Gabriel Byrne: Talent to Byrne
He's not a household name--yet--but the Irish charmer Gabriel Byrne is one of the hottest properties around town. Here, he talks about his three new movies, why good actors sometimes make bad films, getting the call to serve god and how come he's the lucky one married to Ellen Barkin.
"I did an informal survey among my friends before I came to interview you," I tell Gabriel Byrne as we settle into his trailer on the back of the Warners lot. "And the funny thing was, when I'd say your name, they'd look at me quizzically. They couldn't place you. But when I'd say Miller's Crossing, they'd go, 'Oh, yeah, he's wonderful.' Then I'd bring up Siesta, and the guys would all sort of moan and say, 'Ummmm, Ellen Barkin.' And when I told them that you and Ellen were married, they'd say, 'Oh sure, life's fucking tough for him, huh?' Because they're all wild about Ellen."
"What did the girls say?" Byrne asks, cutting to the chase in that fabulous Irish accent of his.
"I told them that you just made Cool World with Brad Pitt, and they went into a mild frenzy, wanting to know everything about him."
"Well, so I don't win on any count, huh?" he asks, looking like a hurt schoolboy. "It's like, where am I in this picture?"
"Not to worry," I assure him, "the consensus was that you're very good at what you do. But the guys just can't figure out how you got Ellen."
"Well," he says, "let's start with Brad Pitt, who's a lovely guy, a genuinely nice man. I think he's really embarrassed with all that's happening to him. He strikes me as someone who's really sensitive and intelligent, who's looking for something beyond the normal bullshit. We had some good conversations, and swapped some books that we thought the other one should like. And in relation to Ellen, what can I say?"
"That you're a lucky bastard?"
"That I am. When I first met her, she came to Europe to do a movie, and nobody there knew who she was. I think one of the things that's a hallmark of women who have that star appeal is a combination of sexiness and vulnerability. And that combination is very exciting ... to men, anyway. That's what attracted me to her in the first place. She's certainly sexy, but the vulnerability is right there too."
It's lunchtime on the set of Byrne's newest film, John Badham's American remake of La Femme Nikita. Bridget Fonda co-stars, and Byrne plays Bob, the man who civilizes her in order to turn her into an efficient killing machine.
"It's a very clever movie," Byrne says. "People like me and you may say, 'Why remake it at all?' But there are so many people who will not read subtitles."
I'm hardly listening, busy as I am walking around, checking out a pile of tapes on the table (the two new Springsteens, Bryan Adams, The Chieftains) and a mound of books leaning in the corner.
"Do you read a lot?" I ask.
"All the time."
"Amazing," I say, "because most of the actors I interview tell me that they wish they had the time, but with the scripts and everything ..."
"I read all the time, mostly American contemporary fiction. A lot by women. Do you know that only three percent of Americans have library cards? That's an incredible statistic. It tells you a lot about what's happening. Right now I'm reading How to Make an American Quilt. I've been reading it for two weeks, and I have to keep putting it down, because it's so simply and poetically written, and so full of truths, that it makes your head spin. It's so deep and so simple."
"If only three percent own library cards," I remark, "I'd venture to say that only five percent of them read fiction that's written by women."
"Oh, I've always loved books by women. One of the first books I read was Little Women. Louisa May Alcott was, oh God, my hero. I wanted to be there with them, I fell in love with Beth. And of course she died halfway through the book, which was such an awful thing to do to us."
We take a minute, remembering the agony of Beth's death, and then we're ready to move on.
"Okay," I say, settling down across from him. "Why don't you just tell me your whole life story, and we'll go from there."
"Oh God," he moans. "Oh please, not that ... anything but that. You'll die of boredom."
But Byrne starts to talk, and suddenly it's not like we're in an over-cooled trailer on a movie set. It's more like I've been fortunate enough to get a wonderful companion on a long train trip, a raconteur who has stories to fit every occasion.
"Okay," he begins. "I was born in Milwaukee, and I lost my accent when I moved to New York. No, no, I was born in Ireland in 1950. My father was a laborer in Dublin. There were six children in the family. I left Ireland when I was 12 to go to England to study in a seminary for the priesthood. Which was insane, but it did happen."
"You're kidding me, right?"
"No, it's the truth."
"You had the calling?"
"I opened this book one day and it had these photographs of all these kids going up this long winding road, playing football and table tennis, and grown men on horses in Africa with little black kids waving and smiling up at them. And I thought, I'd like to do that. So I went. I was there for four and a half years, and then I was called into the office, and the rector said, 'Byrne, I'm afraid we've come to the conclusion that you don't have a vocation.' Because I had got caught smoking in the graveyard. So I was sent home, where I had a cataclysmic collapse of faith.
"I became a plumber's assistant, put in central heating. I worked in factories, I did everything, worked in a gay bar for a year and a half. I was so innocent, I couldn't figure out why no women ever came in. Then I went back to school at night, and I studied and went to the university, and there I studied archeology and languages.
"When I finished that I went to Spain and lived there for two years. To be in Spain as a dark-haired, blue-eyed person was to be a total idiot. Instead of going to Sweden, where I would have been different, I went to Spain. I was 21, I wasn't interested in the deeper meanings of life. I just wanted to meet some girls and have sex. And there I was, with all these women who looked at me as if I was a Spaniard who couldn't speak Spanish. They had no time for me at all. I got this job teaching English to this girl. She was a countess, incredibly beautiful. I would go to this fabulous house on a hill, and we would sit in this formal dining room and I would take out my book and it was stuff like 'Spot is in the garden.' And she would repeat, 'Spot is in the garden.' And we progressed to things like 'Give me the knife please.' She would say, 'Geef me the knife-a, please.' I would say, 'It's "knife."' And she would say, 'Knife-a,' and I would say, 'Fine.' I would say, 'Give me the spoon.' She would say, 'Geef me the e-spoon.' I would correct her and she would repeat, 'E-spoon,' and I would smile and nod. And then I'd say, 'Give me the fork, please.' And she would say, 'Geef me the fuck, please.' And she would look at me with these incredible eyes, and I was so demented at the time that I would say, 'Can I have that last bit again?' And she would repeat, 'Geef me the fuck, please.' And I would just have her repeat it for hours."
"You mean that some poor girl is now asking for a utensil and everyone thinks she wants to get laid?"
"Yes, thanks to me, there are people speaking bad English with Irish accents all over the Continent. Then I was a teacher in Dublin for a while, and then, when I was 28 or so, I became an actor."
"Just like that!" I say, snapping my fingers.
"Yeah, basically. It was a sublimated desire. I went to theater and movies all the time, but the idea of becoming an actor ... that was out of my reach. I started this drama class for the kids I was teaching because I was interested in drama, and one of the kids got sick and I took over his part. And someone from the Abbey Theatre was there and he said, 'You should think about doing this.' The next summer, I became an actor. As haphazardly as that. I was blessed in that I always had a fearlessness of the future. I'd just say, fuck it, I'll do it. Stupidity is probably another name for that. The only way to act is to just do it."
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