A Voyage Around Gabriel Byrne - Part II


The scene changes again, and the sound of sirens and the yellow taxi cabs tell me we are back in New York City. Gabriel is sitting in the window seat of a coffee shop, once again watching the world go by. His own voice, from nearly thirty years in the past, is telling us about the first time he went into a cinema.


"We walked past the guy in the red uniform and into this room that was just FULL of noise and sound and light. I remember a ship was just passing across through the dark as we went in. I'd never seen anything like it. And I was hooked (he says it as though it had three o's in it - 'Hoooked') from there on. But I never thought I would ever end up on the screen, never. I remember once I was passing by St. Patrick's Park. I was on the mitch from school. I saw them making a film called 'Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx.' And it was Gene Wilder's first or second film. He had to eat an onion sandwich in St. Patrick's Park. And if he had it once, he had it twenty times. I stood there and I said, 'God, how can they do this for a living?' But .. that's what I'm doing for a living now." A huge grin nearly splits his face in half and you realise how happy he must have been to finally, FINALLY, find his true calling.


Abruptly, in the way of this film, we are in California. Watching the filming of the opening sequences of Paul Weston's attendance at Alex's funeral. These, it turns out, were amongst the last scenes to be shot for season one of In Treatment, probably because all of the episode takes place on location rather than in the studio. The set is bustling with people in T-shirts and baseball caps. Equipment, cars, other actors. Gabriel is showing us Paul, freshly arrived at the crematorium, looking mournfully out at the scenery before turning and crossing the parking lot. It was - perhaps you remember - the Sunglasses Scene.

We see that seminal Moment of Hotness from an entirely different point of view, with crew scurrying backwards in front of Gabriel, hefting cables, ushering the guy with the steadi-cam, moving the sound boom arm. A helicopter is overhead. Somewhere a big truck is reversing. It takes about ten seconds. And then we're suddenly ... on the beach.

The film moves suddenly but seamlessly into another gear entirely. We've done with talking about his past. "Most of the time we spend in a kind of 'acted' universe. There's our own private monologue that goes on, our - kind of - soundtrack that we carry around with us. And then, our interaction with other people. Which, for the most part, is about wearing some kind of a mask. Acting in film and theatre is actually not what people tend to dismiss it as - a form of untruth - but is a form of truth. When it's done at it's best. Because that's what acting really is. Acting is about trying to tell the truth about human nature. That's what great writing is about, too. It's an attempt to tell the truth. To speak the truth. Comedy does that too, in its own way. But most of our interaction is based on the fact that we are not actually telling the truth."


We see Gabriel sitting on the step of his location trailer in between shots for In Treatment. He looks tired, exhausted even, and is having a moment on his own. He rests his head in his hands. "I think that most of us are really afraid to confront who we are. And sometimes as an actor, you're forced to confront who you really are in ways you mightn't want to."


Cut to, incredibly, Gabriel Byrne being admonished (albeit gently) by the In Treatment director. He, Gabriel, had left out a whole chunk of dialogue somehow. He holds his eyes in his hands, saying "I know, I know." A makeup artist is trying to brush colour onto his face. He seems not to notice. He's talking to the director and to two other actors about his motivation for a certain scene - you always think that an actor asking about his motivation is some kind of joke, a cliché. But no. Here he is, doing it.

We're in Gabriel's present, now. "I'm doing a series that HBO have been shooting for the last five months and I play the leading role in it. I play a psychologist. I've been in every single scene, every day, for five months. And ... " Gabriel pauses, trying to think what to say. He's scratching his cheek insistently, distractedly.


For a 58-year-old man who is utterly knackered, he looks superb. "Basically, thirteen, fourteen hours a day. Five months. Twenty five pages of dialogue every two days. So it's very, very ... uh, intense." We see some of In Treatment. Paul and Gina. Paul is getting very angry. They are talking about Laura. I remember just how struck I was with what Gabriel did with this character, and what it has meant to me since then. Cut to Gabriel in the back of a car, being driven to location. He looks at his watch - but has forgotten to put one on that morning. "How we doing on time there, Doug?" he asks, trying not to sound anxious. They are a few minutes late. Perhaps Gabriel Byrne doesn't like to be late. He isn't even too sure where it is they are filming today. The perils of a busy life there, Mr. Byrne.

