As he returns to the Irish stage for the first time in more than four decades, the actor talks about revisiting the past, the ridiculousness of Hollywood and why he’s not slowing down any time soon
You can take the man out of Walkinstown — geographically, at least. Gabriel Byrne has long left the Dublin suburb he grew up in behind, but one afternoon in recent years, he found himself back at the front door of his family home. A young couple, unknown to him, was now living in the house, and the moment left him marvelling both at how familiar the house seemed, but how he was now a complete stranger to it.
Byrne has been thinking a lot about the past lately, perhaps with good reason. In 2020, he released his memoir, Walking With Ghosts, which became an evocative retelling of his formative years in Dublin, as well as an exploration of his parents’ interiorities, and an attempt to map the co-ordinates from his upbringing to the present day. It’s a lyrical and muscular read that’s brimful of emotional truth and mordant humour.
“I think we revisit the past all the time,” he observes. “I think people often say that when you write something, it’s about the past and confronting demons, or you’re making peace with things… I didn’t find any of that. It wasn’t about writing it so I could come to terms with anything. And I wasn’t so much interested in anything to do with nostalgia or sentimentality.”
We’re talking today because Byrne is in rehearsal at the Gaiety Theatre for his theatrical piece, Walking With Ghosts, adapted from his memoir. Though he has appeared over the years on stages on Broadway and in London (his portrayal of James Tyrone in a 2016 Broadway production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night saw him nominated for a Tony award), it’ll be the first time that Byrne will appear on an Irish stage since a 1978 production of Borstal Boy.
This may be a one-man show, but Byrne cuts a fairly unstarry figure before rehearsals. At first glance, he could feasibly be the Crumlin school teacher he once was, as opposed to a movie star. People working on and around the production note in asides that he is easy to work with — certainly more low-maintenance than others in his profession.
It looks set to be a charming, if emotionally raw, production. In Walking With Ghosts, Byrne writes with particular affection about his parents, who met in a doorway in Dublin when sheltering from the rain. His father, Dan, originally from Narraghmore in Kildare, was a soldier and cooper, while his mother, Eileen, originally from Roscommon, was a nurse. Eileen, in particular, had a wonderful sense of humour, and wasn’t overly impressed by the idea of stardom; a remarkable woman, it would seem, who led a fairly unremarkable life. Writing the memoir gave him pause to consider his mother’s life.
“I wrote about my mother, but I was also writing about women of that generation, who were expected to get up and do the house, get the kids to school, to do dinner and that was it, day in, day out. I was always curious...What did my mother think about? What was her emotional life? Women’s ambitions weren’t really considered as anything that was relevant to anybody else’s lives. The toll that this took on women’s emotional, intellectual and physical lives is absolutely huge.”
Reviewing the memoir, critics have made mention of Byrne’s masterful and assured prose, but as Byrne notes, there has always been some sort of writer within him to some degree. Before he chose acting as his profession, he had briefly considered journalism. Byrne had already released a well-received memoir in 1994, Pictures In My Head, detailing his transition from the home-grown theatre scene to a life in the movies.
“I’d scribble things here and then, and sometimes a newspaper would ask me to do something,” he says. “I’d been asked to do [another] book a couple of times, but I didn’t want to do one of those dreadful tell-alls… and I could have done a book like that, because I know where the bodies are buried, so to speak. What I was interested in was trying to look at the world I’d grown up in and left, to see if it had influence, you know, [on] who I became. You know, the way life is a series of decisions that you make, and eventually, you become the sum of those decisions.”
Certainly, there are a number of parallel universes in which Byrne is an entirely different person to the actor best known for his roles in The Usual Suspects, Miller’s Crossing and, closer to home, Into The West. His is a life that has held many potential different fates. At the age of 11, he famously took a night boat to England to train as a priest. He spent five years there before being asked to leave at 16 after failing to adhere to the rules.
I ask what influenced his decision to train as a priest at a young age, or whether the decision was his to make. Byrne talks about the considerable influence of the Catholic Church back in 1960s Ireland, and how, as a profession, the priesthood brought immense pride to a family.
