Gabriel Byrne: Talent to Byrne
In the early 90’s, Gabriel Byrne was known primarily to art house crowds for movies like Miller’s Crossing. He had appeared in a few mainstream Hollywood movies, but they mostly failed to catch on. His then-current wife, Ellen Barkin, was a bigger movie star at the time. In this profile from the July 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Byrne charms interviewer Martha Frankel with his stories, his down-to-earth demeanor and his lady’s man good looks.
“I did an informal survey among my friends before I came to interview you,” I tell Gabriel Byrne as we settle into his trailer on the back of the Warners lot. “And the funny thing was, when I’d say your name, they’d look at me quizzically. They couldn’t place you. But when I’d say Miller’s Crossing, they’d go, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s wonderful.’ Then I’d bring up Siesta, and the guys would all sort of moan and say, ‘Ummmm, Ellen Barkin.’ And when I told them that you and Ellen were married, they’d say, ‘Oh sure, life’s fucking tough for him, huh?’ Because they’re all wild about Ellen.”
“What did the girls say?” Byrne asks, cutting to the chase in that fabulous Irish accent of his.
“I told them that you just made Cool World with Brad Pitt, and they went into a mild frenzy, wanting to know everything about him.”
“Well, so I don’t win on any count, huh?” he asks, looking like a hurt schoolboy. “It’s like, where am I in this picture?”
“Not to worry,” I assure him, “the consensus was that you’re very good at what you do. But the guys just can’t figure out how you got Ellen.”
“Well,” he says, “let’s start with Brad Pitt, who’s a lovely guy, a genuinely nice man. I think he’s really embarrassed with all that’s happening to him. He strikes me as someone who’s really sensitive and intelligent, who’s looking for something beyond the normal bullshit. We had some good conversations, and swapped some books that we thought the other one should like. And in relation to Ellen, what can I say?”
“That you’re a lucky bastard?”
“That I am. When I first met her, she came to Europe to do a movie, and nobody there knew who she was. I think one of the things that’s a hallmark of women who have that star appeal is a combination of sexiness and vulnerability. And that combination is very exciting … to men, anyway. That’s what attracted me to her in the first place. She’s certainly sexy, but the vulnerability is right there too.”
It’s lunchtime on the set of Byrne’s newest film, John Badham’s American remake of La Femme Nikita. Bridget Fonda co-stars, and Byrne plays Bob, the man who civilizes her in order to turn her into an efficient killing machine.
“It’s a very clever movie,” Byrne says. “People like me and you may say, ‘Why remake it at all?’ But there are so many people who will not read subtitles.”
I’m hardly listening, busy as I am walking around, checking out a pile of tapes on the table (the two new Springsteens, Bryan Adams, The Chieftains) and a mound of books leaning in the corner.
“Do you read a lot?” I ask.
“All the time.”
“Amazing,” I say, “because most of the actors I interview tell me that they wish they had the time, but with the scripts and everything …”
“I read all the time, mostly American contemporary fiction. A lot by women. Do you know that only three percent of Americans have library cards? That’s an incredible statistic. It tells you a lot about what’s happening. Right now I’m reading How to Make an American Quilt. I’ve been reading it for two weeks, and I have to keep putting it down, because it’s so simply and poetically written, and so full of truths, that it makes your head spin. It’s so deep and so simple.”
“If only three percent own library cards,” I remark, “I’d venture to say that only five percent of them read fiction that’s written by women.”
“Oh, I’ve always loved books by women. One of the first books I read was Little Women. Louisa May Alcott was, oh God, my hero. I wanted to be there with them, I fell in love with Beth. And of course she died halfway through the book, which was such an awful thing to do to us.”
We take a minute, remembering the agony of Beth’s death, and then we’re ready to move on.
“Okay,” I say, settling down across from him. “Why don’t you just tell me your whole life story, and we’ll go from there.”
“Oh God,” he moans. “Oh please, not that … anything but that. You’ll die of boredom.”
But Byrne starts to talk, and suddenly it’s not like we’re in an over-cooled trailer on a movie set. It’s more like I’ve been fortunate enough to get a wonderful companion on a long train trip, a raconteur who has stories to fit every occasion.
