Gabriel Byrne: The Art of Stillness

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For men of a certain age like myself, Gabriel Byrne is something of a cultural touchstone. We first caught a glimpse of him as Uther Pendragon in John Boorman’s Excalibur, and in junior high, nothing on earth was cooler than Excalibur. Then he was the haunted, impossibly cool protagonist of the Coen Brothers’ neo-noir Miller’s Crossing, and then he was the solid tragic core at the center of the craziness of The Usual Suspects. It’s been a long, full career for him already, and he’s still going strong, most recently winning a Golden Globe for his lead role in the acclaimed HBO series, In Treatment. Byrne is also the romantic lead in the French film, Just a Sigh (Le temps de l’aventure), which opens this weekend, and he spoke with us recently about the film, and about finding stillness in roles.

Paste: Let’s start out by talking about how you came to the project. You’ve worked with some great actors in the past, but I’ve got to assume that having the opportunity to work with someone like Emmanuelle Devos is probably one of the things that attracted you to the project, is that right?
Gabriel Byrne: Oh, absolutely, yeah. Emmanuelle Devos for sure—who I think is one of the great French actors—and Jerome Bonnell is I think a really up-and-coming young director. But also, I found the script kind of intriguing, the idea that you live an entire love affair in 24 hours. I think it’s a thought that’s kind of crossed everybody’s mind now and then, what if you accidentally meet someone with whom you develop what the French call a “coup de folle”, which is an instinctive illogical sense that it doesn’t belong to any kind of intellectual decision. Purely a physical instinctive reaction to a stranger. And within those 24 hours, you kind of go through the gamut of an emotional journey with this other person, and then you part at a train station. It reminded me a little bit, I have to say, of Brief Encounter, which happens to be one of my favorite films.

Paste: I can see that. I can definitely see that. A little like Before Sunrise, too, the first in the “Before” series. The magic of that kind of meeting definitely translates into this film. I can see how that would be part of the attraction. One of the things that I’m always attracted to in actors is the ability to be comfortable being still and silent. From the time of Miller’s Crossing—which is my favorite Coen Brothers film—that is something that’s really struck me about you. And you do a lot of that in this film—these pregnant moments of silence. And I’m thinking specifically of the conversation near the end when you say, “You don’t have to.” There’s just this moment there that’s so beautiful and so pregnant. Seemingly so little is going on, but actually so much is going on. Can you talk about getting to that point?
Gabriel Byrne: Well, that’s—there are two things that I’d say. I never went to drama school, but I did learn a couple of things along the way. One is that, in Hamlet, in Hamlet’s speech to the players, he says to the main actor, “Do not saw the ear too much with thy hands.” I think what he was talking about in that speech, which is a marvelous speech to actors—it’s to be still. Because when you’re still, and some actors are really brilliant at that, you bring a kind of energy to you as opposed to sending the energy out. There are some actors, like Gary Cooper or Kevin Spacey that are absolutely brilliant—Gene Hackman is another—at being, and allowing the audience to just do the work.

But I also learned this other thing once: if you’re thinking something, the camera will pick it up. I don’t know how it happens, but it will pick it up. Also, if you’re feeling something, you don’t need to do very much as in real life. We tend to think of extremes of emotions as registering, for example, you have to cry or laugh or get angry. But for the most part, we find it difficult to read each other most of the time. If you walk through the street, most people are pretty difficult to read. But they’re thinking inside. They’re thinking complex, complicated thoughts. So it’s important to be still.

And to be still requires a certain kind of trust—you trust yourself and you trust the camera and the audience. And sometimes, that doesn’t work because a director isn’t in tune with that, and they cut away from that. They want to show action because they think the audience likes action. That may be a long-winded answer to your question but it really is—for me, being still, and being internal is something that—like, when I was a kid, I used to watch the movies of Buster Keaton and I used to marvel at how he could express all these things by saying nothing. Another one was Jacques Tati, the French comedian and writer. He was another one who expressed so many things with no words. For some reason, I always admired those kind of performances, and I hate when it’s not right, I hate when it’s just that kind of mugging, but stillness is… to say that an actor is still, to me, is a real compliment. A real compliment.

Paste: It’s funny what you say about the emotions being recorded by the camera. I think—I may be remembering wrong—but I think that’s what Michael Fassbender told me Steve McQueen had told him. This camera is an emotion recorder and you don’t have to do so much to let me see the emotion. The camera is recording the emotion already. Which may be slightly metaphorical but not by much.

Gabriel Byrne: I believe that to be absolutely true. It’s an eye and an ear and it’s watching. I remember once in Toronto, Max Von Sydow was giving a Master class. I had just done a movie with him, and I had marveled at the way he was able to convey so much with so little. I remember in one of the scenes, the entire crew just stopped what they were doing to listen to him because he really sounded like somebody. But during this class, this packed master class, a woman asked him “Where do you go in those moments of closeup?” And he thought about it for a few seconds and he said, “ I don’t want to answer that.” And I asked him after why he didn’t want to answer, and he said, “Because where I go to in my head is one place that has to remain secret, and if it’s the right place, it creates a sense of mystery.” I think that if you can convey a kind of a complexity, a mystery, a truth in stillness, that to me is really worth striving for, and I totally agree with Michael Fassbender in that less is more. If it’s going on inside you, the camera will find it.

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