Gabriel Byrne is full of ideas, concerns, observations, considered opinions, and stories. Ever since I became aware of him, back in 1981, he has been so. Every interview, short or long, gives you either glimpses of the depth of his intellectual nature or captures big hunks of philosophical discourse that he obviously thinks about. A lot.
In this interview, he turns introspective, in a way, and ponders the nature of his craft, how it has changed over the years, the nature of “the business” and how he has dealt with it, and the nature of his own experience as an actor, and advice he would offer to those starting out.
At the 50 minute marker in the complete interview below, he turns the tables on his interviewers and asks THEM an important question. It’s a fun moment that leads to even more discussion. Watch for it.
Crossing the Line is a podcast presented by The Guys, Oliver Rednall and Charlie Collicutt, that brings you tales from the world of entertainment.
So here is one of those tales, from a master storyteller. Enjoy! heart
Known for starring in The Usual Suspects, Miller’s Crossing and more recently the television adaptation of War of the Worlds, Gabriel Byrne is an incredible actor with years of experience and over 80 movie titles to his name. In 2018 he was given a lifetime achievement award by the Irish Film and Television Academy. In this episode, we sit down and discuss how he began in his career, struggles new actors face, and our age-old question – which movie he’s ashamed he hasn’t seen.
Highlight: Advice to Actors
Gabriel Byrne: The most difficult thing, I think, for an actor, a young actor, is how you take care of yourself when you’re not working. It goes back to that idea of allowing yourself to become disappointed, then hopelessness, despair, depression–all those things that we, as fragile human beings are subject to, more especially as actors, I think. You have to have tremendous resilience of spirit to say “okay, this isn’t working today, but maybe, in a week’s time, it’ll be a different story. And, as you know, the business is full of people who have had to be out in the wilderness for quite a while and then suddenly one thing happens and it changes their lives. But it’s true, even now, today–the thing that you really have to pay attention to is your own psychology. Stay positive, be interested in other things, stay fit, as much as possible don’t allow doubt to get into the equation. Because these are imagined things. . . Stay ready, stay fit, stay psychologically healthy as possible, and have faith that the thing will change. And even if it doesn’t change, there’s a road that’s opening up, and your projections now are unreliable about that. There’s ambition and there’s hope and faith and they kind of go together.
Highlight: Success and Failure as an Actor
The Guys: You were saying that people are too fragile to be in this business. If you’re angered by that, perhaps this isn’t the place for you. Maybe.
Gabriel Byrne: Well, I think that’s one of the most honest and one of the most powerful questions that somebody can ask. It’s a tremendously courageous thing to face, to look into the mirror and say “Is this the business for me? Am I the kind of person whose potential is going to be limited by being in this business? Is my individuality going to be erased or swamped by the necessities and demands of it? Is this the right thing for me? Can I deal with rejection–over and over and over again? Can I deal with what’s perceived as ‘failure’?”
You’re talking about “you’re on this side of the fence or that side of the fence” — success and failure are the good guy and the bad guy. You’re either this or you’re that. Well, that, in my opinion, is false because there are many degrees of success and there are many kinds of failure, that are perceived as failures, but are not actually failures. The only kind of real success, I think, is the success of contentment: to be accepting. This is the life that I have and I accept it and I’m content with it. There’s a lot of people I have seen over many, many years of being in this business who have really suffered being in this business. Suffered. Because their ambitions weren’t fulfilled, because they’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time and things didn’t work out for them. You can go from there (pointing up) to there (pointing down) in a couple of days.
Is there a film you are ashamed you haven’t seen?
Gabriel Byrne: I regard the process of educating myself in film as an ongoing one. And there are so many directors that I haven’t seen, that I would be a little bit ashamed that I hadn’t seen all of their work. But it’s impossible to see everything. And I wouldn’t say that there are movies that I’m “ashamed” of not having seen. . . I haven’t seen that many Scorsese films. I’ve seen all the usual ones, of course, Mean Streets and so forth, but I haven’t seen the other ones that he’s made and I know that he’s probably very proud of those films. I wouldn’t be “ashamed” of not seeing them because it’s so difficult to keep up with everything. As soon as you find a Shane Meadows, then you say “Okay, well, I need to see his films.”
The guys: Maybe a different way of going at this question–You know so many people in this industry. Are there any friends of yours’ films that you’re ashamed of not having seen?
Gabriel Byrne: Oh god. [laughing] I couldn’t admit that! I found one thing that I try not to do. If somebody makes a great film or gives a great performance, I try to resist not saying “That was incredible!” because then, the next time, if it isn’t–I can’t praise one and not praise the other. If an actor gives a great performance, then why didn’t you say something good about the last one. . . ? I tend to be very quietly supportive of friends, because I know how difficult it is to make a film. To get a film made . . .
The guys: Are there any films you’ve made that maybe didn’t do so well critically or commercially that you think should have done more or that you feel a special place for? You really enjoyed doing or were really, really good?
Gabriel Byrne: Well, I think that’s the definition. People ask “What’s your favorite movie that you’ve done?” They’re not necessarily the best ones. You can have a fantastic time on a film and it can turn out to be terrible. You can have a fantastic time on a film that turns out to be great. You can never predict it. But I’ve worked on films that I loved doing and loved working on with directors and other actors and they haven’t turned out so well, but I regard them with great fondness.
The guys: My earliest memory of you is when The Man in the Iron Mask came out. I was about nine. 1998, I think it was? When Woolworth’s was still around… I’ve still got the VHS of it.
Gabriel Byrne: That was one of those films that I really loved doing because it was a spectacular cast and we were in Paris for five months and every day was just a joy to go to work. Similarly with The Usual Suspects where we just had a laugh. We shot the whole thing in 27 days, I think, and it was just a laugh from beginning to end.