Wednesday 25 April 2018

The Byrne identity

Joe Jackson

Here's something Gabriel Byrne, in his role as psychotherapist Dr Paul Weston in the TV series In Treatment, might tell you. "Sometimes the key to a person's psyche can be revealed in an aside after a therapy session has ended." Then, no doubt, given the exorbitant rates those guys -- and gals -- charge, he'd probably add another $100 to your bill for that little observation.

Either way, partly as a result of my lifelong passion for psychology, that is precisely what I felt happened during a chat Gabriel and I had only minutes after our first interview in 1988. But let me sketch in the background, OK? We were sitting on the shaded veranda of a millionaire's mansion in Bel Air and even that fact was enough to send me winging back to an article I'd read when I was 11. Why? Because it was headlined, At Home With Elvis, showed a beautiful blonde standing outside his lair in Bel Air, and had been written by a British journalist, all of which made me instantly decide, "God, it must be great to be an interviewer -- maybe that's what I'll be when I grow up!"

Now, here I was, a neophyte interviewer, sans blonde but in Bel Air, so I joked to Gabriel, "Look at us, you a one-time plumber's apprentice and me an ex-sheet-metal-work apprentice, who the fuck let us in here?" How did Byrne respond? Laughed, then, mirroring what I had already mentally noted was a tendency towards a mercurial change of mood, said, more darkly, "But that is how I often feel, Joe. I can be at some big party here in Hollywood and I'm just standing there waiting for someone to walk over, tap me on the shoulder and say, 'How the hell did you get in here?' then point to the tradesman's entrance, and tell me to go."

This really was a telling admittance of core insecurity on Byrne's behalf, even though, during our interview, he had touched on the subject, in terms of being an actor. It also was, as I told him, "something I can easily relate to". Maybe that's why we connected so effortlessly from the start. There also was the fact that as kids we both wanted to be missionaries, though Byrne did go on to become, at least, a seminarian, which was a seminal experience for the guy, as you will see.

As such, I was far from surprised when Gabriel described our 1988 interview as "truly soul-searching, the first totally honest interview I've ever given". However, it is only now I realise that, long before Byrne eventually decided to go into psychotherapy, he, like so many of my interviewees, consciously or otherwise, reduced, or elevated, me to the role of their private psychotherapist, by proxy.

That said, after our second interview in 1992, for reasons that have never been explained to me, Mr Byrne was more inclined to call me a poxy interviewer! And he did, in effect, one night in Lillie's Bordello nightclub. But a few years later we made our peace on, actually, the day of the funeral of his former lover, Aine O'Connor, when we also reminisced about the "little lie" he'd asked me to tell about them both after our first interview, all of which I'll get to, later.

In the meantime, let me say that our chat after the first interview gave me not only my opening for the article, but also led to me kicking off with a quote from Byrne that may as well have been this would-be missionary's mission statement.

"Inspiring hope is of paramount importance to Gabriel Byrne," I wrote. "And so, when he says, 'I've come a long way from boiling water in a billycan in a plumber's shed in Dublin,' it is not said in that sickly tone of chest-thumping self-aggrandisement that is so common among movie stars and celebrities. His claim is made even more palatable when one realises that the journey Byrne is referring to is more spiritual than physical, and has less to do with amassing wealth than with a need to shed his sense of fear and anonymity. Also, if self-assertion now is a prime concern of his, what matters most of all is an assertion of the self as a, eh, 'courier' of dreams -- to cull a concept from the title of his latest movie, The Courier."

"Ten years ago I was in Dublin devoid of hope," he muses. "Now, you and I are sitting in Beverly Hills doing this interview . . . and that to me is an indication that dreams, ambitions . . . can be realised. If someone is reading this, as I used to read interviews, I want them to say, 'He did it, so can I', whatever they are reaching for, tell them go for it. If you and I can get that ray of hope across to even one individual, that makes this whole exercise worthwhile. I used to do interviews where they'd ask mindless, tedious questions but now I realise that, like here today, we can . . . hopefully communicate something of worth, and importance, to somebody out there."