In the make-up trailer. Gabriel is doing something extraordinary to his hair - running both hands rapidly through it over and over again, to completely and utterly send it into disarray. I shout at the screen: "Let me! Let me!" The hairdresser is stoical, reflective. "He loves to mess it all up, and then I get to fix it again."


"I feel like - what's his name? The guy from the Three Stooges? Shemp!" says Gabriel, doing a fairly scary impression of the Stooge who used to emit a piercing high-pitched squeal and slap himself repeatedly in the head. Back on the set. "Action!" Dialogue between Paul Weston and Alex's father, who is mistaking Laura for Paul's lovely wife. And, "Cut!"

"Oh, please, let this be the end. Oh, Jasus," says Gabriel plaintively. Melissa George laughs gently at him. He puts his glasses back on like Horatio Caine in 'CSI: Miami' and tries to take in just one more line from the page of script in his hand. "Today is the second-last day. It's a very conflicted feeling. Really desperately dragging yourself the last couple of weeks and then also realising that you're probably never going to see any of these people again. You do get to know people on a film set in a way that you wouldn't normally because there's something about the dynamic of it that encourages people to reveal themselves." Gabriel's tone suggests that he thinks this is a good thing, an interesting thing.

He's seen resting between takes, but this time with a succession of people coming and talking to him, telling him stuff, making him smile or laugh. You see him bidding people farewell, embracing them, kissing them. "And of course the notion of having a common purpose together, and the ins and outs, the everyday dramas are intensified, perhaps in an unreal way. It's like being in the circus as far as I'm concerned, you know?" And there he goes. He bids one final farewell and walks away from his trailer, still wearing the black suit and tie he was wearing in the scenes (I have a theory that they saved lots of money on Paul Weston's wardrobe just by using Gabriel Byrne's own clothes.) His tie is loose, his collar undone, and he's carrying a little paper bag and a plastic cup of iced coffee. And grinning ear to ear.

Cut back into his past again. A photo of him on the set of The Usual Suspects with Jack, who is playing with a clapper board and looking utterly adorable. Not unlike his father.


"Well, after The Usual Suspects," says Gabriel, "I went through what I call my 'Hollywood Period'." A street sign shows us that that is where we are now. Hollywood Boulevard. "I worked and lived in Hollywood for four years. I made films that were commercially successful. I did them for various reasons. I did them because I wanted to experience what it was like to be a Hollywood star. And I also needed and wanted to make at the time, money." Cut to some old footage of Gabriel driving in his car through Beverly Hills. Tinny music is playing on his car stereo. It's not exactly "We Have All The Time In The World" by the Bobby May Orchestra, but it is something like that.

"Evenin' all," says Gabriel, laughing, sounding just like Dixon of Dock Green. (Hey, Google it.) "We're on our way to the famous Beverly Hills Hotel. One of the most famous hotels. In the world." The camera looks out at the broad California highway, lined with palms and then pines. There's a letter needs posting on the dashboard of Gabriel's car, reflecting off the windshield. "If you look in there - that's where Marlon Brando used to live - " Gabriel points an elegantly manicured finger. "He shared a house in there with Montgomery Clift. And James Dean used to have a room in there. Gene Kelly used to live there - " Gabriel grins broadly at whoever it was filming him, whoever he was showing the Hollywood sights to, and I wonder whether it might have been one of his siblings. In voice over again, the present-day Gabriel says: "I discovered a life of ease and comfort and security and all the things that go with being in hit movies. I got quite into that for a while. In a place where you live where there are no seasons, time gets warped and years can go by very quickly. Which is one of the reasons why I left LA; because I realised I'd been there for five years and five years had gone by (he clicks his fingers for emphasis) like that - "


Some mournful accordion and guitar music overlays a variety of establishing shots of LA. I get lost in a daydream about playing music with Gabriel Byrne. Him on accordion, me on guitar. There are shots of empty blue skies over empty grey carparks, of the city's famous garland of smog, of back alleys pregnant with last night's trash. Of the nightly stream of traffic like a glittering silver snake on a bed of black pitch. "It's a restless city. Los Angeles even more so than New York, is a city where people come TO. It has to exist for those people. You can't exist in places outside it. It exists for people who out-grow, who out-dream or who out-fantasize their own places. And the sense of freedom and light and being able to reinvent oneself is very strong there. But there is also a sense of melancholy that pervades the place. And it is also Tir-na-nOg. It's a place where people think that if they get successful and wealthy enough, then they're not going to die."


