Gabriel Byrne, Not Brooding Over His Image
Sunday, May 7, 2006
He isn't brooding, exactly.
But Gabriel Byrne does look a little tired, so he is recharging with a cup of tea while chatting about his new film, "Wah-Wah," which he recently presented at Filmfest DC (it opens in theaters on Friday). The actor's dreamy blue eyes, set off by gray-flecked black hair, might stray occasionally into the contemplative middle distance. He's reflective, yes -- quiet, even shy, speaking almost in a whisper until he unexpectedly bursts into laughter at some passing observation. But no, not brooding.
And yet "brooding" seems to be what Byrne, who will turn 56 this week, is stuck with. Log on to sundry Internet movie sites and that's the adjective most likely to appear next to his name, in between "handsome" and "Irishman." His most famous film roles, in "Miller's Crossing," "The Usual Suspects" and a handful of supernatural thrillers, most notably "Stigmata," have called on him to be a moodily menacing presence. And his recent forays on the Broadway stage in two Eugene O'Neill plays, "A Moon for the Misbegotten" and "A Touch of the Poet," both have been well-served by the mesmerizing Byrnean glower.
And now comes "Wah-Wah," an atmospheric, scrupulously observed period drama about a boy's coming of age in colonial Swaziland in the 1960s, in which Byrne plays Harry Compton, a British education minister whose seductiveness and expat brio are juxtaposed with a violent, alcoholic dark side.
"Harry is, I think, a contradictory, tortured, unhappy man," Byrne says of his character, who is based on the real-life father of "Wah-Wah" writer-director Richard E. Grant. "Jamie Tyrone in 'Moon for the Misbegotten' is a man who's dying. And in 'Touch of the Poet,' [Con Melody] is another man who's tortured, conflicted, unhappy, but also has a vulnerable and sensitive and charming side. I like the contradictions. Because we're all contradictory."
It's true that in "Wah-Wah," Byrne has a chance to chew some scenery as a very mean drunk; in one scene, Harry even tries to kill his own son (an episode based on an actual event). But the overwhelming image of Harry is one of a man at the mercy of both a devastating disease and a wife -- icily played by Miranda Richardson -- who abandons him and their son at a pivotal moment. The audience may be appalled at Harry's behavior, but they never stop rooting for him. (The film's title comes from his second wife, Ruby, played by Emily Watson, who as an American calls colonial Brit-speak -- "toodle-pip," "hubbly jubbly" -- so much "wah-wah.")
"He was so determined not to do an impersonation of somebody he'd never met," Grant says of Byrne. "He didn't want to see photos or anything; he just wanted to bring his own experience and ideas as to how to play the part. And the portrayal of him ended up being so uncannily like my father, I feel indebted to Gabriel for doing that with such bravery and honesty and uncompromising conviction. His main concern was that the character would be too unsympathetic, and I was always at pains to tell him that he is such a naturally charming, empathetic, attractive human being that the audience would accept him and understand how this person became this violent alcoholic by night and a charming good guy by day."
Byrne himself stopped drinking several years ago. "I was brought up in a culture where everybody went to the pub every night. That's what everybody did; it was the social center of our world," he says of growing up in Dublin, where his father worked for the Guinness brewery. "Big drinkers were admired; the horrors of big drink and the alcoholism that went with it tended to be ignored. So I never questioned that culture until I left it. When I came to America, I gradually got a different perspective on myself and I just stopped. And now the last thing I can do is go into a crowded pub. It's just something that I cannot endure."
Now, sipping English breakfast tea in midafternoon at the St. Regis Hotel in downtown Washington, Byrne admits that nearly 20 years after moving to the United States, he feels the inexorable pull of his native country more strongly than ever. He lives in Brooklyn and has two children, Jack, 17, and Romy, 14 (he was divorced from their mother, the actress Ellen Barkin, in 1993), but he hasn't become a New Yorker, a fact borne out by a stubborn Irish accent that has a way of turning "I" into "Oi" and "like" into "loik."
"People talk about the fabled energy of New York," Byrne says. "I've never liked that energy. I'm not just saying this because I'm in Washington, but Washington seems to me to be immediately a more human-scaled city. I don't like being dwarfed by huge buildings. I've never been a really big fan of those enormous skyscrapers. . . . So I wouldn't say I'll be long in New York."
And it seems to go without saying that, when he leaves New York -- in a few years, when the kids are grown -- he'll be finding his way back to Ireland, in the same way that conversation winds its way back to that country regardless of the subject at hand. Byrne, who grew up with five brothers and sisters, wrote lovingly of his childhood in a 1994 collection of essays, "Pictures in My Head." The book affectionately recalls life in the Dublin suburb of Walkinstown, where young Gabriel discovered girls, movies and an early calling to the priesthood; he enrolled in a seminary in Birmingham, England, only to be kicked out after four years for smoking. ("A failed priest at fifteen," he wrote in an essay called "Chosen Few.") Every summer, Gabriel would visit an aunt and uncle at their farm in County Kildare.
"It was an extremely happy time," he says. "And it was the last of that world. A time when my aunt baked the bread, and if a car passed, you'd run to the door to see who it was. People called out from their bicycles as they passed by, you walked three miles to Mass and three miles back, the pictures on a Sunday night were something you looked forward to with breathless anticipation through the week. I think that was my first confrontation with the notion of fate. I remember standing outside in the garden, praying for the rain to stop so we could go to the movies. And it didn't stop."
It's at this point that Byrne lets loose one of his sudden, barking laughs, at a reporter's suggestion that he's been on a spiritual quest ever since. Although he thinks he could have made a good priest, he disagrees with much of the Catholic orthodoxy he took for granted as a boy, and now subscribes to a more Buddhist sensibility. "I've made a contract with several people that if they go before me, they're to come back and tell me [what it's like], but so far the silence has been deafening," he says mordantly. "I think it's enough to live life without demanding a second one."
Byrne still gets back to Ireland three or four times a year, and says he'll return this summer to pursue a photography project about his Ireland, past and present. For several years, he owned a cottage in County Galway, near where John Wayne filmed "The Quiet Man." Byrne half-jokingly named the thatch-roofed retreat "White O' Morn'," after the prodigal's cottage in the movie.
"I sold that, foolishly," he says with a sigh. "It was on a lake. No matter what direction you looked in, you could not see any sign of the 20th century. In the summertime the lake dried up, and all the cattle and the sheep and the goats from all the neighboring farms pastured there for the summer. And that was the way they used to do it in ancient Ireland."
Byrne grows visibly melancholy. "I didn't realize how important it would be to me in retrospect," he says in a paroxysm of seller's remorse. "There's just something about being in beautiful scenery, just doing very simple things, getting firewood, making a fire, sitting and talking, walking the fields in the rain. A friend of mine once said to me, 'You seem a little bit stressed.' This was a few years ago. And I said, 'I think I am.' And she said, 'You need to walk your own ground again.' "
He fixes his interlocutor with a lambent gaze. "It's true," he says. "You get in contact with that really deep part of yourself, or I do, through landscape. And the older I get, the more hunger I have for simplicity, because that's the kind of childhood I came from. I would say it's where I felt happiest." Byrne regards an empty teacup, considering, reflecting, meditating. Not brooding, exactly, but close.