Gabriel Byrne: ‘Walking With Ghosts’

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Gabriel Byrne. Photo by Patrick Fouque, Paris Match and Getty.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes actor and author Gabriel Byrne. Byrne has appeared in more than 70 films, including “Miller’s Crossing” and “The Usual Suspects,” and he won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Dr. Paul Weston on HBO’s “In Treatment.” Byrne’s memoir “Walking With Ghosts” details his childhood in Ireland and his path to becoming an actor. Byrne tells The Treatment his early days as an actor were often filled with confusion about how a film was made and the camera tricks often used. He says his character from “In Treatment” was an effective therapist because, even if he didn’t know the answers, he often asked the right questions.  And Byrne discusses the surrealism of Irish humor and the joke from his childhood that still makes him laugh.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. You may know my guest from "Excalibur" or "Christopher Columbus" or you might know him as Tom Reagan, or you might know him as Dr. Paul Weston from "In Treatment." You definitely know him from somewhere. My guest is Gabriel Byrne. His memoir, which I've had the greatest time reading is called "Walking with Ghosts." The book has really a lyrical quality. You move back and forward in time. 

Gabriel Byrne: Yes, well, one of the things I wanted to experiment with, I suppose, was the notion of time, because I was trying to look back over the events of my life, and not just recount the events themselves, but to deal with the idea of the past and time and how that affects the present. The book, in the opening page, describes what my mother used to say to me, which is a line from Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic English poet of the 19th century. He said, “Regret not the past, fear not the future.” And I try to use that as a dictum to live my own life by, but also, I used it as a kind of a device to look at the events of the past and the people of the past and, indeed, the landscapes of the past, which are, for the most part gone. 

There's nobody in the book that's still alive, so everybody whose stories recounted there is, in their own way, a ghost. But the idea that we walk ourselves, accompanied by the ghosts of the past, is something that's deep in the Native American tradition. And that's where I got the idea for the book: to talk about the ghosts of the people who walk with us, not just that, but also the events and the failures and the successes that also will come. But the regrets, the failures, the triumphs, all the things of the past that walk with us in the forms of ghosts. And of course, that's all wrapped up in the capsule of time.

KCRW: You start off by talking about a joke book that you got as a kid, where you learned how to tell jokes. And I don't know if you remember the joke from that first page, but it actually made me laugh out loud, because I hadn't heard it since I was a kid. 

Byrne: Well, I remember the book. When you're young, and you're trying to forge an identity, I think, and you don't have anybody to direct you in any particular way, you think, oh, that would be a good thing. Take a book out of the library of the world's 1000 great jokes, take it up to the Phoenix Park in Dublin on a summer afternoon and try to learn all the jokes in the book. But the only one I do remember is the one in the book, which, like you, still makes me laugh because it's utterly ridiculous. Two cannibals are eating a clown. One turns to the other and says, does this taste funny to you? I honestly still don't know what's funny with that, but I think it's the image of two guys with a clown, you know, like, eating their way through a clown, like they would with a corn [cob]. 

KCRW: There's so much surrealism in your book, about cultures clashing. It's funny that joke stuck with you because it evokes so many things that we read in the book. So often you keep going back to that anxiety of trying to connect with people, and also you have an eye for the absurd as well. 

Byrne: It is an interesting question to ask why you remember certain, not just jokes, but why you remember certain events and why you remember a particular phrase, or what seems like an absolutely mundane moment. And, of course, it's a good question to ask: why do I remember that? What does that say about me that that's the joke I remembered? And it is surreal. Surrealism, I suppose, the word means that it exists just below the level of what we call reality. And reality has always been, for me, at least, it has been something very unreliable, and very, very subjective. Any policeman will tell you, if a man falls off his bicycle, and seven people see it, there'll be seven different stories about it. 

KCRW: There are so many of these anecdotes that you relate in the book that make me think of a character. When you're in school and talking about what original sin is, or the nun is telling you that, I found myself thinking about that kind of dual quality of Tom Reagan in "Miller's Crossing," and how finally, for me, he seems to be beset with original sin, this thing he can't shake. 

