film without you. And if you do it, it will be a spiritual experience for you’. He came to New York to tell me that. Emotional Arithmetic: the idea of two people being reunited as lovers, who had been through a horrendous experience in their childhood was something I found fascinating. Susan Sarandon was somebody I always wanted to work with. So there’s always a reason – mostly it's about what the story is trying to say.
You have written, produced or starred in many Irish productions. Is it a case of wanting to push forward the film industry in Ireland?
There was a time when I felt idealistic about the idea of trying to get an Irish film industry off the ground. I made quite a few pictures here and I produced one or two. I had a bad experience with the last one. I had a very disillusioning experience working with somebody, who I regarded as a friend, and that kind of put me off producing for a while.
So no, there is not any idealistic vision. If the script is good and I really like it, I will come back and do it. I worked on Frankie Starlight here with Noel Pearson and Matt Dillion; and I did Into The West; and I did… what else did I do here? I haven’t worked in Ireland for many, many years. I would love to do more here but, unfortunately, our film business is struggling, and there are not that many opportunities for me really.
How important is it that films are made by Irish people?
I think it is very important that we get to tell our own stories. How we are perceived, to a great extent, by each other, as human beings, is through film. There are still people who believe that Ireland is The Quiet Man, Ryan’s Daughter and Far And Away. That’s the Ireland of cinematic mythology, I suppose. John Ford was a major mythologist. He mythologized the west; he also helped to mythologize Ireland in a way that has a certain amount of truth to it. But in terms of the depiction of a real and true picture of Ireland it is very much a chemically coloured version of Inisfree. What’s happening in Ireland now – a country that is going through such huge changes socially, economically politically – isn't being reflected in film. There are people, of course, we are really trying hard to make films about Ireland but they are facing a huge uphill struggle, not just in terms of getting finance, but in terms of distribution outside Ireland.
Are there stories to be told here?
Tons of them. In order for an Irish film industry to get off the ground it has to be able to make films that tell the story of who we are. But they have to be universal so that they can be watched outside of this country.
Ireland is known as a country of storytellers, but yet the majority of films showing in this country are American. Isn't this a form of cultural imperialism.
You have hit the nail on the head. It is a big question. If you go to America and, you go to an omniplex, the chances of you seeing an Irish film, an Israeli film, an Icelandic film, or an African film, are almost zero. In 1983, I think, 11 percent of the cinema-going population in America went to see subtitled films, it is now down to 0.1 percent.
Do you think we are becoming more Americanised?
I think that is not just true of Ireland, it is true of everywhere. Fifteen years ago if you had put a kid from Tel Aviv, Carlow and Los Angeles into the same room they wouldn’t have much to talk about. Now their reference points are so similar – not just with the one directional cultural American influence, in terms of technology. But it's as important for America to receive outside artistic input, as it is for us to take back the means of production for ourselves.
How can this be achieved?
That is a bigger question. Mainstream culture in North America has zero interest in Irish films. Zero. They have never seen a film from Ireland. They are not interested in seeing an Irish film. But if you go out to Santry or Tallaght, they can tell you what Adam Sandler’s last film was. Independent film is struggling in Ireland, and independent film is struggling in America because (pauses)… it’s kind of like the way of the newsagent guy on the corner who sold groceries is bought up by the big supermarket. That’s kind of what has happened on a cultural level. The small man, and his individuality, is being rooted out and something bigger and more homogenous is taking his place. When I was growing up you could go see a film by Bergman, Fellini, as well as the more maverick of American mainstream films like Coppola and Scorsese.
Do you think there is too much violence in film today?
No. I don’t think there is. I think people have always had a need to express violence fictionally and, if you go back to the Irish, Scandinavian and Greek myths and sagas, they were all about violence. The inherent nature of men is to inspire towards goodness but (pauses) technology has changed, the world politically has changed, but the gene of violence has not changed. Mel Gibson said once, ‘I watched westerns where people were hitting each other with chairs and shooting each other and it didn’t make me want to go out shooting and kill people or hit them with chairs’.
What would be your favourite Gabriel Byrne film?
That is a very difficult question to answer because each film is tied up emotionally with my life at the time. I had such a wonderful time doing The Man In The Iron Mask with Leonardo DiCaprio, John Malkovich, Gerard Depardieu and Jeremy Irons. In Paris for four months, working with those incredible actors. The Usual Suspects: we laughed from the beginning to end on that picture; we shot it in 25 days. Bryan Singer was 24 and Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote it, was 26. Just being around that kind of energy and was great. I have a huge fondness for Into The West. I have a great fondness for a film I did called Polish Wedding, which I did with Claire Danes. I played a Polish baker. I have very happy memories of that. Frankie Starlight, Miller’s Crossing...
