On the couch with Gabriel
In Treatment star Gabriel Byrne has never had the happy gene, but neither does he go around crippled by his depression. He talks to Barry Egan about life, love — and his big fan Madonna
Gabriel Byrne is talking about his 17-year-old daughter Romy, who lives with him in New York. Do you dread the day when the knock comes at the door and it is a young fella to bring her on a date? “We’ll face that when it happens.” Dad smiles about the vicissitudes of teenage life.
Have you had occasion to say to her, ‘Over my dead body are you leaving this house dressed like that’?
“When you think of all the girls who do that to their fathers and they are now housewives pushing prams or in jobs or whatever — it is all part of experimenting with life and finding out who you are,” he says.
“I don’t worry too much about any of that. You can’t protect your kids from the kind of exploration that they have to make because they are, in the end, masters of their own destiny. They’ll have to make mistakes and they’ll have to get hurt and they’ll find joy, hopefully, but there’s really nothing you can do to prevent that they go on their own path.”
The legendary icon laughs at my remark that it is amazing his hair is still as thick as it is on his head. Of course, he has his own tale to tell where his voluminous mane is concerned. “The woman who cuts my hair told me she doesn’t know anybody whose hair grows as fast or as thick as mine. I don’t know how that happened. But at my age,” says Gabriel, who was born on May 12, 1950, “to actually have a thick head of hair it is something I am really grateful for.”
As with everything with Gabriel, even his hair comes with a story. In 2003 I spent the week with him in New York. One night, we were having dinner in Manhattan when he told me Madonna — who clearly had a thing for him — had rung him up a few weeks before and said she’d written a song about him on her new album. “I was like: ‘Oh, my God.’”
Gabriel recalled that the following day he was in the hairdresser's and Madonna's Ray of Light album was on the stereo, and Gabriel told the hairdresser that the song To Have and Not to Hold was about him. The barber looked at him quizzically: “I don't know whether the song's a compliment or not.” You make up your own mind: “My heart is in your hand/And yet you never stand/Close enough for me to have my way.”
“That was a long time ago,” Gabriel says now. “Long ago and far away, that was. You’re a devil, asking me these questions about Madonna.”
I ask him instead about Bono; and how the U2 singer announced the imminent birth of Gabriel’s son with then wife Ellen Barkin from a Dublin stage on June 5, 1989. Gabriel and a heavily pregnant Barkin were sitting in the fourth row of The Point when Bono, onstage with Bob Dylan, dedicated Knocking on Heaven's Door to a little boy who wasn’t born yet. “It was something like that,” Gabriel says with a laugh.
Jack Byrne is 19 now. He is studying music at college in New York. “He loves blues. I told him he hadn’t really lived until he owned a didgeridoo album. I made the mistake once of buying a didgeridoo album in Sydney and it is an hour of someone blowing into a pipe. It sounds like someone blowing down a drain for an hour,” laughs Jack’s father.
Didgeridoo jazz albums notwithstanding, he and Jack have arguments over music and the like. Now Gabriel can begin to understand what his own father, Dan, went through with him. There is a moment in every son's life when he looks in the mirror and sees his father looking back at him.
“I think one of the reasons we have survived as a species is because of the rebellion of adolescence,” Gabriel says. “It is a necessary part of growth. Whether one calls it rebellion or detachment or whatever, it is part of the growth of the human being to move away from parents. And it would be really weird if they didn’t.”
A few years ago, Jack bought his dad a DVD of the Beatles for his birthday. They watched it together and discussed Lennon and McCartney. Gabriel is a huge fan of John Lennon. When he starred in Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten on Broadway in 1999, he would listen to Jealous Guy and Beautiful Boy before he went on every night.
The part of troubled alcoholic James Tyrone Jnr in A Moon for the Misbegotten also had a deep, deep resonance for him. In Stories From Home, a revealing recent documentary about Gabriel, the actor talks in depth about his chronic problems with alcohol. He talked about how he “could go off it for weeks at a time, but I could go to a hotel room and be there for three or four days with the curtains closed and the phone off the hook”.
“It was a truth about my life,” he says now. “I could have danced around the situation and not dealt with it, but, as you know, it is a very long time since I have drank. I tend to think of myself as being allergic to it. I dealt with that situation because I think it is a problem for a lot of Irish people. I think it is a way of avoiding the truth.”
Asked why he did the documentary at all, he says he wanted to tell the truth; he felt that by bringing up certain subjects and putting them out on the table, they would increase awareness and knowledge. “If I went out there and said: ‘These are things that I have battled myself,’ it might help somebody else. I thought I was completely naked in that documentary, and deliberately so. But most of the time, as I said, I live a very contented life, a life that is about going forward and not looking back.”
