Gabriel Byrne on Dance First: 'I thought Beckett was pretentious'
The veteran actor talks to RadioTimes.com about playing Samuel Beckett and how his view on the literary icon changed over time.
In Dance First – which is released in UK cinemas today, veteran Irish actor Gabriel Byrne takes on the role of one of his most esteemed countrymen: Samuel Beckett.
Directed by James Marsh (The Theory of Everything) and written by Neil Forsyth (The Gold), the film explores the playwright and novelist's life through the prism of several of his relationships – including those with his mother May (Lisa Dwyer Hogg), fellow Irish literary great James Joyce (Aidan Gillen) and his wife Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire) – to paint a picture of a complex, fascinating man.
Byrne grew up in Dublin and remembers hearing stories – sometimes apocryphal – about Beckett as an unapproachable, nihilistic character.
He recalls one tale in particular about a man who had seen the writer strolling in Dublin and had stopped him to comment on what a beautiful day it was, only for Beckett to reply: "Well, I wouldn't go that far." It was this reputation of him as a dour, dark-minded character that contributed to Byrne's own initial idea about the man and his work.
"I didn't like his plays," he tells RadioTimes.com during an exclusive interview. "I thought that people who liked Beckett were pretentious – that they saw something that was unique to them. And I identified much more with emotionally accessible plays where I could say, 'Oh, yeah, Chekhov I get, I totally understand. I get what that's about.'
"But Beckett was like, there's no emotion and there's very little drama."
Over the years, though, Byrne's impression of the work gradually began to change, such that he could recognise that Beckett was writing in a way that nobody had ever written before, and dealing with subjects that nobody had ever dealt with before. In other words, he had revolutionised theatre.
"And then I began to see the humour and then I began to see what he was actually saying," he adds. "And he began to talk to me, and, in fact – if it's not too pretentious – he started to talk for me. I've never actually said this, but if somebody asked me the question, what do you think of life? I'd say: 'Well, I agree with Beckett.'"
Dance First is not necessarily a traditional, cradle-to-grave biopic. Instead, it begins with Beckett finding out he has won the Nobel Prize, after which we see him having a reflective conversation with himself as we visit several different chapters from his life. It was this concept that instantly appealed to Byrne about Forsyth's script – the chance to do something a little more "oblique" with Beckett's life.
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"[It] allowed a freedom in terms of the narrative that a conventional biography wouldn't have done it," he says. "And so it was an extremely clever script by Neil Forsyth because, in the second scene, he's saying to you: this isn't going to be what you expect.
"This is going to be an interpretation, a surreal interpretation, that has something to do with the spirit of Beckett. That second scene, which takes place in this other world, mimics perhaps Waiting for Godot. But essentially there's no set, there's nothing to focus your eye on, except one person talking to himself and making him confront the past."
In the same way that the film was not traditional in its approach to Beckett's life, Byrne and director James Marsh were keen to ensure that his performance wasn't simply an "impersonation" of Beckett.
He praises Steve Coogan's "amazing" turn as Jimmy Savile in the recent BBC One drama The Reckoning, but says that for this particular film, he was determined to go after a rather different kind of performance.
"I didn't want people to be on the alert for something that didn't quite work in that scene," he says. "You know, [like] the glasses were different, or the hair was different, or the look. You had to free yourself from all of that. And the biggest thing that I felt that I could contribute to it was to make him feel, to have an emotional life."
It was the final scenes – when Beckett is a much older man – that Byrne found most difficult to perform. This was partly because it made him think about his own father, but also because it forced him to ponder what it means to be frail and vulnerable – something that he says "if we're lucky, in a weird way, awaits us all".
He continues: "Beckett accepted that. And when he came to his last days, he moved into a nursing home. And he had a room with nothing in it, except a table and a chair and I think a picture of Dante or something like that. That was it. Which was in keeping with the rest of his life – utter simplicity, no ceremony. A simple, almost monastic life."
He adds that delving further into Beckett's life, marriage, and "difficult relationship with Ireland" during the research process made him realise that he might have been quite a lonely man. He was also struck by the contradictions: although he was kind, gentle and witty, he could also be very cruel and was unfaithful to his wife over many years.
"He was a mixture of humanity, which I think we all can identify with," Byrne explains. "You know, we're not just one thing. We're a mixture of so many things. And I came to admire – hugely admire – his integrity, and his ability to see through the superficiality of fame.
