Artist to Artist: Gabriel Byrne and Will Rogers


[applause] (ROGERS)
It was nice of them to bring my chairs
all the way from my home in Brooklyn. (BYRNE)
They’re on hire from ABC.
They really are. (ROGERS)
Fantastic. That way, they
return them after. So we’re gonna get into craft, work,
process— all that kind of stuff. But maybe we’ll start with
your early years. Where you grew up in New Jersey. [audience laughing] (BYRNE)
No, that’s not right. The fact that
that gets a laugh is good. [audience laughing] As if there was anybody who had
doubts about where I’m from— (ROGERS)
They’re like “Really? That’s what
that accent it?” So where are you from? (BYRNE)
I’m from Dublin in Ireland. And, um… Yeah, that’s where I’m from. (ROGERS)
Great. And… did you have any
siblings? Or do you have siblings? (BYRNE)
Yes. I came from a small Irish family.
There’s six of us. There was a woman, actually, who
lived down the road who had eighteen children. (ROGERS)
Eighteen. (BYRNE)
And one of them was Christy Brown,
the writer. He was like number fourteen– sorry,
I don’t mean to turn my back on anybody, here — he was
number fifteen and he was born severely
physically disabled. And the only part of his body
that he could move was his foot. And he learned to paint and write
with his foot, and they made a movie of that
called “My Left Foot.” And I remember seeing him around
the streets where we lived and, uh… he was regarded
as a write-off and he became a brilliant writer
and also an exceptional painter. So yeah, um… all the families
around were large Irish families. (ROGERS)
So six was on the lower end. (BYRNE)
Six was, you know… (ROGERS)
And you were the eldest of..? (BYRNE)
I was the eldest of six, yes. (ROGERS)
What did your parents do? (BYRNE)
My father was a laborer in
the Guinness brewery who at the age of fifty was
made redundant. They were all just fired. He worked
in a particular… trade which is now more or less obsolete
called “The Cooper Trade” which is the wooden barrels
that they put beer in. And then they went into metal casks,
and all those men who had learned those trades and used those really
amazing tools and words— they were all obsolete. So my father became redundant at fifty and my mother went out to
work as a nurse. (ROGERS)
How old were you at that time? (BYRNE)
I was quite young. I never understood what redundancy
and unemployment actualy meant to a person’s identity. And it’s something that, in our business,
we come across quite frequently or in some cases, infrequently. But the notion that you have long
periods where you’re not working. And my father’s identity was his job. So when his job was taken away,
also his identity was taken from him. And there was a sense that if you
were unemployed — there was a palpable sense in
the community, I think — of — he certainly felt it — of shame. That if you don’t have a job, you
don’t have an identity, and therefore you don’t have your
standing as a man, if you like. So when I came later on to
the acting business, and I’m sure you found the same thing, we have long periods of unemployment
where you’re forced— I’ve always said that the easiest
part of acting, in a way, is the acting. The doing of the thing.
