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Gabriel Byrne: 'One teacher had 14 words for stupid and called me each one'

Gabriel Byrne panicked and ran when The Usual Suspects was a big hit at Cannes. It was only when writing his memoir Walking With Ghosts that he realised why, he tells Tommy Conlon


Gabriel Byrne

Gabriel Byrne

Walking With Ghosts by Gabriel Byrne

Walking With Ghosts by Gabriel Byrne


Gabriel Byrne

Flush with money and success from the movies, Gabriel Byrne is back home in Dublin and wants to treat his father to a good night out in a fancy restaurant.

He tells the anecdote in his new memoir, Walking With Ghosts. The scene is poignantly comedic. His ould fella is discomfited by the luxury of the setting, the young fella is discomfited by his ould fella's discomfort. The waiter recommends the lobster bisque. The Byrne family, parents and six children, grew up in Walkinstown eating pigs' ears and pigs' feet and boiled sheep's heads. In one culinary image, the chasm between his old life and new life is captured.

"Maybe," he says now with a mordant chuckle, "I should have called it 'Lobster Bisque and Pigs' Ears'. That would've been a good title for it."

His father, mother and sister Marian are among the ghosts he summons with such consummate sensitivity in these pages, it's like he has gently woken them from their slumber and guided them by the hand through the deserted halls of their shared past. It is at times a heartbreakingly tender excursion between the living and the dead. The actor is an artist of the written as well as the spoken word.

This memoir is not a montage of his screen highlights. From his debut in Excalibur in 1981 and on through Defence of the Realm, Miller's Crossing and The Usual Suspects, to his Golden Globe for the HBO series In Treatment, he has had plenty of them in a career that has amassed some 80 roles.

"I don't think that it's a book about movies," he explains by phone from his home in Maine on America's northeast coast. "I was more concerned with honestly revealing as much as I could of my own character flaws because I wanted to look at the myth of fame and the myths of..." He gathers his thoughts on the subject a second time. "It's about saying, this is the part of me that remains hidden and I want to reveal it."

So, the ghosts he walks with are mostly his own. The nervous, frightened child; the 11-year-old boy who took the night boat to England to become a priest; the boy sexually violated in that seminary; the young man searching for his place in the world; the star of Irish television and then of international cinema; the middle-aged man in a room seeking refuge from the bottle; the public property battling for his privacy; the travelling player, moving from film set to film set in a career that has gone the distance. And now, the 70-year-old survivor of those traumas and triumphs, nesting with his second wife and their young daughter in a haven overlooking the sea where, he says, "peace comes dropping slowly every day".

It could be called a happy ending, except that it's not an ending, and he was never the type of actor drawn to stories with corny endings anyway. In keeping with this emotional rigour, he rejects the glib assumption that there is a satisfying catharsis to be gained from writing a memoir.

"I would like to say that there is - there actually isn't." Instead he has been striving for a more pragmatic resolution.

"What I try to do in my life is to accept the world as it is, and not want it to be different, because I spent a great deal of my life wanting the world to be different. The world is the world, reality is reality, and you either accept that and have a degree of contentment from that, or you're constantly dissatisfied with the moment."

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Armed with this stoicism, he was able to process with equanimity the moment when he turned up at his old Walkinstown home, only to find himself a stranger at the door. The dwelling seemed impossibly small. Inside his own heart there was a flood of memories and echoes. But inside the four walls was a different family adding their own layer of memories. The lives the Byrne family had lived there were fragments of broken pottery somewhere deep in the subsoil.

As he stood at the gate, the door opened and a couple emerged; they saw him standing there and were immediately suspicious. They asked him if he wanted something. He said no, he was just looking, he used to live there. They moved on and so did he.

"I felt like I was an intruder in my own past," he explains now. "What that moment taught me is that, in a way, the past doesn't belong to us anymore, and where we lived and what we've loved moves on, and moves on to other people, and it is their home now and my home exists only in memory."

But it wasn't a particularly melancholy moment. "I accepted it as what it is, a fact of life, and the fact of life is that everything changes. Everything must change."

Of course, he didn't need to be physically present at the home his parents made to find them. The book was written in part to explore his own sense of them as people, as distinct from their parental roles. His father was a cooper's labourer in Guinness's, made redundant at 47.

"How did he feel [about that]? Being put on the scrapheap of unemployment and never getting another job again, and never having anybody to talk to about it? And me in a way rejecting him when he would say, 'Ah sure, just put on the kettle for another cup of tea. Why can't you stay and have the tea?' And me wanting to be gone. You know, a 23-year-old and I have to get away."

By 1995 the world, as per Arthur Daley's famous coinage, was his lobster. Having moved to London in the early 1980s, Byrne was determined to avoid playing parts as the clichéd Irishman, even if he needed the money. He didn't want to be acting the Mick. He was striving for a more cosmopolitan profile.

A decade and more later, he was on the cusp of international stardom for his role in The Usual Suspects. One of the films of the decade, it was an enormous hit. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1995 it received a 10-minute standing ovation.

"You're a f**king star," a famous producer declared to him at the post-premiere party. He was swamped by popping cameras. It was a career apotheosis. But instead of basking in the lights, he was blinded by them. The scale of the exposure rattled him to his core. He took off running, literally running through the dawn streets of Cannes. Then he got out of town, booked into a hotel in Nice and holed up there.

