Category: Archive

Echo Profile: Byrne’s passions

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

“He epitomizes for me the modern European man: dynamic, a great potential for hard work, for fun, for introspection, and he’s a wonderful father, actor and writer. He makes me sick.”
That is how Liam Neeson once summed up his feelings about friend and contemporary Gabriel Byrne. On paper, who could disagree that Byrne is multi-talented? An accomplished actor, producer and writer, he recently added photography to his list of achievements.
In reality, however, with his dark, brooding good looks and an accent that lingers from a youth spent in the South Dublin suburb of Drimnagh, Byrne’s appeal is less Renaissance man and more bad boy.
With two projects to promote, Byrne has kept an uncharacteristically high profile in recent weeks.
Last Monday night, he attended the Glucksman Ireland House in Greenwich Village, for the opening of a photography exhibition of his work that included pictures he took during his travels around Africa and Russia as a UNICEF ambassador.
Taking the night off from a grueling stint of rehearsals and previews for “A Touch of the Poet,” Byrne looked tired but remained charming as he worked his way through an admiring crowd, answering questions about his photographs at length with and appearing genuinely interested in people’s responses to his work.
Speaking without any apparent preparation, Byrne said a recent trip to Africa with UNICEF changed his life.
“I’d heard the expression ‘look of death,’ before,” he said, talking visiting an AIDS hospital in Mozambique.
“But I’d never seen it before until I stepped into that hospital. It has haunted me ever since,” he said.
Then, Byrne’s ex-wife Ellen Barkin arrived with their two children; 17-year-old Jack, a young, shy version of Gabriel and 14-year-old Romy, whose striking eyes and bone structure are reminiscent of her mother.
From that point on, the actor’s attentions were clearly devoted to his children as he hugged them tightly, playing a role that he clearly relished; proud father.
Barkin, with whom Byrne has famously stayed on good terms since their separation, walked around the exhibition with her ex-husband, asking him questions about each photograph as they went along.
Born in Dublin in 1950, Byrne was the oldest of six children to a nurse and a barrel-maker for Guinness.
As a child, Byrne could hardly have imagined he would make his fortune playing cads, rogues and broken men. When he was 12, he decided to devote himself to a life of prayer and traveled to a seminary in England to become a priest.
The dream was short lived; Byrne was expelled for smoking, and his experiences in the seminary caused him to turn his back on Catholicism.
“The elimination of guilt is one of the biggest battles I have had to wage with myself,” Byrne said in one interview about his struggle against religion.
Byrne later attended UCD where he studied archaeology, languages and phonetics. After college, he worked as a teacher, an archeologist, a cook, a journalist and briefly, a bullfighter, before deciding upon acting as a career.
At 29, Byrne entered the business relatively late in life, but had no trouble landing parts in the popular Irish soap operas, “The Riordans” and “Bracken.” In 1981, he made his feature film debut in John Boorman’s epic “Excalibur.”
In a recent interview with Daily News, Byrne laughed at the memory of his father’s reaction when he told him he was becoming an actor.
“He told his friends down at the pub I’d joined the circus – I agree,” Byrne said.
It was eight years before Byrne came to the U.S., moving to New York when he was 37. Upon arrival, however, he wasted no time, landing the role of gangster Tom Reagan in the Coen Brothers film “Miller’s Crossing,” that same year.
Byrne has enjoyed a prolific acting career ever since, generally opting for offbeat films like “The Usual Suspects,” rather than blockbusters like his friend and contemporary Neeson.
Not that Byrne has shied away entirely from blockbusters; 1999 proved to be his annus mirabilis in that regard, when he starred in two of that year’s biggest movies, as a troubled priest in “Stigmata,” and the Devil in “End of Days,” opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“A Touch of the Poet,” will see Byrne performing a Eugene O’Neill play on Broadway for the second time after earning a Tony nomination for his performance in “Moon for the Misbegotten,” in 2000.
“I worry about how I’ll be able to sustain to because we’re only in our second week of rehearsal and already I’m beginning to feel a tiredness in my bones,” he confessed to one magazine during previews.
Nevertheless, critics have generally lauded Byrne’s performance as the self-deluding and pompous Irish immigrant tavern owner Cornelius Melody.
“Byrne demonstrates that he has become a peerless interpreter of O’Neill, beautifully conveying the combination of swagger, brutality and vulnerability that marks so many of the playwright’s characters,” raved the Hollywood Reporter.
“The audience has been allowed a rare glimpse of a thrilling process; an actor’s taking hold of the reins of a runaway role and riding it for all it’s worth,” the New York Times gushed of Byrne’s performance in the opening scene of the second act.
“I don’t know if a native Irishman has ever done this play on Broadway,” said “Poet” director, Doug Hughes, in an interview with the Echo. “Gabriel more than anyone can be faithful to the extreme poles of the character. He’s a leading man with the imagination and wit of a great character actor. He’s fearless, always sniffing out the core of the scene, always a perfectionist and always great fun.”
In spite of his success, however, it is in producing, not acting, that Byrne’s passion lies. His production company, Mirabelis Films, has made, “Into the West,” in which he also starred, and Jim Sheridan’s Oscar-winning, “In the Name of the Father.”
“I’ve gotten great satisfaction out of the films I’ve produced because they’ve enabled me to express things I’m passionate about,” he has said of his role as a producer.
“As an actor, I don’t have that opportunity because I’m not a No. 1 box office star. I don’t see myself as a successful actor and though I admire great actors, I’ve never been obsessed with acting,” he said.
Byrne currently has four films in the pipeline, including “Wah Wah,” in which he will star with Miranda Richardson and Emily Watson. He is also producing a film called “Real” which he said is about “commitment and romantic expectations and dysfunctional relationships.”
Byrne is also working on his second book, “Landscape from a Window,” to follow up to the best-selling “Pictures in My Head,” a collection of autobiographical essays he published in 1997.
In a recent interview with Newsday, Byrne said he wants his next project to be something “really light.” He even toyed with the idea of renaming his next book, “Adventures of a Big, Busty, Buxom Blonde.”
Clearly a Renaissance man is still a typical man.

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