Born on May 12, 1950 in Walkinstown, Dublin, The Republic of Ireland, Gabriel Byrne is the oldest of six children. His father worked as a cooper at the Guinness factory and his mother was a nurse. When he was 12 years old, a Catholic priest came to his school to show students what life was like saving souls around the world. From that moment, Gabriel was interested in becoming a member of the clergy, and eventually went to seminary in Birmingham, England. But Gabriel and life in the seminary proved an unhappy match. Later, he would share more about his experiences during this time, but for many years, his decision to leave the clergy was simply seen as a great gain for the world of film. He returned home to Dublin and landed a scholarship to University College, where he studied languages and archeology. After graduating, he toiled in a series of odd jobs, famously installing glass eyes in teddy bears at a toy factory, working as a plumber and a bartender, and teaching English and Spanish. He made his first foray into acting in 1974 with the Dublin Shakespeare Society, then joined the Focus Theatre, an experimental repertory company run by director Jim Sheridan. In 1978, he began acting full-time at the Abbey Theatre, where he stayed for two years. He had found his calling.
Thanks to his stage work, he started to land minor parts in small films, making his debut in On a Paving Stone Mounted (1978), which he followed with The Outsider (1979), a film that led to starring roles in the Irish soap opera The Riordans and its spin-off Bracken. Gabriel’s first significant film role was as King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), a gritty ode to the Arthurian legend, which brought several other new faces to the screen, including Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, and Ciarán Hinds. He played an Israeli attorney in Costa-Gavras’ controversial Hanna K (1983), then a German soldier in Michael Mann’s supernatural WWII cult classic The Keep (1983), with Ian McKellan and Jürgen Prochnow. He proved a capable lead in the taut political thriller Defence of the Realm (1985), bringing intensity and a sense of humor to his role as a newspaper reporter investigating the crash of a nuclear bomber in the English countryside. But Hollywood remained distant. He turned to American television in a pair of miniseries, playing the title role in Christopher Columbus (CBS, 1985), then the son of fascism’s father in Mussolini: The Untold Story (NBC, 1985), sharing the screen with George C. Scott and an incredibly young Robert Downey Jr. Back on the big screen, he co-starred with Natasha Richardson and Julian Sands in Gothic (1986), directed by Ken Russell, playing Lord Byron in Russell’s hallucinogenic account of the Mary Shelley Frankenstein origin story. 1987 brought a bumper crop of films: Julia and Julia, the first film ever shot in HD video format, with Kathleen Turner and Sting sharing the screen; Siesta, co-starring his future wife, Ellen Barkin; Lionheart; and Hello Again, shot in the United States. In 1988, The Courier, filmed in Ireland, offered Gabriel as the villain, and New Zealand’s A Soldier’s Tale, based on the haunting book by M. K. Joseph, took him back to WWII. Gabriel then returned to England to take the lead as Lord Hugo Bruckton in Nick Broomfield’s dark look at the ruling class, Diamond Skulls (aka Dark Obsession in the US) (1989).
In the 1990s, Gabriel began to catch the attention of American audiences, starting with Miller’s Crossing (1990), a critically-acclaimed revisionist take on the gangster film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. As Tom Reagan, the right hand of an Irish mobster (Albert Finney) neck deep in a citywide gang war with his Italian rival (Jon Polito), he exuded a cool confidence, despite routinely being beaten to a pulp, while also falling out with his boss over the smoldering gun moll played by Marcia Gay Harden. Critical appreciation for Gabriel’s work in this film has continued to grow in the intervening years since its release; David Thomson calls Miller’s Crossing “…not just his best film, it’s one of the best performances in American film–the whole melancholy routine.” [The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2004]. He followed this landmark film with another: Into The West (1992), playing Papa Reilly, an alcoholic single father, in Jim Sheridan’s charming fable, a mythic tale of redemption which offered Irish lore, travelers, and a magical white horse. Working with a fine cast of Irish co-stars, including David Kelly and Colm Meaney, as well as his wife, Ellen Barkin, the film was shot entirely in Ireland and remains one of his most popular, with children and adults alike. Now considered a classic, Gabriel served as associate producer of the film and continued his journey as a prominent force in Ireland’s film industry. In what must have seemed like a fun change of pace, Gabriel next essayed the cartoonist who creates the Cool World (1992) of Ralph Bakshi’s mix of live action and animation, with Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger. He later remembered the experience as “like being sedated for three months.”
