Gabriel Byrne on Secret State, politics and the rise of TV

"Actors are beginning to cop on that the most original writing is in television. The villain, the hero, the weird-looking guy, the sexy girl… It’s very formulaic in big-budget films”


In Secret State, Gabriel Byrne plays the deputy prime minister in a government not dissimilar from this one, faced with the cover-up of a series of horrendous acts that only he – along with a journalist of improbable gorgeousness, played by Gina McKee – is interested in investigating.


Senior members of the viewing audience will be pitched right back to Defence of the Realm, one of Byrne’s cinematic breakthrough roles, the “it” film of 1985, in which he plays a journalist (of improbable gorgeousness) battling authority as he tries to expose a story that only he is interested in.

He has the perfect face for the drama of political conspiracy – searching and alert, but also subtly hunted. He somehow conveys in his every move that he’s seen enough human weakness not to believe the official line on anything.

This nervous energy is slightly incongruous against the velvets and throws of London’s Covent Garden Hotel. It isn’t fame, success nor the plain passing of time that have made him relax or blunted his edges. The other weird thing is, at 62, how little he’s changed since 1985.

Byrne far prefers political conspiracy to costume drama, as he explains: “Historical fiction tends to be about an imagined past. People look back and see through a rosy haze a world that was some kind of perfect place until 1913. We have a propensity to romanticise the most tragic events of history. The First World War, for example, is oftentimes depicted almost like an event you were sorry you weren’t there for.”

This anti-authoritarian thread running through his career – from Defence of the Realm, through executive producing In the Name of the Father, to this latest role – isn’t an accident. If I said he was fiercely critical of governments throughout the West, that would make him sound fierce – but he isn’t at all, he has an extremely gentle, mellifluous delivery. If he were denouncing the devil, he would sound as if he were offering him a pint. But gentle is the last word you’d use of his politics.

“The contemporary conspiracy thriller looks at politics and politicians, the relationship between big business and government, between government and the media. These are things that interest me outside of fiction, too.” Ruminating later on the disappointments of the big centre-left governments, Tony Blair’s and, to an extent, Barack Obama’s, he says ruefully, but not sorrowfully, “How we as an electorate continue to have faith in the electoral system, and hope that goodness and justice will prevail, is amazing.”

Part of the reason for his peaceable delivery is that he’s lived rather a peripatetic life – moving between Dublin, London, New York and Los Angeles – and maintains an intense interest in that anglophone triangle of Ireland, the UK and US while at the same time sounding rather detached. “I would never be drawn towards a conventional ideological approach, I have to say. I’m more interested in observing the political cycles coming and going, the parties, being aware of moments. In British politics at the moment, we’re watching something that’s going to become much bigger, with the election of George Galloway [as MP for Bradford West]. I think it’s a tremendously significant time: society is caught somewhere between apathy and cynicism. Conventional politics doesn’t really address your life or my life. This is the beginning of politics and anger starting to connect. When they do, you have the possibility of some kind of change.”

In the US, where the actor has made the most permanent of his homes, marrying actress Ellen Barkin (they divorced in 1999) and raising their children (Jack, now 23, and Romy, 20), Byrne is fêted. Not as a political animal (only George Clooney’s allowed to be political in Hollywood), but as Golden Globe-winning psychotherapist Dr Paul Weston – Dr McDreamy, as The New York Times called him – from In Treatment (2008-10). It was a stunning career move, placing him at the centre of America’s thrilling TV drama scene. Without wishing to give too much credence to internet chatter, where his fans gather as “Byrneholics” and discuss at length the beauty of his hands, it’s safe to say there was much disappointment when the show ended.

“I totally understand why people would say, ‘For the next seven years, I’m going to make a ton of money and I’m safe and secure, and I know the limits of the job.’ But for me, three years was more than enough, just like three years in the theatre would be more than enough.”

The upside of that, for the actor, is that he never gave himself time to get tired of it, and talks warmly of the creative experience. “In television now, you’re beginning to get really interesting parts. I could never have played a role like Paul Weston on film. The independent film as it existed in America is limping. That role, that audience, has been taken over by HBO. It essentially means you can watch those independent films at home. So we now have television that’s provocative, that makes you react and think. And actors are beginning to cop on that the most original writing is in television. The villain, the hero, the weird-looking guy, the sexy girl… It’s very formulaic in big-budget films.”

He started his career as an archaeologist, then went into teaching, and only through that became an actor. It’s an unusual trajectory, and its direction still surprises him. “We recently filmed some scenes in the House of Commons, or rather, on a set that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, which was located where a factory once stood. And I worked in that factory when I was 20 years old. If you’d said to me, ‘One day, you’ll be back here in this factory, which will no longer exist, and it’ll be a film set, and you’ll be playing the deputy prime minister…’ You might as well have said to me, ‘One day you’ll get into a capsule and land on the Moon.’”

In a way, his attitude to fame has this sense of remove, that he’s watching himself from a parallel universe in which he isn’t famous.

“Fame has built other people’s notion of me, but it hasn’t changed anything about myself. If every two minutes somebody was coming over to you and saying, ‘I love your hair, I love your hair’, what would happen to you at the end of the day? Would you be saying, ‘I LOVE MY HAIR’?” (There should be a word for when a question is rhetorical, but even so you don’t know the answer.)

“It’s somebody else’s perception. You can’t really make it real, because what you do is a job. A friend of mine who’s a singer said to me, ‘You’ve no idea what it’s like walking off that stage go to the dressing room and you’re still on a high. But catch me an hour and a half later… it’s like water, you can’t hold it in your hands’.”

If that makes him sound sanguine, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t worry: “The things I worry about are ageing, infirmity, death, health, love, children, all those things, they’re all legitimate worries. But you can’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Here’s all the things going against me’.”

No. Especially when the list would be quite short.


The first episode of political thriller Secret State begins tonight at 10:00pm on C4