Do you know what I mean? Because you have to do it, whether
you do it well or not. But when you’re not working — when
you don’t have a job to go to — you really are forced into an area
where you think, “Well, who am I outside my job?” And it’s a question that everybody, I
think, at some stage asks themselves. Like, “How much of my job
is my identity?” And, uh… Acting is a strange kind of
profession, as you know, because there’s the inner identity
that you have as a human being and then success in acting — or even
lack of success in acting — imposes a separate identity
on top of that. Because, you know… it’s not that
success as an actor— I’m talking about success now in
the sense that if you’re working as an actor — I don’t mean mega
famous — but another identity is imposed on you, and sometimes
people have a problem identifying the character that the person plays
with the person that they are. It often happens in long-running
drama series on television. So that question of identity, I think,
is at the root of what it means to be an actor. And people
have, I think— And I think you’ve probably
come to know this. They have a weird perception
of what the actor does. And a lot of directors, as we were
saying earlier on, don’t really understand the
process of acting. But I think that when you set out
to find a character, what you’re trying to do is to find
some kind of connection between you and this character. And the delusion that I think a lot of
actors suffer from is that they become somebody else. You don’t actually become
anybody else. You become more of yourself,
in a way. (ROGERS)
Well this was a question that I
actually wanted to ask you about. ‘Cause it seems to me in the roles
you’ve played that there’s, uh… You have such a — in my college
we called it a “spine” — or like a point of view that…
we see it in your performance, so do you find a character… do you
think it’s necessary to understand their point of view, or do you bring
your own point of view to the character that you’re
going to be playing? (BYRNE)
That’s a really interesting question
because I find it’s a very complex question. Like let’s
say you take a play. Let’s say you take a play by
O’Neill or Shakespeare. And they’ve written a
particular character. What is that character on the page? What was it in Eugene O’Neill’s head? I mean, Eugene O’Neill famously
wrote about his family, and he made that family out of his
own honesty and truth. He made that family universal,
as a great dramatist. So we can all identify with that
that dysfunctional… tortured kind of family. But they’re just words on a page,
that came out of his head onto a page. Now, what happens to those words? If an actor doesn’t enact them, they
become just a thing that you read. What the actor does is, he brings
life to those words. But what is the, uh… the significance of that life?
What does it mean? It means that you bring
yourself to it. You bring things that you mightn’t
even want to tell your best friend. You have to go, especially with
O’Neill, you have to go— And I don’t want to make any claims
for myself at this point. I’m talking about what I would
ideally love to do. You have to be absolutely… careless
of what other people think about you. And yet, it’s a job that’s criticized. You go in with a performance, and
everybody who’s paid ten dollars can say, “I didn’t like that.” And that’s it. But… You have to bring the things that
you’re almost afraid to admit to other people to the room. (ROGERS)
Can I jump back a little earlier
in your career? I think— I was looking at your book,
“Pictures in My Head.” And you told a story about, I think
it was your first job in television. Do you remember, there’s a one-line
part where it was like, “Right this way, sir,” or something
like that. Do you remember this story and
what you brought to that character? [audience laughing] (BYRNE)
How do you bring life to one line? And I was working in the theater,
and— who was the woman that was discovered in the chemist
shop in Hollywood? (ROGERS)
In the what? (BYRNE)
In the… drugstore. What was
her name? (ROGERS)
Lana Turner. Thank you. (BYRNE)
Lana Turner. She was sitting at
the counter, and somebody came in and said, “Oh she’d be
good in a movie.” Well, that happened to me. (ROGERS)
So, the Focus Theater— (BYRNE)
Yeah. I was sitting at a counter
having a drink, and this guy passed by and he noticed my leather jacket
and he said, you know, he was working a little
bit in theater, and he said, “Do you want to come out and
audition for this part?” So I auditioned for it, and I had
one line to say. I was cast as a priest. And they gave me this collar
that was way too big for me. And I learned the first thing about
acting: always be comfortable in your costume. Because this thing
felt like a big basin [audience laughing] that I was looking out of.
And the trousers were too big. And the sleeves came down here.
So it was like… [audience laughing] And I thought, “Well, I’m gonna
make this line mean something.” And all I had to say was, I had
to open the door and usher this woman in and say,
“This way, please.” So I went into my little room at home
and I was saying, “This way please.” [audience laughing] There’s only one way she’s going in,
so it can’t be that way. “This way”– well, it is a way. “This way please,” that sounds
too ingratiating… [audience laughing] [with a different tone]
“This way, please!” [audience laughing] [with a more somber tone]
“This way, please.” No, too priest… So I, uh… I was so nervous. (ROGERS)
Did you give it a limp, too? (BYRNE)
Oh yeah, I did. I decided “What can
you do with one line?” I said, “Ok. We’ll give him a limp.” [audience laughing] And during the rehearsal, I was
walking across the floor and I was limping, you know, and I was
waiting forever for my line to come on. “Come on, come on, come on.”