For the actor, acting is an addiction that can never be cured. We return to it endlessly, compulsively, like addicts craving a fix; it sets the blood racing wildly and transports us to a world that is of this one, yet is not. We find no release from its cruel illogical demands, yet we embrace it without question again and again whether it brings us joy or not, for there is always the belief, buried deep, that we unlock the doors with a golden key to a time and a place that is beyond dreams, beyond imagination, somewhere between the shadow and the substance. –Gabriel Byrne
Continuing to make a name for himself in American film, in Point of No Return (1993), he played a secret agent for an unnamed organization who oversees the training of a drug offender turned hit woman (Bridget Fonda). Later that year, he romanced two women – one vulnerable and disturbed (Debra Winger); the other lonely and insecure (Barbara Hershey) – in A Dangerous Woman (1993), a sensitively-handled drama from director Stephen Gyllenhaal. He vied with Steve Martin for the love and custody of a little girl in A Simple Twist of Fate (1994), his first of three films with co-star Laura Linney, and played an obsessive U.S. Attorney in Trial by Jury (1994) with able support from bad guy Armand Assante. He probably turned more heads as the German philosophy professor who sweeps Jo (Winona Ryder) off her feet in Little Women (1994), a role he actively sought, telling the producers it was his favorite book growing up in Ireland. And, speaking of books, Pictures In My Head, his memoir published in 1994, was praised by The Independent: “He records the events of his life with a merciless, moving, and extraordinarily perceptive eye. Byrne magically captures the moment.” Gabriel then went on to attain perhaps his highest screen profile since Miller’s Crossing, starring as a former corrupt cop-turned-expert thief in The Usual Suspects (1995), Bryan Singer’s excellent neo-noir thriller about a gang of thieves recruited by a mysterious underworld figure to stop a massive drug deal, only to learn there is a bigger score to be had. Kevin Spacey took home an Oscar for his work as Verbal Kint in the film, but everyone remembers the smoldering Dean Keaton, Gabriel’s role, and Keaton would go on to become the character for which he is most recognized. He next teamed with Matt Dillon and Anne Parillaud for Frankie Starlight (1995), a gentle and poignant period romance that saw him fall in love with a French woman (Anne Parillaud) after he helps her enter post-World War II Ireland.
In 1996, the increasingly busy Gabriel co-starred with Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmusch’s revisionist Western Dead Man; he was on screen about one minute, but recalls the shoot with fondness because it afforded him a chance to talk with Robert Mitchum, an idol from Gabriel’s Wild West movie phase when he was a young film buff. He headlined the Irish story of star-crossed lovers This Is the Sea (1997), with Samantha Morton and Richard Harris, a film about Northern Ireland during the ceasefire. He then co-wrote, co-produced and co-starred in the charming teen romance Last of the High Kings (released on video in the United States as Summer Fling in 1998). This was merely the first screenplay to come from Gabriel. He always maintained his love of his language, writing Draíocht (Magic), the first drama in Irish on Ireland’s national Irish television station, TG4, that same year. His continued admiration for European film-making led him to star in Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence (1997) and Bille August’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997). His characters in both films are mysterious and slightly dangerous good guys–he manages to survive in one, at least. Polish Wedding (1998) found him starring with Lena Olin (as his wife) and Claire Danes (as his daughter), and navigating a Polish accent, in Theresa Connelly’s poetic film. Meanwhile, he displayed a taste for horsemanship, swordplay, and roses as the noble d’Artagnan in the historical adventure The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), which also featured Leonardo Di Caprio in a dual role and an international group as the Musketeers: Gerard Depardieu, Jeremy Irons, and John Malkovich. His work as the romantic and principled d’Artagnan continues to break the hearts of Gabriel Byrne fans around the world.