Byrne: Well, that's an interesting connection. The idea of original sin is something that I would say, without trying to sound pedantic, it traps the soul from developing. If you're told that a sin that was committed by Adam and Eve, who may or may not have been real--it's very unlikely that they were real--but that the sin that they committed is something that you can never rub off your own soul. 

So you carry this with you in your life. I'm not saying that I carry it in my life, but the idea behind it is to make you beholden to this event that happened way, way, way before you're born, that you can never free yourself of, and what was the sin? The sin was that God gave a beautiful garden to Adam and Eve and told them that you can have everything in this garden, but you can't eat that apple over there. And because the woman is the temptress in the story or the myth, she's the one who says to Adam, Go over and take a bite out of it. And he says, No, we can't do that. God would be really angry, and she takes a bite out of it. And it's that bite that condemns mankind to suffering. So the suffering of mankind is caused by a woman, and the original sin that you carry in your life, in the form of guilt, a guilt that you never asked for, did nothing to earn, carries you.

KCRW: I laughed out loud and was horrified by your relating the stories about the making of "Excalibur" where, at one point you say, I found it difficult to master the technique of acting for the film camera. You didn't quite understand something going on in "Excalibur," and John Boorman the director, said, just fake it for the camera.

Byrne: I'd never gone to drama school, so I didn't know anything about the techniques of camera. I didn't know there was such a thing as a long shot, medium shot, and a close up and that a scene incorporates all those shots, and it takes two or three days to do them, or at least in those days, it did. There was a scene where myself and another actor were way, way, way, way back, barely seen. We were just literally background to the action that was going on. And I remember slogging through the mud in a real suit of armor, giving it everything. And the actor who was with me said to me, Jesus Christ, will you stop acting? They can't see us. And so, when we got to the close ups, we did two takes and I said, That's great. They said, no, you have to go up on top of this ladder because they want to do a shot of you on the ladder. And I said, but I've just been on a horse, how can I be on a ladder? And he says, not you on the ladder. We want that height so that we can get the camera up to show your face. 

Similarly, when I came down to do the love scene where the character that I played, who is this crazed mythical warlord, takes the wife of the Duke of Cornwall by force. We did a wide shot against the fire again in a real suit of armor. And the sweat was pouring off me for the wide shots. Then they took her out, and they put in a pink cushion, and nobody said anything to me. They just said "action." And I looked at John Boorman, and I said, what do I do? Where is she? He said, just hump the caution. This is a close up. And so I found myself in a full suit of armor literally humping a pink cushion. I thought, Jesus Christ, this movie business is really hard to understand. But I know that when the film was shown in Dublin, where I wasn't at the premiere, the fact that I was able to do the business and reach full congress in a complete suit of armor with no obvious method of egress in this awful costume got a round of applause.

KCRW: That was one of the things that's just so wonderful about the book is your being able to relate your state of anxiety and also just addressing the absurdity of what's going on around you and be in a heightened situation like making your first movie, a situation like doing an Arthurian fable with John Boorman. Or just walking down the street and seeing the local man about town wearing his hairpiece, and you're wondering if it was some of the clippings from the barber shop that ended up on his head?

Byrne: Yeah, this was a barber who unfortunately went bald in his early 20s. When we were customers of his, he must have been in middle age, but the entire village or town, colluded in the reality that he didn't have a wig, so nobody ever mentioned it to him, so he was convinced that nobody knew. But we all knew he had a wig. 

He'd have different wigs for different occasions, and I remember calling to his house one day, and he had a wig for just getting out of the shower, and then he'd have a formal one and a kind of a tossed one where he'd say, Jeez, that's an awful rough day out there today. He used to cut the hair and his apprentice would sweep up the hair that fell on the floor, and they'd give it to these places where they make wigs for sick people. And one day I looked at him, and I thought maybe he's keeping the hair clippings for himself and those wigs are made out of my hair. He could be wearing my hair.

KCRW: When reading the book, I got to see how so many of the things you have done as an actor, were shaped by things that have happened in your life. And the thing you say that your dad said to you as a kid: the most interesting acting you're going to see in performances is the theatre of the street.

