There are two ways to tell the story of how Brían O’Byrne, a kid from a nowhere town in County Cavan, Ireland—“one street, nine bars”—wound up on Broadway at 24, went on to win a Tony as an oddly sympathetic child killer in Frozen, and starred in Doubt as an affable, possibly child-molesting priest.
First, there’s the actor’s aw-shucks version. O’Byrne, who’s just opened to impressive reviews (including Jeremy McCarter’s) in his first straight-to-Broadway premiere, Conor McPherson’s eerie Shining City, curses easily, but he won’t say the word career: “I think I got lucky.” In 1989, after going to acting school on a lark, he won a green card in a lottery his Bronx uncle entered without his knowledge. New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre cast him in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come!, and suddenly he had an Equity card. Back in Dublin in 1995, he got fired from Great Expectations for missing rehearsal just as, up in Galway, an actor fell sick in Martin McDonagh’s dark first play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. He took over and starred in the next two plays in McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy. Both The Beauty Queen and The Lonesome West got him Tony nominations.
Sounds like serendipity. But Doubt playwright John Patrick Shanley doesn’t buy it. “What’s he gonna say?” says Shanley. “He’s a self-effacing guy. But he fights very hard for his career—fighting for billing, trying to find those transitional roles that make him accepted in American entertainment. He’s no fool.”
Yes, O’Byrne, 38, was lucky to be straddling New York and Galway at a time when young, convention-smashing Irish playwrights—McDonagh, McPherson, Edna Walsh—were desperate for new talent at home and abroad. But it’s also true that he deliberately avoided the shopworn path to Broadway success in favor of a new model. Over breakfast, the actor warms to this idea while discussing those early years at the Irish Rep. “There were people who were established, and they were going to get the leads,” he says. Rather than wait for the odd revival or replacement role, “what I thought was, I need to be around new writers. I would love to be part of a wave,” he says, raising his eggy fork. So he began putting up plays in pubs with Tony Kavanagh, a writer with a rough past who’d later end up in prison. “You don’t need an agent. You don’t need a perfect head shot. You need to have a passion to put something on.”
In the end, he didn’t really want to be in Great Expectations. He didn’t want to be in Hollywood, either. “Most actors here go to the West Coast; I ended up going to Ireland,” says O’Byrne, who played a priest in Million Dollar Baby but has never auditioned for a film. After Kavanagh’s The Drum went to Dublin, O’Byrne became the talk of Ireland. “My buddies who left drama school, they had this arrogance—‘We don’t want to typecast ourselves.’ But I said, ‘I want to do Irish parts. That’s the thing that’s gonna give me the leg up.’ ”
O’Byrne’s muscular style comes from the same fast-talking, hardscrabble heritage that inspired the new Irish theater. “He’s got a doglike quality,” says Shanley. “He gets ahold of a part and he just starts chewing on it like a bone.” This year, though, he turned down another violently demented lead in his close friend McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Instead, he took what boils down to a supporting role in Shining City as an insecure therapist opposite a scenery-masticating Oliver Platt. Why? “I’m a big old ham. I want to fucking eat up the set. I know how to hook an audience,” he says. “This is the opposite. How can you sit? I don’t know if I’m achieving anything. But it’s a fascinating thing.” His performance is more powerful for its subtlety: He’s been nominated for a Drama Desk Award, an early Tony indicator.
The accent, of course, isn’t a problem. It’s a great time to be Gaelic on Broadway. But his next move may be as American as it gets: He’d like to ride his new motorbike cross-country. What’s motivating that? O’Byrne’s humor remains distinctively Irish: “I’m old, I’m bald, and I have a small penis.”