Cut to the view from a hotel window. White, Spanish-style buildings topped with interlocking terracotta tiles. I am transported back very suddenly thirty five years to my own childhood in California, when we lived in a house built like that. It is evening. The television is on. It's an old movie with Phil Silvers in it, from the 1960s. My Californian childhood looms even larger all of a sudden. The camera looks down on the inner courtyard of the hotel with it's pool and its loungers, currently unoccupied, and I suddenly wonder if this is the Sunset Marquis, where Gabriel was staying when he was interviewed for the British edition of GQ magazine, 16 years ago. He's a creature of habit, after all. It could be. Gabriel sits on the end of his bed, delighted with the television, an innocent, almost childish smile of pleasure on his face. I chalk this up to further 'evidence' that he has no television of his own. "Sometimes I think that the nature of moving from one place to another can be quite addictive. I don't like to stay in any one place for too long at a time, And yet, at the same time, in the various cities that I go to, I have a routine that I immediately fall into."


We see Gabriel on the phone, lounging on his bed. We see him reading a newspaper, bits of it slung on the floor at his feet. His luggage is dropped behind him, unpacked. He sits at the hotel room desk, writing. He gazes out of the window. He looks entirely comfortable, entirely at home.


"I have a routine in LA. Places that I go to, restaurants; in London, Dublin, I know exactly where I want to go and what I want to do in these places. I like the anonymity and the impersonality of hotel rooms." He's in a different hotel room now. "I like that you can live in them and not belong there and leave again. Travel has lost its excitement for me in one way, I still feel a kind of compulsion to move .."


It is Ellen Barkin's voice, unmistakably. She is making a home movie of her husband and his mother Eileen as they take a walking tour of New York. Ellen pokes gentle fun at the man. Her affection is so obvious in her voice that it is almost painful. Obligingly, her husband does a little dance. The Twin Towers loom in the background. Gabriel narrates from the vantage point of a decade or so in his own future, as his past self clowns in front of the camera like any other tourist would do, pulling faces and larking about. "I would have been very happy to continued in London and to have worked occasionally in Europe and England and Ireland. But I did Siesta in Spain and I came to New York, to see Ellen."

There follows some more home movie, this time of Ellen and Gabriel goofing around at a table in a pavement cafe together. The humour in their relationship is very, very apparent. As is the physical attraction. I have never, ever seen Gabriel act like this, in any of his films that I have seen so far. It's like I have crossed a sort of Brooklyn Bridge of my own, and discovered a Gabriel Byrne that I always thougt existed, but which I could never quite find.

This is one part of Gabriel's story that I have a problem in understanding. How did it all fall apart? Unusually, the question remains unanswered. "She'd just done a picture called The Big Easy, which was about a year after we met. It became a big hit. And then she did Sea Of Love with Al Pacino and she became really well known and then Miller's Crossing came out for me and for a moment we became the couple who people said, 'Wow! they're one of those acting couples!' Truth is, we hardly ever talked about acting at all." Gabriel says quietly. "I suppose she found me exotic. I found her exotic." He has a very small hint of a naughty grin on his handsome face. (Members of my family have to take me to the dinner table in a bucket after seeing that.)


Cut to footage of their middle-of-the-night wedding in Las Vegas. "This is it!" he's saying. "Oh no, oh no!" she's wailing. "We got married in Las Vegas at three o'clock in the morning," says present-day Gabriel. They both look pretty damned good, considering. "I think in the same chapel that Elvis got married in. It was all kind of exciting and it felt like it wasn't conventional, which ist wasn't. There was a part of me that still kind of longed for ..." Gabriel looks a tad embarrassed at the admission he seems about to make, that he wanted a traditional wedding with all the trimmings, and he veers off sightly. "I knew I was a long way from the banns being read from the pulpit on a Saturday morning, and a long way from getting married at St Stephen's Green church. But it felt right at the time."

