Gabriel Byrne: ‘I’ve never seen an actress who isn’t vulnerable in a sex scene’

Gabriel Byrne in his one-man show Walking With Ghosts - Ros Kavanagh
Gabriel Byrne in his one-man show Walking With Ghosts - Ros Kavanagh

Born in Dublin, now resident in Maine, New England, Gabriel Byrne has been in so many films since John Boorman’s 1981 Ireland-shot fantasy Excalibur (he played the wily Uther, plunging said sword into stone) that your eyes can slightly swim at the list of credits, numbering over 90.

In the Nineties – a breakthrough decade for him – he starred in the Coen brothers’ cult gangster film Miller’s Crossing, the plot-twisting sensation The Usual Suspects, and box-office dead cert The Man in the Iron Mask, appearing as D’Artagnan alongside Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich and Gerard Depardieu. The last decade has seen hits (the horror film Hereditary), flops (the thriller Lies We Tell) and almost everything in between, featuring a roll-call of big names.

In September, he will become the latest screen star to make their West End debut in 2022, following on from Amy Adams and Emilia Clarke. He will bring a one-man show, Walking with Ghosts, to the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue for a limited season before heading off to New York with it. It has been some 40 years since he last trod the boards in London. He’s 72.

Those expecting showbiz anecdotage should be advised though. Walking With Ghosts is based on his acclaimed 2020 memoir of the same name. That contains memorable vignettes – Brendan Behan singing on a Dublin bus, Boorman showing his waspish side. But mainly it avoids celebrity tittle-tattle, probing key staging-posts in his life, flitting back, with inspiring quantities of humour and wry insightfulness, to the vanished world of youth and Fifties Dublin where he grew up, the eldest of six, the son of a brewery barrel maker.

“I could have written a Hollywood memoir,” Byrne affirms, talking via Zoom from his farmland home. The young dreamboat of yore now looks the picture of distinction in glasses, with an impressive helping of hair. “I know where most of the bodies are buried. But I thought that it would be disrespectful to people who might not have wanted all that to be made public. I was more interested in looking at memory and time. The structure mimics the way that memory works: you’re in the present, then the past – and the past is somehow ‘present’.”

Gabriel Byrne in 1999 - Andrew Crowley
Gabriel Byrne in 1999 - Andrew Crowley

He will be candid to a degree about his blurry bad days, lost to alcoholism. The memoir also divulged the sexual abuse he suffered from a priest while boarding at a seminary in Birmingham in early adolescence, but on stage, as on the page, he will abstain from protracted disclosure. He expressed himself in the book in short, disquieting phrases (“The priest’s breath was sour and hot as he came towards me…”). “Dragging it out from under the rock was a painful experience, and it took me a long time to do it,” he says. “I didn’t go into details because to an extent it goes in and out of my consciousness.”

“Even years later it feels like the night has been cemented over,” is how he phrased it. His evident poetic gift drew a comparison, from Rev Richard Coles on Radio 4, with Seamus Heaney, though at times the dance of words is more obviously reminiscent of Dylan Thomas.

Interestingly, there is one notable ‘insider’ anecdote in the book, included in the stage show, about Richard Burton, whose name is inextricably linked to Thomas’ thanks to his readings of Under Milk Wood. The warm-voiced Welsh legend took Byrne under his wing while filming the TV miniseries Wagner (1983) in Venice; Byrne was cast as Karl Ritter, the son of one of the composer’s patrons.

After an abortive shoot that saw his lip sliced by a make-up artist who lost her balance on a gondola, he got invited to a long drinking session with his hero. “I’m rather ashamed to be an actor sometimes,” Burton confided. “I've done the most appalling shit for money… 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.” “Those words stayed with me,” Byrne says.

Gabriel Byrne in The Usual Suspects - Alamy
Gabriel Byrne in The Usual Suspects - Alamy

And they help explain why he isn’t even better known. He has worked a lot, and hard, but a job’s a job, in his view, a potential intrusion on the finer things in life. “When I did Miller’s Crossing, people [in LA] said: ‘You have to have a lawyer, a publicist, a manager, an agent.’ Before I knew it, I was surrounded by all these people telling me what I had to do. I felt like I had lost my power. I didn’t want to do any of it. I didn’t want to be on chat shows, on red carpets, I didn’t want to be a model for Armani.” He oozes cool contempt for the Hollywood system – “screenplays written by committee, casting brand-names”.

He sidesteps a query, though, about whether Hollywood has cleaned up its act in the wake of #metoo. “I think the same thing that goes on in Hollywood more or less goes on in every factory and every office, and in every town all over the world. It boils down, to a great extent, to the abuse of power by individuals and how women are treated, not just in films.”

I wonder whether he has any views on the firing of Frank Langella after allegations of “unacceptable behaviour” while filming a Netflix series, the Fall of The House of Usher, in which he was cast as the lead. In March, Langella was accused of inappropriately touching the leg of the actress playing Usher’s wife, something allegedly not in the blocking agreed with the intimacy coordinator. “Legislating the placement of hands, to my mind, is ludicrous,” Langella wrote in his defence. Does Byrne think intimacy coordination is proving a hindrance as much as a help?

