As a rule, Gabriel Byrne outclasses the films he does. He’s been in some disappointing doozers, some forgettable dreck; if Hollywood were a logical and more interesting place, his star turns in Miller’s Crossing and The Usual Suspects would long ago have earned him a place in the velvet-rope pantheon of brooding leads, right alongside Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. He has the bone structure for it, Heaven knows. And few men look as irresistible as he does in a fedora.
But Hollywood is a fiercely illogical place, and the world of independent films, in which Byrne is also a vital player as both actor and producer, is too unpredictable and low-profile to launch that sort of career. And so, in the five years since Usual Suspects, the 49-year-old, Dublin-born actor continued showing up in more movies reviewed by Holden than by Maslin, and we, the American audience, ground our teeth as he brought all his subtle talents to bear on scripts that didn’t deserve him. (The notable exceptions were Wim Wenders’s The End of Violence, which played in the United States for roughly ten minutes, and HBO’s Weapons of Mass Distraction, which played for about a month.)
No one will pity Byrne’s bad fortune, though, when he takes to the boards as James Tyrone in the Broadway revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten, which begins performances at the Walter Kerr on March 7. The part is, to use his words, “a man-eater, a ball-breaking role,” and it earned him the reviews of his career during a tryout production in Chicago last month. Tyrone is the living dead, flooding his veins with drink; Jason Robards played him with a haunted, exposed vulnerability in 1973. Josie Hogan, the heroine (played then by Colleen Dewhurst and now by Cherry Jones), is also a towering part, in every sense: big-boned, tough, both earth mother and vamp. Eugene O’Neill completed the drama at the end of his career, just before his motor skills deserted him, as an elegy to his brother and a coda to Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Yet Byrne still had to be to be persuaded to take the part. He hasn’t been onstage since 1982, and theater, he concedes, had come to bore him: “It seemed to me that rap music was far more pertinent and political.” Yet one wonders if there’s more to his reluctance than boredom or rustiness. Byrne has so far made a career out of playing the mysterious, unmappable creature, whether it be the Devil (End of Days) or a priest (Stigmata). He’s good at it, certainly, and he bristles at the suggestion that it’s an unchallenging thing to do. (“It’s not like you just say, ‘Well, I’ll be enigmatic now,’ ” he notes.) But in Moon, Byrne plays a man who’s lost and twisting in his own skin. And he plays him cannily well. Theater has obviously unchained something in him. The question is, what?
“Did he mention Big Annie?” asks Brian Dennehy, who also recently found salvation on the Broadway stage, also in a classic about a broken man. He and Byrne first met in London in the early eighties.
Big Annie … ?
“His old girlfriend,” says Dennehy. “Died of cancer. They had one of these mythological relationships. She was Josie Hogan. Tall and beautiful and smart and very tough in a way that Irish women can be. An honest talker – no posing, no bullshit. It was like sitting down at the table with a really good middleweight, feeling those jabs bouncing off your gut. There was something extraordinarily vital about her.” He thinks. “There’s a big relationship between Annie and Josie. You ask yourself why he took the part.”
“There was a moment last night when I almost lost it,” says Byrne. He’s slumped on a couch backstage at the Goodman Theatre, eating a turkey sandwich in small, deliberate bites. Dinner. “In Act Three. There’s a big, long speech about why he is the way he is. And it just sort of flashed into my mind. All the words went like this” – he starts jabbing the air with his fingers – “in my head. It was terrifying. I just wanted to lie down.”
Audiences often wonder about this, how actors cope with the king-size roles, with the Willy Lomans and Theodore Hickeys and James Tyrones. And the answer is, sometimes they become overwhelmed. Sometimes their heads swim.
“My stomach always caves about an hour before the performance,” Byrne continues. “I can’t describe to you how miserable and unconfident I’ve been.”
Which he admits is odd, because he’s no greenhorn on stage. He got his start doing Ibsen and O’Casey at Dublin’s Project Theatre, an actors’ boot camp in a run-down former print shop that also, by some freak coincidence, launched the careers of Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea, Colm Meaney, Jim Sheridan, and Neil Jordan. But Byrne says his attitude toward theater was much more casual then. “There was a tremendous sense of ‘Hey, it’s just us having some fun,’ ” he recalls. “There was nothing to lose in it. And there was this tremendous sense of Dublin changing, artistically, at that time – it was the late seventies. U2 was practicing in a building about three streets away.”
He doesn’t think he would have been as well suited to Jamie Tyrone back then. He doesn’t even think he could have done it with this kind of rawness, this kind of keen intensity, as recently as ten years ago. During the past decade, he notes, he lost his father, his sister, and his old girlfriend – Big Annie, with whom he spent eleven years of his life before he met and married actress Ellen Barkin. Children came into his life. (Two: Jack Daniel and Romy Marion.) Then he and Barkin divorced. “There are massive doses of pain that come and go, though I don’t say this in a martyr sort of way,” he says. “But that’s what I mean when I say that now I’m better suited to doing a role like this. Because now I know where to put this, or find this, I think. Not that I think acting is therapeutic. I don’t.”
So what of Big Annie – spelled Aine, the Gaelic way, as it turns out – who so resembled Josie and who died a mere fourteen months ago?
He’s at a bit of a loss for an answer. Like his fellow countryman turned New Yorker Frank McCourt, he has a dignified instinct about human suffering and doesn’t see much value in exploiting it. “I will say one thing,” he finally says. “She always said to me, ‘You’ve got to do O’Neill.’ And she always asked me to go back to the stage.”
More thinking. “It’s a funny thing,” he murmurs. “When you’re doing a performance like this, you can see a lot of ghosts hanging out in the wings.”