A Voyage Around Gabriel Byrne Part III

Now we're on Broadway. The noise is incredible, the movement, the colour, the lights. Cars, people, neon. But Gabriel is in his little sanctuary. Long-sighted, he is bespectacled. Doing what he loves to do best. He's reading.


He's reading from a copy of "Moon for the Misbegotten." I don't think it is the edition that has his photograph on the front of it. The piece he reads is about how the character, James Tyrone, saw alcohol.


"James Tyrone is an immensely sympathetic character. Because he is fighting against his inner daemons. In this case, his love for alcohol and his love for the bottle." I notice Gabriel's gaze is cast down. He doesn't look at the camera or the director, as he has previously. "O'Neill is such an honest playwright that at the end of the play, I think one of the saddest and most truthful moments is when Josie realises that her love is not enough to stop James Tyrone from killing himself." The eye contact thing is getting to me. Look up, Gabriel. Look UP. He does. Sort of. "Although we all love to believe that love is almighty and cures all ills, and that it is the answer to all our problems, the truth about it is that love cannot save another person."


There's a long pause. The camera shifts its position slightly, pulls back from Gabriel, who is lost somewhere in his own reveries. Sunlight streams through the open window behind, but there is a blackness to this part of the movie that is nothing to do with environmental conditions, the seasons, the trees, the sunshine. Because depression pays no heed to those things.


"I believe that every character is the actor, and that every actor is the character. Which is why Hamlet is kind of like a perfect play. Because it is every man. No matter who plays Hamlet, IS Hamlet. James Tyrone isn't a character who depends on whether you can act well or not. The character depends upon how willing you are to explore what is, I think, at the crux of acting. It's not about being somebody else. It's about allowing other people to see who YOU are." Perhaps playing the role of James Tyrone was part autobiography, part confessional for Gabriel Byrne. "There's a scene in this play where the character of James Tyrone does a very long monologue and has to break down in tears at the end of it. I did that eight times a week for five months. And I found things within myself that each night would produce the effect of breaking down. They were events that were drawn from my own life, you know?"


He's walking again. It's night time, in New York, in the rain. I can feel my mind trying to escape, to protect itself, from what he is talking about. What I know he is about to talk about. "I don't think it's possible to enjoy every minute of your life. The notion that you have to be in this kind of euphoric state of contentment is misleading. It's kind of delusional to think that you can live like that. The real challenge of life is living with the grey days. You can somehow sometimes triumph over the bad days and the adversity of it and the good days are pretty easy to manage. It's the indifferent, in-between days that test your mettle. At least mine, anyway." Gabriel pulls up his collar and folds it around himself against the cold. He's coping. He has a strategy. He knows to look after himself.


"I was a periodic drinker. I could go off it for two three weeks at a time. But ... I could go to a hotel room, check into a hotel and just close the door and be there for, like, four or five days." He pauses to allow the significance of this to sink in. His head tilts in a manner that suggests he feels defensive. He must be used to people being judgmental, surely? Perhaps it is the pain of his own self-judgement that he is still feeling. "With the curtains closed. And the phone off the hook."


An extraordinary thing happens. The screen cuts to black for a second. This is not a fault in my copy of the film, I am certain. This was a deliberate decision by the film makers to illustrate that there was a small pause in the filming where nothing else could be added, or spliced in; nothing was there to be used as a filler. No more shots of nocturnal New York, or Gabriel mooching idly in pleasant parks and cafes. Because of the seriousness of the subject matter, nothing could be allowed to interrupt the way this part of the film was presented. So, if you had a few moments where Gabriel needed the camera switched off, then so be it. But Gabriel wouldn't hide that fact. So. The screen goes black. And when the camera comes on again, Gabriel looks ... No. I don't want to describe that look. "I can remember once in London ... drinking ... it sounds gross and reprehensible in recall but actually at the time you can logic away anything ... I was vomiting and drinking at the same time. So that alcohol was being regurgitated through my throat as I was forcing more alcohol down my throat." I still am unable to describe his expressions. He takes a breath to speak some more but stops. Swallows. The action cuts to him walking again. Going to a coffee shop. I allow myself a smile, because I know his fondness for coffee shops. The film makers are allowing me a reprieve. I suspect that making himself go out and be with other people like this is part of Gabriel's survival strategy. "And then one day I woke up .. quite a few years ago ... and I just thought, OK. I'm going to have to stop. And I checked into a hospital. And checking into that hospital was probably the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. Checking into a hospital and having to come downstairs, in front of so many strangers - talk about the irony of going into a room and NOT wanting to be the focus of attention - I was the focus of attention when I walked down the stairs and all those people looked up and said, 'Fuck is he doing here?' Or at least that's what I thought they were saying. I think the were saying that. That's the thing about being a well-known actor; when you think you're being paranoid, and people are talking about you, they probably are." He smiles broadly and laughs at himself, taking a well-earned hit from a take-out coffee cup. "Anyway. they were talking about me. And they were saying, 'What's he doing here?' "