"That's why, at the beginning of the film, when he wins the Nobel Prize, he says, 'What a disaster,' which he actually said in real life. And his influence on writers across the world has been huge.
"You can see it sometimes even in Bob Dylan, [who] looked at that and said part of his brand is mystery. You haven't seen an interview with Bob Dylan for a long time. Plus, he didn't show up for his Nobel Prize, which Beckett didn't either."
As for the aforementioned complex relationship Beckett had with Ireland, Byrne talks about the way the images of many of the country's great writers have now been appropriated and used for things that they themselves would have had no interest in.
"It's an interesting thing," he says. "The great Irish writers we'd say are Joyce, Beckett, Wilde, O'Casey, Shaw, Yeats. That's quite an impressive list of major world literary figures for a tiny island that only started speaking English 150 years ago.
"But I think Beckett would laugh his head off at the idea that there's a bridge in Dublin called after him and that Joyce has, I think it's a navy cruiser called after him.
"And I was back in Dublin a few months ago and I asked for some sparkling water. And I took it to pour out without looking at it, and as I held it closer to my face, there was WB Yeats looking at me. So there's a water called after WB Yeates. It's the way these iconic great artists have been co-opted to now become commercial properties so that they can make profits."
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Away from his extensive acting career, Byrne has dabbled in writing himself – most recently with his acclaimed 2020 memoir Walking with Ghosts, which he later adapted into a one-man show that he performed on both the West End and Broadway.
The process of writing this book, he explains, gave him an insight into the nature of memory that, in some ways, came in handy for his performance in Dance First, which similarly looks back on its subject's regrets.
"Memory can be fractured and untrustworthy at times, but there are some things that remain irrefutably true," he says. "And if you look for the facts of the situation, usually the feelings will come with it. And then you put it through a sieve and you say, 'Yep, that's as close as I remember.'
"And the idea that you get to a stage where you look back on your life and you can... we all have regrets. You can have regrets in your 20s, and life is made up of regrets. And I think that regrets and failures are part of being alive. And failure and regret teach you more than success ever does. Success doesn't teach you very much - and it's a fleeting kind of feeling, anyway."
Fleeting or not, success is something that Byrne has experienced much of in his long and varied career. From starring in a string of acclaimed films such as Miller's Crossing, The Usual Suspects and Hereditary to earning two Tony nominations for Best Actor in a Play, he's consistently been one of the finest performers of his generation.
Still, when he looks back on his career, it's some of the less well-known experiences that he recalls most fondly.
"There's no one film that I look at and say, 'Oh, that's my favourite,'" he says. "Sometimes I think about films that nobody's ever seen and I really like the film and I liked my performance in them. But they never got the publicity or the release that they should have. So I don't think of any particular one.
"The great thing about filmmaking is that each film is such a different experience. But I think what I do remember is where I was emotionally and in my life at the time. There were movies that I got through because my life at the time was not easy. And I had to drag myself through films.
"And sometimes I look at films that I did when I was in that frame of mind thinking that something takes over and carries you through. But if I ever saw the film, I'd say, 'Oh God, I remember.' So that's what I tend to remember – or the location, the people I worked with – not the end result, because I don't watch the films I'm in anyway.
"I don't have any idea, for the most part, what they're like – sometimes a film will come on television and I'll jump off the couch and scramble for the remote to turn it on to something else, because I just don't want to look at what I didn't get right!"
Byrne might not watch Dance First, then, but who does he hope the film caters to most? Those who already have a deep understanding and admiration of Beckett, or those that perhaps think about him in the terms he used to, as a somewhat pretentious and unapproachable literary figure?
"Well, quite honestly, I don't think it's going to be like [Top Gun] Maverick," he jokes. "I hope it doesn't just appeal to Beckett scholars, I kind of am a little bit wary of those people. I did Eugene O'Neill on Broadway and Eugene O'Neill scholars came to it, and honestly, I said to one of the... if some of these people sat down beside you in the pub on a barstool, you'd be saying, 'Listen I have to go now.' Because, you know, I'm wary of what they bring to it and how they possess those writers.
"[Like,] 'He belongs to us and you can't be doing this with him.' I'm wary of those people, [so] I would hope that it would broaden out a little bit into people saying, 'Oh, I wonder who Beckett is... I don't know much about him, I'd like to go see that film.'
"I think it'll always have a niche audience. But I hope that the people who do come to see it will think, 'Oh, maybe I should look into studying his work, and maybe read his letters and find out a bit more about who he was.' And that's as much as you can hope for, I think, with a film like this."
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