With his place in Hollywood firmly established, Gabriel was free to choose his projects, even if it happened to be a small role in the paranoia-inspiring thriller Enemy of the State (1998). In a nod to his former days as a priest-in-training, he played Father Andrew Kiernan in Stigmata (1999), a pulse-pounding, music video-inspired religious thriller that paired him with Patricia Arquette, and then flipped to the other side to play Satan in End of Days (1999), with Arnold Schwarzenegger. These films were released in the midst of the millennial apocalyptic craze; Y2K turned out to be the year of the black Armani coat, which, ironically, he wore in both movies. But whether he was playing a man of God or the human incarnation of evil, he proved that his presence onscreen could enliven even the most insipid fare. After two decades away from the stage, Byrne had the starring role in the Broadway revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten (2000), Eugene O’Neill’s transcendent drama of guilt and forgiveness. His harrowing performance as the guilt-wracked James Tyrone received overwhelming praise by critics and theatergoers alike. Byrne’s handling of the cumbersome, but heart-wrenching monologue – particularly where James confesses his sins to human angel Josie (Cherry Jones) – proved compelling, while his shift from emotional detachment to extreme candidness displayed unusually moving grace. Ben Brantley, writing for the New York Times, observed: “Mr. Byrne’s long third-act monologue, its shifts in mood exquisitely set off by Pat Collins’s lighting, is a harrowing act of self-administered surgery, etched in escalating degrees of pain. It is, in a word, brilliant, itself the stuff of theatrical legend.”
Always looking for ways to expand his pursuits, Gabriel took on network television with a starring role in the short-lived sitcom Madigan Men (ABC, 2000-01), playing a recently divorced man who routinely receives romantic advice from his teen-aged son Luke (John Hensley) and widowed father Seamus (Roy Dotrice). He maintained numerous producing projects on his slate, including Mad About Mambo (2000), a Belfast-set coming-of-age tale produced by his own Plurabelle Films. Meanwhile, he continued to be in-demand as a character actor, happily toiling away with parts in such mainstream films as Ghost Ship (2002), a supernatural thriller in which he played a salvage ship captain whose crew encounters a mysterious ocean liner lost at sea. In Spider (2002), directed by David Cronenberg, he essayed the challenging role of the father of a psychologically damaged man (Ralph Fiennes) recently released from a mental institution, a man who may or may not be truthful about his childhood trauma. About the role, Gabriel noted: “It’s a very difficult thing, to tread the line between being a bad man in the eyes of a child and being real for the audience, so that the audience understands the story. So, its actually very slippery and it’s probably the most difficult role I’ve ever played in my life.” After a brief turn in Shade (2004), an indie about poker hustlers, Gabriel appeared in Mira Nair’s adaptation of Thackerey’s Vanity Fair (2004), playing the seductively titled and privileged Marquess of Steyne, who offers Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) all she wants – for a price.
His next film, the remake of John Carpenter’s 1976 thriller, Assault On Precinct 13 (2005), provided Gabriel with what Roger Ebert characterized as “one of his thankless roles in which he is hard, taciturn, and one-dimensional enough to qualify for Flatland.” Wah Wah (2005), on the other hand, revealed him at his best as the alcoholic father trying to raise his son and hold on to two strong women (Miranda Richardson and Emily Watson) in Richard E. Grant’s autobiographical story of growing up in Swaziland at the end of the 1960’s, as that country looked forward to independence. His work as Grant’s father in the film ranges from broad and sly comedy to heart-breakingly vulnerable drama; he remains good friends with the director to this day. In Jindabyne (2006), based on Raymond Carver’s short story “So Much Water So Close To Home” and directed by Ray Lawrence, he was a gas station owner in Australia who goes off on a fishing trip with his pals and discovers the body of a young Aboriginal woman in the river. Instead of calling the police, the men decide to go on with their fishing trip, which causes serious repercussions when they return home. Laura Linney plays the empathetic wife to Gabriel’s stoic Stewart. The shoot was a remarkable experience for him: “This is a film that makes you think about your life. I remember Ray saying to me, I think you should do this film. It would be really nice if you came to Australia and did it. It would be a work experience but I think it would be an important spiritual experience for you. That is what stuck with me. Nobody has ever said that to me before as a reason to do a film.”