And then I come on. And the director says, “Stop for
a second.” He said, “What’s… What’s wrong? Is there something
wrong with your foot?” [audience laughing] And I said, “No, well that’s the
character.” He said, “What do you mean,
it’s the character?” I said, “He’s got a limp.” He said,
“That character has no limp.” [Rogers and audience laughing] He’s just saying “This way, please.”
There’s no limp. And what’s that accent that
you’re using? I said, “He’s from a particu—”
“He’s not from any part of Ireland.” “He’s just a guy opening the door, with
no limp, saying ‘This way, please.'” [Rogers and audience laughing] ‘Cause I had been brought up
on the method, and “live in the thing” and, you know, you gotta be tortured
and you really gotta know your character. and so by making decisions about his
limp, and the accent that he’s from, and the kind of way that he walked
and everything, it was all irrelevant. (ROGERS)
Essentially distancing to the
character rather than making— (BYRNE)
Well, there was no character. (ROGERS)
There isn’t a character. Right, right. (BYRNE)
You know, I wasn’t playing Hamlet.
It’s a line. And all I was, was a way—
they could have done without me. The guy in the other room could
have said, “Come in.” And she could have walked
through the door. (Rogers and audience laughing] But in my mind, it was a big break
for me because it was like— maybe there’s some guy out there
saying “Hey, the guy who said ‘This way, please,’ could we get him?
He was just, that limp and that thing… that guy!” Anyway, on the take, I’d never worked
before a television camera before. I didn’t even know you had to
have makeup on. And I thought that they put a
camera down, you did it once, and everybody went home. And so they counted me down,
and they said “Okay, on the count of ten
you walk to the door, say your line, and, you know.” So, 10… 9… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1! “Why isn’t the door open?” “Oh, Jesus Christ.” I was so nervous
I forgot to go to the door. So they went for take two, and
I got so discombobulated then, I wheeled around and banged
into a statue of the blessed virgin which splintered in a thousand
pieces on the floor. And the statue had been rented
from the nuns. [audience laughing] And they were all like in— And I learned something very
important from that, you know. Don’t overthink the role. (ROGERS)
Don’t overthink it. Alright. So at that time, you were doing
a lot of theater. (BYRNE)
Yeah. (ROGERS)
And you talked about, was it
Deirdre O’Connell? (BYRNE)
Yeah. (ROGERS)
Who basically came in, and you
said that she taught you everything you knew or know about
acting, at least at that time. That she was like your first teacher,
mentor into that world. (BYRNE)
Yeah, she taught me
really basic things. Like if you stand with your back
to an audience, they’re not gonna see your face. (ROGERS)
Good, yeah. You needed to
be taught that. (BYRNE)
Well, yeah. Because you come out
like an agent and you stand and you say— (ROGERS)
You face the person you’re
talking to. (BYRNE)
Yeah, and you say “The coach
is here.” Instead of saying, like if you
want to milk it, you’ll say, [softly]
“The coach is here.” I’m not saying you do it like that,
but you milk it a bit. Anyway, she said to me, “Listen,
you’re supposed to be gone to Moscow in this play and you come back
unexpectedly. We do not want to hear you in the wings, going: [clears throat] so that we know you’re coming
on before you—” [audience laughing] Simple things. Listen to the person
that’s talking to you. Don’t be waiting for their mouth
to close so that you say your line. Really listen to them. And listening
on stage is very difficult. (ROGERS)
Yeah. (BYRNE)
I’m gonna ask you if you find listening
in a role on stage as opposed to, say, listening
to an actor, say— It’d be interesting to hear what you
have to say about working with Spielberg as opposed to, say, being on stage. Do you find that particular process
of really listening— Especially if you go on, say you’re
doing the same play and it’s two months later, how do you
find that it’s new for you every night? (ROGERS)
Yeah, um… I think you just get
better at faking it, maybe. After doing it over and over again. There’s something with— we were
talking about this before, about the lack of rehearsal process
in TV and film. And so maybe, if— but in a way
that almost makes it harder to listen because, at least for me, I’m thinking
“When do I come in?” It is that, like, “I don’t know this
as well.” Whereas in a play you get so much
repetition with it, you learn the ins and outs of
the moments so that you start to learn ways of
maybe tricking— Like, I’ll start scratching this chair
so that— “Oh, that line caught my attention, it’s like tricking
my own body, my own self. Even though that’s completely
fabricated, I find it… The lie fools even me. (BYRNE)
Yeah. I also think that the actor’s
brain in live performance, say on stage, is a fragmented thing. Like on the one hand you’re thinking,
“What’s my next line?” On the other hand, you have to feel
the emotion of the moment that you’re feeling. You may be asked to go over there
and take a glass. So there’s a part of your brain
saying, “This is the line, there’s a pause here, I’ve got
to get the glass here.” And this line is going to make the
audience gasp, or cry, or whatever. And then you’re also thinking about
things like, whether you like it or not, a version of “Did I leave the kettle on?” (ROGERS)
Right. Because you are dealing
with Point A to the entire arc to point B, as opposed to in film
when it’s fragmented. (BYRNE)
Well, you have 30 seconds or a minute
on tape, or on film, where a director’s saying “Action!”