“It’s interesting to look at photos of Clonliffe College or Maynooth College… hundreds all in white collars, coming from the country to become priests, brothers, nuns,” he says. “That was a profession. To have a nun or a priest in the family was a big deal. The control that the church had over people’s lives was unquestioned. The job that you had in life was to make a living and dedicate yourself to God. Sex was regarded as something shameful and dirty. They implanted this notion, this truly dangerous notion, that women were sources of temptation. Becoming a priest, your life was about being pure, and so forth.”
Before becoming an actor, Byrne tried other different lives on for size after he left UCD — cook, archaeologist, plumber (He describes himself as “the worst man who ever entered a bathroom” during this time in particular). There was also, of course, a stint as a Spanish/history teacher at Ardscoil Éanna in Crumlin, his old school.
Byrne’s eyes light up when he talks about his former career, and there’s a sense that acting’s gain was very much teaching’s loss. “You know, I loved the kids I taught, but I was way too young,” he says. “I was 23, and teaching people of 17/18. I was walking around in a [teacher’s] gown. I had kind of an illusion of authority, but I was barely older than them. It was a mixed school, which was unusual for the time, so it was boys and girls. But I often think I’d love to go back now and teach. It’s not about standing in front of a class and saying stuff about the present tense. It’s about as much listening to them and communicating with them as it is telling them what to do. Then again, that’s what education is — learn this off, do the Leaving Cert and get good grades. I still hate the idea of Leaving Certs, Inter Certs, points, and the pressure put on kids and parents. That’s not the purpose of education. The purpose is to imbue the child with a sense of curiosity about the world. I didn’t understand it then, but I understand it now.”
At one memorable point, Byrne took a class of 17-year-olds to Benidorm on a school tour. “It was the cheapest place you could get to at the time. They were learning Spanish and I wanted them to see what Spain was like and speak the language,” he recalls. “Course, it was me every night in the foyer of the hotel, trying to count them and send them to their rooms, and they’d be out the windows and on their way to discos, meeting young Spanish guys and girls.”
Every so often, he bumps into his old pupils whenever he’s in Ireland, many of whom must now be in their 60s (Byrne is 71). “They always say ‘Mr Byrne’ or ‘Sir’, and I always think, this has to be somebody I taught,” he smiles. “I have a tremendous affection for those people. And you know, I did my best.”
With his own curiosity around acting already germinating at the time, Byrne started an after-school drama class in Ardscoil Éanna. “That was when I really saw who these kids were,” he says.
One of these pupils was a “young, very shy girl”. “She asked if she could do something backstage. One day, as she was literally sweeping the stage, I said, ‘I think you’re really going to make something of your life.’ She told me this later on, a few years ago. She called me up and told me she was recording her new album and would I do a poem and she’d set it to music.” Incidentally, that pupil was Christine Tobin, a former BBC Jazz Vocalist of the Year. “She made me realise that, on a young person, no compliment is ever wasted.”
In Byrne’s own school years, in the very same school, he endured much of the opposite. One Christian Brother that taught him had 14 different words for stupid reserved for his pupils: “Gobdaw, eejit, clown, dumbbell, etc.” Byrne would write the homework essays for the other kids in his class, under different names. “I’d then hear some other bloke get a higher mark than the one I wrote myself,” he smiles.
“[It amounts to] the destruction of your identity,” Byrne says of being on the receiving end of that type of teaching experience. “When you’re trying to build your identity as a young boy or girl, you don’t know where to step. If there’s someone in your life telling you you’re stupid, you’ll never be good for anything… One time, I was told, ‘The only thing you’ll ever be good for is the pick and shovel.’ It takes a long time to fight back from that.”
After evoking such a sense of place in his own writing, I am curious to know what his observations are of Dublin as it is these days.
“I’m aware, when I come home, that so many things are different,” he notes. “I’ve always loved the architecture of Dublin. Now, there are obvious warts on the landscape. One of them, and it’s a metaphor probably, is the Starbucks, which was the Anglo Irish building, on St Stephen’s Green. You have a row of classically beautiful houses, and then, in the middle of them, there’s this brutalist lump.