I loved hearing your Irish accent in Miller’s Crossing…
I had never heard anybody in a Hollywood film speak with a Dublin accent and, I said, ‘You know, I want to be the first one’. I will probably be contradicted on this, but in a major Hollywood film, to have the main character be not from anywhere, not refer to it, that’s just who he is, and to play it with a Dublin accent. But I thought, ‘You know what? I want people to hear the Dublin accent, and to hear an authentic Irish accent on the screen’.
Were you surprised by how big a hit The Usual Suspects turned out to be?
I was. Somebody told me that the film had made, at the last count, something like $165 million and we made it for $5 million. Somebody in MGM called me up and said, ‘We are doing a new collectors' edition and we would like you to record an interview.’ And I said, ‘For what? There is a collectors' edition. Can you just explain to me what a super collectors edition is?’ And he said, ‘Well, we want to re-package it and we want to add in…’ I said, ‘You know what you are doing? You're basically selling the same product over and over again'. I don’t agree with it. It's like Manchester United selling a different strip every season to kids who can’t afford it. A film is a film. I, personally, am not going to do an interview for somebody to rip off the public again.
I remember reading that you were confused by who Keyser Soze was?
I was having a joke. Bryan Singer had actually done such a good job that Keyser Soze could have been anybody up until the last moment of the film. In the very first sequence, the guy who shoots me in the head – with the hat and the gun – is me. It was supposed to be Kevin Spacey but the reason Singer put that in there was as a homage to Miller’s Crossing when John Turturro says to me, ‘Look into your heart,’ and I say, ‘What heart?’ and I shoot him. It's hard to tell but it actually was me.
Has there been any roles you regretted not doing??
I was going to do >o?Wuthering Height>o?s at one stage with my girlfriend of the time, Julia Ormond, and it fell through at the last minute. I would have really liked to have had a go at that – I loved the book and had seen the film many times. We were trying to come at it from a slightly different angle. There is one other picture that I turned down, that I hope you will forgive me for not mentioning because the actor who played it went on to win an Academy Award. It's a funny thing: there are other things in my life that I have regretted, but I have never really regretted either doing, or not doing, a film.
You have only one director’s credit to your name (The Lark in the Clear Air) and three screenplays. Are you tempted to direct more?
Directing a picture takes a good two years of your life. As I get older, I have less interest in spending two years making a film. I’m more interested in theatre, family, travel, reading and being involved in other things.
Before acting you worked as a teacher – and also as a bullfighter?
That’s a thing that got into the papers. It’s not true (laughs). Skip that one.
Did you feel you would become such a successful actor?
No. I was a teacher up until I was 28 and, to me, the biggest kick I ever had was getting into the Project Theatre.
Which actors influenced you?
I know this sounds crazy, but I was hugely influenced by all the actors at The Abbey, people like John Kavanagh, Des Cave. I saw those guys when they were really exciting young actors at The Abbey. On television, one of the best naturals I ever worked with was John Cowley, who played Tom Riordan. He was the best worker of props I met in my life. He never did a scene where he wasn’t doing something. He’d be repairing engines, cracking open eggs, and doing the crossword. He was a real method actor without even knowing it.
What film actors did you most admire?
In film, the actors that I admired were O’Toole, Harris, Burton, Olivier, Richardson. I actually ended up – my very first job outside Ireland – playing a small part in a very successful mini-series called Wagner and I worked with Richard Burton, Laurence Oliver, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Cyril Cusack and Vanessa Redgrave. I got to have dinner with Burton, Oliver, Richardson, Gielgud and Cusack, all at the same table, and I didn’t speak for the entire dinner. They were all heroes of mine. I admired Oliver Reed very much and I got to work with him as well. I worked with Richard Harris, Albert Finney… somebody showed me a list of all the actors and actresses I have worked with and I thought, ‘Oh my God! This is astounding’.
After your initial success on Irish television, you went to London.
I had done a series, Bracken, that became kind of famous overnight. In 1982 went to London and worked with Ken Russell, who was one of those crazy maverick directors, who was always doing really wild, mad films. He asked me to play Lord Byron in a film. Well, of course, it was thrilling to work with him. Then I did a play at the Royal Court with Ken Loach, which I think is the only play he directed in theatre. Then I worked with Costa-Gavras, which helped me move into European cinema – he had directed two hugely successful films, Missing and Z. Great, great films: he was probably the last great political director. When I went to America I was completely unknown there, except for a British film called Defence Of The Realm, which was a kind of a cult film in America. A lot of directors had seen it. It was about the relationship between government censorship and the press. I thought it was a really brave film for its time; it pulled no punches and they actually killed off the journalist in the end.
