By © Jane Freebury
The Irish actor of stage and screen, Gabriel Byrne, is loquacious and charming. And he is forthright, a man inclined to speak his mind.
Ever since he first appeared in 1981 in Excalibur, John Boorman’s re-telling of the King Arthur and his knights of the round table, he has seen a lot. He is an industry veteran of more than 70 movies.
His credits include a lead role opposite Laura Linney in Ray Lawrence’s highly regarded film of 2006, Jindabyne. The murder mystery was set in and around the town of the same name in the Snowy Monaro.
Byrne has worked with many of the movers and shakers of the international screen, and performed across genres.
Byrne was the dapper figure in the middle of The Usual Suspects’ famous poster line-up
He was in some of the most iconic films of the 1990s, like the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing and Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, a smart neo-noir that is still a big favourite with many of us. In the latter, in the role of a tricky, hardened criminal, Byrne was the dapper figure in the middle in the movie’s famous poster line-up.
In his latest film, Death of a Ladies’ Man, a Canadian-Irish coproduction due to release mid-May, he is a man who finds out that he dying and that there’s not much can be done about it. He can pursue writing the great North American novel that he yearns to write, but he must accept his fate.
“I have never before played someone who is in the process of dying. This is the first time.”
Characters in other films have died, of course, but as Samuel O’Shea in Death of a Ladies’ Man, to the soundtrack of some of Leonard Cohen’s very best ballads, he suddenly discovers he is terminally ill. It’s definitely different from taking a bullet.
Although Byrne has actioned his share of screen violence with roles in crime dramas and in war films like Leningrad, in his latest film his character O’Shea is a washed up academic, alienated from wife, former partners and his own children. He is informed there is a tumour in his brain and he has only a short time left to live.
When we chatted over the phone the other week, Byrne was in Los Angeles. Far from the home in Rockport, Maine, where he lives with his wife and three-year-old daughter.
“I come from a culture where this kind of man was revered. You know, the hard-drinking, devil-may-care, womanizing, illiterate, charismatic kind.”
What did he do to prep for this new role?
Byrne looked to what is a well-known Irish stereotype. “I come from a culture where that kind of man was revered. You know, the hard-drinking, devil-may-care, womanizing, illiterate, charismatic kind of man.”
“Brendan Behan was one of those. Dylan Thomas is another. A lot of rock stars. It’s hard to believe that was admired as a way of living life.”
In Death of a Ladies’ Man there is, Byrne says, a poignancy to looking back over a life lived in that way. “One has to deal with regret, how one has lived one’s life, how one has loved and how well one has treated one’s fellow man.”
“In movie fiction, at least, it allows one to do that.”
“And, you have your own version of this type of man in Australia. The macho type where it’s all about expressing the external, rather than the internal.”
Byrne remembers his time in Australia fondly. “It was just like being at home.” He told Ray Lawrence, director of Jindabyne, that he felt completely at ease in the country though he didn’t know why.
“It’s about the way life is lived. I did not find it when I lived in England. Or in America, for that matter.”
I ask if we should feel any sympathy for his character O’Shea, someone who has really stuffed up. “Well, he does recognise the error of his ways, and he is redeemed through the love of other people. He’s lucky in that way.”
Brought up a Roman Catholic, Byrne once trained as a priest, then he studied archaeology and Celtic languages at University College Dublin. Where was he headed at that time? “I had no idea!”
O’Shea’s terminal, inoperable condition has its upside. It allows for the most wonderful, fanciful hallucinations
O’Shea’s terminal, inoperable condition has its upside at least. It allows for the most wonderful, fanciful hallucinations. Like imagining buffed wait-staff serving tables in silver lurex bikinis and tiger’s head. Or his poetry students drinking champagne, throwing streamers and singing during one of his lectures. Is it real or imagined? O’Shea knows what he would rather choose.
Writer-director Matthew Bissonnette describes his film as a surprisingly happy story about death. O’Shea’s surreal flights of fancy that are strung through the narrative do lighten the mood. It was an inspired idea sharing the hallucinations that O’Shea experiences with the rest of us.
The title of the film is, of course, the same as the album released by Leonard Cohen in 1977. “Cohen was a poet who sang, like Bob Dylan. Neither of them was an amazing singer, but they both had distinctive voices and brought thought-provoking meditations on life.”
Byrne’s O’Shea shows he has a latent capacity for physical violence, in a hallucinatory episode that seems completely out of character for the softly spoken academic. It comes as a shock. Or does it?
There has been a steely glint, beneath a softly spoken exterior, in a lot of Byrne’s characters over the years. What does he think?
“I think every human being understands the nature of violence, and I think that the possibility violence or anger is very present at all times.”
Is 2021 the time. with #MeToo and all of that, to release a film called Death of a Ladies’ Man?
“It is exactly the right time to bring it out.”
First published in the Canberra Times on 1 May 2021