Gabriel Byrne Gives The Listening 'Treatment' Actor Gabriel Byrne may play a therapist on TV, but he's never actually been to therapy himself. Instead, he prepared for his role on HBO's In Treatment by drawing on his experience as observer.
NPR logo

Gabriel Byrne Gives The Listening 'Treatment'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Gabriel Byrne Gives The Listening 'Treatment'

Gabriel Byrne Gives The Listening 'Treatment'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


And now we shift from a performer who mesmerized people by dancing and singing to one who captivates fans by sitting and listening. Our guest today is Gabriel Byrne, who stars as therapist Paul Weston on the HBO series "In Treatment."

Based on an Israeli TV drama, "In Treatment" features Byrne, as Paul, working through a weekly schedule of therapy appointments. Monday through Thursday, as depicted in half-hour TV episodes, he meets weekly with four separate patients. On Friday, he sees his own therapist, allowing us a window into what he's thinking.

Season one of "In Treatment" is out on DVD, and season two, which concluded recently on HBO, is showing now on HBO Signature and available on HBO On Demand.

Gabriel Byrne, who also starred in "Miller's Crossing" and "The Usual Suspects," spoke with Terry Gross earlier this year. They started with a clip from the second season of in treatment in which Byrne, as Paul, is listening to a patient named Mia, played by Hope Davis.

She's a successful lawyer and has had several affairs with married men, including a colleague who just broke up with her. After talking to Paul about the two men she slept with over the weekend, she starts talking about her father.

(Soundbite of TV show, "In Treatment")

Mr. BYRNE: (As Paul) You make him sound perfect.

Ms. HOPE DAVIS (Actor): (As Mia) Is that bad?

Mr. BYRNE: (As Paul) Can you think of a downside to it?

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mia) A downside to having a father who loves me? No. The problem is I can't find anybody as good as him. You think there's something wrong with that, don't you?

Mr. BYRNE: (As Paul) Well for one thing, your father's married to your mother. Do you think there's any connection between that and your picking married men?

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mia) I said that I was done with that.

Mr. BYRNE: (As Paul) You did, but you also asked me what that pattern was about.

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mia) Now you're going to tell me that my father molested me? Because he didn't.

Mr. BYRNE: (As Paul) I didn't think that, but your father has been an essential comfort for you. For as long as you are his favorite, you won't ever be alone. I'm getting the feeling that the tight bond isn't entirely comfortable.

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mia) What do you mean?

Mr. BYRNE: (As Paul) Well look at this morning. You came in, you crossed a boundary. It made you feel special, but I think it also rattled you. Your speech was fast, graphic. You tried to provoke me. You spilled something.

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mia) The spill was an accident.

Mr. BYRNE: (As Paul) Maybe, but what I'm saying, Mia, is that it's not always a simple thing to be special. I was thinking of the feeling that you had when you were eight, after the robbery in your father's store, and he held you. It was too tight. It was life and death. Do you think it's possible that to separate from your father is to risk being entirely alone, but to stay with him is to be uncomfortably close?

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mia) Why are you doing this? My dad is all I have.

Mr. BYRNE: (As Paul) No one else?

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mia) Colleagues, acquaintances.

Mr. BYRNE: (As Paul) Is he your closest relationship? Are you his?

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mia) I feel sick. I, I ate too much. This is like anti-therapy. I walk in here feeling great. I'm going to leave feeling like crap.

Mr. BYRNE: (As Paul) Sometimes that happens.

TERRY GROSS, host: That's Gabriel Byrne and Hope Davis in a scene from "In Treatment." Gabriel Byrne, welcome to FRESH AIR. You are so good in this role.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRNE: Thank you, dear.

GROSS: Are people coming up and confessing their problems to you or talking with you, you know, about their therapist because you're so convincing and so sympathetic as a therapist, not always in your personal life in the series but as a therapist?

Mr. BYRNE: Yes, one or two people have come up to me and engaged me in conversation about their, in one case, very private life, and I hasten to reassure these people that I'm actually not real, I don't have a practice in Brooklyn and that they should, actually, seek professional help.

GROSS: So let me bluntly ask you the question that I know everybody probably always wants to ask you, which is: In preparation for this role, did you go into therapy, or had you already been in therapy and understood what the process was like?

Mr. BYRNE: I had never been in therapy. I had known a few psychotherapists but never actually took part in the process myself, but I understood that it was about listening, and listening, I think, is one of the most profound compliments that you can pay to another person. To truly listen and to feel that you're heard is deeply fulfilling in a deep human way.