“Okay,” he begins. “I was born in Milwaukee, and I lost my accent when I moved to New York. No, no, I was born in Ireland in 1950. My father was a laborer in Dublin. There were six children in the family. I left Ireland when I was 12 to go to England to study in a seminary for the priesthood. Which was insane, but it did happen.”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“No, it’s the truth.”
“You had the calling?”
“I opened this book one day and it had these photographs of all these kids going up this long winding road, playing football and table tennis, and grown men on horses in Africa with little black kids waving and smiling up at them. And I thought, I’d like to do that. So I went. I was there for four and a half years, and then I was called into the office, and the rector said, ‘Byrne, I’m afraid we’ve come to the conclusion that you don’t have a vocation.’ Because I had got caught smoking in the graveyard. So I was sent home, where I had a cataclysmic collapse of faith.
“I became a plumber’s assistant, put in central heating. I worked in factories, I did everything, worked in a gay bar for a year and a half. I was so innocent, I couldn’t figure out why no women ever came in. Then I went back to school at night, and I studied and went to the university, and there I studied archeology and languages.
“When I finished that I went to Spain and lived there for two years. To be in Spain as a dark-haired, blue-eyed person was to be a total idiot. Instead of going to Sweden, where I would have been different, I went to Spain. I was 21, I wasn’t interested in the deeper meanings of life. I just wanted to meet some girls and have sex. And there I was, with all these women who looked at me as if I was a Spaniard who couldn’t speak Spanish. They had no time for me at all. I got this job teaching English to this girl. She was a countess, incredibly beautiful. I would go to this fabulous house on a hill, and we would sit in this formal dining room and I would take out my book and it was stuff like ‘Spot is in the garden.’ And she would repeat, ‘Spot is in the garden.’ And we progressed to things like ‘Give me the knife please.’ She would say, ‘Geef me the knife-a, please.’ I would say, ‘It’s “knife.”‘ And she would say, ‘Knife-a,’ and I would say, ‘Fine.’ I would say, ‘Give me the spoon.’ She would say, ‘Geef me the e-spoon.’ I would correct her and she would repeat, ‘E-spoon,’ and I would smile and nod. And then I’d say, ‘Give me the fork, please.’ And she would say, ‘Geef me the fuck, please.’ And she would look at me with these incredible eyes, and I was so demented at the time that I would say, ‘Can I have that last bit again?’ And she would repeat, ‘Geef me the fuck, please.’ And I would just have her repeat it for hours.”
“You mean that some poor girl is now asking for a utensil and everyone thinks she wants to get laid?”
“Yes, thanks to me, there are people speaking bad English with Irish accents all over the Continent. Then I was a teacher in Dublin for a while, and then, when I was 28 or so, I became an actor.”
“Just like that!” I say, snapping my fingers.
“Yeah, basically. It was a sublimated desire. I went to theater and movies all the time, but the idea of becoming an actor … that was out of my reach. I started this drama class for the kids I was teaching because I was interested in drama, and one of the kids got sick and I took over his part. And someone from the Abbey Theatre was there and he said, ‘You should think about doing this.’ The next summer, I became an actor. As haphazardly as that. I was blessed in that I always had a fearlessness of the future. I’d just say, fuck it, I’ll do it. Stupidity is probably another name for that. The only way to act is to just do
“What was the first movie you made?”
“Excalibur. John Boorman very kindly put me in it. He asked me to be one of the knights. It was a horrendous experience. I couldn’t imagine how people wanted to make films for a living. I couldn’t believe that you had to do things over and over again. I thought that what happened was, they put the camera down, and you did the scene and, somehow, the camera magically got all the angles. I kept saying, ‘You mean we have to do that fucking scene with the horse again?’ We did it Friday, and now it’s Monday, and I’m still on the fucking horse. That movie did absolutely nothing for me in terms of getting more work. I was still in Ireland, and nobody came knocking. And then, in the same haphazard way, I went to London.”
“And made your big move?”