"Came out the other end. Not cured. But I have never drank since. The thought of being back in that place again fills me with dread. I don't miss drinking now at all. I think it was the best thing that I ever did for myself. But it [drinking] did lead me to a place where, had I not pulled back, could have resulted in my pretty early death. And I'm not exaggerating about that." More coffee. I stop the film and go out, take the dogs for a long walk, make myself a cup of tea. I wonder for a moment about Gabriel's use of the word 'hospital'. Rather than, say, a celebrity 'clinic'. It almost sounds as if he chose a public place to take himself to at random; not, for example, seeking out a lavish private establishment like Betty Ford or The Priory.

Maybe Gabriel recognsied that the problem was not to do with his celebrity, but to do with something deeper within him. Some seed that had been sown much earlier in his life, when he was just a regular guy walking the streets of Dublin, wondering what the hell it was all about. So he chose to return to an eariler version of himself, and become that regular guy again until he was well enough to go back out into the rest of his life.

We see Gabriel at a reception or a party of some kind. He is in a conversation with some other men who I feel I should be able to recognise, but I can hardly look at them. I can only see Gabriel, and only hear what he is saying. He plays compulsively with his open collar, as if he were cold, or wondering what he had done with his tie. Or perhaps he is nervous. He says,

"There are times when I go to parties and I feel uncomfortable. There are times when I wish I could just take the edge off, and then I could kind of be .. who I am. Like the people who say, 'Oh yeah he's very relaxed!' Or whatever. It's very hard to be in those situations. But I'm in them all the time, constantly. One of the things I have learned is that it doesn't really matter what people think of you. And usually people are so busy thinking about themselves, they're not really thinking about you anyway."

I don't think that would be the case if I were at a social function attended by Gabriel Byrne, but there you go.


We see footage of Gabriel receiving an honorary degree at a University. It's probably either at Trinity College, Dublin, or the National University of Ireland in Galway. People are milling around him, talking to him. He listens patiently and smiles. He looks attentive, relaxed, confident and self-assured. Like most people who suffer with his type of depression, you wouldn't be able to guess it had nearly killed him once.

"And so - it's OK! Nobody knows if I am really tense in my head or not. Most people would never know that. They actually think that I am a very relaxed, gregarious, sociable person - which I am." We see Gabriel leaving a party. It looks like early morning - the restaurant hostess is standing outside bidding farewell to her guests, and appears to be wearing a tablecloth as a makeshift coat. Gabriel finally does up his collar. "But that doesn't mean I am not still afraid inside. Afraid of people's disapproval or whatever. Drink took that away."


Gabriel pauses to allow this to sink in. He's really a great storyteller, even in the middle of THIS. "I didn't care whether people approved of me," he says insouciantly, with that arrogant narrowing of his eyes. "I didn't care whether I had anything interesting to say or not because when you're fueled with alcohol, you think everything you're saying is interesting anyway!" He pauses again and I can see a tiny smile start to creep around the lower half of his face. "But there's nothing more boring than listening to someone who's fulla drink, thinking they're interesting .." He can't contain his ironic laugh any longer.


I love this guy to bits.

Cut to Gabriel - oh, you can guess now, can't you? He's either 'Out Walking' or 'Sitting in Coffee Shop.' It's the latter. He's nursing a large bright red mug of something. It looks exactly like what a big strong cup of tea would be served in, in cafes and restaurants all over Britain and Ireland.