Indeed. But what Gabriel couldn't have known was that with this quote he was almost literally paraphrasing my mission statement as an interviewer. As in my -- ludicrously pretentious, some might say -- alignment of myself with The Fugitive Kind, a sub-species Tennessee Williams defined by contrasting those "who accept proscribed answers that aren't really answers at all" with those who "continue to ask the questions that haunt the hearts of people".

So, again, is it any wonder Gabriel and I connected? No. In fact, listening to the original cassette tape of our 1988 interview all these years later, it really does sound to me like a therapy session and I will present it as such.

Incidentally, it wasn't until 2010 that Byrne revealed he was sexually abused, first, as an altar boy in Ireland, then, later, as a seminarian in England -- which was the period I honed in on, near the start of our interview.

"So, what happened to your vocation?"

"I was about four years there and there was this uproar when a travelling group of players performed and one girl took off her dress and we saw her slip! And when they were leaving, we were hanging out the window, and I remember thinking, 'This is exciting!' I discovered women and the theatre! So I wasn't too upset when the top guy said, 'I've been looking over your conduct and don't think you have a vocation.' It was a glorious day! I left."

"Apart from fleeting excitement at the sight of that girl in her slip, how did you cope with awakening sexual awareness in those circumstances?"

"When you are discovering sexuality and deprived of it you have to live the life of the imagination and most of us did that. When the lights went out, the beds would become tents, immediately!"

"Meaning you all would masturbate?"

"Yeah!"

"What about homosexuality?"

"There was homosexuality though I didn't recognise it as such. But putting guys together at the age of awakening sexual awareness, telling them women are equated with sin; then exploring sexuality in that way is to be expected."

"Did you partake?"

"There was 'horseplay', that's how I'd describe it."

"Did being told women are synonymous with sin leave you nervous, afraid of females?"

"Yes. This veneration of the Blessed Virgin and purity and all that stuff about women being unapproachable, inaccessible and not interested in sex, took me years to get over. One of the great joys of my life was discovering women love sex as much as men do! But I didn't go out with my first 'real' girlfriend until I was 19. I was very much in awe of, and afraid of, women. Those days in that seminary really fucked up my sexuality for a long time."

"A seminarian's life also can lead to a lack of confidence when you return to the outside world. Was that ever a problem for you?"

"Yes. I do have confidence now but it's a very delicate confidence. And it took a long time for me to gain confidence in myself as an actor."

"Might that be because you never made a conscious decision to become an actor? Someone asked if you'd like to appear in a play and you accepted. So did this ever leave you feeling you had entered the profession by default?"

"Exactly that. I felt I didn't have anything special to offer, wasn't gifted, so I kept saying 'Why the fuck is this happening to me, I don't deserve it.'"

"Couldn't this be another legacy of Catholicism?"

"Yeah. Many Irish people, Catholics in particular, do suffer from that sense of, 'I'm not entitled to what I have' and 'I should feel guilty about it, not joyful but miserable.' But I don't think that way now. I know I deserve to be here in Beverly Hills. I've worked for it and I'm entitled to the breaks I get, and make. But this sense has come after a long struggle. I was like that when I first moved to London, isolated, insulated, suffering in silence. It was a really painful period. But it made me realise you must confront pain, feel it, rather than anaesthetise, or avoid it. Avoiding pain stunts growth."

"So, did you ever use drink or drugs to anaesthetise your own pain?"

"Yeah. I went through a period of drinking, doing drugs, when I thought that was the answer to everything. I never snorted cocaine or took heroin but I smoked marijuana and it gave me a perception, which I thought was real, true. But now I realise you can get to that heightened state of consciousness without drugs. As for drink, I really had to fight a hard battle against that."

"Have you won the battle?"

"I can't say I'm in control but I knew if I wanted any kind of contented life I'd have to stop drinking. I face it one day at a time, that's how I live."

So much for media claims that Gabriel Byrne only lately 'came clean' on his alcoholism. But see what I mean about our first interview being like a session of psychotherapy? And what you have just read is only one tenth of the original 7,000-word interview.