He takes a nuanced view: “You’re asking a male actor. I imagine it would be a very different answer from an actress. I’m all for it. In the times when I was doing those kind of scenes I never felt comfortable with them. I think it’s extremely difficult to ask two people who are not intimately involved in a relationship to simulate that kind of passion. The whole thing is, after all, acting.

"I’ve never seen an actress who isn’t vulnerable in that situation. You’re surrounded by a crew of men. You’re in bed with a man you’re not intimately involved with. Anything that protects them is good, and it protects the men too, because its uncomfortable for everyone concerned. I’ve heard of directors who encourage their actors to be as free, if you like, as possible and I think that’s absolutely irresponsible.”

There are some haunted souls in LA, he reckons. “One actor, who is incredibly famous, told me 'I can’t believe I spent so much time on film sets. It’s the biggest regret of my life.'” His days in Maine? “Here you get up early, go to bed when it’s dark. It’s soothing being with animals, they’re not sitting round thinking ‘To be or not to be’?” They’re thinking: when’s the next bit of grub?” A laugh.

Following his nose has served him well, even so. He won a Golden Globe for his turn as therapist Paul Weston on the HBO drama series In Treatment (2008-10), newly rebooted, which exemplified his capacity for calm understatement, intense watchfulness and lurking vulnerability. Having spent so much time understanding that world, he’s now a proselytiser for therapy: “I would say it should be free across the board for everyone, if that were possible – especially for kids.”

He has recently become a fixture with the younger generation thanks to the hit Disney+ adaptation of The War of the Worlds, returning this year, in which he plays a valiant neuro-scientist. Its core appeal is worlds away from fear of little green men, he reckons: “It’s a parable about those things which we feel powerless to confront – nuclear war, climate change.”

A puzzle is why it has taken him so long to grace Shaftesbury Avenue. In New York, he has delivered a hat-trick of leading performances in Eugene O’Neill plays and will soon reprise his portrayal of James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, opposite Jessica Lange, on screen. But London is where it’s at, he avows. “The West End always had a special significance for me. More than Broadway. I often think that if I hadn’t gone to America, I might have stayed in Britain and become a stage actor, but that’s not the road I took.”

Gabriel Byrne in 1983 - Alamy
Gabriel Byrne in 1983 - Alamy

The uncomfortable truth, though, is that it was theatre here that gave him the cold shoulder. He relocated to the States not long after a Royal Court production. Jim Allen’s notorious Perdition, about alleged Zionist involvement with the Nazis, got pulled before it even opened in 1987, following protests. He remains unrepentant about his involvement: “I don’t know now whether the play was a great one, but it deserved to be seen. That’s what theatre is supposed to be about – put it in the public arena and debate it.”

He got his break in London in 1980 with another Royal Court production, the transfer of a Dublin hit, The Liberty Suit, written and directed by Peter Sheridan (brother of Jim), in which he took the lead as an ex-offender. He was left hospitalised by a group of soldiers in Sloane Square one night after a performance. Newly back from a tour of duty in Northern Ireland they took exception to his accent: “I was lucky to escape alive,” he says. Even so the bitter anti-Irish sentiments they displayed percolated in more indirect ways.

“Back then, being Irish was to be in a minority. I had a sense of inferiority – being Irish was something you shouldn’t be. The time of Albert Finney and Alan Bates – those working-class actors of the 1960s – had passed, and it was back to the rarefied idea of what an actor should be, how you had to speak. The acting world felt like a closed book.”

Gabriel Byrne with his ex-wife Ellen Barkin, in 1990 - Getty
Gabriel Byrne with his ex-wife Ellen Barkin, in 1990 - Getty

Back in the late 1980s, he stated that he wouldn’t want the role of James Bond even if it was offered to him (there was loose talk that he was in the running) – “He’s a cardboard character, so out of date, it’s a joke ... how could I play that role?” He agrees with his younger self: “Yes, had my reservations about what that character stood for, and I still do. But I would be the last person to say to an actor: you shouldn’t do that. Some great actors have played that role.”

What roles lie ahead for him? Imminently, Samuel Beckett – he will play the great Irish playwright in a new biopic directed by James Marsh (The Theory of Everything). Reading about Beckett gave him a taste for his masterpiece, Waiting For Godot; he’s planning to play one of the two tramps (Vladimir) on tour, in Ireland, the UK and the US next year, directed, like Walking with Ghosts, by Lonny Price. “I always saw Beckett in that cliched way of being detached from feeling. But I read Godot, and thought: it’s really funny and you can overlay it with emotion.”

Shy and retiring though he appears, he can’t resist the terror of the limelight. When he did Walking with Ghosts in Dublin in January, his first night audience included the Irish president Michael D Higgins. “I remember standing waiting to make that awful step from the wings onto the stage, thinking: what am I doing here?” The adrenalin pumps round you in a way it doesn’t in real life. It’s a curious contradiction. You could go down in flames. And yet you feel impelled to go on.”

Walking with Ghosts runs at the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue, Sep 6-14. Tickets: