A Voyage Around Gabriel Byrne - Part IV

The Toronto International Film Festival 2007, September 6-15th. Gabriel is there to help promote Autumn Hearts. And this is where we really get to see the least pleasant - at least for a man like him - aspects of his job.


Gabriel is on an overstuffed couch, being interviewed by a nice, if rather nervous, young woman. It's "Entertainment Tonight", I think.

"How are you feeling about everything? How is it to be a Tiffer? Do you enjoy coming to festivals?"

A beat. Gabriel takes a moment to decide whether or not he has heard her right. It's another one of those "Dwarf Hitter" moments. Finally he says, "A what?" She explains what "Tiff" is shorthand for. My heart goes out to Gabriel. We leave him trying to figure out which of the three questions to tackle first.

Cut to shadowy footage on a playback monitor of him giving another interview. He's rubbing his forehead repeatedly, looking uncomfortable. Then cut again - this sequence makes it seem like he is just spending the entire day being shunted from pillar to post (sorry for the mixed metaphors), from one interview to another. In this one he is in a hotel room. The woman who is interviewing him sort of sniggers, and then puts her tape recorder on Gabriel's knee without, it appears, asking him.


To a European, that appears like a terrible invasion of personal space, though of course things may well be very different in the United States or Canada. We subsequently see the same woman, at the end of her interview with Gabriel, utterly convulsed with laughter. She is positively guffawing. Gabriel's expression is odd - perhaps he is pretending to look confused and potentially offended - "What? What? Whaddid I say?" at the woman's mirth - he's certainly not joining in. He looks quite taken aback. What you could call a classic "What the f***?" moment.

"I hate things like red carpets, and things like that," says Gabriel somberly, over footage of Max Von Sydow and his wife arriving for the premiere of Autumn Hearts. "It makes me very uncomfortable. The day of those things I normally wake up with this feeling of, Oh God, no ... But I have to do this thing tonight."


We see Gabriel leaving his hotel and being ushered into a limousine. He's checking last-minute details, and fiddling very noticeably with his collar. Then we see him getting out of the car, at the same red carpet as Max Von Sydow. The very moment he steps out of the car, what seems like a hundred different voices are cheering and, above all, calling his name. Or, worse, they're calling "GABE! GABE!"


Like the tape recorder on the knee, or the unexplained hilarity from the interviewer, it all seems so rude to me. Perhaps I have lived in Europe for too long. I guess Gabriel Byrne is probably used to all this now. Indeed, you see him doing his thing - posing for pictures, shaking hands, writing his autograph, smiling, nodding, being very pleasant. People's adoring and grateful expressions remind me of why he does this. And in point of fact I get the impression that it is not the meeting regular people which he dislikes - it is the fake interviewing process.

"It's really stage-managed," he says. It's probably the nearest he gets to sounding overtly cynical in the entire film. "All the way down. You'll sometimes notice celebrities hanging behind, while one celebrity finishes an interview. The publicist has said, 'OK - Hold back! Hold back! ... ... ... OK - GO!' " Gabriel pats his knee for emphasis. It sounds almost like he's being sent over the top of the trenches in World War One. He mimes a microphone being thrust unceremoniously into his face. It's like a bayonet thrust. " 'So how do YOU feel about being here tonight?' "


We see Gabriel being interviewed in this manner. The woman asks him, "What is your greatest fear?"

Gabriel looks thoroughly nonplussed. He's such a very honest, congruent man, that even now he evidently finds it difficult to answer a direct question with some brief falsification that he has cooked up for the purpose. The whole shebang is so false, so contrived and, frankly, such a waste of time that could be better spent watching a film, reading a book or chatting to someone interesting about something real. Or having a prostate examination.

A woman with a microphone says to him, "Can you say something in Russian?"

