- 12 May 20
As Gabriel Byrne celebrates his 70th birthday, we're revisiting one of his classic interviews with Hot Press. In this powerful 2016 interview, he tells Roe McDermott why we should charge multi-nationals more for doing business in Ireland; talks about sexism in Hollywood; Donald Trump; and excoriates the political classes in Ireland...
Gabriel Byrne has forged a career out of playing complex, often contradictory characters. Consider his iconic roles. Chilling, brooding Tom in Miller’s Crossing. Affable, threatening Keaton in The Usual Suspects. Tormented therapist Paul in In Treatment.
Now 65, the Dubliner puts in another stunning performance in Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs. He plays a father struggling to cope with the death of his wife (Isabelle Huppert) and trying to raise his two sons. Byrne’s character is kind and patient yet also frustrated and resentful. As we sat down for a chat, I wondered about the extent to which that description might fit a man who is rightly regarded as one of the greatest Irish screen actors of all time.
Louder Than Bombs is a beautiful film. What drew you to it?
I had seen two of Joachim Trier’s films. Reprise I watched by happenstance. When his second one came out, I went out of my way to see it. And, as sometimes happens in this crazy business, by some circuitous route he saw something of mine that he liked. He called me up and said ‘Can I come see you about this film?’ So he came to see me in New York and said he was trying to put the family together. He also talked about Isabelle Huppert, one of my favourite actresses of all time. And I thought, ‘God, that’d be amazing’. Then he got Jesse Eisenberg and this new kid, Devin Druid. So when he got the family together, he said ‘Right, let’s make this script’.
The film deals with the family beautifully, because it addresses the layers and complexities of their relationships...
I loved the film because it’s about grief, and letting go, and about memory. It’s a film about how the past and present collide. The notion of exploring grief from the point of view of a fractured family was fascinating. Grief makes people go inward. It’s only when they learn to relate to it as a family that they can deal with the loss. There is no escaping grief.
In what sense?
Everybody has to deal with it, in his or her own way. The person who is gone is no longer there in the physical sense. And yet to me the film always struck me as kind of a ghost story. The mother and wife is there in memory, in photographs, in conversation. One of the things I love about Joachim’s films is he takes risks. When he holds a long close-up on Isabelle you become aware that she’s actually haunting the three lives. Even though she’s passed on to somewhere else, her role as a mother is still obvious.
Isabelle Huppert’s character – a war photographer who leaves her husband and sons – is fascinating.
The film also looks at the idea: what is a marriage? This notion that marriage is the romantic cul-de-sac we should all aspire to is challenged a little bit. Also I think it’s about how do you find a definition of yourself in terms of love again after you’ve lost somebody. It looks at what it means as a woman to have a career. That’s really addressed when Isabelle’s character talks about coming back from a job and the family has gone on without you. You have to figure out how to fit back into the family. You don’t know whether they’re accepting of you or whether they resent you. Any working mother feels that, any working father feels it too: the guilt of separation when working away from your family. These are profound themes that resonate very powerfully.
The teenage son retreats into technology. His father desperately tries to connect with him but they can’t communicate. It’s a struggle all parents will recognise.
I also thought the way adolescents deal with technology was interesting. One of the most important junctures that parents and adolescents come to is when children arrive at that age when they start coming into their own independence and create their own little world. They’re trying to break away from their parents and secrecy is part of that. Years ago, a girl would have a diary and she’d have it locked and put away and nobody could see it. Secrecy is part of being an adolescent. Technology enables secrecy. It’s almost like technology colludes with the adolescent. Parents say things like, ‘Ah, I don’t know anything about it, I can’t even send a text’ .They take pride in their ignorance: ‘Oh it was a sad day for me when the biro went out of business!’
So are you the type of Dad who’s all about understanding the technology his kids are discovering?
It’s daft not to embrace technology. You’re talking about the transmission of knowledge. That’s what adults can miss – it’s not about typing things into a keyboard and not knowing how to turn on a television. You’re talking about connecting with ideas. If you choose to relinquish that, you do fall behind. It’s a bit like that Bob Dylan song, you know, where he talks about Senators blocking up the hall: if you’re not part of the solution, you better get out of the way.