"I still have to be very careful with depression," he says in voice-over. "Depression is a major part of ... you know. My Battle. Depression would lead me to drinks, to get out of the depression, which would cause an even bigger depression. I mean, it was just one vicious cycle. When you are crippled like that, you cannot give. You have nothing left to give to the people who are closest to you. Trying to pretend to give, is a painful place to be. Trying not to let other people know that all you really want to do is lie in a corner, curled up in a ball, and want nothing to do with anybody. And yet your kids are saying, 'Dad! Dad! Let's go play on the swing!', or your girlfriend is saying, 'Come on! We've got to go to this thing tonight!' In other words, life is happening all around you. Life. And .. you, you can't partake in it. That makes you feel ... that makes you feel very ashamed."

"It's a funny thing. It's like a storm; a storm that comes into your brain and it rages in there for days or for weeks and then you wake up one morning and suddenly - it's gone. There's that tremendous sense of relief. You cannot imagine why you felt like you felt for the last two or three days. Or a week. Whatever."

This part of the film affects me very personally. I find myself wondering when it was exactly that I explained to Gabriel - using those very words, no less - how it felt for me to suffer from depression.

"You're saying, my God .. now I feel kind of normal. But I feel really weird trying to rejoin the human race again."


As if to demonstrate this point, we see Gabriel joining in one of those cool open-air chess games that you see taking place in parks in New York. He sits there with a whole group of what in England we would call "likely-looking lads." Gabriel is in faded blue jeans and a big black overcoat. I reflect that he could turn up wearing a potato sack, wooden clogs and a sombrero, and still look fantastic.


His opponent is a real jack-the-lad. Sorry, my American/English translation service is broken. He has his hands on a pile of money on the chess-table between them. Gabriel says, "Are you sure you wanna risk this?"

There is only a tiny, tiny hint of humour in his voice. He's perhaps back in the character he played in "Shade." A grin seeps over my face and I lean closer to the screen.

"What," says the guy. "A fifty? You're right! Let's do a hundred!"

"No, no!" says Gabriel hurriedly. "I haven't got fifty." He fumbles in his wallet and laughter erupts as his poker face is thoroughly blown out of the water. Gabriel regains his composure and waves a wad of money around. "This is just academic, really," he says seriously. "Because I just want to show you how good I actually am."

"Oh, you are?"

Gabriel nods. "Because I'm an Irish Chess Master."

"Are you really?"

"Yup." As if to underline the point, Gabriel puts his money down on the table.


"A'right c'mon, I'll bust you up," says his opponent gamely. "Are you ready?"

"Off you go, off you go!"

It's one of those timed chess games. The two men play furiously, moving pieces, stabbing at the clock. "Hit the clock! Hit the clock! Don't hit the clock - I got you anyway! Huh - at least he knows how to move the pieces!"

Gabriel concentrates. But his grin is getting wider, and wider, and wider -

"Check!" says his opponent.

"OK" says Gabriel, slowing down.

"'Cause you're mine! Oh - oh - NOW I'm gonna make it official!" Check Mate. Gabriel's opponent wipes the floor with him. Figuratively speaking.

"Did you take me in sixteen?" asks Gabriel seriously. The score is confirmed. Sixteen seconds to check mate. Gabriel puts his head in his hands in despair. But then he looks up and springs his carefully laid trap. "You know what - I have to say that, just because you beat me in sixteen seconds, I wouldn't take it as a major [triumph] ... because I have never played the game before!"

The Likely Lads erupt in laughter, falling off their benches and their tables. Gabriel joins in with them. It's beautiful. This scene is so perfect, because it lifts me out of wherever I had been threatening to go to in the scenes immediately before it. Gabriel Byrne, in a mere sixteen seconds, and at the cost of about five bucks, shows how you help yourself to defeat depression. He shakes the man's hand. "Take care of yourself, man," he says.

One of the Likely Lads buttonholes Gabriel. He is a gentle soul, eloquent, bespectacled, sincere. He says to Gabriel: "I think you, sir, are at your very best when you play roles that have the supernatural - an air of mystery and intrigue. When you play these roles you play them with a degree of temperance that is uncanny."

Unusually, Gabriel seems lost for words. He finally says quietly, "That's a high compliment. Thank you."

Gabriel leaves the Likely Lads resetting the chess board and eyeing up their next victim.