Gabriel followed one remarkable portrayal with another: Christopher in Emotional Arithmetic (2007), based on Matt Cohen’s beloved book, which paired him with Susan Sarandon as childhood survivors of the Holocaust, now grown up and discovering one another again. That year also brought him recognition from his peers, including the first Volta Award for Lifetime Achievement in Acting, presented by the Dublin International Film Festival; an honorary degree by the National University of Ireland, Galway–the president of the University, Dr Iognáid Ó Muircheartaigh, said that this award is in recognition of the actor’s “outstanding contribution to Irish and international film”; and the Honorary Patronage of the University Philosophical Society, of Trinity College, Dublin.
Back on television, Gabriel starred in one of the most provocative and talked-about cable shows of the year, In Treatment (HBO, 2008-2010), playing Paul Weston, a seemingly successful psychotherapist and family man whose personal life falls apart and whose intimate involvement with his patients proves problematic. Each 30-minute episode put on display a full therapy session involving a single patient; these episodes aired consecutive days each week, mimicking Dr. Weston’s week, and showcased a regular set of patients (a stellar cast including Blair Underwood, Mia Wasikowska, Dianne Wiest, Alison Pill, Irrfan Khan, Hope Davis, and Amy Ryan). While critics and audiences were split, there was no conflict over Gabriel’s performance. In 2008, he earned an Emmy nod for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, but lost out to Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad). Gabriel then received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Television Series – Drama, which he promptly won. That same year, he essayed the role of King Arthur in the Lincoln Center revival of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot and was the subject of a documentary, Gabriel Byrne: Stories From Home, directed by Pat Collins. 2009 brought another face-off with Bryan Cranston for an Emmy Award in the lead actor category, thanks to Gabriel’s remarkable performance in the second season of In Treatment, which was renewed for a third and final time. 2010 also found him preparing to help bring Flann O’Brien’s difficult and funny book “At Swim-Two-Birds” to the big screen, with a screenplay and direction provided by compatriot Brendan Gleeson, but progress stalled due to funding issues.
Taking a break from acting, Gabriel assumed a new role as the first Cultural Ambassador for Ireland. For the next two years, he worked tirelessly to promote the Irish arts in America and to connect with the Irish diaspora. His activities included speeches and presentations to the global Irish community, curating film festivals, and representing Ireland at numerous events in both the United States and Ireland. In 2012, he returned to acting, starring with film icon Charlotte Rampling in her son Barnaby Southcombe’s first feature film, the neo-noir thriller I, Anna, and also re-uniting with the legendary director Costa-Gavras to bring the acidic financial dramedy Capital to the big screen, with co-star Gad Elmaleh. Writing for Variety, critic Joe Leydon describes Gabriel’s performance as the hedge fund shark Dittmar Rigule: “Byrne amusingly devours huge swaths of scenery with uninhibited relish.” In the same year, the small screen saw Gabriel take on the role of Tom Dawkins, the British Prime Minister in Chris Mullins’ tale, originally entitled A Very British Coup, now re-adapted as Secret State, for the UK’s Channel 4. His portrayal of the beleaguered left-of-center leader evoked more than one demand for “Gabriel Byrne for PM!” on Twitter.