So you have to try to keep up?
Curiosity and the acquisition of knowledge are what education should be about. They rarely are. That’s the thing that should continue throughout your life: to be curious about the world, and to realise how little we actually know. And yet at the same time to be committed to things that are new and that challenge the old ideas that you had. That’s a way of retaining a relevance. I don’t mean social relevance. Relevance to the world that you live in.
In the film Devin Druid’s character forms this alternate life online, which is true of so many people now through social media. As an actor how do you view this new navigation of personal and private information?
It isn’t something that just affects actors now. This is a cultural phenomenon that people think of as normal. What we thought of as privacy 15, even 20 years ago, is no longer relevant. We are all in a way subject to scrutiny in one form or another, whether it’s the camera on the street or people being able to Google you or whatever. Privacy has a different meaning now.
But it is still important, surely?
In terms of my own privacy, I really do try to protect it. If I want to say something, I’ll say it. Interviews are a superficial, banal invasion of one’s life. I’ve always thought being well-known and being in the public eye are not very different to living in a small village. If you live in a small village, and have a row with your wife, the village knows about it, even if you think they don’t. You have to come to terms with the fact that, what you get back from the village in terms of security and connection and personal relationships comes at the price of you, sacrificing your privacy. On the public scale, that’s what fame is like. Sometimes you go into a café and just want to have a cup of coffee and someone comes over and wants to take a photo – well that’s no different to going into the local pub and thinking ‘I want to have a pint by myself and watch the racing on television’. And then some fella sits down beside you and starts talking away to you.
I also love that, in the film, you have two generations of men struggling with what it means to be a good man and a good father. Were you a different kind of father to your children than yours was to you?
That’s a very interesting question. I don’t know culturally if that has changed. Yes, there may be outwards signs of men walking around with babies strapped to their chests. I don’t know if that has changed essentially the nature of what it means to be a father. Nothing can prepare you for that role. Certainly not in the kind of society that we live in, where the extended family doesn’t exist anymore.
How do you replace that?
Every man who becomes a father brings his own life to that role. Culturally there are certain problems. That has never been solved and never will. The purpose of the child is to break away from the father. They were dealing with that in Ancient Greek mythology. The son has to kill the father to move on. All the father can do is be there and if he’s asked for wisdom, to give it. If you give it without being asked, the child heeds it as some kind of intrusion into their own journey. I agree with the Buddhists, who say that the child’s first step is to step away from you. Your job as a man is to be there as a protector and a confidante. Your job is to remain on the sidelines in a supportive way and to move in when you’re asked to. But not because of control. An awful lot of problems between adolescents and parents comes from this mistaken notion of what control is. Parents want to keep children children as long as they can. The child’s job is to become an adult. Trying to stop a child from becoming an adult is like trying to empty the ocean with a fork – it’s impossible.
You grew up in Ireland in the ’50s and 60s, the son of a cooper and a nurse. Becoming an actor must have seemed a crazy dream.
I certainly had never met an actor, I didn’t know what actors did, to be honest, I knew I loved going to the cinema. What I tried to do going to the cinema I think – and this is where I came into contact with the notion of the reality of cinema and the reality of what we call life – was that I used to try drag the emotion of the cinema out into the street. As soon as you got into the street it evaporated. So you had to try to keep the feelings that you had in that dark room with those crowds of people. And cinema touched part of my impressionable mind that I could never have articulated at that age. Becoming an actor was an attempt to get back into that world of the cinema, which was illusory anyway. It became a social thing for me. The choice in Ireland at the time was to go to the pub or go home. And then someone said to me ‘Why don’t you join an amateur drama group, that’s a great way to meet girls, and you can indulge in all your theatre stuff.’
The ‘it’s a great way to meet girls’ will get you every time!