Gabriel carries on mimicking some of the inane and pointless questions that have been fired at him over the years. "'If you've got three wishes, what would you wish for?' And of course, as soon as you start to answer them seriously, they're getting word in their ear saying, 'Move him on, move him on. Too serious. Not getting funny enough. Move him on."

Ah now, there's the key. They all think he's too serious. Too slow. But Irish humour is not about brevity. It's about contrast, and you have to set the scene first. If Gabriel Byrne were to tell you a joke, it would last a good ten minutes, and you would NEVER forget it. But what he is being asked to do on these occasions is simply not what he's good at.


"Because as soon as you walk through the door, there's somebody bigger and more famous behind you."

I suddenly think I know why Gabriel agreed to make this film. It was an opportunity for him to finally speak truthfully and at length about himself and about what makes him tick. To an audience who genuinely cares. It is his reward to himself, back-payment for a hundred and one red carpet rat-run nightmares that he has had to endure since Miller's Crossing came out.

"That happens to everybody eventually. There will always be somebody bigger and more famous and more crowd-worthy." We see Susan Sarandon, Gabriel's old friend, arriving. "I remember once having the misfortune to be stuck behind Robin Williams," he says.


Gabriel moves his lips as if trying valiantly to withhold something facetious and inhales deeply through his nose. His eyes are laughing, if you can imagine that. I myself have no problem imagining why a man like Robin Williams would irritate a man like Gabriel Byrne. Like Gabriel, Robin Williams is a highly intelligent man, but he seems to cover that up with a display verging on the insane so often. Gabriel, poor bastard, can't do that. "I was between John Travolta and Robin Williams. So, Robin Williams wouldn't shut up. He was cracking jokes and doing accents and what and they were saying to me, 'Hold back ... hold back ...' and then John Travolta would appear behind me so a big cheer would go up for John Travolta. And you can see it in their eyes, you know. They're going, 'Oh my GOD, there's John Travolta! Whaddami asking THIS guy about his three wishes for?! Get him outta here!', you know. Because I made the mistake in the beginning .. they'd say 'What's the most frightening thing that's ever happened to you?' For example. And I say, 'Well - actually ...' and I'd start telling them some story about when I was in Kildare coming home with my father and seeing this red-haired woman up the road and by the time you'd be half way through it they'd be saying 'GET. HIM. OUT!' You could almost see that in their faces.


I'm right, you know. It is rudeness. It's disrespectful and it's rude, and there isn't a damn thing you can do about it.

Gabriel talks about fame.

"To me it's like living in a village. If you live in a village, a small little village, then everybody knows you. And everybody knows everything about you. Fame is a small village. Or being well-known, I should say. I don't even know what 'Fame' is. I mean, is fame like the Beatles or General de Gaulle or something? It's a small village. And all the comforts that a small village provides are also the things that you need to flee every so often. Familiarity and acknowledgement and a feeling of belonging, to a certain extent. A feeling that people know your private life, even though - ostensibly - they leave you alone. But they do know the facts of your life. That happens in any village."


We see Gabriel and Susan Sarandon together, posing for photographers and film cameras. Gabriel has his arm around Sarandon's shoulders in a gesture that I can only describe as protective and indeed from the vantage point of the documentary film maker's camera, you can see his fingers squeezing and releasing her arm over and over again in a comforting sort of way. Who is being comforted? Perhaps she hates red carpets as well. He says something to her that makes them both smile and laugh. Thank god for old friends, eh?


"It's a kind of a strange dance that's played between the person who is recognised, and the person who recognises. It's a very peculiar place to be in. I remember going to see my mother in hospital one day. And my mother never had any problem about drawing attention. To me. She'd say, 'Come in girls!' she'd say to the nurses. 'Come in and say hello to him sure, he won't bite the head off ya!' And I'd say, 'Look, they're going about their business.' And she's say, 'Who's paying any attention to ye anyway?' So I said, 'I'd .. I'd prefer it if they didn't ..' and she'd say, 'C'mon in, girls, c'mon in -' and so they'd come in, and we'd say hello and all the rest."


