Gabriel Byrne’s views on the Catholic Church have landed him in trouble in Ireland. But he’s unrepentant, he tells Nigel Farndale.
Outside, the skies over Dublin are a wintry blue. Inside it is the dead of night and Gabriel Byrne, in untucked shirt and braces, is sitting on the side of a bed, in shadow, brooding.
The camera pans from his face to that of a woman sleeping in the bed. He stands up, collects his jacket and quietly leaves.
In an adjoining room the director watches on a monitor then shouts: “Cut! We need to smudge her make-up a bit, so that it looks like they’ve been at it.”
While the smudging is being done, Byrne tells me that in this scene – which is for a new BBC drama called Quirke, set in Fifties Dublin and adapted from the novels of John Banville – his character is supposed to be doing the “walk of shame” after a one-night stand. “I remember, once we were filming in a hotel corridor at four in the morning, because that’s when there was no one around, and a door opened and a woman tiptoed out carrying her shoes and then looked up and saw this whole film crew staring at her. That was proper shame.” He is full of such anecdotes, delivered in a gentle and unhurried Irish lilt, in a manner that suggests he is used to people listening to him.
They go for another take, and another, and when, a few hours later, we meet up in the downstairs drawing room of the elegant Georgian town house they are using as a film location, he huddles close to the gas fire as he talks.
The cuffs on one sleeve are dangling open, the other sleeve is half rolled, making him look both languid and louche. At 62 he still has the brooding good looks which made his name (though he hates being described as brooding) and these include intense blue eyes and an aquiline nose that has been broken three times. But he tells me he feels his age a little more than he used to. Wears glasses between takes. Had to have a nap during the lunchbreak today.
Though he is Dublin born and bred, Byrne has lived half his adult life in the United States, where he not only became a Hollywood star, but also married one (Ellen Barkin, who is mother to his two grown-up children. They had an amicable divorce after 11 years). He often plays Americans but for his latest film, All Things to All Men, he uses his Irish accent. In it he plays a gangster who forms an uneasy alliance with a corrupt detective (Rufus Sewell).
Although it is a British gangster movie, he reckons it has a Hollywood pace. “It’s to do with the cutting and the way the plot moves along, taking joy in the fact it is just an exciting story, nothing more or less.” He levels his eyes at me. “Look, it’s not Chekhov. It’s not going to stop in the middle for an examination of life and its meaning. It is what it is.” He has been in some 70 films – and produced the Oscar-winning In the Name of the Father – but is probably best known for playing sympathetic villains such as this one. His first big starring role in Hollywood, indeed, was in the Coen brothers film Miller’s Crossing (1990), a decidedly unconventional gangster movie.
Did he know when he was working on it that it was destined to become a classic of the genre? Was there something in the air? He shakes his head.
“No. It’s like backing horses, no one can be sure they are backing a winner because there are so many variables, that is why I’ve learnt to begin and end each film with a mixture of resignation and optimism. You hope it will do well but you resign yourself to the possibility that it won’t.” In box office terms, Miller’s Crossing was regarded as a failure when it was first released, he adds. “We came out the same week as Goodfellas so an immediate rivalry was set up between the two films, one by Scorsese, the other by these quirky guys who did Raising Arizona. Ours was dismissed as being too literary and pastiche. As time went by, people came to see how innovative it was. I remember asking Ethan [Coen] where he got the idea from and he said this rather random thing about all gangster films being set in urban areas with cars and concrete, so why not set one in a forest? I think what made it stand out was that as well as pushing the envelope of violence there was humour in it.”
Humour in unexpected places can give a film real power and edge, I note, as in another classic of his, The Usual Suspects (1995). “Yes, and in that film a lot of the humour was improvised. There was a sequence where the gang are being interrogated and the answers we came up with had us all laughing. We shot that movie in 28 days and none of the cast was well known, not even Kevin Spacey.”
But a casting director had assembled that group of actors. Something stranger happened in Dublin in the mid Seventies when Byrne and a group of unknown actors, writers and directors formed an ensemble to play on a tiny stage. They included Jim Sheridan, Neil Jordan, Stephen Rea and Liam Neeson. “It was remarkable to have that group all there starting out at the same time. It was in Temple Bar, a really run-down part of Dublin that is now a tourist attraction. There was just a pub, two old ladies who sold sandwiches and a communist bookshop. The band that played there on Saturday nights was U2.” Was he dreaming of Hollywood fame at the time? Did he have a rampaging ego?
