Gabriel Byrne And The Art of Listening runs approximately 40 minutes and can be listened to at the NPR site or downloaded.
Actor Gabriel Byrne is so convincing and sympathetic in his role as a psychoanalyst on the HBO series, In Treatment, that people have started telling him their problems…Byrne discusses the art of listening, the allure of therapy and the young woman who caused him to lose his vocation to the seminary.
Thanks to misctimetraveler for the link and to Laurie for the heads up! You Rock!
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of TV show, “In Treatment”)
Mr. GABRIEL BYRNE (Actor): (as Paul) I think you should know that the kind of therapy that I practice, it’s not a quick fix. It’s a process, and eventually change happens, but it does take time.
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) I have to tell you, I don’t have a lot of time.
GROSS: I’ve been watching the HBO series “In Treatment,” and I’ve been enjoying Gabriel Byrne’s portrayal of a psychotherapist so much, I started thinking maybe I should go into therapy. And then I thought, no, no, no, what I should do is interview Gabriel Byrne.
So my guest is Gabriel Byrne. On “In Treatment” he plays Paul Weston, a therapist who’s brilliant at seeing past the layers of defense mechanisms and self-delusions of his patients. But he has problems in his own personal life. He’s now separated from his wife, he misses his children. Those are some of the reasons, not to mention a malpractice case against him, that Paul is in treatment himself.
Gabriel Byrne grew up in Dublin and became known in the U.S. for his roles in movies like “Miller’s Crossing,” “Little Women” and “The Usual Suspects.” Let’s start with a scene from “In Treatment.” In this scene his patient, played by Hope Davis, is a lawyer who’s very successful professionally, but the only person she’s close to is her elderly father. She’s had affairs with many married men, including a married colleague who just broke up with her. She’s been talking to Paul 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?
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 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.
GROSS: 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, Terry.
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 hastened 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: I think another reason for the series’ popularity is it’s like a mystery story, but instead of it being like a cop or detective series, where the mystery is who’s the murderer, the mystery here is what’s the motivation for the behavior. You know? And you’re constantly trying to get to the bottom not of the crime but of the character.
Mr. BYRNE: That’s interesting that you should say that because I think that the journey inward can be as exciting in many cases to observe as the journey outward, and I think we’re at a stage now where – I was talking to a friend of mine recently who said to me, you know, that this series kind of reflects a cross-section of American society and that we have a real need now in these times to be listened to. And I think when people identify with these characters or reject them, they feel connected in a way that sometimes they don’t in these fractured communities that we live in.
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. 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.
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.
GROSS: My guest is Gabriel Byrne. He stars in the HBO series “In Treatment.” More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Now, you grew up in Dublin and didn’t come to the United States till you were about, well, in your late 30s. 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: No. There’s – 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, 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 of – 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 to 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-down 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.
GROSS: That also sounds bizarre.
Mr. BYRNE: Yes. Well, when you have men who have taken 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’ve 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 is a man-made 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 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, well, 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 lamp light 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: Gabriel Byrne will be back in the second half of the show. He stars in the HBO series “In Treatment.” I’m Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Gabriel Byrne. He stars as a psychotherapist in the HBO series “In Treatment.” He is from Dublin and didn’t come to the U.S. until he was in his late 30s. He became known here for his roles in such films as “Miller’s Crossing,” “Little Women” and “The Usual Suspects.” He was educated by the Christian Brothers and spent several years in the seminary. When we left off, he was describing how he lost his vocation and left the seminary after seeing a pretty actress in an acting troop that was invited by the priest.
So was it really after that that you decided you in fact weren’t called and that you wanted to leave? Or was there another precipitating incident?
Mr. BYRNE: Well, I was caught in the graveyard smoking, smoking on Tip(ph) cigarettes. And I remember the priest walking up and down the aisle and he said, I smell tobacco; if the culprits don’t stand out immediately, we’ll have to take to measures to ensure that that, you know – so he brought us all up. And of course we surrendered at the last moment. And there was three of us who were found guilty. And they’d said that my conduct up to then had not been appropriate for somebody about to be a priest.
And my cigarette smoking, my fascination with the town, which was three miles away along the canal bank, and my unhealthy obsession with the – with the actress under the lamp light were all deemed to be things that did not constitute what they envisioned a priest should be.
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 affect, something kind of adolescent or childish, and nothing happened. And I thought, well, maybe 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, a guy 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, those 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 that was my crisis of faith, was naked women or hell forever.
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 have naked women and if you wanted you could have some sense of God in your life. Did you choose to keep one and 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 a better search for some kind of God. And I wouldn’t say that I’m religious in any way, but I think that I moved towards some version of being spiritual.
