Gabriel Byrne: Byrne-ing Up

Gabriel Byrne shares his Hollywood tales; from rivaling Leonardo DiCaprio for poor swordsmanship in The Man In The Iron Mask to getting taken on an all-night limo ride by an unnamed celebrity who picked him up at a restaurant.


The difference between Gabriel Byrne and just about everyone else in Hollywood is that if you went up to him and said, "Hey, I have this great idea for a movie," he wouldn't file a restraining order.

"I love it when people say they have an idea," confesses Byrne. "I immediately say, 'Tell me the story.'"

Maybe Byrne loves a good story because he has so many delicious ones himself. Since the end of his six-year marriage to Ellen Barkin, he's been one of the most eligible bachelors in Hollywood, and his name is constantly brought up in gossip columns for romancing leading ladies, but he tells the best tales of his own romantic adventures. And Byrne's career alone could inspire a novel.

Born in Ireland, he moved to England to study the priesthood, moved back to Ireland to become a teacher, then gave it all up at age 29 to pursue acting. It wasn't until age 40 that he landed a starring role, in the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing. He's since had a steady, successful career, often playing intense loners in films such as Little Women, The Usual Suspects and Smilla's Sense of Snow, and he's been involved in producing films like Into the West and In the Name of the Father (with fellow Irishman and friend Jim Sheridan). Lately, he's been all over the big screen with The Man in the Iron Mask, The Last of the High King_s and this summer's _Polish Wedding.

DENNIS HENSLEY: It's practically unheard of today for an actor to hit Hollywood in his late 30s and become successful, but you did. Do you wonder what it would have been like if you had started making movies earlier?

GABRIEL BYRNE: I don't know that I would have been able to handle it. I've worked with a lot of young actors and I feel sorry for some of them, because the people who are drawn to this business are not terribly confident or secure, for the most part. And then suddenly the universe is telling them they're amazing.

Q: Ever seen any crash and burn?

A: A lot of them turn to drugs or drink. What people don't realize is that everybody is dispensable. I remember Anthony Hopkins once said to me, "There are three and a half billion people at this moment living, breathing on this planet. I can guarantee you right now very few of them are thinking about you." And it's the truth.

Q: Speaking of young talent, you recently starred in The Man in the Iron Mask with Leonardo DiCaprio, who had just finished filming Titanic before you started working with him. Was he still gurgling up water and picking icicles out of his hair?

A: All he said about Titanic was that it was an incredibly difficult shoot. I asked him if he thought it was going to be a success and he said, "I'd be surprised if it's a big deal."

Q: Would you want to be in a blockbuster the size of Titanic?

A: No. If it's a hit, that's great, but you can't go in saying, "This is going to be a big success," because the truth is that actors don't really have any control over the end product. To think that you have control is a delusion and it's also incredibly frustrating to be investing that much hope into something that essentially boils down to marketing. So you try to do movies that you feel connected with and you work with directors and actors you admire.

Q: On The Man in the Iron Mask, you crossed swords with Gerard Depardieu, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich and Leo. Were you the best swordsman?

A: No, I'm completely uncoordinated. John Malkovich is really good at it and so is Jeremy. But Leo and I were like the fencing dunces. We acquitted ourselves nobly at the end.

Q: You also recently worked with another young star, Claire Danes, who plays your daughter in Polish Wedding. What was she like?

A: We were just cracking up the whole time. There are times when we would walk into a scene barely able to keep it together, do our acting, walk out and collapse. At the end of the picture she gave me a photograph and wrote on it, "I'd love to work with you again, but I'd be in danger of being hospitalized from laughing."

Q: What about Lena Olin, who plays your wife?

A: In terms of sexiness, Lena wipes most of these women away who are so-called "sexy." You can't define it, but it's just there.

Q: People seem to find you sexy, too. I was at the Independent Spirit Awards a few years back when Linda Fiorentino said that she hadn't been laid in three months and would like to trade her Spirit Award for a date with you. Did you ever take her up on it?

A: Well, I was completely shocked. [Miramax cochairman] Harvey Weinstein said to me, "Your stock just went up." It was kind of weird. Then I thought I should acknowledge this in some way so I called her and said, "Thank you very much for that very sweet thing you said." Unfortunately, I can't report the rest of the conversation because it veered off into something else.

Q: How do you react when somebody says you're sexy?

A: What's to be upset about? It's flattering. And it's nice because there'll come a time when it won't be said. The thing about sexiness is that you can't actually cook it up.

Q: Since we're talking about sexy things, have you ever done anything sexy in a limo?

A: To me, limos are the places where you fulfill all those fantasies that you ever had of being a rock star or a movie star. You can't just sit in a limo and be brought from one place to another.

Q: So then you must have some stories to share.

A: I could but I would implicate too many people.

Q: How many people are we talking about?

A: Six. A great time was had by all and it was filmed with a video camera by the one non-participating member.

Q: What would happen if the video got out?

A: Believe me, I have the only copy. I've shown it to a couple of people and they cannot believe that this actually happened, but it did. Three of the people are extremely well-known and they would be dead of mortification if they ever thought that I was even remotely referring to that night.

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