By Karen Butler
Gabriel Byrne says he once begged a favor from the devil, but he swears it had nothing to do with his career as an actor.
"I was about 10 and the aunt I was living with at the time in the country told me that I could go to the pictures that night if it stopped raining," the 49-year-old Dublin native, who plays Satan in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new action-adventure film, "End of Days," said. "I was so in love with the movies. We lived five or six miles from the movie house and we used to walk there and it was raining in the morning. She said if it stops raining by 6 you can go.
"By 1 o’clock it hadn’t stopped raining, so I started to pray to God to make it stop raining, as you do when you’re a kid because you believe. I prayed, ‘Dear God, please make it stop raining so I can go to the pictures tonight. Please make it stop raining.’ It didn’t stop raining. At 5 o’clock, I said: ‘Lucifer? Satan? If you’re out there, make it stop raining.’ And you know what was weird? It stopped at 6 o’clock."
Byrne says he still remembers the movie he went to see that night — "The Shaggy Dog."
Playing with fire
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So what was it like to play Satan? "I didn’t think of it as the devil, per say," Byrne said. "I didn’t feel I was responsible for anything that happened in the movie. I felt I was only trying to do my job as the devil . . . and enjoy it as much as I could."
The soft-spoken star of "The Usual Suspects" and "The Brylcreem Boys" went on to explain that playing the part "was a kind of revenge for the of idea that I was brought up with of the devil."
To illustrate his point, Byrne, who once considered becoming a priest, describes a memory he has of being in class one day when his teacher was trying to explain the concept of hell.
"[The teacher] lit a match and asked for one of the kids to come up as a volunteer," Byrne said. "He put his finger in [the flame] and yelped in pain and she said, ‘That’s what hell is like, except millions and millions and millions and millions of times worse forever and ever and ever and ever.’
"We were very young kids. . . . We were sitting there all trying to grapple with the notion of being burned alive and the notion of eternity at the same time. And that the only relief that you ever got from this excruciating torture was when the devil would come over and stick a fork in you and turn you over on the other side. And so that was the devil I grew up with. So, the idea that the devil would be dressed in Armani and Hugo Boss was very far from the way I thought about the devil, believe me."
Dressed in a Dolce and Gabbana suit and wearing a Claddagh ring, Byrne said he enjoyed playing one of the most popular villains in film history.
"The idea, in this particular picture, anyway, was just to have fun with who the character is," Byrne said. "It’s not like a psychological examination of the nature of evil. I mean, basically he’s a guy who goes around sharply dressed, causing destruction and mayhem, blowing up buildings and having sex with people."
No horror-film fan
Byrne insists that even though he’s starred in two scary films this year — "End of Days" and "Stigmata" — he is not a fan of the genre.
"I hate horror films," he said. "Not because I don’t admire them, but because I’m too auto-suggestive. . . . Once I get the idea in my head I can really terrify myself.
"I saw ‘The Exorcist’ in a cinema and when [Linda Blair] turns around and swivels around with that head and speaks in that voice. I never went back to a horror movie for 20 years after that. I was terrified. I do love horror movies, but I can’t watch them. At least not late at night."
Byrne says he agreed to do "End of Days" because it is actually a less horrifying experience to be in a scary movie than to watch one.
He says there is one other reason he decided to accept this role.
"I’ve always wanted to do a real big action picture, but I’d always resisted the idea of playing a villain because [movie studios] always cast European actors in these roles," Byrne said. "Just for some reason, they believe that the real threat is always from outside and must have a foreign accent in some way to be a real threat."
Byrne says he deliberately chose to underplay his demonic character because "when you have a film of this enormity, of this magnitude and scale, with explosions and special effects and the huge presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger . . . it seems to make more sense to underplay than to overplay.
"Besides there wasn’t that much opportunity to greatly overplay anything. The rest of the movie was so operatic, I felt it made more sense not to compete with that."
On the millennium
Byrne noted that there has been an unusually high number of movies this year about God. He said he thinks that’s because the cinema always reflects what’s going on in the culture.
"There is a great deal of anxiety about where the world in heading right now," he said. "People are very concerned about how technology has impinged on our lives and how we feel technology has, like George Orwell said, come to be the master now. So we don’t know where technology is headed, but we do know that we’re a pace behind it as human beings.
"On the other hand, traditionally we’ve been taught to look to religion for an answer. So there’s always been a battle between science and faith. Science tells you we can prove it, therefore you can believe it. Faith says we can’t prove it, but we ask you to believe it anyway. And people are floundering between this world of a spiritual answer and a scientific answer. And at the end of a century, it’s the time when people look back at what the last 100 years have been and it’s not been a happy century in many ways."
Byrne went on to say he sincerely doubts that the world will end when the millennium arrives, noting that the Roman year 2000 has no connection to the Bible.
"Personally speaking, I don’t think there’s any significance whatsoever . . . the reality is we only have one day anyway — every day," he said. "So I think we’re all going to be here on the second of January saying, ‘Well, what was all that about?’
"I used to think that faith was a gift. That some people were given faith and other people weren’t. [Now] I think that faith is a choice . . . and I think it’s an intelligent choice between deciding to believe something despite the evidence . . . and I think that science is not providing us with the answers."
Byrne explains that he doesn’t necessarily think that is a bad thing.
"I believe that we’re not meant to know the answers to certain things, because if we did the world would be a very different place," he said. "Faith wouldn’t exist. Hope wouldn’t exist. The struggle to aspire to something greater wouldn’t exist if we knew all the answers. And I think the purpose of being here, if it’s not too heavy, is to try to come to terms with those questions and to try to find those answers for ourselves. That’s what I believe."
In describing his profession, Byrne says acting is a continuation of
childhood, something youngsters do unselfconsciously — dressing up and pretending to be other people.
"Some people take this business of acting so incredibly serious that sometimes you have to think, ‘Get a grip here.’ It’s just acting. That’s all it is. It’s playing. It’s pretend," he said.
Byrne said he thinks he knows why some religious groups have protested spiritual-themed movies such as the comedy "Dogma" and even his own "Stigmata," but not "End of Days."
"People regard this kind of picture as in some way frivolous and there’s a tendency to look at a Kevin Smith picture ["Dogma," "Clerks"] as in some way speaking for the voice of a younger generation, which seems to them to be threatening and cynical.
"I think religious groups have always been incredibly sensitive to any perceived threat. If you look at the history of the last 500 years . . . hasn’t it always been about one religious group saying, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t be saying that about us? You know what? You should have our religion.’ "
Byrne says he thinks that the Catholic church has been such a popular setting for recent movies in part because "it looks great on screen" with all of its stained glass, candles and religious garments.
"If that isn’t theater, I don’t know what is," he said.