IF you've watched HBO's "In Treatment," you've seen Gabriel Byrne sitting in a chair, playing therapist to Melissa George's seductive patient. "Let's talk about what's really going on here. Mmmmm?" he says as the camera closes in on his warm blue eyes boring into hers. He raises an eyebrow. Silence. He crosses his legs. He taps his fingertips together.
The central role, with an abundance of close-ups and tiny nuances, could have been an actor's dream. Or nightmare. For Byrne, perfecting it to his satisfaction was more like toothache -- fine, now that it's been dealt with.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, March 22, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 85 words Type of Material: Correction
'In Treatment': An article in Friday's Calendar about Gabriel Byrne said the show he stars in, "In Treatment," had 450,000 viewers according to "HBO-estimated" numbers. Those figures are not the ones that HBO provided. Each episode of "In Treatment" plays on the multiple HBO channels as well as its on-demand service. For the first five of the eight weeks "In Treatment" has been on (the period for which data are available to HBO), each episode drew about 2 million viewers when totaled across those platforms.
Byrne's Dr. Paul Weston dominates nearly every scene in every episode of the five-night-a-week therapy drama. The action consists mostly of talking and listening, and takes place in one room -- either his home office or his own therapist's home office.
The first season of "In Treatment" draws to a close next week, and rumors abound over the fate of the series, which like the network's "The Wire," has a cultish following, but relatively few viewers.
Those who like the series love Byrne's portrayal of the troubled Dr. Weston, tempted by a severe case of mutual erotic transference with Laura (George). Judging by the lovelorn postings on Internet sites, they also love the 57-year-old Irish actor. Those who don't tuned out long ago.
In any case, there's little doubt that Byrne, after a career of small independent films and stage acting, has finally found a star vehicle on TV.
"It's a delightful kind of surprise that people like it," said Byrne recently during a short visit to Los Angeles. Even the HBO-estimated 450,000 viewers are more than he's used to. He admitted he was thrilled to get a congratulatory call from his favorite actress (whom he refused to name) but was also frightened by a New York woman who approached him on the street and sternly admonished, "Don't you go with that Laura!"
Something of a struggle
A singular and intensely introspective actor who aims to reveal himself in his roles, Byrne called Dr. Weston and the 12-week shoot on a cramped set particularly challenging. His opinions on how he wanted to play it -- no props, extended silences, totally engaged --eventually prevailed on set, but apparently not without creative debate. None of that matters now, he said. "All that matters in the end is that it got done."
Settled in a sunlit corner of Hollywood's Chateau Marmont lobby, Byrne matched the California version of Old World elegance perfectly. "I'm overdressed," he said in his signature brogue, removing a sweatshirt from over his jacket, and ordering a cup of tea. A self-described gentleman who conducts himself with "a certain amount of reserve," Byrne nevertheless spoke effortlessly for almost three hours on his life and art, quoting actors, philosophers and New Yorker cartoons. He even sang a few bars of favorite songs (Sinatra singing Jobim) and offered some spontaneous impersonations (Max von Sydow and Bill Clinton).
To Byrne, who lives in Brooklyn, Hollywood is like a small village, one he inhabits at the noncommercial edges. After making a splash with "Miller's Crossing" (1990), "The Usual Suspects" (1995) and his 1999 divorce from actress Ellen Barkin, Byrne said he moved to New York to be close to his children. To get roles in mainstream films, he said: "You have to be in a movie that makes a lot of money. That changes everything. And if you're not, you go do independent films."
Anyone who leaves L.A. for New York "might as well be dead," he said.
On the bright side
Still, there are compensations. Byrne worked on Broadway ("A Moon for the Misbegotten") and with a who's who of indie directors: Wim Wenders, David Cronenberg, Jim Jarmusch, Bryan Singer, the Coen brothers, Costa-Gavras, John Boorman, Ken Russell and Ken Loach. Even if one of his films was panned, Byrne has almost always received positive reviews in which he was invariably called the "brooding Irish heartthrob."
He no longer complains about the brooding part ("There are worse things to be told") and noted wryly that last year he ranked among the last three actors on People magazine's also-ran list for "The Sexiest Man Alive."
But in the lobby's waning light he also appeared tired and sad -- a lot like Dr. Weston, whom critics have labeled "world weary." In the series, Laura tells him that when they first met, "I thought you looked like a dead man. I wanted to breathe life into you."
Byrne said he's always been aware of life's ups and downs, but after he was offered the Weston role, he said he had a realization about life: It's all about loss. "The fact of life is, we lose everything," he said. "People we love. People who love us. I've lost people very close to me. And I've lost things I never thought I would lose. I have known failure. And I have known success of a kind. What I wanted to bring to that man was a sense of, at the end of the day we're all united by our common humanity."