“Well, some actors are really blessed. There’s so much luck in this business. You can be in your first movie and the movie is a hit, and you get to play great parts from then on, and you have it made. Or you can be a schmuck who’s in 50 movies, if you’re lucky, and maybe one hits, finally. Like Daniel Day-Lewis was in a movie that broke through. What was it called?”
“My Left Foot!”
“No, it was My Beautiful Something…”
“Yes,” Byrne says with a smile, “it was The Unbearable Heaviness of Movies.”
“No,” I say, “I believe the proper title was The Unbearable Pain of My Beautiful Left Foot.”
“And as I was saying,” he says through his laughter. “What the fuck was I saying?”
“So are you blessed, or one of the schmucks?”
“Well, the movie I made called Defence of the Realm was big in England, but there’s no film industry over there, so it didn’t make much difference. I came to America when I was 37 or 38, and nobody here knew who I was.”
“And I did Hello Again…”
What I am imagining is this sturdy, talented guy, fresh off the boat from Europe to make his big career move. He gets teamed up with Shelley Long, who is riding her success with Bette Midler in Outrageous Fortune, and together they’re roped into a major Disney flick, which turns out to be one of the biggest disasters in moviemaking history. But all I can manage to say is, “Hello Again?”
Byrne turns red, and gives me his theory of how-good-actors-get-involved-with-bad-movies. “It’s quirky the way these things go,” he begins. “I had turned down Raging Bull, and Robert De Niro had turned down Hello Again. He really wanted to do Hello Again, but I got Hello Again, so he settled for Raging Bull.”
I try to interject here, but Gabriel’s on a roll now, and I can’t get a word in edgewise.
“When you’re involved in a film, it’s about that time in your life, and how you got on with everyone, and the location and how much you liked it or didn’t. When I look at a movie of mine, it produces really ambivalent feelings. In one way, you think, ‘Oh God, that moment is captured forever. There it is.’ But the time that surrounds that moment is gone forever. When I hear people being nostalgic about a place, I think, it’s not the place they’re talking about…it’s what was going on in their life at that time. And it’s gone forever. You remember what the movie started out as, what it tried to be and, maybe, what it never became. It’s so personal. It’s difficult to feel hateful about a movie that I’ve done, even when they don’t turn out good. Because nobody sets out to do a lousy movie. You look at it and you say, ‘That was me at that time.’ It’s like looking at old photographs. I know some people who don’t like to do that. I’m personally fascinated by other people’s photographs. I’m the person who comes into your house and says, ‘Go ahead, show me the home movies. Oh, that was your father, I see the resemblance.’ Other people can say, ‘That movie is crap, or it’s fantastic’ But I can’t separate like that, even if you’re in a movie that everyone says is brilliant. There are certain things that I won’t do, and others that I will do, and maybe some that I shouldn’t have done. Whatever other people’s perceptions are, I’m in a very comfortable place with myself now, as a person, and in terms of my career. I’ve always done films that are a little bit off the beaten track, and I’m as far advanced as I think I should be at this stage and I haven’t had to do anything to contradict the kind of person that I am.”
Finally he takes a breath. I get a word in edgewise. “Did I imply that I didn’t like Hello Again?”
He laughs. “Who knows why we do things sometimes? I did Siesta with Ellen, which some people think is the greatest film they ever saw. Of course, most of them are medicated. Then I did something with Kathleen Turner [Julia and Julia]. And then Miller’s Crossing. Mostly small, art house, European movies in-between. About Miller’s Crossing…God, I don’t want to sound pretentious, but it’s a sad reflection on people who go to movies. There are pieces of crap that make $400 million, and then here’s a movie that people had to think about, and listen to, and it was about important things, friendships and morals, and yet it was set in that gangster genre. I just think it was too advanced for a lot of people, and it didn’t have any big stars, and it was up against GoodFellas, and The Krays and King of New York. It was the wrong time to release it. But, having said that, I think it’s a movie that will be around for a long time. As the Coens will be, because I think they’re original and wonderful.”
“Do you go to the movies a lot?”
“Yeah. All the time.”
