Nicole Angelle, a Byrneholic of long standing and someone who contributes to this website on a consistent and enthusiastic basis, shares her “brief encounter” with Gabriel Byrne. And we thank her for this story of suspense, her amusing observations, and her heartfelt joy at meeting the man who inspires us all! –Stella heart
What would you say to Gabriel Byrne if you met him for 10 seconds ?
I have followed Gabriel Byrne’s projects for several years. I admire his work and respect his activism. I work in the arts (behind the scenes) and based on what I have read, I like to think that we share similar views on the importance of arts funding and venues, and the need for young people to have the opportunity to participate in the arts.
I flew into New York City from Canada on June 1 to attend my daughter’s Commencement Ceremonies at CUNY (City University of New York), where she received a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts. So proud. A special highlight of the visit was going to be the Sunday matinee performance of Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
I’ve commented on Gabriel Byrne’s remarkable performance elsewhere on this site (these comments are below), so I will only say this. What was so compelling to me was his stillness on the stage, magnifying the range of emotions that rippled across that face in live performance. And when the rage, guilt and regret barrelled out of James Tyrone, it was a force to be reckoned with.
The curtain call was brief and he walked off the stage to a standing ovation, arm-in-arm with Jessica Lange who plays his wife Mary. The final act left me in tears. The play had gotten into my head and I could not shake it. I just sat there for a few minutes. As we turned to leave the almost empty theatre through the front entrance, an usher guided us through a side door exit. We stepped out into the sun and I had to squint and get my bearings, the play’s searing conflicts still resounding in my brain.
Then my daughter casually points over to my left and says: “There’s Gabriel Byrne, maman.” I said, yeah right. But she gave me a little wink and nodded her head, AND THEN, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him.
Or rather, I saw a man in a blue jacket smiling and signing Playbills in front of a metal barricade, exchanging banter with playgoers. My brain wasn’t quite processing this. I mean I was still digesting the play’s angst-ridden characters while confronting the cacophony of a 21st century street. My eyes followed him as he neared the end of the line of autograph seekers, beyond sound and speech. I thought, awww. He’s going to spring into the waiting black car. And then he’ll be gone.
But just then, some guy behind the barricade looks at me and jokes in a broad NYC accent, “Hiya, Do you want my autograph?” Startled out of my daydream, my eyes darted over his head toward the figure in blue and I inched my way forward behind the line-up of people. Gabriel Byrne came into focus ahead of me, talking to the very last person in line. I’m looking at his still youthful face, a day’s growth of whiskers, no glasses, glossy locks flecked with silver. His lips are moving. A woman is telling him how she’s followed his work and he’s smiling, but it’s all in slow motion. And then…
He doesn’t turn to the car. He turns back. He looks my way. It’s my eyes he’s looking into now. So I steel myself and peer right back into his eyes, deepest blue and full of light, and hear these words tumble out of my mouth: “Your work is mesmerising.” He’s saying something now, “To whom?” I have no idea what he’s talking about…then I realise he’s holding the Playbill I’ve apparently just handed to him. Or maybe he’s gently taken it from my hands. He’s asking to whom should it be made out. Oh, he’s asking me my name…
As I made my way to him, I had not given any thought to what I might say or ask. I always thought that if we ever met in some alternative universe, we would have a clever conversation about how Imagine Ireland opened my eyes to the richness of the contemporary Irish arts scene. Or I would ask him how the fundraising was progressing for the New York Irish Art Center, since with two similar projects under my belt I knew how challenging these projects can be, etc. Get a grip. A conversation was simply not going to happen.
When I realise he’s standing there waiting for me to give him my name, I am suddenly calm. He has gently broken the ice. Nicole, I say, in French. Nicole from Canada.
So as he writes, I say : “I believe you’ve met my daughter before, it was at the Seamus Heaney tribute, it was one of her first artistic gatherings here, she’s an artist from Montreal” (I’m not really speaking in full sentences – but ok , at least I’m speaking in English now)… and I look to my side to introduce her, and, horrors, she’s not there. I’m thinking, I want her to share in this moment, say how she felt nurtured – as a newcomer – by a community of artists celebrating Heaney that night, and how Gabriel spoke to her, but I’m not actually saying anything, my thoughts are tumbling about in my head as I realise he’s taken a small step away from this obviously deranged woman with the hint of a French accent and funny purple glasses. I say “Oh, but she was just here a second ago,” scanning the crowd again. And then I spot her: a brave, beautiful young woman who took on the Big Apple on her own terms, standing at the opposite end of the line, outside the barricade, watching us this whole time. She smiles and waves. I wave back, “OK, there she is” and all I can manage to finally blurt out is: “And in a few months she’ll be leaving New York City and coming back home to Canada, thank God.”