Gabriel continued to work in both film and television in 2013. His films included All Things to All Men, a UK-based thriller that failed to thrill most viewers, despite the triple threat of Mr. Byrne, Rufus Sewell, and Toby Stephens. His second film that year proved more successful. Just A Sigh (AKA Le temps de l’aventure), written and directed by Jerome Bonnell and co-starring the always radiant Emmanuelle Devos, was tender, delicately acted, and deeply romantic. Set in Paris in June, on the day of the Fête de la Musique, the story avoided cliche by employing bracing humor and depicting adult passion realistically. Gabriel’s work in the film was a refreshing reminder that stories calling for romance, delicate or steamy, were not off the table and the film was greeted with positive reviews, both in the US and in Europe. The surprise that year was Vikings, the History Channel’s first scripted series. Taking on the role of Earl Haraldson, Gabriel brought a gritty realism to the character. Unshaven, malevolent, and tortured by the past, the sword-fighting Haraldson was an engaging, if not long-lived, departure from English professors and mobsters. Part of a resurgence in the film industry in Ireland, where it shoots every year, the series continues without him.
The following two years were busy indeed. In 2014, Vampire Academy, based on the first book of Richelle Mead’s young adult series, managed only a small bite at the box office, but offered audiences Gabriel’s first foray into the world of preternatural beings who prey, in this case, on high school students. It was a witty script and his was a witty and accomplished portrayal. Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, as the saying goes, Quirke was a serious and atmospheric drama, set in 1950’s Dublin, based on the books by John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black. This 3-episode BBC mini-series brought to the screen Gabriel as Dr. Quirke, Banville’s emotionally scarred pathologist, a man who lived “among the dead” and sought to discover, not only how, but why each victim came to be on his slab. Discussing the actor chosen to play his creation, Banville called Gabriel Byrne “the real thing.” Four films in 2015 provided two different kinds of roles: leading and supporting. Gabriel worked with Juliette Binoche in a supporting capacity on Endless Night, Isabel Coixet’s study of two women waiting for the same man, explorer Robert Peary, in the frozen landscape of the Arctic, and followed this with a film shot in Chile and Colombia, The 33, in which Gabriel portrayed the real-life engineer André Sougarret, who helped mastermind the rescue of the men trapped in the copper mine in the Atacama desert of Chile. His next two films offered Gabriel the spotlight. No Pay, Nudity–directed by Broadway stage veteran Lee Wilkof–provided Gabriel with the rare comedic lead role in a story about acting and career ennui; his co-stars included Nathan Lane and Frances Conroy. Finally, Louder Than Bombs presented Gabriel at the pinnacle of his artistic powers as a father, husband, and teacher coping with the loss of his wife, while also trying to connect with his often-volatile sons. Directed by Joachim Trier in his first English language feature, it competed at Cannes. Isabelle Huppert, Jesse Eisenberg, and Devin Druid rounded out the family in extremis.
In 2016, the boards called once again, and Gabriel took on his third great Eugene O’Neill role: James Tyrone Sr. in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for which he received a Tony nomination in the category Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play. His performance was described as “haunting,” “quietly commanding,” “humanly warm yet inhumanly fierce.” Those fortunate enough to see him on stage will never forget his powerful portrayal. And then, suddenly, he was on the small screen again, in a one-episode spot in the Netflix original series Marco Polo, playing Pope Gregory X, scheming against the Mongol Horde as though the papal mitre were a weapon. It was a brief but memorable surprise. Films in the pipeline for 2017 include: Mad to be Normal, the story of psychiatrist R. D. Laing and his community at Kingsley Hall, filmed in the UK with David Tennant and Michael Gambon; Carrie Pilby, based on the book by Caren Lissner, which premiered to good reviews at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival; and Lies We Tell, another UK project that is currently in post-production.
Gabriel Byrne likes to keep his private life just that: private. There are two items of recent note, however: In August 2014, he married Hannah Beth King, a film producer and director in her own right, in a private ceremony in Ireland. And it is rumored that he is continuing to work on a second volume of autobiographical stories, the sequel to his first, Pictures in My Head.
For more biographical information, be sure to read Gabriel’s book, Pictures In My Head.
The original text of this biography is from Fancast. It has been edited beyond all recognition and brought up-to-date by Stella.