"Ellen, do you take Gabriel as your wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward- "


" - for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do you part?" Much giggling from Ellen, who had jumped her cue.

"I do."

"You may now kiss the bride." Gabriel needs no further invitation.

A while later. Jack is born. There he is - very, very new to the world indeed - in his father's arms. "He has the hiccoughs," explains Gabriel. "Too much whiskey. Oh yeah, whaddya want now? Oh, you're a bit cold." Gabriel covers his son gently with the blanket he is wrapped up in. Jack looks distinctly unimpressed. A year later: Jack in the bath. (I bet the young man is even now cursing his parents for allowing this footage out onto the world's stage, just when he is trying to impress young women. In the bath tub, for christ's sake. It's the kind of thing I use as blackmail with my own children. "You'd better behave or else I'll show all your friends these pictures of you in the bath!") It is Jack's first birthday. I guess he's having his evening bath. Ellen is talking to him. "Oh Jack-y boy," she says sentimentally. "It's the end of the day on the day of your first birthday..." and she turns to look at the camera, and you know it must be Gabriel holding it from the expression she gives him, because that expression is one that can only be given between people who are parents together.

More footage. In a restaurant. Gabriel is bouncing Jack, who is now four or five, on his knee, and is singing to him. I tell you, the man CAN SING. I know about these things. But he collapses in giggles and very nearly throws his son onto the floor. He follows him down and the camera concentrates instead on the serious gaze of a beautiful little girl. For Romy has by now also arrived on the scene. She takes the opportunity, seeing her father and brother distracted, to steal her brother's Happy Meal box.

Two or three years later. Gabriel, behind the camera, is teaching her to sing, 'She is handsome/ she is pretty/ she is the belle/ of Dublin City' whilst she buckles up her shoes. "I'm dressed!" she shouts proudly, and her father cheers gallantly. Here's present day Gabriel again, seemingly unconcerned by - or more possibly obivious to - the notoriety his showing his home movies of his kids will bring him, now they are both teenagers. "I had also at that time bought a house in Ireland. So we moved between New York and Ireland because I was determined that I was not going to lose contact with Ireland. And she (Ellen Barkin) fell in love with the country. My kids early years were spent going to and from Ireland."

Some footage, which I think is being shot by Ellen Barkin, of Gabriel working on Into The West. The beach scene from near the end of the film. The director is feeling rather fragile, and shoos Ellen away. Gabriel pulls a secret 'shock/horror!' face at her, his partner in crime. It looks extremely cold, especially when Gabriel is being sprayed with water from a contraption more normally seen to be used to douse roses with bug-spray in your garden. There's some footage of Ellen and Gabriel being interviewed for a kind of behind-the-scenes documentary about Into The West and again, the attraction between them is palpable.

Some pantomime now. Mrs. Ó Broin, a little nervous in her first speaking part on international film, opens the front door to her son's home and says her line. "Oh! They're expecting you! Come in! Madam?" And the camera sees Mrs. Byrne, International Sex Symbol and Movie Star, cigarette dangling sluttishly from her over-rouged lips, a pink bathrobe with a fox fur draped over her shoulders. "Oh great, she says. "I was just taking him his breakfast, so why don't you come with me?" and she expertly negotiates the baby gate on the stairs, taking a tray piled with an assortment of unlikely looking articles up to HIM.

Gabriel's in the bed, hidden behind an issue of Hot Press with Bryan Adams on the front cover. The entire bed is shaking convulsively. "Here's your breakfast," says his wife, cigarette jiggling madly between her lips as she, too, begins to crease up with laughter. "What're you laughin' at?" But Gabriel is incapacitated by giggles. I watch in astonishment. This footage is SO private, it is SO personal; it shows us an utterly unseen side of the man. I feel grubby, voyeuristic. But I find that I, too, am giggling. Like yawning, uncontrolled mirth is highly contagious. You hear Gabriel's voice from the behind-the-scenes Into The West film again. Throughout the whole of Stories From Home he seems to be running to keep up with himself, finding himself in three different places at once. He says something complimentary about Ellen. You can hear he has a stinking cold, and you wonder if the beverage he's supping from the china mug is actually a Lemsip. Ellen is not taken in by his display of sincerity. Gabriel looks at her for confirmation and the two of them burst out laughing at the overt seriousness of what he has just said. "That was the biggest load of bullshit I've ever heard!" she remarks fondly.