You went to Hollywood at a relatively late age for a “new actor”.
I felt kind of isolated in Hollywood. I think it is much calmer now. Nowadays, Dublin actors, say, ‘Dublin Airport straight to LAX’. I don’t think they have the same kind of fear that I had at that time. To be an Irish actor in LA was a very unusual thing. I went to quite a few auditions, came down to the last two for Dracula – I heard it was between myself and Gary Oldman. An actor’s life is always a struggle: when a film ends you often don’t know when your next one will be.
In 2005, you made a film, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, with Robert De Niro, Kathy Bates and Harvey Keitel. What was that experience like?
When I did that picture with De Niro and Keitel, they had voice coaches for the first time in their careers to teach them how to drop their American accents and De Niro said to me afterwards, ‘Wow! I never thought that actually working on removing your accent was such a part of work when you are not an American actor’. Because they get to be American all the time. Working with De Niro was (pauses)…something happened to me that I never thought would happen to me. I was doing a scene with De Niro and I had what I think was the equivalent of a major attack of film fright or stage fright, which is a very terrifying place to be in. Again, I stress it had nothing to do with De Niro, but I had a very scary, personal and emotional experience while I was making that film and it affected me in a deep way. And it affected the days which I worked with De Niro. I don’t think, to the detriment of the film. I mean, I don’t think people would have known what I had gone through.
You come across to me as the type of person who is uncomfortable with fame.
It has given me tremendous gifts that I would never have received had I not made pictures. But there are downsides to it. I saw Richard Gere coming out of a place one night and photographers literary falling over bonnets of cars trying to get photographs. The look of fear in his eyes as he tried to make his way to his car. That kind of fame is scary. So I do feel a bit uneasy. 98 percent of people, are absolutely wonderful. They say nice things to you. I remember sitting on a plane and a movie of mine came on and I thought, ‘If I get up now and go to the bathroom, you know, I’m going to have one of those moments’. And the guy beside me – everybody was watching – was watching it and he fell asleep after 10 minutes! You are constantly brought down to reality, especially somewhere like Dublin.
Having worked with Arnold Schwarznegger, what do you make of his political career?
He is a very, very canny politician. If you look at the history of Arnold Schwarzenegger – a man with an unpronounceable name, who lifted weights, who came from Austria, who couldn’t even speak English properly – and he became the highest paid movie star in the world. I don’t think anybody’s got more money per picture than he’s got. He’s a die-hard Republican, and he married a Democrat, and the line between entertainment and politics being so thin, he actually got elected, as Governor of California, on his screen persona to a great extent.
What is he like as a person?
Personable, funny, charming, likeable. That’s not to say that I think he is a brilliant politician. I think he is a brilliant manipulator, mover and shaker. He realised something a lot of Republicans didn’t: that unless he changed his tune he wouldn’t get re-elected. And he was one of the few who jumped off the bandwagon, abandoned the Republican mainstream political message and went with what he felt were the changes people were starting to demand in California. That was a very astute move.
What are your future plans?
I'm going into politics! If Arnie can do it, I can do it! (laughs) I’m going to take a lot more time out for photography, which I'm really interested in. I had an exhibition in New York last year for Unicef, and it was extremely well received. I’m going to go back on stage again this year, on Broadway. I would love to do Dublin and then Broadway. I’m going to do a couple of pictures next year and the year after.
How did you respond to the nomination for a Tony as best actor…
It's a funny thing, I get more pleasure out of been nominated for a Tony or wining the Outer Critic Circle Award then almost anything else because it's theatre – and theatre is where I began. Theatre shows you what you can and can’t do. It tests your every reserve in terms of stamina, commitment, to re-produce highly emotional stuff eight times a week in front of a Broadway audience. There were times when I wanted to throw the towel in; I thought, ‘I just can’t go on tonight’. But you have to go on.
What type of music do you like?
I listen to everything. I love traditional Irish music, classical, jazz. I have some secret vices, I have to say: I am a Julio Iglesias and Abba fan! But I do have to say, in my defence, I have an eclectic, across the board, appreciation of music. Now you know everything about me (laughs).
Pics: Patrick Redmond (JDIFF)