I knew it was about that. The thing was how to make drama out of listening. And so therefore, television, because it uses the close-up so frequently, allows you to do that because by some magic alchemy, if you're thinking something or feeling it, the camera will capture it.

GROSS: You said this is a series that's, in part, about listening, that your job, your role, your performance, is in part about listening. That's one of the reasons why I love the series, because it's about listening and often about asking good questions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's theoretically what I'm supposed to be doing on the show. So it's like you've heroicized the act of listening.

Mr. BYRNE: Yes. I think that it's - as I said, listening is a really profound thing to do. I mean, we hear sometimes, but we don't actually really listen, and when we start to listen, it's the beginning of a deeper awareness.

GROSS: But you know what? But listening isn't a great visual - like watching somebody listen isn't usually a great visual experience. I know from the very few times I did television, that when the camera would come on me when I was listening to somebody's answer to my question, I would look, you know, inert, which you can't - you as an actor can't afford to look on camera. So what do you need to do to make listening an action, an action that the camera can really pick up?

Mr. BYRNE: Well, if you've ever observed a child listening, they're so engaged in the act of listening. I was in a café about two years ago, and I saw these - I saw a man and a woman at a table by the window, and she was so absorbed in everything that he was saying.

He was talking about, obviously, something that was personal to him, but in the act of engaging with him by listening, she was outside herself, and I looked at that moment and I thought that's what listening is, when you're absolutely absorbed in what the other person is saying.

And the challenge of acting is that you don't hear everything just once. You have to hear it several times because you have to do take after take after take, but to constantly be absorbed and to try to be outside yourself so that you're not aware of listening, because really, truly, profoundly listening is to be unaware of yourself at a deep level.

So you asked me if I had done any research for this. I had seen priests in confession. Obviously being a Catholic brought up in Ireland I had seen how they sometimes perfunctorily listened, because there's many ways of pretending to listen. And I also find that very interesting to observe, the way people fake listening and fake engagement.

I knew that if this thing was going to succeed, it had to be - that had to be convincing, first and foremost. And I watched - you talk about yourself as an interviewer. I watched Dick Cavett tapes, and I was very keenly interested in the way that he didn't always have the right question, and sometimes he got a little bit uncomfortable, and sometimes his body language was a little uncomfortable as well, and that to me looked like real as opposed to, you know, let's, you know, convince everybody that I'm totally comfortable and everything is going smoothly.

Sometimes silence is more powerful than the actual words that are spoken, and silence something that, say, somebody like Harold Pinter or Beckett in the theater really truly understood, that words sometimes are not more powerful than silence.

GROSS: Now your character is so good at being a therapist, although he sometimes makes some pretty serious mistakes. But on the whole, he's such a sensitive and just really engaged therapist. But your character's also in pain in his own life. His own life isn't going well. I mean right now he's separated from his wife, he misses his children. They're in Baltimore. He's moved to Brooklyn. and you've made other mistakes in your private life too in the series.

So you have your own therapist, and one half-hour of each week is devoted to sessions with your therapist, who's named Gina and is played by Dianne Wiest. And years ago she used to be your supervisor. So let me just play a brief clip from one of your sessions with your therapist.

(Soundbite of TV show, "In Treatment")

Mr. BYRNE: (as Paul) I hate my life. It's broken. Every day it hurts. I'm not getting anything from my family, so I try to get it from my patients. I know it's wrong, but who else do I have?

Ms. DIANNE WIEST: (as Gina) Who else do you have to get what you need from?

Mr. BYRNE: (as Paul) Nobody. Okay, I have you, but you can't give me what I need. See, it's not your job.

Ms. WIEST: (as Gina) Let's talk about what you need.

Mr. BYRNE: (as Paul) Do you have any water? You're supposed to have water for your patients.

Ms. WIEST: (as Gina) Paul, you're so convinced that I won't have any water for you, you don't see it. It's sitting right there.

Mr. BYRNE: (as Paul) Thanks.

Ms. WIEST: (as Gina) So can you tell me what you need?

Mr. BYRNE: (as Paul) I don't need anything special, just what everybody needs.

Ms. WIEST: (as Gina) Well, you have food. You have clothing. You have shelter.

Mr. BYRNE: (as Paul) Well, sort of. I have a den with no other bears. Is that shelter?

Ms. WIEST: (as Gina) You need some other bears?

Mr. BYRNE: (as Paul) Uh-huh, yeah. I miss them. You know what I'm talking about. I know you do.

GROSS: Gabriel Byrne, you want to just explain what the reference to bears is?

