Toronto—A crew making a documentary was filming in the guest suite at the Hotel Intercontinental, where Gabriel Byrne was conducting one-on-one interviews about his new movie, Emotional Arithmetic, just before its world premiere at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. And the crew had clearly chosen the right year to follow Byrne around.
Aside from starring in Emotional Arithmetic—a feature based on Matt Cohen’s beloved novel about the fallout from a reunion of three Holocaust survivors—he was only months away from turning up on the small screen as a psychoanalyst in the new HBO series, In Treatment.
Byrne was also starting a serious trophy collection. He’d just received the 2006 Outer Critics Circle award for best performance on Broadway (for his role in Eugene O’Neill’s classic A Touch of the Poet), an award from the philosophical society of Trinity College, and a lifetime-achievement award from the Dublin Film Festival.
Talking about the three prizes, the 57-year-old actor joked, “You kind of get a little bit concerned when you get a lifetime-achievement award at such a young age.” He said he’s “honoured to be recognized as a Broadway actor”. But the award he looked the most proud of when he mentioned it was the one from Trinity College, “a college that I wasn’t able to get into as a student because I was a Catholic. So to be honoured by giving me recognition from the department of philosophy, which was the subject that I had really wanted to study at that college but wasn’t allowed to do, was a kind of special thrill.”
As he talked about his career and the business of moviemaking, Byrne sounded very much like a philosophy major. Asked what he loves about acting, he mulled the question a moment before answering. “I don’t know that I love anything about it. I feel the need to do it. I can’t say that I love it. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy working—sometimes more, sometimes less. I don’t love it.”
He’s never loved the Hollywood system, either. He told the Georgia Straight about his lack of enthusiasm for Hollywood films back when he made The Usual Suspects in 1995. “Essentially, it feels more and more corporate to me,” Byrne said.
But he’s concerned that when it comes to moviemaking, Hollywood has already taken over the world. “The thing about the dominance of American film is that that becomes the prevailing perspective, not just morally but politically as well. So in terms of where Canada, for example, stands in the world—or Ireland—I don’t know where countries like that, how they are reflected back to the rest of the world.
“People talk about the Canadian film industry, which kind of resembles the Irish film industry in a way. You can speak about certain Canadian directors, like Denys Arcand or [David] Cronenberg or Guy Maddin, but if you take away those guys, what is the Canadian film industry, really? You have Vancouver, which is a huge cheaper shooting studio for Hollywood. You have Toronto, which doubles as a less expensive New York. But what Canadian stories are being told about the world?”
Although he frequently works in Canada, Byrne said that the fact that Emotional Arithmetic was Canadian wasn’t part of his calculations in deciding to appear in the movie. “It was the nature of the film and the subject matter and the other actors. I think it’s a pretty profound film about the nature of memory, how we deal with trauma in our lives, and how the ghost of the past haunts the lives of these people. And Susan Sarandon, Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer together in a film is also a huge consideration. Max von Sydow is an actor who is primarily connected to Bergman and also to European art-house filmmaking at its greatest. And Christopher Plummer is a theatre legend and also a legend in film. And Susan Sarandon is probably one of the great American actresses working today.”
But Byrne feels the movie’s Canadian identity is part of what makes it special. “I think the Canadian landscape plays a huge role in the film, and the landscape reflects back on-screen a lot of the complexities and conflicts and the beauty of the characters. So it seemed to be a perfect marriage of landscape and subject matter.
“Sometimes when I watch movies that are set in Toronto pretending to be New York, I think, ”˜No, that’s Toronto. I know what Toronto looks and feels like, and you’re not going to pass it off as New York.’ Here the landscape is an intrinsic part, almost a character in the film.”