Gabriel sighs deeply, resigned. Somehow he has managed to completely miss the fact that his mother was probably trying to set him up with a nice young Irish lass. Yes, he has totally missed that point. I giggle. "I always felt, at times like that, really really uncomfortable with the notion of what people expected of me, and who I actually am."

Abruptly, we are back in the past. It is the Sex Symbol Breakfast scene between him and Ellen. Ellen is still convulsed with laughter but has now joined her husband on the bed. He has finally emerged from behind his newspaper.

"You pretend to be me," he says through his laughing. "And I'll be you."

Without any preamble or warning of any kind Ellen Barkin launches wholeheartedly into an impression of Gabriel that I can hardly watch because it makes me laugh and I can't do that at the moment because I have the flu. I have a little coughing fit in the bathroom and come back. God, it hurts to be a Gabriel Byrne fan sometimes.


"For fook's sake! Jaysus! For Jaysus' FOOKING SAKES! You call this a fooking breakfast for fucking Jaysus' sakes. JAAAAAAAAYSUS."

Gabriel is also rendered helpless with giggles. He finally manages to hush his wife up a bit. And now it's his turn. Ellen says, being Gabriel, snapping her fingers, "C'mon Ellen, let's get ready. C'mon."

Gabriel, in his best New Joisey Accent: "Whaddami, Speeeedy Gonzales?" He gives a petulant little flick of his head. Ellen tries not to fall off the bed. She says, "What time is it, Ellen?"

"Whaddami, I clock?"


Gabriel's voice-over.

"It's a very painful thing to look at that footage."

The sudden contrast between the hilarity of his goofing around with Ellen, and the sombre note he has now, makes the laugh die in my throat. I am caught entirely off guard. I can feel tears welling up in my eyes. It's like I said before: I don't get this part of his life. Maybe he doesn't, either. "To see the obvious attraction that there was. Between us. And ..."


There's a pause. His voice. I don't know how to describe it. Wistful. Terribly sad. "We drifted apart."

Cut to the here and now. Gabriel's face is contorted for a moment. He is a man looking at something painful. "I can't, I can't really think of any blame .."

Another deep breath, another slightly defiant tilt of his chin. His voice is uncertain, halting. "Though I'm sure that .. I have .. obviously, I have my faults, and I don't know that I'm a terribly easy person to live with - "

(This is in direct contrast to what Ellen Barkin said about him sixteen years ago in GQ Magazine, where she said that he was "Like, the world's least difficult person." But that was then.)

"In the beginning of a relationship, communication - the desire to know the other person and the desire to allow yourself to be known is part of the excitement of the beginning to a relationship. But I think that in the end we lost touch with each other."


There's some footage of Gabriel and Ellen in the back of a car. She is snuggled up to him, giving him a little kiss on the cheek, laughing at him as he tells a tall-looking tale. She looks to the camera suddenly as he, oblivious, carries on with his epic tale. She mouths silently, "I love him!"

"And although we parted amicably and remain - " a pause while he selects the right word. "Friends, the really difficult part is the aftermath."

Footage of Romy and Jack playing in the back yard of a house. "Because we had two children together."

Gabriel is making the film. But Jack comes up to him and says, "Dad, I wanna direct!"

"Who do you want to direct?

"You! And Romy."

"And what do you want to make us do?"

"I don't know!"

Gabriel again. "It took me longer to get used to the idea of being a father. What it meant to be a father. What my role as a father was."

I'm nodding at the screen again. Hey, Gabriel - women can feel that way too, you know.