Gabriel says that he woke up one day and decided to stop. He checked into a hospital “and that was probably the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life”.
If you hadn’t checked into hospital, where do you think you’d be now — apart from an early grave?
“It was something that just had to be dealt with,” he says. “If you have something that is interfering with your contentment, you just have to deal with it. And that was the most practical way that I could deal with it. I thought, ‘What are my alternatives here?’ So I basically took action to get my life back in check. You get aware and then you get hurt and then you say: ‘Well, I don’t want to get hurt again. So I am going to do something about this.’ That’s what I chose to do. I didn’t want to, of course. But that’s the way it is. Oftentimes, things that we don’t want to do are the things that are best for us.”
Gabriel is currently playing one of American television’s most famous shrinks — Dr Paul Weston, the compelling therapist on HBO’s drama In Treatment.
“I think in this day and age, when people are generally more stressed and traumatised than they would have been years ago, people have an even greater need for therapy,” Gabriel says.
“The function that a community — friends, neighbours, extended family — traditionally served has changed. And the structure of society has changed, which means that more people are alone and more people are cut off from that kind of support.”
Gabriel has had real-life shrinks walk up to him in the street in New York to tell him that his portrayal of their profession on television is both truthful and accurate. Harvard and Yale are referencing bits of In Treatment in lectures on psychoanalysis, he says.
His voice drained, Gabriel is exhausted from five solid months of shooting the hit show. “I am in every shot of every scene,” he says. “There is no getting out over the wall and escaping. It is very, very intense, because it is just two people in two chairs. There is a lot of dialogue to remember. There are no action sequences. There’s no guns. There’s no car chases. It is basically just you and the chair. So, it is the most difficult kind of acting: reacting.”
Reacting is really listening, he says. He adds that to really listen to someone — and for them to be heard — is one of the highest compliments that you can pay another person. “On screen you are obviously listening more than one time to something, so trying to find new ways to listen is one of the challenges of the role, but reacting is a very subtle form of acting.”
In terms of the role he is playing, I remind Gabriel of a conversation we had many years ago when he expressed severe doubts about the psychology profession. He said he didn’t trust its exponents. He has clearly changed his mind.
“I think Irish people tended to be a little bit cynical about the notion of paying people to listen,” he says. “I think that’s an Irish thing; that we were brought up with that idea that people talking about themselves is all, just as you say, self-indulgence. But isn’t the whole purpose of life to get to know yourself?”
The unexamined life is not worth living, to quote what Socrates said at his trial for heresy.
“Exactly,” Gabriel laughs. “Without navel-gazing, it is really about trying to understand what you do and why you do it and hopefully live a more contented life for yourself and, as a result, for people around you. The Americans call them ‘issues’. That everybody has their ‘issues’. And Irish people are no different to Americans.”
Gabriel trained to be a priest in real life before opting out; and on the silver screen played a Jesuit priest investigating demonic possession in Stigmata — whatever about playing Satan himself in the apocalyptic End of Days. He describes himself now as an atheist, which I find a bit shocking given most of the conversations I have had with him over the years have involved, in one way or another, religion. Naturally he has a get-out clause for his heathen godlessness.
“The search for God is one of the reasons to be alive!” he laughs. “To declare oneself an atheist is paradoxically an act of faith because it presupposes some kind of knowledge that there isn’t a God. The truth about it is I would be more agnostic than atheist because I can’t actually prove anything. I would tend to be of the more rational, scientific approach to life, but it is hard sometimes to find proof of a God in the world that we live in. But I would describe myself like Brendan Behan described himself as ‘a daylight atheist’. You know, when it gets dark I start maybe thinking that there might be a God.”
Of course, Gabriel has talked about his long, dark nights of the soul, recently describing his depression as being “about trying to not let other people know all you want to do is lie in a corner and have nothing to do with anyone”.
“I don’t think anyone is immune from...” he says, breaking off, when I raise the subject.
“First of all, I would dispel the notion that depression is some form of self-indulgence and some kind of desire to hide away from the world. It is not as simple as that.”
He says he believes “the roots of depression are as much physiological as psychological and emotional; they are a combination of many things”.
The award-winning and internationally acclaimed actor continues that he thinks “some people are more prone to depression than other people. There are some who are just born naturally optimistic. I envy those people. They are born with the happy gene. I don’t think I ever had that.”
He says that he doesn’t “quite buy people who say that they are permanently and totally and utterly happy. I don’t think you can live in this world and not experience the ...” he breaks off again.