And then, at the best times, — if it works on stage it’s beautiful
too — it’s almost like an invisible bubble comes down over you. And
you operate within that bubble. And the only thing that might disturb
you would be a phone going off. [Rogers and audience laughing] (ROGERS)
In the front row. Yeah, I guess there are benefits
and each of them have their good and their bad, but… Do you enjoy the arc of getting to—
an evening of theater, you’re telling this story, a traditional play or
something, where it’s told from beginning to end. Is that
something that is… Is that a conscious difference to you?
That it makes it unique in the performing of it, not— (BYRNE)
I know this sounds probably
heretical to say, but I don’t actually enjoy it. (ROGERS)
Performing live? (BYRNE)
I don’t enjoy, really, in the sense
that you’re so… I don’t enjoy the process of acting. I love the anticipation of it. And
I think also that… You can rarely judge yourself.
Sometimes when you think you’ve done well, you’ve done awful. Sometimes
you think you’re awful, it’s good. But I rarely enjoy being…
in the process of it. Because it’s just… (ROGERS)
Nerve-wracking? (BYRNE)
It is nerve-wracking. And as you
were saying, it is a series of lies that are
designed to tell the truth. And that’s like a paradox. But are you really telling the truth?
You’re trying to. And that’s why I hate watching
stuff that I don’t— I don’t know how you feel about
it, but for many actors… They don’t even know how they
get there. Because again, it goes back to that question of
identity. Because… Is this thing that you’ve presented,
thanks to the writer, you? Or is it not you? There’s a great story
told about Lawrence Olivier when he was doing a play
at Stratford. And they were about six weeks
into the play, and one night the people behind stage recognized
that Olivier was giving a performance that was transcendent. And the dressers, and the makeup
people, and the other actors came to the side of the stage
to watch him. And to watch this guy who had taken,
kind of, leave of the stage and was gone into this other place. And the audience knew it too. And when the performance ended,
they erupted as one. You know, with standing ovations. And Olivier stormed off the stage
and pushed his way through all the people who were in the wings
applauding him and just looking at him with,
you know, a sense of awe. And so he went into his dressing
room and he slammed the door. And the story was that one of the
guys went and knocked on the door, his dresser, and tip-toed into the room,
and Olivier was furiously taking off his makeup and throwing
the things into the basin. And the guy tentatively said to him,
“Sir Lawrence, I have to say that that performance tonight was
one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen on the stage.” And Olivier said, “I know.” And the guy said to him,
“But why are you so angry?” And he just said, “Because I don’t
know how I did it.” (ROGERS)
Right. (BYRNE)
And it’s such a truthful story,
because… I don’t know. Maybe you have
a perspective on this, but I don’t know how it’s done. And when you’re saying the scratching
of the thing, I know what you mean by that. Because that is a kind of a lie. But it’s a lie that’s— that allows the
audience to think that you’re thinking about something else. To me it’s a complex— Here’s the thing: if you go into
a playground or you watch kids play, they play in the most un-self-
conscious way. I’m the doctor. You’re the patient. Or I’m the daddy. You’re the mommy. “It’s time to go to bed now” they
say to the doll. There’s no artifice there.