"I think there's a bit about it - uh, you can cut this out if you want - "

The camera pulls back unexpectedly, adjusts its focus. Gabriel slips his reading glasses back on and turns to another part of his book. You can tell he's very proud of having written that book. "It's just another bit about when he was born - "


Gabriel reads. "The sounds of a hospital at night. Only I am awake. Her arm hangs over the side of the bed like a broken doll. Only the sound of their breathing. My wife, and child. Moonlight slides through the window. My finger in his tiny hand. This is a moment I will never forget. The two of them asleep and me awake here remembering a day with my father, in Kildare. Into the summer's morning we walk by Fairywood. A stream gurgles among the rushes at the roadside. My hand in his. He whistles. I know that song. Among trees, only the faintest whispering of winds."

Gabriel is editing his text as he speaks; I notice this later when I look this part of the book up. Changing words, shortening sentences. Will he never be satisfied, I wonder? Is he his own worst critic?


"We stand still for a moment. It seems as if all my life was a beautiful still morning in summer, at that moment. My wife stirs in her sleep. Now she wakes. 'What are you doing?' she asks. 'Just thinking.' 'About what?' 'Remembering,' I said. 'Pictures in my head.' She comes and stands before the cradle of our sleeping boy. 'OUR child,' she says. And we both stand there for a long time, taking in the wonder and the mystery and the beauty of this moment. And I think about my father, and me, and my son, and it all seems to make sense for a moment."


"Divorce and separation, and all the things that came with that ... made me question my link in the chain again. What does it mean to be A Good Father? Have you failed because you're separated or divorced? I don't believe that now, but there was a time when I did. I don't believe that any more. I believe that just because we are divorced or separated, doesn't mean that my love for them is any less."

Gabriel has a very determined look upon his face at this moment.


"They're teenagers now. You go through three stages of being a parent. You're cool, then you're a fool, and then if you're lucky enough, you get to be cool again." He laughs. "So, I'm kind of at the Fool stage at the moment. I said to my daughter one day, I said, 'You know, I was just thinking - how come you know EVERYTHING?' And she said, 'You know dad, I was just thinking the same thing about you. But I was thinking, how come you know nothing?' She's a typical teenager. My son's a typical eighteen year old teenager. My son is passionate about music and is a beautiful kid; shy, kind. My daughter is as smart as a whip and can take on anybody. I'm very close to both of them."


We see traffic at night. For once, the camera stays still, letting the word go by for a spell. I begin to hear faint strains of music. It sounds like music playing out of a radio or a cassette player in a car or something. Gradually I recognise it as being 'All In The Game', by Tommy Edwards.

I have this on my MP3 player, but find it hard to listen to now.

We are suddenly back in California, sitting shotgun with Gabriel driving his car towards the Beverly Hills Hotel. For the last seventy-five minutes we have been passengers in his life. He's been showing us the sights, pointing out who lives where. On the car goes. The screen fades to black, the credits roll. The music keeps playing.

I am wondering why it is I am so affected by this film, and perhaps a lot of it has to do with the ending. The film finishes up by showing us who Gabriel Byrne really is. It doesn't matter who he was - plumber, chef, teacher, encyclopedia salesman. It doesn't mean anything if he is married or divorced or orphaned or engaged or even living in a remote monastic community of Buddhist ascetics in the Tibetan Himalaya. It's irrelevant, who you think he is: Cowboy, Aristocrat, Baker, Priest, Journalist, Devil, Plumber, Tommy, Immigration Officer, Concentration Camp Survivor. He can wear a suit of armour, a grease-stained boiler suit, Armani overcoats, puttees or indeed he can wear nothing at all. It's all irrelevant. He can grow his hair, or cut it short, or shave it all off; he can sport sideburns or a handlebar moustache. Pay no heed if he rides a push-bike or a stallion, or is sat in the back of a limousine. None of these things tell us who Gabriel is.

Likewise, it doesn't matter what he now goes on to become, as he reaches the age of sixty. Poet, philosopher, actor, director, producer, writer, photographer, statesman, political activist, humanitarian and philanthropist. He could go on to be the first Irish man on Mars, and it wouldn't matter.

When all is said and done, the one thing about Gabriel Byrne that is most important, that defines him above all else, is that he is a father.