“To be fully human would, in my opinion, embrace the notion of fighting against nihilism. You have to battle that. I have battled with depression. The only reason I [talked about depression publicly] was not because I wanted to be another of these people saying, ‘I have depression’ and then people saying, ‘What has he got to be depressed about?’”
That is, he says, a very easy assumption to make. Depression, like many other things in life, is no respecter of class or wealth, or success or lack of success, he adds. “It is something that can be exacerbated by the absence or the surfeit of any one of those things,” Gabriel believes. And he has good reason to believe this.
“Nobody actually really understands where it comes from; why it comes; how long it lasts and why it actually goes. They have theories about serotonin levels in the brain, but nobody truly understands the genesis of depression. But there are things that you can do to offset it. There are a lot of people, for example, who drink to get away from it, but that leads into a vicious cycle,” he says, adding that trying to maintain a positive outlook in life is something that he does daily.
“And there are some days I fall down. But most days I keep standing up. That’s just the way it is. You know, I have accepted it, and I acknowledge it. I don’t try to hide it any more. The only reason I spoke about it was not to do a kind of misery memoir, but so that other people would see it, too.
“People who really know me know that I have a tremendously light and humorous side to me,” he says. “If you spoke to anyone on the set of In Treatment, they would tell you that I am the one who is light-hearted.”
I could vouch for Gabriel’s whoopee-cushion funny side, too — having myself and Liam Neeson in knots of laughter with his anecdotes in a New York bar in 2003; him playing the piano in his red socks with holes in them in Yoko Ono’s apartment in Manhattan in 2001. He uses humour a lot.
“I do, don’t I?” he asks rhetorically. “I think for a lot of people who battle that particular demon, humour is something that they work with. A lot of comedians tend to veer towards that [depression] and humour is some kid of a weapon that they use to defend themselves. Humour is very important to me in my life. I try to keep a light spirit and I try to keep looking outward and forward. I wasn’t somebody who was going around in a black cloud all the time. I mean, most of the time I was in very good humour. These inexplicable attacks would come every so often. I have learnt how to deal with them now.”
Asked to explain how he deals with these inexplicable attacks of darkness, Gabriel says the first thing he has to do is acknowledge it — by acknowledging it, he says: “I mean, by saying: ‘Here it is.’”
And what is it?
“It is like a black serpent in the garden. It is a beautiful sunny day, you are lying under a tree and you know that in the garden somewhere there’s a serpent. Sometimes it can be asleep. Sometimes it can be roused. Sometimes you can step on it by accident. That’s kind of the way I feel about it. I look at it and I say: ‘There you go again.’”
Gabriel tries to do things for himself that are, he says, positive. Keep active. Read. Keep engaged with people. Don’t isolate. Remember that it will pass. It is not the reality of life. And so forth and so on.
“Why today does the world seem dark — whereas yesterday it was bright?” he muses.
“Try to talk to somebody else about it,” Gabriel adds. He says that one of the most difficult things you can do when you are depressed is to reach out and to talk to another human being.
Reaching out can be life saving and it can also be desperately difficult because, he says: “with depression goes a sense of shame and a sense of isolation and so forth. But I would hate to think that my life is defined by it. I think that life presents us all with challenges that we have to overcome and we have to battle.
“Some of us are better at fighting than others. You know,” he continues, “if I didn’t have that, I would have to say I would have a pretty happy life and a pretty contented life; even with the knowledge that [depression] is something that’s there now and again.” There is a final pause before he continues.
“So most of the time — 90% of the time — my life is pretty contented and pretty happy. I don’t want people to go around crippled by depression. That’s not true.”
Part of his contentment in life, along with his career and his kids, is surely his gorgeous other half, Anna George. Formerly the long-time partner of the late broadcaster and film producer, Aine O’Connor, before he met and married Ellen Barkin, Gabriel met Anna a few years ago at The Moth, an unashamedly old-fashioned storytelling group in New York. “I have always been fascinated by storytelling. It’s a fantastic organisation where people get together and tell stories from all around the world,” he gushes. The first time he went to it there was, he remembers, an astronaut, a pickpocket and a housewife from New Jersey.
To cut a long story short, Gabriel was at dinner with storytelling group one night when this “really beautiful woman walked in”. He and Anna got talking and went out afterwards in Manhattan.
At this break-the-ice dinner a deux, the great actor — The Usual Suspects, Miller’s Crossing, Spider — found Ms George “not just beautiful, but superbly intelligent and well read”. Then, he says, when he got to know her a little bit, he found out that she was “a pretty amazing woman who worked in the world of finance. She comes from India. She is descended from Indian royal blood. She is an Indian princess. She has been to Dublin and Kerry several times. We have been all over Ireland.”
And how is it going, Gabriel? “Er, it’s going pretty well.”