But, OK, so what was the fib I told for GB? Actually, it was more a matter of me being economical with the truth. You see, at one point in our interview we'd discussed Gabriel's image as a sex symbol, he told me that "a few women" had come up to him and said, "You looked lovely in such a movie, I really fell for you." So I asked if he was ever tempted to exploit such a situation. "Never, really," Byrne replied, before adding, wisely, "many of those women don't know, or particularly care, who you are, just that you were in a movie so what's the point?" I then asked if he also resisted such temptations because of his long-term involvement with Aine, whom Gabriel asked me not to name. He phrased carefully the following quote.

"I have been involved in a long-term relationship with a woman who gave me tremendous support and gave up her career to go to England with me, and yes, because of my involvement in that relationship I tended not to take advantage of offers made to me on the streets or in pubs."

Why did Gabriel not want me to name Aine? Frankly, I hadn't a clue until after I typed out the interview, faxed it back to Ireland and he then phoned to ask if I'd like to go for a drink.

"The thing is, Joe, that Aine and I are no longer together but we'd prefer if you didn't mention that to anyone when you go back to Dublin because it might damage our professional partnership and we have, for example, that The Watchman play we're producing in the Peacock, so, say nothing, OK?"

"I won't, I promise."

"In fact, I'll be bringing my new girlfriend with me tonight."

Quite. But here, dear readers, I really wish you would go and make a cup of tea, while I Speedy Gonzalez my way through the details of the single greatest faux pas in my career as an interviewer. Believe it or not, I was no less than an hour into a staggeringly intense, one-to-one conversation with Byrne's mesmeric new companion, when a bar boy walked by and said, "Hey, Ellen, I thought you were great in The Big Easy!" which, naturally, prompted me to ask her, "So, are you an actress?" Yes, folks, I hadn't a clue that I'd been talking with Ellen Barkin, who, thankfully, turned out to be as gracious as she was beautiful and eased my savage embarrassment by saying, "You really didn't recognise me, did you, Joe? But that's what was great about our conversation. In fact, it was one of the best I had in LA because you were talking to me as a woman, not a movie star! I loved it."

Better still, after Ellen read my interview with her new beau she told me, on the phone, "what is so good was that the balance, the blend of psychological and socio-political questions was such that it wasn't simply actor/acting-based; you got a guy expressing his opinions on an unbelievably wide range of subjects. As Gabriel says, Joe, you do powerful, different interviews and I'd love to do an interview with you, when the time is right."

All of which I quote simply because what Ellen said that day really was hugely helpful to me, as a novice interviewer -- particularly her having identified, as no one had before, the admittedly idiosyncratic blend of psychological and socio-political questions I tended to pursue in interviews.

Happily, her future husband also loved that interview. Particularly the way my "provocative questions" made him come up with, as he said, "answers I mightn't otherwise have expressed, or articulated, to myself!"

This might explain why, four years later, Gabriel entered wholeheartedly into our second 'therapy session'. Here are highlights from that interview.

"The last time we talked you were 38 and told me you didn't want to become a father at 40, then have a 10-year-old kid at 50, yet you and Ellen had Jack when you were that age! But did it really take, as you've since said, that birth to give you 'a full respect for womanhood?'"

"Jesus Christ! I forgot I said that to you! That's why I never read that interview. You caught me going through a crisis back then. But, sure, until Jack was born the theory of childbirth was just that to me, a theory. The reality was something I was totally unprepared for. Ellen and I did all the breathing classes, and all that bullshit, but looking at her in childbirth I realised how ridiculous all those claims are, about a woman's threshold for pain being higher than a man's because she is built to give birth. It's a traumatic pain they go through, then, some have to deal with post-natal depression and . . . the process of childbirth is never really over [because] once you've reared the child and the child moves away, what replaces that child is a sense of loss, a sense of sadness, for the children they used to be."

"With your typically Irish tendency towards darkness, I suspect you've already begun to tune into that sense of loss, as a father!"

"You're absolutely right! That, too, was part of my response to Ellen giving birth to Jack."

"So do you agree that unless men go through experiences such as watching a woman give birth they have no true understanding of life, in its essence?"

"Definitely. I saw an interview with Sting and that's what he was saying, about the male needing to reconcile with the female, in himself. That's how I was, as a man. I used to think we weren't supposed to be concerned with feelings like grief, loss and the emotional responses brought forth by a child. I'm very much a product of the Fifties in Ireland and one of the most important things was trying to come to terms with those aspects of my personality I denied, to try and become a more rounded person, less of what I used to think a 'real man' should be, more in touch with feminine forces."