That’s what it was! I had no intention of leaving teaching. I didn’t know you could make a career out of being an actor. Through circumstance, I’ve managed to do that, but if you had said to at that time ‘My ambition is to be a male runway model’, people would have been like ‘What are you talking about?’ That was how mad it was to want to be an actor. The word ‘actor’ was always treated with this whiff of suspicion. It was slightly glamorous but also derided. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to fight that stereotype of what people consider actors to be.
So what is the stereotype?
I hate when people generalise any group of people. ‘You know what salesman are like, you know what actors are like, you know what women are like, you know what black people are like’. To generalise people in a category like that has always been repugnant. The perception of the actor has always been faintly that we’re people who deal with falsity. Good actors try to deal with truth.
Is Hollywood guilty of treating people like stereotypes and not allowing certain people or communities to be represented fully?
The Oscars stuff about black people not being recognized is true only to a certain point. First of all, you have to look at what the Oscars are. The Oscars were invented to publicise the business. And we all know that hundreds, thousands of films are made each year. The number that break through via marketing to actually make money and become movies that are seen by people is pretty small. The prize-giving at the end of the year rewards certain themes, certain actors, certain films. The idea that it’s ONLY black people who are excluded – and it’s absolutely true that black people are excluded – is false. You will never find a Korean actor being the lead in a movie simply because he’s a really good actor. And American films reflect the white status quo. They always have, and perhaps now people are beginning to see that mainstream films are prejudiced against minorities. Like, you have a situation now where gay actors are afraid to come out and say that they’re gay, in fear that studios won’t cast them in the next film. Studios think no-one wants to see a gay actor in a romantic or masculine role.
Do those limitations affect women in the film industry?
Absolutely. It’s worse, maybe. The female ingénue in films now is now getting younger and younger. Those roles are more sexualised than they’ve ever been. The predictable passage of 99% of actresses is from hypersexual ingénue to a completely desexualised older woman. That happens faster than you can say ‘sexism’. I remember being at a meeting once in Hollywood, and a very very well-known actress’s name came up for a part. A producer said, ‘Well I wouldn’t fuck her’.
Maggie Gyllenhaal said that, at 37, she was considered too old to play the love interest of a 55 year old man.
What you get now is women getting into their 30s and having children being edged out. It’s not that different to what they used to do to women in the Civil Service in Ireland. ‘Oh, you have a child? Goodbye’. You have to have very young, single women. And before you know what’s happened, you have Susan Sarandon or Jane Fonda playing the wacky grandmother. Or someone mid-30s playing an about-to-become-grandmother, because they’re a year past the industry’s acceptable age to be in a rom-com or action film. Very few women escape that. And very few cultures are presented in mainstream in Hollywood films. So that argument that Hollywood is prejudiced is absolutely true. They’re prejudiced against everything that doesn’t fit their homogenised, white, profit-making model. So if you have a script that has a conflicted hero, they will chip away at that until it’s a total stereotype.
So men get to be that one-dimensional, Western ideal of masculinity...
Yeah, nobody’s allowed to be anything very complex one way or the other. You have the good guy, the bad guy, the good guy’s friend, the good guy’s girlfriend – you can almost predict them. You see these Batman and Superman and Spiderman re-boots and you can’t not make the connection between the rise of America as an Imperialist superpower and the rise of those superheroes in films. The idea that this one man will save us all – whether it’s a superhero or whatever, trickles into society.
The idea that one American man will solve the world’s problems is a terrifyingly prescient idea, given how the U.S. Presidential election is playing out.
We learned that lesson in 2008, and are about to learn again, that no one politician can save anybody. It has to be about what we said earlier – the questioning of society and thinking for oneself and being connected to alternative sources of knowledge. And not just trusting the mainstream: whether it comes from Hollywood or the mainstream press. Any cultural commentator will factor in how music, movies and television contribute to how the cultural consensus is formed. And if you’re consuming all these mainstream forms of media and not critically examining the information offered, you’re going to be one of those people who actually believe that the Presidential election is truly about choice.
So what is it about?
