The Art of the Interview: Gabriel Byrne Puts the Ire Back in Ireland (Guest Blog)

2011 Eugene O'Neill Lifetime Achievement Award

Byrne opened up in a tirade against the bastions of everything that Hollywood holds holy

I remember watching an interview that Barbara Walters did with Warren Beatty. At the time, Beatty was promoting “Heaven Can Wait,” and he was hot. Here was a superstar, a leading man A-lister that would not only garner interest but gain ratings for Walter’s broadcast. What a prize.

You wouldn’t know it by the interview. Responding to Walter’s “if you were a tree, what type would you be” questions, Beatty grunted mono-syllabic responses that were characteristic of Koko the Gorilla communicating with Jane Goodall. Beatty was infamous for being reclusive and seclusive. An actor who was so confined in his own ego that he would withdraw with every softball that Walters lobbed over to him.

Not so with the equally cloistered Gabriel Byrne, at the hands of a master interviewer known as Michael Des Barres. Yes, that Michael Des Barres.

On December 6, the fiercely private Byrne opened up, and in a stream-of-consciousness yet genial tirade against the bastions of everything that Hollywood holds holy, Byrne let loose with both barrels. His iconoclastic pontifications were heard, loud and clear.

The Internet buzz that followed the interview landed on the pages of The Hollywood Reporter, ABC News and in online news sources from Los Angeles to Limerick, Ireland. Byrne’s explosive remarks and pontifications were not limited to the entertainment industry.

In a typically Irish and affable way, Byrne focused his gaze on his questioner, and calmly laid waste to the fortress that every Irishman that I know (and I know quite a few) defend: The Catholic Church.

However, this article is not solely about Gabriel Byrne. His remarks have been covered in publications around the planet. The real story lies in the man who danced with Byrne in that small studio.

I couldn’t see Byrne pouring his soul out to the aforementioned Walters, or even to the master interviewer Howard Stern. Byrne settled into a chair close to Des Barres, looked at the enormous British Flag that adorned the studio, and turning away from it, inched closer to the host. Acknowledging the flag of Ireland’s oppressor, Des Barres apologized for its placement and humorously chastised his producer for not substituting it for the banner of Ireland. That flag whose presence was the backdrop for the interview, only served to bond the host and his guest.

“Feckin’ brilliant so” as they say on The Ennis Road.

It was obvious that Des Barres and Byrne had a history together. So did Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. In the case of Des Barres and Byrne, an ear was not bitten off, however singed the feeling was. Instead, the ears of the viewers were “lended” as they were in Mark Antony’s oratory from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Byrne had not come to bury Hollywood, he came to praise the virtues of humanity that were being rendered from us at the hands of institutional corporatocracy.

As Des Barres gesticulated and waved his hands to emphasize points drawn from his own long experience in the industry, Byrne seemed to draw even closer. Des Barres was weaving a cocoon that surrounded him and his subject, and provided a safe place that not only invited, but encouraged openness and complete candor.

It was a pas de deux, a conversation not unlike My Dinner With Andrè where the viewer can take a seat within earshot, and actually listen to the musings of a great mind. Spurred by Des Barres’ reflections, and prodded by Des Barres’ reactions to what Byrne was saying, the conversation became as intimate as it was provoking.

As Byrne explained, he is a fiercely private man who despises self-aggrandizement.

He reflected on his youth when his parents would march him downstairs to perform like a trained simian on the buttonhole accordion to the delight of uncles and aunties. Des Barres prodded further, as Byrne then turned his attention to how similar that feeling is on the red carpet, where celebrities are “poked, prodded and objectified. That’s what makes me cringe more than anything. They have the talent to look at you with one eye while the other eye scans down the line for whoever is coming next.”

Des Barres steered Byrne into a more seething observation on how the industry today has become a video game where “violent action and no development of personality” becomes the trademark of what is considered epic cinema.

It was no wonder that Byrne’s imprimatur is that of an artist who on the surface is hesitant to express himself, yet underneath agitates with a passion to take on oppressors of humanity and culture far and wide.

Des Barres did not provoke or rankle Byrne into his uncharacteristic expressiveness.

Instead he seduced the truth out of Gabriel Byrne, like he has done with other subjects. However brilliant past Des Barres interviews have been, Gabriel Byrne catapulted the art of the interview to a new, lofty level.

Michael Des Barres’ own philosophy on the art of the interview will serve him, and the art of the interview well: “We are all longing to hear and tell the truth. It soothes the soul and gives life purpose. I am as inspired as you are by the revelations that come from my guests.

Honesty connects to an audience. Party line responses to the latest piece of hawked product are tolerated or berated by an ever sophisticated viewer. Do not underestimate the power and intelligence of the public. Authenticity is as rare as diamonds and shines as bright. Turn on, tune in and lean forward.”