GABRIEL Byrne still possesses one of the calmest and most melodic of voices, and after 29 years of living in America, the 65-year-old still sounds quintessentially Irish.
He also has a contented demeanour about him, at least partly due to his two-year-old marriage to US producer Hannah Beth King. The couple were hitched at a low-key wedding at Ballymaloe House, Co Cork, in the summer of 2014 and have looked the picture of happiness at their public appearances since.
His first marriage to Ellen Barkin wasn’t bad either, and they have stayed close, partly for the sake of their daughter and son who are now in their 20s. (John ‘Jack’ Daniel, born in 1989, is a musician, while Romy Marion, born 1992, is a model.) However, it’s much more than the kids, as Barkin told me in a recent interview.
“Our daughter was a year old when we split and our son was four. We realised we make very good friends. We really love each other and we have enormous respect for each other and I include Gabriel in my decisionmaking process when I’m offered movies. It’s been very profound for our children because I don’t think they’ve ever heard either parent say a bad word about the other.”
In his new movie Louder than Bombs Byrne’s Gene is married to Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a fierce, lean kind of woman. Isabelle is a war correspondent more committed to her work than her family and Gene has to perform both parenting duties.
Is Byrne an understanding father like one he portrays in the film?
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a perfect father because it’s a very complicated role,” he responds.
“When a child is young there’s an element of power involved because the child looks up to you for answers. Then adolescence comes and it’s a search for identity, which is not bound up with your power any more. I don’t know many fathers who didn’t make mistakes; I don’t know many mothers who didn’t make mistakes. There’s no rulebook.
“I love that the movie ends in a car on a road. It doesn’t end with an orchestra playing and everybody having a big group hug, or offering an easy answer to life’s complexities.
“Life goes on and there’s no real reward for heroism. Yet I think the character I play is a hero, because he gives out these little acts of kindness every day and he takes rejection and he takes pain every day. I think being a parent trying to do the right thing is a very courageous journey,” he says.
The ever-youthful Huppert, 63, he says, casts quite a presence in the movie. “I’ve never worked with an actor who changed the image as much as she does. When she comes on screen something happens. I think it helps to have such an icon in the role of the mother as it makes her absence strongly felt.”
He says that the jobs of war photographer and actor are similar. “You travel a lot, you have to give your emotions and it’s not easy for her to come home.”
How is it for you? “I think that when you go away to work it’s always very difficult because you miss who’s at home. You’re away in a hotel room by yourself and sometimes that can mean freedom to be away, but a lifetime of that creates a certain distance. I hear people say, ‘I wasn’t there for the first time they walked’ and ‘I wasn’t there for the school concert’. You pay a price for the job that you do.”
Long before he had agreed to star in Louder than Bombs Byrne had been impressed by the films of Joachim Trier (Oslo, 31. August, Reprise), and says the 41 year-old Danish director has a “unique voice and a singular vision”. He recalls responding with a quick, “Okay, fine”, when Trier asked if he could use footage from his 1987 film, Hello Again. But then he watched it.
“I didn’t realise what he was actually saying until I saw the scene,“and I thought my god how often does that happen in a piece of work that you get to see yourself from so long ago and then you get to see yourself now? It was interesting how innocent and young I was and you look back with a kind of hindsight and you say, ‘why was I so afraid, why was I so lacking in self-esteem and where was my confidence? I suppose that’s a product of being young but it’s also a product of culture as well. If I could go back I’d wish I had a sense of how unimportant most things are,” he says.
Byrne never watches his old movies on television not even masterpieces like Miller’s Crossing or The Usual Suspects.
“The past is the past. How many times do you sit around looking at old photographs of yourself? The past is intangible and irretrievable as is the future. I know that certain people have a propensity for nostalgia. It’s a kind of comforting thing. But one day I woke up and I said to myself, ‘I don’t have time any more for nostalgia’.”
Even if Byrne has made a career of portraying strong characters, personally he admits to still lacking in confidence.
“I think what people project onto actors is delusional. We are human beings with all kind of feelings. This notion of an actor as somebody who can become other people, that’s not what acting is. Acting is about courageously being yourself. Forget the false noses, the wigs, the limps — all that stuff’s not acting. The actor comes to serve the story. And if you let the cinema in on your ageing face, that requires a certain amount of courage.”
Byrne is philosophical when discussing his life and career and recalls his psychotherapist role in his hit series In Treatment as he speaks. “Ah, that’s just a TV show, but I did argue quite a lot with the writers about a lot of things on the show. I’ve always thought these things but I was always kind of afraid to say them because I never thought my opinion really meant that much.”
I remark how In Treatment launched the careers of many young actors including Mia Wasikowska, Melissa George, “and Dane DeHaan,” says Byrne.
“I’ve worked with Nicholas Hoult [on Wah-Wah] and Leonardo DiCaprio [on The Man with the Iron Mask]. I mean these kids who played my children are in franchises playing superheroes and winning Oscars.”
Byrne also recently made his mark in the television series Vikings though he was killed off in the first season.
“I’ve never seen it, I hear it’s entertaining”, he says. “I had a very good experience and it was the first time I’d worked in Ireland for a very long time. I was there for 10 days. I wouldn’t have taken it if I hadn’t been killed at the end.”
Byrne likes to devote himself to life as much as he can. He still has a spring in his step that allows him to be cast in younger roles.
Has being with a younger woman given him a new zest in life? It’s certainly happened with Alec Baldwin and even in Louder than Bombs Gene finds happiness with the younger Amy Ryan.
“Well, not to sound too corny, but in my opinion there’s only one thing that matters in a relationship, isn’t there? You either love somebody or you don’t love them. Age doesn’t matter. Hannah Beth never feels it; I never feel it. You either have a profound empathy with somebody or you don’t.
“It’s nothing to do with me trying to revitalise or have a second life or any of that bullshit. I’m happy to be at this stage of my life and she’s happy to be at that stage and we’re both extremely happy together.”