It’s not about choice at all, it’s about being fooled into thinking that there is a choice. And if you’re not given access to facts, you’re not going to be able to make a reasoned decision. If you believe that elections in America actually change anything, you’re not getting all the information. The nature of these so-called ‘debates’ is just a carnival. America’s foreign policy in relation to the rise of terrorism is never discussed. Climate change – the most important issue that faces not just American but the world – is never discussed. So the real issues that affect us on the ground, will affect us, our children, our children’s children if we’re lucky... these things are not discussed.
What we get instead is pantomime...
It’s about Donald Trump’s hair, Chris Christie’s weight, Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit. The real issues are kept from us, and we are diverted by this carnival, which is treated like reality television. We are encouraged to choose people depending on whether we like them, or their clothes or whatever, instead of holding them to account. Goddammit, why isn’t Hillary Clinton answering questions about her relationship with Goldman Sachs, her role in Libya, her role in Honduran uprising, Benghazi, the bills her husband brought in in 1994, which caused a huge spike in poverty and incarceration, her voting for the Iraq war? This is what she should be attacked on. At least Bernie Sanders is coming from a place of truth. Then you have the other side. Really dangerous people like Ted Cruz, who took part in a discussion about and signed bills banning sex toys. He is so pro-life he’ll imprison women who have abortions.
As a resident of New York, how do you feel about Donald Trump?
There’s a piece of footage everyone should look up: Donald Trump in Ireland. It’s Donald Trump arriving in Shannon Airport to set up his golf course or something. His private jet comes into the runway and there’s red carpet rolled out for him, and a harpist and a singer, all welcoming him to Ireland. The Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, is there. That’s how craven we are to people like Trump, who is regarded as a serious individual, as indeed are all the tax dodgers, housed right now in the Irish Financial Services Centre and paying 12.5% tax. I’ve been raging about this for years, that companies like Apple are about to secrete billions in offshore accounts and give nothing to the Irish government. Whereas some poor unfortunate in Mullingar who tried to get an extra two quid on his welfare is immediately lambasted as being a pariah. You know how it goes.
I take it you’re not too hopeful about the formation of a new government in Ireland?
The illusion that there’s a difference between Fianna Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour is a joke. All of them are elitist, neoliberal parties who don’t really have any power because they’re being told what to do by corporations and the World Bank and the IMF. Whether Fianna Fail get in, whether they rule together with Fine Gael, it means nothing. What I was disappointed in was that the dissatisfaction and the frustration of so many Irish people about what happened with the bank bail-outs wasn’t harnessed into any legitimate and effective movement. What we need to do is displace all those people, get rid of them, and put in a government that works for the people. These governments work for corporations, not the people.
What’s your view of the centenary of 1916?
It’s an absolute disgrace that in 2016, the so-called Centenary of 1916, there are more homeless people in the streets than ever. And yet these tax dodgers are allowed get away with it. Why doesn’t someone go up to these guys and say: ‘We’re putting up corporation taxes to 14.5%, and we’re putting that extras 2% into hospitals and education’? To me, that’s what’s going on in Ireland, so I’ve absolutely no faith in these politicians. And in terms of culture and the arts – the portfolio of Minister of Arts and Culture in Ireland is a joke. The positon is given as an after-thought, leftovers.
In Ireland, the Repeal the Eight movement is growing stronger. What are your feelings on that?
When morality and politics get mixed up together, that’s always really hard to disentangle. My feeling is that a woman is entitled to power over her own body. There’s no argument over that, for me. And if the situation was different, was reversed, if men were raped and were able to get pregnant, those laws would be abolished immediately.
Let’s end on a positive note – what are you really excited about at the moment?
There’s so much to be excited about! I know it sounds kind of corny, but I’m excited about life and living. I’m doing a play on Broadway at the moment called Long Day’s Journey Into Night and I’m excited about that. I’m excited about the summer – just about life. And if I do feel so passionately about politics and cinema, and I do believe they are connected, it’s because I’m involved in life and find it exciting. I don’t ever want to get to a place where I just sit back and say ‘Fuck it, it’s gone beyond my interest or involvement’.
So where do you go from here?
I think the challenge, especially as you get older, is to make every day as exciting as you can, and to be curious about the world, and to be up to the challenge of embracing new things – and fighting the good fight