Mr. BYRNE: I think the reference is to his children and to an intimate life, and that although he deals in one way in a very intimate way with patients, it's a poor substitute for the intimacy of his family, which he's separated from.

He also is without a relationship in his life and without a partner. So he's a vulnerable, compassionate, angry man, and I have to say here that, you know, I can bring those qualities of compassion and anger and vulnerability and whatever to the character, but I wouldn't be able to do that if it wasn't for the writing. And the writing, you know, if it's not on the page, it's not on the stage, and Warren Leight, who heads up the writing team, I think they just did a spectacular job in making this seem very ordinary conversation at times but yet very real.

BIANCULLI: Gabriel Byrne, star of HBO's "In Treatment," speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. We'll hear more of their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's another track from Michael Jackson's hit album, "Thriller."

(Soundbite of song "Human Nature")

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Musician): (Singing) Reaching out to touch a stranger, electric eyes are everywhere. See that girl she knows I'm watching. She likes the...

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interview with Gabriel Byrne.

Byrne is the star of HBO's "In Treatment," the excellent and increasingly addictive drama series about a psychotherapist and his patients. Byrne, who became a movie star, thanks to a starring role in "Miller's Crossing" by the Coen brothers, didn't come to the U.S. until he was in his late 30's. He was born in Dublin and Terry asked Gabriel Byrne about his earlier years.

GROSS: Now you grew up in Dublin and didn't come to the United States till you were about, well in your late 30's. And shortly after coming to the States you made "Miller's Crossing," a film in which you played a gangster. Correct me if I'm wrong in this, you were educated by the Irish Christian Brothers? Is that a Jesuit - a Jesuit group?

Mr. BYRNE (Actor): No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRNE: There's a - the Jesuits, they're a much more sophisticated outfit altogether. The Christian Brothers were a teaching order and they were known for their strictness, rigidity and Victorian approach to discipline. Spare the rod and spoil the child was their kind of philosophy and sometimes that resulted in inhumane and cruel treatment of people who were in their charge. I say that not with any anger, but just as a fact.

GROSS: What did you have to experience?

Mr. BYRNE: I think everybody that I know who was brought up in those times expected that that was just the status quo, certainly cruelty on an almost daily basis. I was just looking at a kind a diary that I had kept, like a kind of child's diary at the time and I confided to this diary that I didn't know why I was being hit because I didn't understand, you know, if Jack has three stones in his pocket and Tom has four stones in his pocket, how many stones does the Bishop of Cork have if he lives in Paris, or something meaningless like that.

You'd say, I have no idea what that means and they'd hit you anyway. So I didn't understand why I was being hit. And I remember, not be too Dickensian about it, but I do remember winter mornings with one of these men, you know, who'd had a brain operation and now read everything upside down. So we all had to learn to read things upside on the blackboard so that we wouldn't, you know, rise his anger. And this guy would just give you what he called 12 of the best on each frozen hand, I remember, in wintertime. That may sound a little, you know, Dickensian and dramatic but it was the truth and...

GROSS: It also sounds bizarre.

Mr. BYRNE: Yes.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRNE: Well you have men who have taken a life of - a life oath of celibacy and they are denied the basic comfort of human connection and warmth - and celibacy is something that I absolutely detest within the Catholic Church. I think it's an appalling outrage against humanity to make people - it's not like, I'm not really a religious person, but it's not like Christ came down from heaven and said look, okay you all got to be celibate. It was something that was introduced in the 11th Century so the church wouldn't have to pay the dependents of priests who died. So celibacy's a manmade - a manmade thing. And so you had these people who give up the possibility of human contact and warmth and you have them in front of 50 kids. And they're told that they can hit with impunity, and that discipline is to be meted out for any transgression, or perceived transgression. So the stage was set for all kinds of abuse both physical and sometimes more than that.

GROSS: I think I'd read that you had also studied to be a priest, that you, for a period, you planned to be a priest. Is that not right?

Mr. BYRNE: Yeah, I spent - at that time there's a very strange thing that was, you know, they used to recruit young boys. I mean I was 11 years of age and this guy came into the school one day and he showed these slides on the wall about you know working in Africa and I thought, wow that looks really nice. There's rivers and horses and smiling kids and the guy's got a straw hat on. That looks like a good job. And at the end he said, how many boys would like to do that? And I said I'd like to do that. So I found myself leaving from Dublin on the mail boat to go to England when I was 11 to study to be a priest. And at that time, to be a priest was to be called by God.