“I don’t think anyone of us were talking about careers as such, we were just happy to be in a theatre where everything could change every two weeks. It was wonderful camaraderie. It was all: ‘He’s just written a new play, let’s put that on.’ I don’t think it has ever been as exciting for any of us as it was then, such great chemistry, and then we went our separate ways.”
Acting was a far cry from his childhood. Presumably he was expected to work in the Guinness brewery like his father? “If I was lucky, because my dad was made redundant. I didn’t know anyone who was an actor. People today are so blasé in Dublin about films being made but when I was at school it was almost unheard of. I remember one day Gene Wilder came to town to make a film and the whole place ground to a halt. Buses and traffic backed up. Women were hanging out of the windows of the nearby factory. There were hundreds of us watching Gene Wilder eat a sandwich. He did about 18 takes and we were mesmerised by every one.” I suppose a more usual career for a young Irishman at the time was the one he took: the priesthood. Was he talked into it or did he have a vocation?
“It was part of the culture. It was a very religious, oppressive society, though we didn’t see it as oppression at the time. I remember walking with my mother along a narrow pathway and she was holding onto a pram and two priests came along the footpath and she had to wheel the pram into the road to allow them to walk by, these mysterious men in black. I think the religion I had – and I don’t have any now – was rooted in a kind of childish fantasy.”
Get them early, eh? “Yes the Jesuits have that expression, ‘give us a child until he is seven and he will be ours for life’. That was why the Catholic Church and the Nazi party fed off each other. After the rally at Nuremberg, the Pope said: ‘We need to be doing something similar and we have the theatre for it with St Peter’s’, so that was when he started coming out on the balcony to address the crowds. And the Nazis meanwhile were learning from the Jesuits and making sure they got the child by seven in order to have them for life. The Hitler Youth.” And that explains the sympathy between Irish Catholics and the Nazis? “Yes, De Valera [the Taoiseach] signed the book of condolence when Hitler died. There was a sneaking regard among many Irish people for Germany and Hitler. England’s pain was Ireland’s gain.”
Must have been strange for him moving to England as an 11 year-old to join a seminary, then? “It was, but I didn’t know much about the world. Celibacy, transubstantiation, they were just words to us, we didn’t know what they meant.”
In 2010, Byrne revealed that a priest at the seminary had sexually abused him. He doesn’t care to elaborate other than to say it left him “deeply hurt” but does he feel angry about the church in general now? “Oh yes, they have had way too much of a hold on this country. It’s a very corrupt and nefarious institution.” He cites the “slavery” of the church-and-state run “Magdalene Laundries”. “The nuns were vicious because you have all these woman living together in denial of love. They turned inward on themselves, became twisted creatures. I saw nuns being awfully cruel to me and to my sister. Horrific. Horrific.”
Does he feel a little nervous – or perhaps superstitious is the word – about saying such things, given that the Catholic Church must be part of his DNA? “I think if you are lucky you eventually come to a place where you are able to question these things, and I did. I read a lot on the subject and had many conversations and I have come to the conclusion that the Catholic Church is a force for evil. How can you enslave women? How can you deny men who are supposed to be serving you the comfort of a marriage and children? How can they deny sending condoms to Africa? How can they deny women becoming priests? It’s an anti-woman church and an anti-love church.” Did he raise his own children as Catholics? “No, I never discussed religion with them ever. As far as I’m concerned, it didn’t do me any good. And it’s interesting to watch two people grow up without it and find their own kindness and conscience.”
He and Barkin divorced in 1999, and she went on to marry the Revlon billionaire Ron Perelman. That marriage ended nastily (at one point Barkin reportedly threw a glass of water over Perelman in a restaurant), yet Byrne and Barkin have stayed good friends. What was the secret? A long pause. “I think it’s about the children. I mean, divorce is a wound. It’s associated with failure and shame. But we worked through the stages of regret and anger and disappointment and decided we had to work together for the kids. In the end, both kids were able to see that even though we weren’t living in the same household we still respected each other. So I’m quite proud of that.”
Until recently, Byrne was a cultural ambassador for Ireland, a rather undiplomatic one. He caused much rancour when he dismissed “The Gathering”, which is meant to get the Irish diaspora to visit the homeland in 2013, as an excuse to fleece wealthy Americans. I hope he wore his flak jacket. “Yes, it was interesting that.”
Not a natural politician, then? A wry smile. “I did a drama recently which meant me spending some time with politicians and seeing how they played the public role. It taught me that the real actors are the politicians.” With this he stands up and takes his trousers off. A quick change is needed before his next scene.
‘All Things to All Men’ is released on Friday April 15th
Nigel Farndale Telegraph.co.uk