Gabriel Byrne: A Hard Actor to Characterize Gabriel Byrne's latest film, Wah-Wah, opens this week. Later this month he may win a Tony nomination for his role in the Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's Touch of the Poet. He talks with Jacki Lyden about his career.

Gabriel Byrne: A Hard Actor to Characterize

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HOWARD BERKES, host:

We have an interview now with a man who is best know for acting out other people's lives. But Gabriel Byrne's own life is a compelling story. He tells his own story in essays, products of his literary childhood in Dublin. And he plays deeply complicated characters in quirky films, including The Usual Suspects and Miller's Crossing. On Broadway, Byrne's performance in Eugene O'Neill's Touch of the Poet is expected to get him a Tony nomination this month. And he stars in a new film called Wah-Wah. Gabriel Byrne spoke about his work and life recently with NPR's Jacki Lyden.

JACKI LYDEN reporting:

Appealing, without being pretty, Gabriel Byrne's face suggests a yearning. In his mid-fifties, you still wonder where this man might wander. Byrne's boyhood bean in Dublin dominated by it's literary world. His reflections of that time were collected in a book of his essays called Pictures in My Head. He reads from one essay, in which his grandmother's parlor became his first theatre.

Mr. GABRIEL BYRNE (Actor, Essayist): It is an evening in summer. I am at my grandmothers house, sitting opposite her in a huge winged chair, listening as she plays the button-key accordion, introducing each tune to me as if I were an audience of thousands at Carnegie Hall. Her white hair is tied in a bun and ash falls from her gold flake(ph) and onto her black dress and between the folds of the instrument. The window is open and the lovely sound spills out into the darkening street, making people stop to listen and sometimes to smile. And as she coaxes the music, her eyes close in a kind of dream. And when finished, she sighs and fastens the worn straps and talks of the times in Roscaman(ph) when she was a girl, and makes me read to her from books with goose feather markers and spell out words I don't understand and tells me what they mean.

She loves Dickens and Robbie Burns and Canon Sheehan and poor old Oscar and speaks of them as she would of old friends. Looking back to an evening in the half-light of that room, filled with the smell of lilac from her garden, among the faded photos and framed jigsaw puzzles and stuffed owls, I know that memory has made all the evenings I spent there become as one. And I know that this was my first theatre, the beginning of my love for darkened rooms where words and image and music have power to move the soul in transports of delight, as the poet says. She loved talking and telling stories and books and music. But most of all, my granny loved the films.

LYDEN: Absolutely beautiful. Well, I was trying to look at your work and explore a little bit and kind of trace a line through from childhood on. And you know, when I was reading this beautiful book of essays, I thought, you know, this man has always been an observer and he's always been fond of good words and good writers and coming from Dublin, that's a rich tradition.

Mr. BYRNE: Yes, I think that ordinary Dublin people, as I remember it, were extremely proud of the great writers who had come from there. We all know where Oscar Wilde's house was, we all know that George Bernard Shaw lived at Sing Street. We knew that Sean O'Casey came from the north side of the city. That Yeats and Beckett were also from that town. And of course, Joyce.

LYDEN: It was a gray city, though, when you were a boy. I mean we're talking pre U-2, pre-all the stuff we know Ireland for today.

Mr. BYRNE: Yes. Ireland was in a very kind of gray indeterminate phase of development. It was repressed, a society very much dominated by the Catholic Church, and life was gray and there was very little to brighten the days. I suppose one of the things that brought people into contact with the wider world was the cinema.

LYDEN: If cinema was one of the things that made you feel that Ireland was connected to the wider world, why did you get into it, acting, that is, fairly late? You did quite a few things in your twenties that don't, on the face of it, look like acting, although they look like fun. Bullfighting, teaching Irish to girls at a girls school, so why did acting come a bit late?

Mr. BYRNE: Because there was never any tradition in my family and certainly, among the people that I knew of anybody becoming an actor. To me, actors were a kind of mythical creatures that lived in a world of their own. The idea of working at that and getting paid for it was beyond imagination for me, it was a fantasy, so I came to it through teaching because I used drama to try to explain my classes to my kids and I would take them after school to drama productions and to movies. And at the end of the year we were doing a co-production between the boys school and the girls school and one of them got sick and the parents said, oh, maybe you should take over, because you're the only one who knows the lines.

So in a good old show business, you know, Judy Garland way, I took over, and there was a guy in the audience who actually happened to be a theatre director and he said, you know, you should think about doing this.

