By Olivia Tracey
I thought I lived a relatively exciting life until I met with Irish actor and Gabriel Byrne lookalike Chris Byrne (no relation). For those of us who believe in past life regression, this Dublin lad must have been a cat in another world, blessed with even more than the given nine lives. In his 30-something years, he has visited over 50 countries, dined with King Hussein and Margaret Thatcher and worked with some of the finest Hollywood stars and directors including "Titanic’s" James Cameron. But of course, that’s only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, with endless drama evolving both on screen and off.
His humble beginnings back in Dublin’s Sean McDermott Street could almost be an extract from "Angela’s Ashes." One of 16 children, the son of a Jewish mother and Catholic father, he remembers sleeping six to a bed, head to toe, in a two-bedroom house that was cold, damp and antiquated. Though enjoying a good sense of community, he was unaware that life could be better, that is until his trip to the "flicks" for a Buster Keaton black-and-white silent comedy at the old Albany Cinema, otherwise known as "the flea pit." The experience opened up his eyes and gave him a dream. And while it was tough growing up an inner-city kid, it was also challenging, breeding in him the courage to attempt anything in the face of adversity. It also primed him with sharp survival instincts that later proved indispensable, considering his perilous life decisions.
As for school, it was never high on his agenda, hating every moment of his time at North Great George’s Street’s Loreto College and later at St. Canice’s in Finglas. So he left at age 13. He managed to escape the tech and ended up instead making money on Moore Street working as an errand boy. However, it wasn’t apples and oranges he was dealing in, but illegal contraband. Three years later, at the age of 16, when most of us are still seeking parental permission to go on a date, this adolescent left and went to England. He started off in Birmingham, where he stole the birth certificate of a 21-year-old in order to get work as a construction worker. Two years later, his conscience posed the question of a life of crime or some form of enforced discipline which he had evaded to date.
He chose the latter, in the form of the British Army, despite his family’s disapproval. However, never one to seek approval and considering necessity as the mother of invention, he did what he had to do and committed to his military choice. Indeed, it was no picnic as he endured survival training with two weeks out in the Moors, lightly clothed in midwinter with very little food and even less sleep. At the end of the two weeks, he was kept awake for three full days when they would use white light and brainwashing techniques to interrogate him. He was then sent to Belfast to work under cover in ’79, followed by the Falklands in ’82, Lebanon in ’83 and Botswana and Angola in ’84. For the next two years, until 1986, he served as military adviser to the United States government, working with the Drug Enforcement Agency and the American Anti-Terrorist Force. In this 11-year period working for the military and the U.S. government he visited a total of 52 countries and garnered numerous combat medals. However, enough was enough, and a year before his final contract was to expire, he bought his way out.
Looking back, he remembers the entire experience as a double-edged sword, both exciting and scary, an out-of-body experience as though watching himself in a movie. Coincidentally, the cameras were on their way to rolling as his only post-army option for a degree was drama school. And he managed it all in fine style indeed, getting accepted into the Guildford Drama School, one of Britain’s top three colleges (along with RADA and LAMDA). For Chris, this period goes down as a truly brilliant experience where he just immersed himself in drama training from 7 a.m. till midnight. He studied everything from classical to contemporary, along with stage lighting, voice and singing. The end of year brought their theatrical showcase and a hoard of interested art directors from across the globe. As a result, Chris was invited to do Synge’s "Playboy of the Western World" at the prestigious 700-seat Instamane Theater in Seattle. Next came John B. Keane’s "Lovers and Losers" at Seattle’s equally lofty Empty Space Theater, followed by Don McNorton’s "The Rat in the Skull." While carving a decent living for himself in theater, he was also building a fine reputation as a dedicated, facilitating actor.
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Then the big screen beckoned, again in the loftiest of circles, despite his initial six weeks in L.A. living in his van on various Venice streets. He soon got cast opposite no less than John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman, playing the latter’s oft-featured cameraman in "Mad City." Then "Titanic" sailed in, offering him the part of the lieutenant who shoots himself in the head. However, timing forced him to turn it down due to his commitment to "Mad City," which had been extended. Nonetheless he still managed to board ship at a later date in the role of the purser, working beautifully with famed director, James Cameron. He no doubt also earned the movie maker’s respect and gratitude when he hung in with the costly film even though his father had just passed away back home .Unfortunately, he also lost his mother a year later.
However, in the midst of this sadness and loss, he was gaining ground in his career, completing another four independent films, including "Letters From a Killer" with Patrick Swayze, and a further quartet of television commercials. Currently he is finishing up the L.A. round of the Joe Orton play "Ruffian on the Stair," which, incidentally, is gearing up for a stint in New York and definitely worth a visit. Next on the agenda is a directing and acting gig in Toronto on an independent action movie "Solid Cover" and a supporting role in "Everdene," to be shot in Ireland later this summer.
Sitting opposite the budding star outside, believe it or not, a pastry health food store at midnight, a generous smile warms his face as he answered his cell phone. "Hey, baby," he smolders to his girlfriend, actress Maria Diaz, with whom he admits to having found true love. "I’ve always been a long relationship person. . . . Never two-timed in my life. . . . I’ve lots of female friends but Maria is the one." As we parted on that romantic note I was quietly thrilled to have encountered this dynamic Dubliner who I suspect is set to sail calmer seas, blue horizons and leave a fleet of successes in his wake.