Byrne: Yeah, basically, what he was saying is that the theater is everywhere around you, and that films are everywhere around you, and that real characters are everywhere. I suppose the link between Paul Weston and the narrator of this book, which is me, is that a great therapist, I think, listens. A great therapist is a great listener, and it's a wonderful gift to somebody else, to really listen to what they're saying. Because we all have stories. We all have incredible, extraordinary stories that we rarely get the chance to tell each other. And as a therapist, I suppose the guy in "In Treatment," didn't always know the answer. But he sometimes knew the right question to ask that would provoke somebody into telling the story that he could then listen to and draw conclusions from.

KCRW: Yeah, there's that, too, but he's also taking in detail, looking at body language, watching the tilt of the head. As an actor, these details just start landing with you right away, and it's clear, when you pick up the book, people will be able to see that you are a born storyteller.

Byrne: Well, I grew up in a tradition, I suppose, of storytellers. If you sit down with your average Irish person and you say to them, what time is it? He could be still telling you the time a half an hour later. People talk about asking directions. For people in Ireland, it's become a bit of a cliche where people would say, Can you tell me how to get to such and such a place? And they'd say, Well, I wouldn't start from here if I was you.

I do remember myself when I was married to a Jewish girl, and I brought her to Dublin, and I was trying to explain to her what Irish humor was, as opposed to Jewish humor of New York, which tends to be very quick and tends to be one liners. You think of, say Fran Liebowitz or Jackie Mason, or Woody Allen. Whereas Irish humor is often surreal, and it doesn't know it's funny, and that's what makes it hilarious. 

For example, we were going to this place one night to a party in this house called the Prince of Wales Terrace. We stopped in the middle of the town, and there were two guys standing in the doorway of the bar, and I rolled down the window. I said, lads, can you tell me: is Prince of Wales Terrace near here? And the two of them came over and looked in the window to see what was in the car and who was in there. And then one guy says, Prince of Wales Terrace? And you just know, he had no idea where it was. Do you know where it is, Seamus? And Seamus says, Prince of Wales Terrace, and then he looks at me and he says, Do you know whereabouts it is? Because if you know where it is, I can direct you to it. I said, If I knew where it was, why would I be asking you where it is? 

That's what our humor is. It's illogical. It's surreal. And yet, at the same time, it makes total sense. If I knew where it was, he could tell me how to get there, that there's a logic in that. But what's illogical and surreal about it is that I was asking him where it was. And he didn't know. But he was asking me where it was.

KCRW: I think about that great section of the book where you talk about falling in love and being with your first serious girlfriend. It's a situation, where everything is heightened, and something we've all gone through, but I was struck by the detail: “I loved Jean Pitney, I lied.” I guess what we want from actors, is their observational skills, if they're any good at it, that they can find to breathe into the characters they play.

Byrne: Yeah, I do think that the process of writing and the process of acting are two completely different things. I recounted in the book about the old actor who gives a transportive performance one night where he reaches a height where he can't even believe that he's ascended to that height of acting. The people around him know it, and the audience knows it. And the people in the wings know it. And yet, when he's lying on the ground in a sweat, he gets up and he bows, and he rushes off the stage, through the stage workers and into his dressing room, when he slams the door in anger. 

Somebody goes and knocks on the door, and he barks "come in." And the person walks in and says, I just want to say that that was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in my life. It was just incredible. And the actor says, I know. The guy says, Well, why are you so angry? And he says, because I don't know how I did it. And I think that's the thing that actors, especially, feel. 

I've never met an actor who said, Oh, I know where this comes from. The process is incomprehensible. Why one person should be good, and another person should be not good; nobody's ever been able to figure out. You can go to all the drama schools you want, but it's not going to make you a good actor. It's something that comes down from somewhere, and goes inside you. And I suppose the ancestor of the actor is the shaman in primitive society, the guy who went out and danced in front of the villagers, and took all the trauma and the pain and the joy of the tribe into himself and expressed it. And I think that's the primitive form of what the actor is. But I think if you said to that shaman, why are you dancing, and why are you jumping around doing cartwheels and pretending to be crying and pretending to be loved, he wouldn't have an answer either. Whereas writing seems to me to be a more conscious effort at recording a different kind of detail.



Rebecca Mooney