It gave great honor and blessing to the family whose son was called to be a priest. And I went there and spent four and a half years and lost my vocation - vocation, I say. But they made the mistake, the priests who ran the place, they made the mistake of inviting a traveling - a group of traveling players to the school. And these traveling players included two girls, one of whom was in a black slip with black stockings.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRNE: How she got in, I don't know, but anyway, she was on the stage and she created havoc and chaos among the 200 to-be priests. And I have a memory just of a gaslight and her standing under this lamplight with this - with her leg showing and me thinking, now that's what I want. And when they left, we were all hanging out the dormitory windows, all these so-called, you know, apprentice priests, and she waved from the little bus that they got into. And she waved to me, and I waved back to her and I blew her a kiss, and she got in the bus and disappeared. And then I looked and I saw there was 200 other guys hanging out the window and they all thought the same thing. But many vocations were lost that night. And I often wonder who that woman was because I thank her.

GROSS: So when, you know, obviously you were serious enough about religion to spend several years in the seminary. When you were invited to leave the seminary did you leave God behind?

Mr. BYRNE: Not immediately, but I suppose I had what they call a crisis of faith and I remember once saying God, if you're up there and, you know, strike me down if I say something bad against you. And I said, I don't like you God or something to that effect, something kind of adolescent or childish and nothing happened, and I thought well may there's nobody really up there. And life took over, just the thrill and excitement of being 17, 18 years of age, being able to walk through the streets of London and seeing things like, you know, guys standing outside these strip clubs saying: Come on in. Come on in.

GROSS: And you had permission to go. There was nothing holding you back anymore.

Mr. BYRNE: Yeah. There was nobody there to say - well, there's the little voice in my head saying, you know, you'll be damned forever in a mortal hellfire. But it kind - when you weighed it against the possibility of seeing a naked woman, you kind of said, well. So it was -that was my crisis of faith was naked women or hell forever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But at some point you didn't have to choose between the two.

Mr. BYRNE: No.

GROSS: At some point I'm sure you realized you could naked women and if you wanted...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: could have some sense of God in your life. Did you choose to keep one or were you kind of done with that?

Mr. BYRNE: I was done with that kind of God. My life since then, I think, has been about a search for some kind of God. And I wouldn't say that I'm religious in any way, but I think that I move towards some version of being spiritual.

BIANCULLI: Gabriel Byrne, star of HBO's "In Treatment," speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

This is FRESH AIR. Gabriel Byrne plays a psychotherapist on HBO's "In Treatment." And in most therapy sessions, the discussion eventually leads to early childhood for clues about motivation and behavior. So when Terry interviewed Gabriel Byrne earlier this year, they naturally wound up talking about his early childhood growing up in Ireland.

Mr. BYRNE: It was a working class family in Dublin and my father was a laborer and he had to work really really hard, and my mother was a nurse, who had to work nights, and there was six kids in family. And, you know, that produces its own stresses and strains. And I used to - I remember when "The Brady Bunch" came out. I used to hate "The Brady Bunch" because - and it's not only now retrospect I can understand why I might've hated them because they seemed like such paragons of virtue that they would say things like Mom, Dad can we have a meeting?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRNE: And I know if I said that to my father he wouldn't - he would've just looked at me and said, you know, what? You know, so they were all such happy and every problem that they had every week was resolved within 26 seconds by the father, the mother, the maid who served them orange juice, and each other. So they represented a kind of an idealized family which, when I looked at, not just my family but other families around, we were coping with real life and it wasn't just like that. So it kind of bred a kind of unconscious resentment in me that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRNE: ...I'm only beginning to understand now.

GROSS: You know, part of me is wondering how come you don't want to go into therapy. And the reason why I ask this is having become a big fan of "In Treatment," like I've never been in therapy, but watching "In Treatment" I sometimes think, wow that's so interesting, like, the process is so interesting. Maybe I should go into therapy. It just looks so fascinating and revealing. And I know what you're doing is drama as opposed to like the reality of therapy and the two would be a little different.

The revelations would probably come a lot slower in real life. But nevertheless, there's something very seduction too about the idea of somebody devoting such complete attention to solving the mystery of who you are and why you do what you do. So having immersed yourself in therapy as an actor for "In Treatment," how come you're not seduced by the idea? How come you haven't wanted to go into therapy afterwards?

