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All Ears

How Gabriel Byrne turns listening into eloquence on HBO’s In Treatment.


It’s the most natural thing in the world to smile,” says Gabriel Byrne, frowning at an array of Gabriel Byrnes—digital photos shot moments before. “It’s the most unnatural thing to fake a smile.” He gazes at the screen for a good long time. As he walks away, he asks, “Is there anything worse than looking at your own face?”

It’s a cold fall afternoon as we stroll from the studio to the Angelika cinema’s café. Byrne and I chat about the peculiar immediacy of modern technology, how it both deforms and expands identity. He tried Twitter for a full two hours, he tells me, before his daughter, Romy (one of his two children with ex-wife Ellen Barkin), made him stop. His first tweet: “Regret not the past, fear not the future. Percy B. Shelley.”

Still, it’s clear Byrne’s heart beats faster for older styles of communication. He cherishes his fountain pen. He adored a recent visit to Governors Island: silence, no cars allowed. He marvels at the sweetness of early photography, when people posed with “a stiltedness and an awkwardness and a shyness.” In the eighties, when he lived in London, Byrne collected hand-embroidered postcards from World War I. “In the banalities people wrote to each other, there were all kinds of stories,” he says, and performs a lilting imitation: “We’re having a fine time here at Tremore. Gertie says she feels better today. The sea air is doing her good, I’m sure. Well, that’s all for now.

In their pith and semi-public display, he points out, postcards might be the grandfather of Twitter. “And of course, there were the ones that flighty girls could send to timorous men,” he adds, using his hands to draw a postcard in the air, one designed so a woman could press her lipstick to an outline. “If you were a man receiving that, it must have been highly erotic.” He smiles. “That’s one thing you can’t get with Twitter.”

At 60, Byrne—an Irish-born actor best known for Miller’s Crossing and The Usual Suspects—is dashing in a dark-blue coat and burgundy cravat. With his shaggy hair and fans of laugh lines, he can come across as a schoolgirl’s fantasy of a Byronic professor, or perhaps a particularly literary rock star. He wears a Claddagh ring, the heart pointed inward. He speaks fluently and fluidly. He presses his hands between his knees, smiles crookedly, quotes poetry. It’s not difficult to comprehend why, when I search his own name on Twitter, I find strangers posting about stalking the man through the streets of New York.

Part of this allure, of course, derives from what has become his signature role, Dr. Paul Weston, the analytic hero of the HBO series In Treatment, now in its third season. The show, based on an Israeli series (see here), is one of the most subtly experimental dramas on television, using Byrne’s sooty charisma to tremendous effect. In Treatment consists of little but dialogue yet manages to be as suspenseful as 24, romantic and agitating in surprising turns. The third season features three new patients: an Indian widower (Slumdog Millionaire’s Irrfan Khan), a narcissistic actress (Debra Winger), and an acerbic gay teenager (Dane DeHaan). The first dozen episodes blew me away.

Still, all that listening is a brutal weight for an actor. The show runs in two-day sequences, with two episodes each night. During the first three, Paul wrestles with the angel of other people’s suffering—alternately challenging his patients, soothing them, and riding the flow of transference. On the fourth, the episode devoted to Paul’s sessions with his new therapist (Amy Ryan), Dr. Weston becomes himself again: an uglier and smaller man. He is depressive, rancorous, sardonic; he rages paranoically against his own mortality. Over the show’s three seasons, the character has gone through a divorce, his father has died, and he’s left his original therapist (Dianne Wiest). Where most shows either celebrate therapy (à la Tell Me You Love Me) or damn it (as The Sopranos did very effectively by the series finale), In Treatment takes an original approach. Never coming down on one side or another, neither glamorizing nor demonizing, the series turns its structural conceit—a quartet of theatrical, seductive, repetitive conversations—into a near-musical meditation, exploring a greater existential theme: What kind of relationship is this?

“It’s a very hard thing to constantly listen,” Byrne says of the role. “To really listen. I mean, what do you go to therapy for? I suppose you go so you can actually face who you really are. To be in a room that’s sacred, in that what’s said there can never be really used against you. You’re in a relationship of absolute trust where you are removing the mask. It must be wonderfully liberating.”

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