“I often felt that Grafton Street belonged to Dublin,” he adds. “It always was who we are. I was there two weeks ago and thought, my God, I could be anywhere in America. It’s a mall.”
Byrne previously lived in California and New York for many years, and now lives on 50 acres of farmland in Maine, on America’s east coast, with his wife Hannah Beth King and their five-year-old daughter (Byrne also has a son and daughter from his previous marriage to actor Ellen Barkin. Both are now in their 20s). And yet, amid it all, the burr of Byrne’s Dublin accent remains utterly unchanged; his view of the city he grew up in as sharp and keenly observed as someone who never left.
He lived in the starry Californian enclave of Beverly Hills for seven years. “I never thought for one second I was anything else other than a boy from Dublin, Walkinstown. There wasn’t many people from Walkinstown there,” he catches himself with a recollection, smiling. “Actually, a neighbour of mine, two doors down, ended up in Beverly Hills. But I never bought into the notion of stardom or money or fame. It kind of made me embarrassed, to be absolutely honest. I don’t like it. I don’t like it when people behave in that way toward me.
“It was never, for a single second, an ambition of mine to be part of that world,” he adds. “But I saw it all up close. I mean, really close. I learned as much about myself as I learned about Hollywood during that time. It’s a ridiculous place where people earn ridiculous amounts of money.
“But, in a strange way, Hollywood is a microcosm of humanity,” he continues. “Whether you’re there, or in Naas or Ballintubbert, the same people are there. The wealthy person. The boring person. The ambitious person. But yeah, [Hollywood] is a more exaggerated and more examined form of human nature.”
Byrne’s ambivalent feelings toward the dark art of celebrity comes partly from a conversation he had with Richard Burton at the outset of his career. In his memoir, Byrne recalls a moment when he was living in a flat in London, putting in the hard yards to get his acting career off the ground in the UK after appearances on TV serials like Bracken and The Riordans in Ireland. He was drawing the dole at the time, and found himself one day taking a last-minute trip to Venice to film a role opposite Burton, changing his dole money into Italian lira on the way. As you might expect, he was delighted to be checking into a hotel with all the starry trimmings on Venice’s Grand Canal, but his co-star had words of advice to hand.
“Give it all you’ve got but never forget, it’s just a bloody movie, that’s all it is. We’re not curing cancer,” Burton said to the young actor. “This was a man I hugely respected and revered as an actor telling me, ‘Be careful. This isn’t real life’,” Byrne notes.
Byrne has flourished in the world of independent/cult film and theatre, evidently taking care to choose nuanced roles and build a varied body of work. He has co-written scripts (including that of the 1996 film The Last Of The High Kings, starring Jared Leto) and has production credits on Into The West and the Oscar-nominated film In The Name Of The Father. He mindfully shifted from the high-octane world of movie stardom. “I turned down roles that other actors took that made hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office,” he has said in the past. “And I turned down a chance to win an Oscar — another actor took the role and won an Oscar for it.”
He’s still keeping things interesting and varied, work-wise. After shooting War Of The Worlds, an Anglo-French reimagining of HG Wells’ classic, Byrne has also wrapped work on a biopic of Ferruccio Lamborghini (he plays Enzo Ferrari), and is due to start work on a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, opposite Ian McKellen. He enjoys writing the odd newspaper column and is, very tentatively, working on a novel.
“There’s nothing romantic or glamorous about it, as you well know,” he explains of writing. “It’s hard work. Very hard work. Sometimes, I look at people who write columns in newspapers and think, that’s a pretty interesting way to comment on the world. Things are happening and I’d love to throw something into that discussion.
“Apart from anything else, you’ve got to keep your mind active,” he surmises. “I’m not ready to be sitting in an armchair, with the dog bringing me the papers and my slippers.”
Landmark and Lovano present Gabriel Byrne: Walking With Ghosts at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, from January 27 to February 6. Tickets are available from ticketmaster.ie and landmarkproductions.ie