“Jesus, you really are different from the other actors I interview. They always say, ‘God this is so embarrassing, and I know I should go to the movies, but I’m so busy and I’m so blah, blah, blah…'”
“How can you not go to the movies and read? My favorite movies are the French, Italian and European films. The Masters…Truffaut, Fellini, Fassbinder…”
“All the sad stuff. It’s like you’re still waiting for Beth to be resurrected.”
“Exactly. I have the tape of Cinema Paradiso here, which I’ve already seen twice. My Life as a Dog…”
“So you read, you go to the movies, you’re married, you have a young son. You almost sound normal.”
“Well, acting isn’t my whole life. It’s a great job. I work hard for 26 weeks a year, I make about two films a year, and I get paid pretty well for that time. But the rest of the time is mine. And that’s wonderful. When I’m done with the movie, I like to be gone, to be in places where people don’t know that much about the movies.”
“They don’t seem to know what to do with you Irish actors out here in Hollywood.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. The only worry is that you’ll be forever typecast, strictly because you sound a certain way. Ever since I heard Sean Connery in some movie saying, ‘I’ve lived in the desert all my life, and speaking as an Arab …’ And you’re thinking, ‘No fucking way you’re an Arab, Sean.’ But who cares? Who gives a shit if he’s from Edinburgh or Addis Ababa? I’m delighted to see all those stereotypes being broken. Let Kevin Costner play Robin Hood. Let Sean Connery play an Arab. I think it’s great. It means that actors won’t be categorized by the way they sound. It’s bad enough that we’re judged by how we look …”
“You don’t really have to worry,” I say, pointing out the obvious. “You have real leading-man’s looks.”
“What I have, Martha, is … hair. Touch wood.” He runs his hands through the thick mass and laughs.
A knock on the door startles both of us. It’s the makeup man, asking if Byrne can come to the trailer for a touch-up. Which he can, only I haven’t gotten around to asking about his two new films, Into the West, which he stars in and produced, and Cool World, which pairs him not only with Brad Pitt, but with Kim Basinger, and Ralph Bakshi animation as well. So I tell him that he can’t even think about leaving until he tells me about the two films and anything else I haven’t gotten to yet. Byrne continues in the same unhurried tone, throwing caution, and makeup, to the wind.
“Into the West was done in Europe. It was written by Jim Sheridan, and I was an associate producer. I developed it, brought it to Harvey Weinstein at Miramax and got it financed. It’s the story of two boys and a magical horse that comes from under the sea who brings them on a journey across Ireland to find their mother, who’s dead. It’s set among the gypsies in Ireland. Ellen plays one of the gypsies, and she’s fantastic. But I always say that, don’t I? Anyhow, I’m thrilled with it. I think people will really relate to it. It’s in the European tradition of movies.
“And in Cool World, I play an American. Don’t ask me to do the accent, please. That’s the hardest thing to do. I practiced ‘how now brown cow’ for weeks. I wonder how well American actors would do if they had to go to England and speak with British accents. It’s like being at a party, and all of a sudden everyone turns to look at you and they’re saying, ‘Now, do your song and dance.’ And they’re listening with their instinctive, intuitive ears. So you feel a bit intimidated by that in the beginning.”
“So it’s live-action combined with cartoons. And Kim Basinger … tell me about the woman who’s perfect to play a caricature.”
Byrne, ever the diplomat, just smiles. Broadly.
“Ralph Bakshi directed it,” he says. “He’s incredible. It’s half-cartoon, half-real. My character, Jack, is someone who went to jail because he killed his wife’s lover. Which, if you ask me, is a pardonable offense. You can’t hate a guy who does that. If he was a guy who killed 12 innocent people then, well, he doesn’t deserve to be in the rest of the movie. But because he killed his wife’s lover, they figured the audience would say, ‘Well, he had a point.’ So, though I’ve been to jail, I have the audience’s sympathy.”
“Why do men always shoot the lover, and not the wife?”
“I made that point myself. I said, ‘Why did I kill him?’ Men always go for the men, not the wife. It’s a rationalization to protect yourself. I don’t know what I’d do in that situation. I’d probably say to her, well, theoretically I can understand it. But I’m afraid I have to kill you too, honey.”
Ellen, are you listening?
Martha Frankel interviewed Ethan Hawke for our March issue.