We're somewhere else now. It's raining, an echo of the 'wet' scenes at the end of Into The West that we have just seen. Gabriel is walking. He has a big newspaper tucked under his arms and, even though it is raining, he has no umbrella or even a hat. He stops. He is being distracted, he is being seduced. His attention turns away from the camera and onto the brightly lit window of a bookshop. You can almost hear him making noises like Homer Simpson does when looking at a box of fresh doughnuts.

"I don't think that actors have the same ability to examine the nature of the human behaviour that - say - a writer has or a psychologist has, or an artist. But what they do have is the power to interpret that. In acting, or in art, you try to approach a kind of truth that's free of all social manners and restraints and expectations. To reach somewhere that's really pure. Because it is so difficult to achieve that in real life. I think that maybe part of the fascination that people have with actors is that we're fascinated by the human ability to transform ourselves into other creatures. We're fascinated by that at some primitive level. How do you do that? How do you actually become somebody else?"

Now, he's really onto something here. Throughout the whole of human history, events have been influenced by people pretending to be other people. It is the way in which our society functions, it is how we interact and relate to other people. Religion, Politics, Entertainment, Trade and Commerce - all of human activity is governed by the need to impress yourself and your ideas upon other people. And how do you do this? By pretending to be someone - or some thing - else. My mind is reeling now. I begin to feel that if I cannot just sit down and TALK to Gabriel Byrne face-to-face about all these things spinning in my head that his talk have galvanised, then I will simply burst. Perhaps that is why I am sitting here transcribing his film virtually word-for-word, so that other people can at least READ what the man has to say and then, maybe, discuss it with me instead.

A clip from Miller's Crossing plays. Tom is about to kill Verna's brother, for real this time. "The character of Tom in Miller's Crossing was a watcher. You had to understand - or at least you had to be seduced into thinking that you knew what was going on in Tom's head. The reason he's able to kill with such impunity, and have no conscience, is because it's debatable whether he actually has any empathy. For anybody."

In total contrast, the scene from Jindabyne where Stewart first comes across the body in the river. Stewart's horror and anguish, and his utter fear, are palpable. "Whereas in Jindabyne, the character who I play there is a man caught up in a moral conflict, who has witnessed an act of violence. Awful violence." The scene between Stewart and Clare at the truck stop, where they fight, plays out. "For Ray Lawrence, his idea as a director was .. 'Did you get that? Did, did .. did you sat that line? OK. I'm after a mood here, I'm after a moment. I'm not after precise dialogue.' "

This reminds me of what Gabriel was saying earlier about his vain attempts to capture a piece of 'now' in his diaries. "And so the dialogue was very loose and sometimes unscripted." Back to Miller's Crossing. "The Coen Brothers on the other hand - their use of language - was very powerful on Miller's Crossing. They had written the screen-play in the same way that maybe a poet constructs a poem. Where each word has its place and each sentence has a rhythm. They were mimicking, I suppose, the style of Chandler, with the screenwriting style of those gangster pictures of the thirties and forties. Everything had a rhythm with it. So you couldn't really interfere with the rhythm by ad-libbing in anyway. So if that happened, they immediately called 'Cut!'. They'd say, 'There's no "the" there. It's "a". Not "the". ' "

Miller's Crossing footage: Marcia Gay Harden throws a spectacular stage punch, and Gabriel stumbles backwards into a trolley full of glasses. "I suppose you think you've raised hell!" she says caustically, sashaying past him. Byrne steadies himself on the upholstery of the ladies powder room. "Sister," he says. "When I've raised hell, you'll know it."

Which is foreshadowing.

For scenes from a much darker theme in Gabriel's life.