Mr. BYRNE: Well I could throw the question back at you and say that you sound almost like you want to go into therapy yourself. You're just waiting for the right nudge to go in there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRNE: And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRNE: ...I could do you a good rate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRNE: I'll give you a 20 percent discount.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRNE: But for the same reasons like you, I'm kind of fascinated by the notion of somebody giving their full and very considered opinion to the narrative of my life. I think what a good psychotherapist does, I imagine, is that they help you to write the real narrative of your life and come to terms with - because I think we have a tendency when we talk about our lives to kind of magnify certain things and give them an importance, idealize certain things and be in denial about other things, and looking at the narrative of your life and how that influences who you are as an adult can not be but I think a good process.

GROSS: No, I think that's really well put. One of the things you did after leaving the seminary was you went to college, you studied archeology and linguistics, and I think this is where you learned to speak and write Gaelic. .TEXT: Mr. BYRNE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I - you know not growing up in Ireland or anything, I don't know how many people are left who actually speak that language and how much it's considered just like an archaic or literary language. What is the answer to that?

Mr. BYRNE: Gaelic is an ancient language and a really beautiful one. And Oscar Wilde said about English, he said the English stole our language and we learned it and returned it to them with great beauty. I mean, it was a little bit Oscar Wilde-ish to say that, but the truth is that up until 18 say 60 or 65 almost everybody in Ireland spoke Gaelic. And within a hundred years Ireland, adopting English as its premier language, produced Shaw, Yeats, Wilde, Beckett, O'Casey, Synge - some of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. Yeats redefined poetry, Joyce redefined the novel, and Beckett redefined theater - that was all in a hundred years. It's a most complex and beautiful language and with a wealth of great poetry and prose that most people don't really know. But it's a beautiful language that's being revived. And people are beginning to take a new interest in it, just like they did with - for a long time Irish dancing was reviled and, you know, disregarded, and now it's like the hip and cool thing to do. To speak your own language is a very hip and cool thing to do, and to be robbed of your language is to be robbed of the way you think.

GROSS: Can you maybe recite a few lines in Gaelic from a poem you particularly love and translate it for us?

Mr. BYRNE: Okay, that's a hard one. Okay, I'll try. (Gaelic spoken) It's a half-remembered fragment from Patrick Pearce, who was one of the rebel leaders of 1916, and translated it means because - going back to naked women - Ireland stands in for, a naked woman stands in for Ireland and he talks about, naked I saw you, beauty of beauties, and I blinded my eyes that I would not see you, my ears I closed that I would not hear you. (Gaelic spoken) That's the last two lines of it, and it says, And in this road before me I gave my face. In other words, I turned my face towards this road before me.

GROSS: You know, as an actor you've played all kinds of characters, some, you know, very reflective and gentle, father figure, some like very brutal, like in "Miller's Crossing," and - and also you're a criminal in "The Usual Suspects." Having grown up, like come of age in a seminary, was it at all difficult to get in touch with the brutal side of yourself, to unleash that? Were you comfortable unleashing it when you had to for roles?

Mr. BYRNE: I think we all have within us the capacity to be angry and accessing anger. It's interesting, that what I sometimes go to and I look at drama students, you know, working, becoming actors, the first place that the men go to is anger. And the first place that the women go to is tears. It's just an interesting thing that it's easiest to access for them, whereas men accessing tears seems to be more difficult, possibly because the culture doesn't endorse the notion of men and tears.

But anger seems to be an accessible emotion. Repressed anger is something I, you know, I have worked with in my work. And I find it a safe place to let it out there, because I think that anger is a real emotion and, you know, I try not to be afraid of it. I heard a woman the other day - I sometimes go to this church in Brooklyn and the woman, the preacher was talking about how our bodies are repositories for our feelings and how we store anger in our bodies. And I thought that that was quite a good point to make.

GROSS: You said you sometimes go to this church, but you also told us that you no longer really practice religion. Why? Why do you go to church?

Mr. BYRNE: Because I think that to be encased in silence for three quarters of an hour in that way is - I find it nourishing and relaxing for the soul. It's a nice church, they sing nice hymns, there's beautiful stained glass, flowers, there's usually a good sermon, and the seats are comfortable.

GROSS: Gabriel Byrne, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. BYRNE: You too, Terry. And if you go to therapy, I will.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'll let you know.

Mr. BYRNE: Okay, I'll check it with you again, make sure. Okay.

GROSS: Good deal.

Mr. BYRNE: Yeah, okay.

GROSS: Okay. Bye, bye.

Mr. BYRNE: All the best.

BIANCULLI: Gabriel Byrne, star of HBO's "In Treatment," speaking with Terry Gross earlier this year. Season one of "In Treatment" is out on DVD and season two, with a different set of patients, can be seen on HBO Signature and HBO on Demand.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.