Gabriel Byrne: School of Hard Knocks

Cinematic stylists Joel and Ethan Coen, the sly young kidders who wrote/directed/ produced 1984's Blood Simple and 1987's Raising Arizona, have a reputation for putting underappreciated actors into eye-opening roles. In their new, exquisitely plotted gangster saga, Miller's Crossing, they've cast Dublin-born Gabriel Byrne in the lead as Tom, the Irish mob lieutenant who does the right thing and loses his soul for it.

Byrne has heretofore been one of the best-kept secrets in the industry, featured almost exclusively in relatively obscure and/or bad little films, like Ken Russell's Gothic (in which, as Lord Byron, he was thankfully not the one whose nipples turned into eyeballs), or Mary Lambert's Siesta (during which he met Ellen Barkin, to whom he is now married), or that certain big studio comedy he starred in and to this day will not even say the name of out loud. In Miller's Crossing, Byrne gets to deliver some of the best written dialogue the screen has seen in a while (Joel and Ethan worked two years on the script). But the most difficult part of his role was completely wordless-carrying off one of the Coens' many running visual jokes, perhaps the film's oddest one: Tom gets beat up once every 15 minutes or so, each time without putting up any defense. Byrne says he didn't really notice how many times he got punched out when he was reading the script, but when it came to filming, he found himself repeatedly thinking, "Oh, God, do I have to get beaten up again? The worst of it all was not being hit--I got to be real good at that-but I never got to throw a punch myself. They just hit me. But the most painful part was when I tumbled down the stairs and across the floor and ended up in front of the fat woman who pounds me with a handbag. Joel and Ethan would say to the actress, 'Please, you don't have to hit Gabriel so hard, we'll put in the sound effects.' But she was a method actress, this woman. Every time she saw me coming, she pounded the hell out of me. She did not know the meaning of control. And it was 20 takes!" Well, it was probably worth it. While Byrne is unlikely to soon find another script this good ("it's like the skin of a drum," he says. "You can pull it from any angle and it bounces back and it doesn't take its audience for granted"), he's also unlikely to find himself returning to the status of a well-kept secret.

Barbara Ann Mitchell