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Byrne, back to battle O'Neill

The actor settles in for another physically and emotionally grueling bout with the playwright's work, this time delving into 'A Touch of the Poet' on Broadway.

November 20, 2005|Charles McNulty | Special to The Times

BEST known for his work in "Miller's Crossing" and "The Usual Suspects," Byrne has had a varied career that has won him more respect from his peers than Hollywood success. Starting off as a stage actor in Dublin and later London, he went on to make a quietly combustible impression in numerous small-budget films, took a detour into producing (credits include "In the Name of the Father") and even wrote a memoir titled "Pictures in My Head," which recounts his Irish upbringing and his flirtation with becoming a priest.

It's hard to imagine Byrne in a collar, if only because the image would prove so disappointing to his legion of female fans. Still a poster boy (at age 55) for the indie-movie set, he's frequently described as "brooding," a word he claims to understand only in terms of hens and eggs, his dark hair, burning blue eyes and craggy silences are summed up by the other definition.

Ask Jones about what it's like to work with Byrne and she'll tell you about getting mobbed outside the stage door.

"It was like exiting with a rock star," she says. "Women lose their minds over him. I remember this group of Japanese women who got a hotel for three or four weeks and came to the show every night just to see him. I'm glad I didn't have a clue who he was until after I was already working with him. I would have been star-struck."

Fiercely determined to live away from the public glare, Byrne protects his and his family's privacy at all costs, which explains not only his Brooklyn address but his reticence when it comes to his personal life. There's no mention of his ex-wife, Ellen Barkin, with whom he shares custody of his two kids, or any other involvement for that matter. The most he'll offer is that he's developing a movie based on a British novel about "romantic expectation and commitment," a pair of themes that fascinate him, he says.

Jazzed as he is about two of his upcoming films, Richard E. Grant's "Wah-Wah" (costarring Emily Watson) and Ray Lawrence's "Jindabyne" (costarring Laura Linney), what really loosens the tongue of this consummate Irishman, as Jones describes him, is literature -- Beckett, Joyce, Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare. Byrne is not only well-read, but well-spoken, his conversation churning with deeply considered remarks on the writers who have shaped him.

O'Neill, of course, is foremost among them. What Byrne appreciates is the playwright's struggle to wrest some hard truth from the sentimental self-deception around us: "He doesn't give you the Disney ending that says all conflicts can be resolved with a hug and an orchestra playing behind it. Life is much more complex and ambiguous than that. You can be happy yet sad. You can have your heart's desire and still not be happy. You can be with the person you're really meant to be with and still not be fulfilled in the deepest ways. It's like that line in Beckett: 'What do we do now that we're happy?' "

As for himself, Byrne is perhaps too introspective for easy contentment. "As a human being, you cannot exist in one state permanently. I don't know if it's possible to be happy in the world that we're in now. Because to be happy means, in a sense, that you are indifferent. You ignore facts. Well, I can't really do it. On the hand, I'm not really sad or melancholic, either. I think that life is heartbreakingly beautiful some days, miserable others. And then most of the time it's not one thing or the other. It's just gray."

'Like I've come full circle'

HE says that it was with an old girlfriend, a woman he had been involved with for more than 12 years who later died of cancer, that he first saw "A Touch of the Poet," in a stirring London production with Timothy Dalton and Vanessa Redgrave.

"At the end of the performance, she said that I should do the play," he recalls. "It's been a long time since then, but it feels like I've come full circle."

O'Neill referred to "A Touch of the Poet" as an "Irish play," Byrne insists his connection has nothing to do with any Celtic kinship. "We don't even think of O'Neill as an Irish playwright in Ireland," he says. "The issues he deals with are universal. The play's examination of love, for example -- is it always enough? -- is very profound, provocative and sometimes disturbing."

"I think it cost O'Neill an enormous amount psychically to write what he did," he says.

"Because he wrote about his family, about people who he really loved, and he took these people and he took their pain and he made it the pain of everybody. We are the better because he went there."

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