"Did part of what you used to see as a 'real man' involve being an aggressor, do you now have to curb a tendency towards violence?"

"I've never really been in an aggressive situation. But sometimes in the dead of night, when you have to face such questions about yourself, I do recognise that in the right circumstances, violence could erupt and you could kill somebody. But surely everybody has that potential, including women."

"People might look at Ellen, especially during that scene in Into The West, where she stares down a Traveller-hating creep in a chipper, and think that she might be as likely to hit you a wallop as you would be to hit her!"

"In fact they cut that scene! She did kick the guy in the balls! But this image she has as a 'tough-talking, Jewish broad from New York' is too simplistic. I've been involved with women who are strong, independent and secure enough to say exactly what they feel but as soon as you do that, as a woman, you are labelled 'tough' and 'ballsy', all that shit. They're the kind of women I really like. I've seen Ellen on a movie set with Jack Nicholson and I was fiercely proud of the way she stands up for herself. She takes no bullshit. And that comes from having had her share of bullshit in life and finally saying, 'I've had enough'. But, on the other hand, she is the softest-hearted person I've ever met -- a complete woman, a complete person."

"That sounds like the marriage could be very much a power struggle, as you each try to redefine what being a man, woman is in 1992."

"In our lifestyle, where Ellen is an actor and I'm an actor and we move around a lot, it's very difficult, at times, to keep a sense of place, self, family. So, if we have any area we have to grapple with in the marriage, that's it. I know that in four years I'm not going to be able to take Jack with me on location, I'm going to have to spend three months not being with my family and likewise, Ellen. So, it's difficult to make those things work. But Ellen is an extraordinarily adaptable woman. She has incredible inner strength and she's an unbelievable mother."

How poignant that quote is, given that just one year later, Gabriel and Ellen separated. Why? Neither has ever said, in public. However, happily, they are still close. But back in 1992, for reasons I can't remember, I ended my interview with Byrne by returning to the subject of his battle with alcohol. And what he said also now strikes me as poignant.

"Overusing drink is a symptom of an underlying sense of restlessness and discontent. It's also a depressant. But I really have struggled to overcome my handicaps, including a deep lack of self-confidence, which I tried to wash away with drink. I went through a lot of darkness trying to come to terms with myself. At times, I felt I had the potential to annihilate myself. But those days are gone. I have never been at a happier [point] . . . than I am right now. I honestly mean it when I say I couldn't ask for more in my life."

And that quote really should remind us how ephemeral happiness can be. So, too, obviously, was Gabriel's faith in me, as evidenced in those two interviews. This brings us back to that night in the legendary Library of Lillie's Bordello, in 1996, when he, in effect, called me a poxy interviewer.

So, what happened? Well, I'd recently published my first book, Troubadours and Troublemakers, which I was inspired to do, in part, by Gabriel once telling me, "Your interviews should be in a book, so that when other people come to interview us, we can say, 'Read that, first, and let's take it from there'." So, one night when I saw him standing alone near the member's bar, I decided to thank him. But, before I could, he literally spat at me, in equal measures, bile and Guinness and said, all too drunkenly:

"Here he is, the best interviewer in Ireland, or so he fucking thinks, believing his own publicity, the sad bastard. He's the one who asks all the questions that other people are afraid to ask -- me bollix. Just fuck off, Joe."

And so, resisting the tendency to punch GB in the gob, I did as I was told, saying simply, "OK, Gabriel, whatever". The next day his agent called and apologised for his behaviour, though, as I said to her, "I'd have been more impressed if Byrne himself had the balls to phone and apologise to me."

No matter, as I say, we later made our peace and, in 2003, both spoke at the Richard Harris Memorial in London's Strand Theatre where we had, as we Paddies say, 'great crack' and, like gentlemen, we made no mention of our spat. That's why this article really is my belated "Happy 60th birthday" to the mercurial little bollix! Joke! Cheers Gabriel.

(c) Joe Jackson

For original articles, see www.joejacksonjournalist.com

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