Talk Therapy With Gabriel Byrne

Gabriel Byrne as Dr. Weston in "In Treatment" (HBO)
With outstanding performances in "Miller's Crossing" and other films, Gabriel Byrne has long had folks talking. He's now winning new fans with a TV series about a psychotherapist. His success more than justifies a little analysis itself, which is what we'll be getting this morning from CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric:

"Therapy" … that psychological game of hide-and-seek played by doctor and patient … has suddenly become appointment viewing on television.

Five sessions a week, viewers of HBO take their place in the made-for-television "office" of Dr. Paul Weston, played by renowned Irish actor Gabriel Byrne. The series is called "In Treatment."

It's mainly just two people in a room, talking. But critics can't seem to get enough of the man in the chair.

"When I read it first, I thought, 'Well, this is gonna be a challenge,' because most roles are, for want of a better word, active," Byrne told Couric. "And 80 percent of this role was about reaction - in other words, listening."

Viewers obsess over Byrne's soulful eyes as he listens to the relationship woes of an unhappy couple. His other patients include a suicidal young gymnast and a Navy pilot who accidentally bombed civilians in Iraq.

But the audience also learns that Dr. Weston is a vulnerable man who sees a therapist himself.

Byrne says he thinks Weston represents a "certain kind of man at a certain age in life, where all the things that one has held dear and to be unchangeable are beginning to be questioned.

"And at that moment, this beautiful young girl comes in who says (or he believes) loves him."

It's a situation that can get a therapist and patient in big trouble. And it's moments like this that have some therapists doing some analysis of their own.

The psychoanalytical community has embraced this show, and actually uses it discuss issues such as professional practices, transference, and counter-transference.

"Does that amuse you in a way?" Couric asked. "I mean, after all, it is a TV show."

"Yeah," Byrne said. "A couple of therapists have told me that patients have brought up the program to them in their sessions."

Byrne says one woman actually cornered him on the street - offering some free advice:

"With no preamble, whatsoever, [she said] 'Don't you go with that Laura.' With a big pointy, boney finger, 'Don't you go with that Laura! She's not right for you. She's not right for you. And you're married to a very good woman.'"

"There seems to be some transference going on between viewers and you," Couric said.


Online, audience reactions are even more pointed. The New York Times quoted a man in Paris saying, "I'm totally infatuated with him. I wanna watch his every move." Another fan said, "I could lick Gabriel Byrne all over." And on an HBO message board, another said, "I love, love, love when he licks his lips … So, o-o-o, sexy."

"I'm gettin' menopausal here, listenin' to this," Byrne laughed. "I'm gettin' hot flushes. Or hot flashes, or whatever they call them."

The flush of fame hardly seemed likely for young Gabriel Byrne. Born in Dublin in 1950, he's the eldest of six children. His father was a laborer, his mother a nurse.

"Growing up at that time in Dublin, it wasn't 'Angela's Ashes,' it wasn't a time of plenty."

Byrne studied to be a priest but became a high school teacher instead. Acting was a hobby.

"I decided to join an amateur drama group, just for something to do at nighttime. I was asked to go into this theater group. And I said, I'll give it a year and see how it goes."

Byrne landed a role in a popular Irish television soap opera, "The Riordans." He made his film debut in 1981 as King Arthur's father in the British film, "Excalibur."

But acting in America wasn't part of the plan ... nor was how he got from Dublin to New York.

"The wild card of love was thrown down on the table," he said. "I had to pick it up. That's how I got here. It was the first time I'd been in America. And while I was here, somebody said, 'Well, you should have a read in this script.'"

(20th Century Fox)
The script was for "Miller's Crossing," a film by the Coen brothers (at left, with Marcia Gay Harden). And his performance as Tom Reagan won Byrne rave reviews.

Byrne married actress Ellen Barkin in 1988 after they met on the set of the movie "Siesta." They have 2 children from their 11-year marriage.

He's gone on to appear in 35 films, often inhabiting the darker side of life, from a grifter in "The Usual Suspects" to Satan himself in "End of Days."

The adjective most often used to describe his performances is one Byrne says he likes least:

"You hate the word 'brooding.'" Couric said. "How come? So clichéd?"

"No, it's just what it conjures up. Any time I'd get reviewed for anything, it would say, 'And playing the part of the vicar is the brooding Gabriel,' you know. And I thought, 'What does that mean, brooding?' People used to always say to me, when I was a kid at parties, they'd say, 'Cheer up!' It'll never happen."

But happen it has for Gabriel Byrne. And it's mostly been good.

Still, after 30 years of acting, Byrne says he studies his craft with the same introspection he's known for on the screen.

"There's a very famous actress, whose name I won't mention, who, as the credits rolled on her film, slapped her friend on the thigh and said, "Can I f------ act or what?' I'd like to have that kind of confidence.

"I remain pretty much the same as I've always been, unsure of who I am and what I do. But hoping that one day I will get it right."