"I can only describe [it] as a panic attack," he recalls now. "It was an actual panic attack."

But why?

"Well, I think a great deal of what happens to us in later life has its roots in childhood. And when I was going to school I was told on more than one occasion that I was stupid. I was told - and I remember it very, very well - you'll never be any good for anything except the pick and the shovel. Now, the people who have made their living with a pick and a shovel are people I admire. But it was denigrated then.

"There was one teacher, a Christian Brother, who had at least 14 different words for stupid. 'Gobdaw, eejit, clown, dumbbell, etc etc.' And I was called every one of those names. So, this sense of being less than - of being stupid, of not being worthy - that was deep inside me. I didn't know it. And it took that moment for it to come out. And it came out in the form of that panic attack."

It was only in writing the book that he was able to join the dots between his childhood and that fugitive reaction in Cannes.

"I saw the connection and said, yes, you ran from that because you thought you didn't deserve it and you were of no consequence."

He was also suddenly dealing with a whole new level of fame and this was scrambling his senses too. "It kind of frightened me a bit because I had seen what it had done to other people and I had seen how even a little bit of fame had affected people and how it had drawn attention to them in an extremely dangerous way. I thought, I'm gonna lose the identity that I have and I'm gonna be this other thing and I don't want to be that other thing because I don't want to lose contact with myself."

As a result, he deliberately navigated a career path away from the full-blown movie stardom that was seemingly imminent.

"Yes, I did steer away from that, and I decided I would work in the world of independent film and theatre which I could, you know - there was a safety zone there.

"I turned down roles that other actors took that made hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. And I turned down a chance to win an Oscar, another actor took the role and won an Oscar for it."

He won a Golden Globe in 2009 for the TV series In Treatment. After receiving the nomination, he thought long and hard about turning up for the ceremony in Los Angeles.

Fundamentally, says Byrne, he is one of nature's introverts; he just happens to make his living in a very public milieu. The palaver of a spangling Hollywood night didn't appeal to him. But friends and family encouraged him to turn up and accept the moment of validation if it did come his way. He decided to go but then a work commitment intervened.

"But the thing is, [the Golden Globe] is there on the book shelf and I look at it. But even if I hadn't won it, I don't know that the thing on the shelf makes that much difference. That sounds controversial but, you can't hold on to success. You can look back on it and say I did it but you can't actually hold on to it in the present moment. And anyway, the best validation comes from within not without.

"I think it has to come from inside yourself. I know people who have won Oscars and two days later they're saying, 'Well, what the hell was all that about? Where's my next job coming from?'"

His next movie is, as they say, already in the can. Death of a Ladies' Man was filmed earlier this year. It is inspired by the songs of Leonard Cohen, and he plays a terminally ill poet and roué who loved not wisely but too well. Sex and death, poetry and women: there was only ever going to be one man for that job. Cohen, he says, gave the project his blessing not long before he died four years ago. "He signed off on [it] and he said, 'This is very like my own story because I'm a poet and I'm dying and I'm looking for something in the past that I can never recover.'"

There is an echo of that existential surrender early in Byrne's memoir. "I am thinking of the seasons of my own life," he writes, "learning now in my winter days I must shed what I have held most dear."

His house in Maine sits on 50 acres. Surrounded by sea, mountain and forest, he is immersed in the beauty and tranquillity it brings him. His family shares their sanctuary with quite the menagerie of animals. "We have ducks and goats and hens and donkeys and all kinds of things." In fact as he speaks, he is "looking out at our two donkeys here grazing away in the meadow."

He has a soft spot for this dignified beast of burden. In human form they would have been navvies, knights of the pick and shovel. "And man has abused them in my opinion. That's why it's lovely to see them out there and to know - I know, that they'll never have a day's hardship in their lives."


Walking With Ghosts by Gabriel Byrne

Walking With Ghosts by Gabriel Byrne

Walking With Ghosts by Gabriel Byrne

Walking With Ghosts by Gabriel Byrne is published by Picador.

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Gothic Horror The perils of getting in character

Gabriel Byrne has a phobia about rats. And he wouldn't be mad about leeches either. So naturally enough, Ken Russell persuaded him to share a few scenes with both creatures when they were making the 1986 film Gothic.

Russell, the late director, "was known as the enfant terrible of the British film industry". Byrne in Gothic plays the legendary English poet Lord Byron. The film lays on the nightmarish horrors with a trowel.

"Ken was maybe mad in the sense that he would try anything," Byrne recalls. The actor told him that he had a phobia about rats. The director on set told him that he had a cellar full of them, waiting for their close-up. And he wanted his star to walk among them - in his bare feet.

Byrne thought long and hard about it. Then he swallowed hard and said, "'Ken, you've got one take on this. I'm not doing any more - one take, you better get it right.' And I walked across in my bare feet through these rats that were squeaking and squealing."

Then Russell came to him a week later about another scene - in which Lord Byron's body would this time be covered in real leeches. "And they are horrible things to look at. But I did it. And when they took them off, there were bruises all over my body where they'd sucked out the blood."

No animals were harmed in the making of the film, presumably, but there was at least one human who didn't emerge unscathed.

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