But what I really want to say is how it’s fitting that she meets Gabriel again almost at the end of her NYC journey, how she was deeply moved by the Heaney tribute, how she felt that maybe, just maybe, she could feel welcome here as an artist, because another artist, an older and respected actor and writer, likely a mentor to many, kindly took a moment to talk with two students from other countries one evening in Brooklyn. But he’s standing there, tired, being polite, looking at me patiently, waiting for me to finish my sentence, so I stop speaking after the word God.
Someone has thrust a program into his hands. He signs it quickly. But as he does, his eyes start sparkling and there’s that little hint of a smile, and he looks down and he says wryly, to me, to all the other admiring eyes, and maybe to himself … “I wish I was going back up to Canada.” He says this in a soft, almost wistful voice. We all smile, taken in by this charming man who’s made everyone’s day just by being there.
And then, the car door is opened. He returns the pen that he’s been using, saying to someone: “You see, I didn’t forget to give it back to you.” He turns, not to the car, as expected, but wait, he’s heading to the opposite end of the line. Who is he looking at over there? Oh my God. He’s going over to my beautiful first-born, who is hanging back. I see her hand reach out and her dazzling warm smile. They shake hands, he says something to her, and then he disappears into the waiting car. I kind of miss that hop into the car because I’m running back to where she is standing. She laughs and gives me a big hug. She says, “Maman, I can’t believe you just met Gabriel Byrne!” She says she watched us but couldn’t hear anything. She hung back on purpose, not wanting to invade his space. But then she was a little shocked when she saw him come toward her extending his hand. She wondered, why is he doing this? Why should he remember me? He shook her hand and said: “Nice to meet you again. Thanks for coming.” I told her about what I said to him, that he probably spotted her when she waved. She said: “Maman, there’s no way in hell he even remotely knows who I am. That was almost three years ago.” Probably not, but it’s nice that he came over to her anyway, isn’t it? Then we walked down to the river as I described our brief encounter, laughing about how mortified I felt when she wasn’t there behind me when I tried to introduce them. At the river, we stopped in our tracks. We had not snapped a single photo. We were so caught up in the moment that we forgot to capture it. But maybe that’s just as well. Those moments were too precious and fleeting to have wasted time fumbling with a camera.
Just 10 minutes after we met Gabriel Byrne, the skies darkened and New York City was hit with a torrential rainstorm. His car was probably caught in it. I wonder if it crossed his mind that he could have missed the storm if only he hadn’t stopped to chat with the playgoers. But little did he know that everyone in that theatre and especially the lucky ones in the street would savour that experience always.
And BTW Gabriel, I’ve put out the welcome mat for you. You’re welcome to return to Canada anytime.
A very special souvenir
Nicole Angelle’s comment about Gabriel’s performance in the play
I had the privilege of seeing Gabriel’s incredible performance in this searing play on Sunday, June 5. The play is still clobbering around in my brain even today. Mr. Byrne brought great complexity to his character. There were moments of bombast and seething anger breaking to the surface, regret and tenderness, playfulness and wry humour. All played masterfully.
But it was his stillness that has undone me. And his evocative silences, particularly effective during the soliloquies of some of the other players. While they ACTED out their scene, his stillness conveyed so much. Pain, sorrow, fear, disgust, love. It was mesmerising (a word I used later when I spoke very briefly with Gabriel Byrne, the man – but it lost its meaning somehow in the brilliant sunshine of the NYC street – when the fourth wall is scaled it is really difficult to articulate one’s reactions to an artist’s work). Anyway, this relationship between the actors, you can really only experience in the context of a stage play. The range of emotions rippling across his face, registering all the way to us in the balcony, gave this tyrannical miser some humanity. That cringing, broken man in the wicker chair, wincing with every word of rebuke his son screams at him for his misanthrope ways. It was hard to watch but it took my breath away. How does he do this? Without a word of dialogue. Only his body crumpled sideways in that damn chair, his head turned into it, his shaking hands warding off the hateful words as if they were blows, his handsome face a shadowed grimace. What is this reservoir ? How deep it must flow and rise. What one must leave of oneself on that stage floor every night…
Thank you Mr. Byrne for taking this colossal on. And when it was over, you left the stage arm in arm with Ms. Lange who brought me to tears in her final scene.
A few minutes later as my daughter (an artist living in NYC) and I pushed through the exit doors of the now empty theatre into the mad cacophony of a 21st century sidewalk on a bright Sunday afternoon, I could have sworn I caught a glimpse of Mr. O’Neill slowly lifting himself out of a seat in the fifth row, his face numb with love and sorrow, but he was nodding in approval, he was nodding in approval.