“A lot of people find it hard to process an accumulation of facts day after day after day,” he said by phone from his New York home before the COVID-19 pandemic, “so they fall into indifference or fear or a combination of the two. Sometimes the only place you can work everything out is in fiction, which is a safe place to examine those fears. Fiction can change the way you see the world.”
Wells’ novel came out 16 years before World War 1. At the time, British readers were worried about the horrors of war, a possible invasion of Britain by a foreign power and life on other planets. They envisioned aliens landing on Earth with strange devices on their heads.
Today Byrne’s biggest concern is climate change.
“If we don’t take care of the planet and act very quickly, it’s not going to matter who’s in charge,” he said. “It seems like the future doesn’t really matter. There’s corporate interest in every aspect of our lives. They care if there’s money to be made, not about the future of the planet.
“All these things are milling around in people’s brains, mostly on a subconscious level because they have to get on with life,” Byrne continued. “Who are the real aliens? Who are the real threats to civilisation? I doubt they are from another planet, because we have enough cranks at the moment on this planet.”
Byrne felt at home with Bill Ward, the neuroscientist he plays in War of the Worlds.
“He’s curious,” the actor said. “He wants to find out the real reason the aliens have come to Earth. I suppose we are alike in that I don’t believe in accepting what I’m told. I believe, like a scientist, that we should all be wondering why.”
Now 69, Byrne was a teacher before becoming an actor 40 years ago, and he has never lost his professorial bent. That’s one reason he was attracted to War of the Worlds.
“I try to do the best of what I’m offered,” he said. “I do have to make a living, but a lot of the stuff I don’t agree with, so I won’t do it. I believe life is more important than being on a movie set. As you get older you come to realise certain truths.”
One of those truths came to him through Richard Burton, with whom Byrne became friends while making the European mini-series Wagner (1981-1983).
“Richard was a man who, when he finished one project, wanted to know what his next one would be,” Byrne said. “He found it very difficult to be not working. But he also said to me, ‘I don’t want to die in a hotel room.’
“I didn’t understand at the time, but then I realised he was missing his home life. That’s more and more what he wanted to be doing as he got older.”
Wagner broadened Byrne’s world because legendary British actors John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson also were on the set.
“These were people I’d seen on a screen growing up as a teenager in Dublin,” he said. “I thought they lived on a different planet. To be sitting at a table in Vienna with them, having dinner and listening to them talk, was fascinating. Richard asked me to pass the salt − that was my contribution.
“He was an amazing man, the most intelligent, most well-read actor I’ve ever worked with,” Byrne added. “He told me, ‘Forget about acting. Read, read, read! Read poetry. Read non-fiction. Be involved in the world of imagination through books.’ I wanted to emulate that kind of a life.”
The oldest of six children of a barrelmaker and a hospital worker, Byrne almost became a priest, spending five years at an English seminary before quitting.
“I suppose I just lost faith and wanted to explore the world,” he said.
After returning to Dublin, he worked part-time, holding down such diverse summer jobs as a teddy-bear-eye installer and a short-order cook while he studied archaeology and linguistics at University College Dublin.
“I’ve always been attracted to the world of academia,” he said. “I’d have loved to have taught a particular subject, having learnt as much as I possibly could, and conveyed that to my students.”
Instead his students led him onto the stage.
“Acting never came into my head,” Byrne said. “It was only when I was teaching that I began to get a glimpse of it. I used to take my class to see theatre and films, because I thought it was a great way of connecting with them. Then they asked me if they could have a drama class after school. I said yes. I thought maybe, instead of going to the pub at nighttime, I could join an amateur drama group.”
Byrne’s earliest professional efforts came on stage at Dublin’s Focus and Abbey theatres. He quickly moved into television, appearing in the Irish series The Riordans (1978-1979) and then its spin-off, Bracken (1980-1982). He made his movie debut in Excalibur (1981), playing Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur.
After meeting American actor Ellen Barkin on their film Siesta (1987), Byrne married her in 1988 and moved to New York. They have two adult children, Jack and Romy, but divorced in 1999. In 2014 Byrne married producer/director Hannah Beth King, with whom he has a 2-year-old daughter.
The Irish actor has appeared in more than 100 films and television shows. The one that made the most difference to his career was the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990).
“It opened the door for me,” Byrne said. “I didn’t have to audition any more.”
Another project with a huge impact was the HBO series In Treatment (2008-2010), in which he played a therapist.
“It was a difficult project to do,” he said, “but it had an effect on a lot of people. There was an upsurge in therapy after that.
“Yesterday I was talking to a class of students at Columbia University,” he continued. “Professors use that series as part of the curriculum. Students watch an episode, and the teacher asks them, ‘What would you do in that situation?’”
As he approaches 70, Byrne has no bucket list − merely a desire to keep doing what he’s doing, only perhaps better.
“I’d like to do a really great film that makes people think and feel,” he said. “I want to be halfway through a script and want it not to end. I want to think, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen next?’ That’s rare.
“Some years ago a man came up to me on the street and said, ‘I want to thank you,’” Byrne said. “I asked why, and he told me, ‘My mother developed dementia, and we used to take her to the movies, even though she didn’t know what she was watching. We took her to a movie you were in and, when you came on the screen, she immediately said, “Gabriel.” That was the last time she ever recognised anybody.’
“That really moved me. You never know the effect a film has.”
WHAT War Of The Worlds
WHEN SBS, Thursday, 8.30pm and SBS On Demand.