LYDEN: So discovered. I read that early on, you met Liam Neeson and a couple of other people who we'd later know well.

Mr. BYRNE: Yes, there were a couple of little groups around the city and one of them happened to be in the older section of Dublin, which is now called Temple Bar. One of those parts of Dublin that has since become revitalized. But when we were there, it was just a series of garages and cellars, and by some fluke, confluence of events, Liam Neeson, myself, Stephen Rea, Colm Meaney, CiarĂ¡n Hinds, Neil Jordan, Jim Sheridan, we all ended up in this theatre together and we put on plays and it became the most exciting place to be in Dublin. So many people who were involved in that had never had any ides of making films, because just the tradition just wasn't there. So -- and ironically, most of us went into film after that experience.

LYDEN: You've just finished this wonderful Eugene O'Neill play on Broadway, A Touch of the Poet, in which the protagonist is a transplanted Irish immigrant who can't return to the glory of his past, he'd been a war hero. He opens a tavern called Melody's Tavern and likes to quote poets like Byron. Rave reviews given to you for this play. Would you read a little bit, please, from Touch of the Poet?

Mr. BYRNE: Yes. Before he quotes the Byron, he walks to the mirror, he catches his reflection in the mirror on the wall and stops before it. He brushes his sleeve fastidiously. Adjusts the set of his coat and surveys himself. And then he says, Thank God I still bare the unmistakable stamp of an officer and a gentleman. And so I will remain to the end in spite of all that fate can do to crush my spirit.

He squares his shoulders defiantly. He stares into the eyes of the glass and recites from Byron's Childe Harold as if it were and incantation by which he summons pride to justify his life to himself. I have not loved the world, nor the world me. I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bowed to its idolatries a patient knee, nor coined my cheek to smiles, nor cried aloud in worship of an echo. In the crowd they could not deem me one of such. I stood among them, but not of them.

LYDEN: That's really beautiful.

Mr. BYRNE: Yeah. Byron is his hero, his literary hero. And through Byron he manages to find a justification for his isolation, his loneliness and his dismissal of the rest of the human race. I stood among them, but not of them. That being apart from other people he has turned into a virtue, but it's actually also his hell, because isolation and loneliness is what he's really fighting.

LYDEN: The character that you're playing in this new film, you have a new film coming out called Wah-Wah, and it's written and directed by your friend, the wonderful actor Richard E. Grant. Tell us a little bit about it. I don't know if there's an emotional connection to some of the other sort of patriarchal star-crossed characters you've played. This film is Richard E. Grant's life.

Mr. BYRNE: Yes. His father was a minister for education in Swaziland, which is a country just to the north of South Africa, in the Sixties. And this is Richard's own story about growing up with his alcoholic father. So it's really, on one level it's a dysfunctional love story, always the best kind, I think. Set against the backdrop of the independence of Swaziland in 1967.

LYDEN: Let's hear a clip from it.

(Soundbite of film Wah-Wah)

Mr. BYRNE: (As Harry Compton) I suppose you think this is all so bloody easy. Well, wake up. Just you wait until you lose everything, and I mean everything. Wife, position, future, the whole damned kit and caboodle. Come independence, we're all on the scrap heap. So wake up.

Unidentified Actor: (As a character in Wah-Wah) Spare us the martyrdom, Dad. You're drunk.

LYDEN: I'm thinking to myself, Gabriel Byrne, you know, he seems to channel this alcoholic rage very well and this vulnerability and this tenderness. You've done that now, though, a few times. Is that the kind of role that you're seeking or feel comfortable with? Will there be other sorts of -- you've been adrift in films like Usual Suspects. It would surprise me if in the next one you were, say, a song and dance man a la Gene Kelly. I don't know.

Mr. BYRNE: Yeah, it's - yes, that's a very interesting question because I do find that those characters are -- what appeals to me about them is their conflicted state, being lost, being vulnerable, being extreme, being adrift in something that they don't really understand.

I think that I have been drawn to those roles and those roles have come to me. I think this is the third one, A Moon for the Misbegotten onstage and A Touch of the Poet onstage and this one. And that's it for a while with that kind of character. But when you do play a character like that, it also allows you to examine yourself, and in A Moon for the Misbegotten, for example, although that is a story about a man who drinks himself to death, it's also a story about the search for love. And O'Neill puts forward the theory that even if you are loved it may not be enough to save you.

LYDEN: Well, thank you so much for being with us today.

Mr. BYRNE: Thanks so much.

LYDEN: Gabriel Byrne.

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