GROSS: Other aspects of your training that you could use to suit that purpose now, even though you wouldn’t – it wouldn’t necessarily even be in a Catholic way, but still you understand what meditation is?
Mr. BYRNE: I’ve a great respect for people who are on a spiritual quest and I’ve a great respect for people who, you know, are looking to – I mean in the end it boils down to that whole – was it Aristotle or Plato who said, Who are we, why are we here, and where are we going? So I try to live my life with those three questions. I don’t know that I’ve come up with any answers. But you know, one thing that the Catholic Church did give me was a tremendous sense of appreciation of the theater, because they truly understand theater.
I mean if you’ve ever stood in St. Peter’s Square and watched the pope come out onto that balcony, or if you watched the funeral of the last pope, he was himself a former actor in Warsaw, in Poland, you know, dressed like that, with that hat on him, going out surrounded by thousands of extras on the set designed by Michelangelo and Bellini – I mean he had the greatest gig of all time. And the church truly understands what theater is and what it is to control and manipulate -sometimes for good, sometimes not – vast crowds.
GROSS: What made you understand how important theater and acting was to you and made you want to do it?
Mr. BYRNE: Well, about a year ago I was having dinner with a friend of mine here in New York and we were talking about why we became actors in the first place, you know, our very, very early days. And he told me that when he was at school, he would go and pass through three road blocks, because the troubles in the north of Ireland were rampant then. The IRA, the UVF, the British Army, whatever, and he’d say – they’d say, Where are you going? He’d say, I’m on my way to do a play, Sean O’Casey, and they’d wave him through.
In 1976 in Dublin, a car bomb went off and many, many people were injured and killed. And I had just joined a little group called the Dublin Shakespeare Society, where we performed Shakespeare with itchy black polo(ph) necks and wooden swords. And I had a choice as to whether I should stay at home or whether I should continue this fascination that I had with the theater. And I realized that I was willing to walk past parked cars that potentially, could potentially be car bombs to get to this small theater.
So that kind of – you know, one of the things that I love to see in a young person is when they find their passion and they’re just, they’re just – that’s what they want to do. And no – nobody can really derail you from that. It’s a wonderful feeling. And if I had known probably then what I know now about the world of acting and the world of theater, maybe I wouldn’t have done it. But…
GROSS: Why not?
Mr. BYRNE: Because I think it’s a very, it’s a very – it’s a very tough business to be in, because so much of it is about rejection, and so much of it is about just being, you know, in work, being able to work, being in competition. But the thing about it is that I’ve learned not to define myself by what I do, and that’s a very big lesson for – sometimes for young actors to absorb. You’re not your job.
GROSS: Well, I can see how that would be particularly hard for you, because before you even had a job, you were in the seminary training to become a priest, so your life was completely defined by what you planned to do, what you were training to do.
Mr. BYRNE: But I was only 16 or 17. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was responding in a way to a fairy tale. And I was seduced by the fairy tale. And…
GROSS: What was the fairy tale?
Mr. BYRNE: It was a fantasy about finding structure and a version of home, I suppose, because it promised that. And sometimes I think when people talk about heaven, what they’re really talking about is an ideal – an idealized version of home.
GROSS: Was your home not anything ideal?
Mr. BYRNE: Well, I think that, you know, 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 were six kids in the family. And you know, that produces its own stresses and strains. And I used to – I remember when “The Brady Bunch” came out, and I used to hate “The Brady Bunch” – only now in retrospect I can understand why I might have hated it, because they seemed like such paragons of virtue that they would say things like, Mom, Dad, can we have a meeting? 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 an unconscious resentment in me that I’m only beginning to understand now.
GROSS: My guest is Gabriel Byrne. He stars in the HBO series “In Treatment.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Gabriel Byrne. He stars as a psychotherapist on the HBO series “In Treatment.” 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 seductive 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 a 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. I’ll do you – I’ll give you a 20 percent discount.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BYRNE: But for the same – 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 – that they help you to write the real narrative of your life and come to terms with it. 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 cannot be but I think a good process.
GROSS: 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?
Mr. BYRNE: Uh-huh.
GROSS: And I – you know, not – 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. Oscar Wilde said about English, he said, The English stole our language and we learned it returned it to them with – with great beauty. I mean it was a little bit Oscar Wildish 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 is a most complex and beautiful language, and with a wealth of great poetry and prose that most people don’t really know about. It’s a beautiful language that’s being revived, and people are beginning to take a new interest in – 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 – 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 there is a 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.
GROSS: Gabriel Byrne stars on the HBO series “In Treatment.” New episodes are shown Sunday and Monday nights.