Edinburgh International Festival Interview: Gabriel Byrne

The acclaimed Irish actor on his new autobiographical play, Walking with Ghosts, and the importance of recapturing the past while being in the moment. Interview by David Pollock.

“I grew up at a time when the old storytellers were essentially gone,” says Gabriel Byrne, ahead of the UK premiere of his own story Walking with Ghosts at the Edinburgh International Festival.

“But one night, I remember hearing this wandering storyteller in our kitchen. In exchange for a bed, he would sit by the fire and tell outlandish stories, some of which lasted two hours a time over two nights. He would keep his audience absolutely rapt with no props, no artificial scenery or anything else, just the sheer power of him telling the story.”

Later in life, in the 1970s and ‘80s, Byrne was equally fascinated by the storytelling comedy of his fellow Dubliner Dave Allen, who held huge television audiences rapt with lengthy shaggy dog stories which were at least as much about the journey as the arrival at the punchline.

Gabriel Byrne in Walking with Ghosts. PIC: Ros Kavanagh

Now Walking with Ghosts is Byrne’s chance to tell his own story to an audience, from his working class upbringing in Dublin, through dabbling with a local drama club to eventual stardom in Hollywood and on Broadway, where he was twice nominated for a Tony Award.

Byrne’s long and celebrated film career includes enduring classics like Miller’s Crossing by the Coen Brothers and The Usual Suspects, as well as work with directors including Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Michael Mann, Ken Russell and his old friend Jim Sheridan. Warm and engagingly thoughtful, his anecdotes are star-powered.

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Talking about the joy he finds in theatre’s directness, where his performance is in the moment and not subject to the choices of a film director in the edit suite afterwards, he mentions one night on the recent Broadway run of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, where his co-star Jessica Lange was about to deliver her monologue just as a pizza was loudly and audibly delivered to the stage door.

“Or Richard Harris used to talk about a guy that came on in act one of a play, and gave a line that was the denouement in act three,” he says. “‘The king is dead!’ ‘No he’s not f***in’ dead, you mean the king is alive and well.’ Literally anything can happen, there’s an immediacy to the theatre that you just don't get in film.

Gabriel Byrne in Walking with Ghosts: PIC: Ros Kavanagh

“On the last second last night (of Walking with Ghosts) in Wexford, I mistimed my exit and smashed into a steel pole. The director had to go out at the interval and say, you're going to notice he has a bandage on, don't worry about it, he's fine. You would never know about that in a film. An audience in a theatre are unconsciously primed for anything to happen.”

Much of Byrne’s earliest work was with Sheridan, including a version of WB Yeats’s On Baile’s Strand which played at the Richard Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh in 1977, the actor’s first visit to the Fringe. “We stayed in an apartment on Dundas Street, all sleeping on the floor,” he says. “Although I don't think anybody went to sleep for the week. The energy of Edinburgh leaves a mark on your memory.”

Forty-five years later, this return to Edinburgh (although he’s also been back twice to the Film Festival) follows debut Irish performances of Walking with Ghosts in Dublin and Wexford. Next month it moves to London’s Apollo Theatre for Byrne’s West End debut, and then rounds the year out with a run on Broadway.

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“It's not about the vanity of sitting up there by yourself,” saying Byrne, by Zoom from Ireland, although the 72-year-old lives in Rockport, Maine with his wife and daughter. “It’s not a one-man show, it's a play in which the other actor is the audience. What I'm talking about is honest and truthful, and therefore it has resonance with them. Most people have a mother and a father, or have gone through traumatic events, or experienced joy and sorrow. It's a life put out there to be shared.”

Everyone has their own story, he says, but he recognises his is unique. Yet the original impetus behind the book wasn’t just to talk about himself.

“It was about recognising that the world I was brought up in was so different to the world as it is now, from all points of view – socially, educationally, in terms of religion and technology. I wanted to give an account of the past and how it interacts with the present. In other words, how much of a product are we of our own past, and how much have outside influences dictated the story? It was about trying to recapture a time that’s gone forever, an Ireland that has disappeared, but also tell a universal story of how life has changed in the last 20, 30, 40 years.”

We discuss these changes, how technology and the proliferation of news media has fractured our sense of community, despite his desire not to romanticise the past. Byrne sums up his impression best in a story of a moment he witnessed, as a child flew a kite on Hampstead Heath and their father asked them to pause so he could get a photo. Even the process of recording memories has changed.

“A woman came up to me in Wexford and said there was a line in the play that really stuck with her. When I'm on stage talking to my father, or to the ghost of him, I say I never listened to him when he was alive, but now he’s dead, I hear him. She was 33, 34, her parents are still there, but when she came out of the show, she had to admit that she listened to her parents, but she didn’t hear them. The show is about that, about being honest about things that really matter in life. It's about sharing my life with the audience so they leave saying, ‘I got that’.” David Pollock

Walking with Ghosts, King’s Theatre, 24-28 August. www.eif.co.uk/events/walking-with-ghosts