Interview of mr. Byrne
everyone knows Gabriel Byrne as the former star of that nation''s most popular
TV series. In America, the actor is gradually making a name for himself as the
sullen, handsome star of Miller''s Crossing, Point of No Return, and Into the
West. The son of a cooper, or beer-barrel maker, Byrne is the oldest of six. As
a young Dubliner, he delighted in watching American movies projected on white
sheets in makeshift theaters created from bus seats. It wasn''t until he was 29
that he gave any thought to a career in acting, having spent his colorful young
adulthood as an archaelogist, schoolteacher, short-order cook, and bullfighter.
Byrne came to America for the first time at the age of 37.
Q: When you first met Ellen Barkin on the film Siesta, what did you say to win her heart?
A: I had never heard of her before. In fact, I thought they said Ellen Burstyn, but then Ellen Barkin came through the door, dressed in a green dress and coat and with the most incredible green eyes. I said, "You have the most amazing eyes I''ve ever seen in any woman." And she said, "Thank you. They''re contact lenses."
Q: Your son has an Irish accent. And in Into the West, Ellen does a convincing Irish accent. Did you help her with that?
A: She gets off the plane [in Ireland] and she turns into Maureen O''Hara; it''s really amazing. I had to tutor her a little bit, because we wanted it to be good. I was very proud of the fact that so many people complimented her on her accent. An American came up to her and said, "Your accent is really good." And she''d say, "How do you know?"
Q: Butch Cassidy and the Lone Ranger fire the imaginations of the irish boys in Into the West. To what extent were American cowboys and Indians part of your Irish upbringing?
A: We believed America was the Wild West: wooden houses and tumbleweed in the streets and horses tied up outside the saloon. I saw a movie called Terror in a Texas Town, starring Sterling Hayden, and I went around dressed in black for six months [like] that guy. When we would come out of the cinema, we would all be riding nonexistent horses and shooting nonexsistent guns. There was one TV set in the village where I used to spend my holidays, and it was in the pub. We used to look through the door of the pub to watch the Lone Ranger, and a man would come and chase us away.
Q: Like the gypsies or ''travelers'' in Into the West, you''ve been an itenerant worker yourself. Where do you call home these days?
A: I like to work in Europe, because that''s where my roots are, but I also love working in America too. A strange thing happens when you move from Europe to America: you find you no longer belong in the place you''ve left, and I never feel I truly belong here either. I''m kind of in a limbo. I don''t think that''s necessarily a bad thing, but I''d like to be rooted in one place for longer periods.
Q: By the time Tom Cruise was 29, he had already made a handful of blockbusters. But you didn''t even start acting until you were 29. Is there an advantage to having waited that long?
A: No. Sometimes I regret that I didn''t get to play parts younger, but that''s the way it was. I woke up one morning and said, "I wonder if I could get away with doing this for a living." Yeah, maybe things would have been different if I''d gone into it earlier, but you can''t regret the past. I was having too good a time anyway, living in Spain and England. I did a million different jobs.
Q: You''ve certainly had odder jobs than most budding actors. But archeologist?
A: I wanted to be like Howard Carter and open the tomb and Tutenkhamen and say I''ve discovered the key to lost civilizations. It never happened. I found myself down in the trenches in the rain with a toothbrush for hours. I worked in a teddy bear factory, putting in the glass eyes. I worked as a teacher.
Q: Where you a good teacher?
A: I don''t think so. I loved working with kids, but I always resent the fact they had to learn certain subjects because they were on a curriculum, which could never be geared to the individual needs of a child. Also, I was teaching gorgeous 17-year-old girls in mini-skirts when I was 22, and I would say, "Did you translate that passage last night?" And they would say, "No." And I''d say, "That''s okay, you don''t have to."
Q: Did they flirt with you?
A: They specialized in finding your weak points. On my birthday, they said, "We got you a present: a shirt and tie." And I said, "Thanks, I''ll put it on later," And they said, "No, we want you to put it on now." So I took off my jacket and my undervest, and the door opened and the head mistress walked in. I was standing there with no top on. I remember her saying in her stentorian way, "Could you please explain this, Mr. Byrne?" They were ruthless, those girls.
Q: Sting was also once a schoolteacher. When you co-starred with him in Julia and Julia, did you ever compare notes?
A: Yeah, it lasted all of about ten seconds. He said, "Oh, please don''t bore me with that stuff," and I said, "Thank God we don''t have to discuss teaching."
Q: So what did you discuss?
A: He had a theory that there were songs out there in the ether, and whoever got to them first wrote them. And he said that he was regretful that he hadn''t gotten to Yesterday before Paul McCartney.
Q: You also tried your hand at bullfighting?
A: I went to this school in Spain and learned how to do a couple of passes. A guy would put on a bull''s head and run across the room at you. He''d come behind you and butt you in the back. I was pretty incompetent at it.
Q: So you never actually got in the ring with a real bull.
A: I did, but it didn''t last long. I understood what cold fear was. It''s one thing to talk theory. I don''t know if you''ve ever looked at a bull close-up, but it''s not a pleasant thing. I said, "Okay, my career as a bullfighter is over. Let me out!" And I clamored over the wall.
Q: When your dad was forced into early retirement at 50, and your mom went off to work, he effectively became a house husband before such a thing was fashionable. How did this affect you?
A: It had various consenquences, not the least of which was he took over in the kitchen. Because he was an army cook in his youth, he insisted on cooking army rations. We were forced to eat rice and porridge and potatoes at weird hours, and he would get ended if we wouldn''t eat his food. We wanted to eat white bread like normal kids, and he was baking brown bread with buttermilk.
Q: So are you the cook in your family now?
A: I have a great passion for cooking, but I''m still theorizing as to what kind of cook I''m going to be. I haven''t actually got around to it yet, but one of these years I will astound people.
Q: You catapulted to fame on a popular Irish television show playing a roguish sheep farmer, which is not a character we see a lot of on American TV. What was your family''s reaction to watching you on TV the first time?
A: There was a big celebration, and me father looked at the TV and said, genuinely, "Isn''t television an amazing thing. There you are, ''pointing to the TV, ''and there you are, ''pointing at me. And it was truly amazing when you think about it. [The show] became incredibly successful, and I got fan mail, which was really exciting until somebody told me that Rin Tin Tin used to get 6,000 letters a week, and he was a dog.
Q: You''re so frequently described as ''dark and brooding,'' and yet we can see you have a playful sense of humor. Might comedy be in your future?
A: I began as an actor in Dublin theater doing comedy, so, yeah, I would like to break out of this ''dark and brooding'' image, cause I''m actually not like that at all. In Ireland, brooding is a term we use for hens. A brooding hen is supposed to lay eggs. Everytime somebody says, "He''s dark and brooding," I think: "He''s about to lay an egg."
Q: In Into the West, your character says, "There''s a bit of the traveler in all of us, but very few of us know where we''re going. ''Could you have imagined that the road would lead to where you are today?
A: Unequivocally no. The night I left teaching school in Ireland, one of the teachers came up to me, she was a little bit drunk and said, "I just want to tell you you''re making the biggest mistake of your life." The thought that I''d be working in America never fails to amuse me. Now I want to do some movies with Julia Roberts.
Copyright 1995, Lazar Productions