They are being that. And I’m not equating acting
with being like a child, but somebody said that the goal
of the artist— And they were talking about Picasso,
because Picasso had said that his ambition in life was to learn
to paint like a child. Un-self-consciously to do it. And I suppose that the ambition of…
an actor would be to act like a child. To be so un-self-consciously
in the moment that you’re unaware of whether you left the kettle
on or not. (ROGERS)
Do you find that you have to have
some kind of craft in order— What is the process before,
at least in my experience, in order to get to the being like
a child on stage and not thinking about the kettle, you kinda have
to make the tea first. You know? You have to have already
done all the stuff previously. (BYRNE)
Well, honestly I’ve never gotten
to that stage. It’s why I hate seeing movies that
I’ve done, because I always look and say, “Ugh, god. That’s not
what I meant.” You know, it’s good about stage
performance because you don’t see it. And the thing is that, like, when
you do a movie— the difference between being in
an audience watching a play is that what’s happening in front of
you at the moment is… absolutely happening in this moment. And you have an unconscious,
un-articulated acknowledgment of that. When you go into a cinema, you know
that that has been done a year ago. And it cannot be changed. But there’s always the possibility
in a live performance that you drop the glass in the middle of the
scene, or forget the line, or whatever. But when a movie is a success,
and there’s an expectation of a film— For example, if you were doing the
Spielberg movie, it’s not just the same as saying, “Well
I did a movie with this bloke in Idaho.” This is Spielberg. And people are saying, “Wow, you’re
in the Spielberg movie.” I’d love to hear what your experience
was like working with him. Predominantly as a stage actor
coming to a huge— I mean, Spielberg is, you know— (ROGERS)
He’s up there. (BYRNE)
He’s the one director that you know
by his second name. He’s a bit like Sting, or Madonna.
He’s one name. Spielberg. So you get the job. Did you go
in and audition for it? (ROGERS)
Yes, I did. (BYRNE)
And what was that process like? (ROGERS)
Well, um… It was one audition with the casting
director, Ellen Lewis, who— do you know Ellen? (BYRNE)
I do know Ellen, yes. (ROGERS)
Wonderful. And had sort of been
championing for me for a while there. She brought me in for two parts,
I think. The sides weren’t necessarily going
to be in the movie. Put me on tape. And then I got a call about two weeks
later saying that he saw my tape, Spielberg, and liked it. There was
something to it that he hadn’t seen other people in
and we’ll find out more stuff later. And that was great. (BYRNE)
Did you feel that you had done
well at the audition? (ROGERS)
I thought I did. It’s funny, um… I was doing a workshop of a
new play that week, so it was a situation where I had
a lunch break for probably an hour where I had to run off, go to this
audition way downtown of course, when we’re rehearsing uptown
for the play, and do that very quickly and rush
back. Probably the best— Sometimes the best work is done
when you can’t overthink it too much. And yeah, I thought it went well.
At the end of it, Ellen was like “I’m gonna find
something for you eventually.” [audience laughing] I mean, you could take that
a couple different ways. But it was nice, and I was like,
“Alright, on to the next.” And then… Yeah, I went back to rehearsal. A couple
weeks later I got the call that he liked it, and it was two weeks after that,
I think, when I got the call. So it was just the one audition. Didn’t
meet him until I got on set in Berlin to shoot it. (BYRNE)
Do you feel that that audition
will change your life? Your acting career, I mean? (ROGERS)
I mean, it did. I have yet to— how much or little
is yet to be seen, I guess. I think just by the nature of that on
a resume opens doors. Kinda something I’m joking about now
is, “I think I’m actually going to get to do theater again, because
I’m in a big film.” [audience laughing] But, uh… yeah. (BYRNE)
Can I ask you, um… what your ambition for your career is?
Or do you think like that? ‘Cause a lot of young actors now,
I notice, have a worked-out trajectory where they’re working in theater and
the next minute they’ve got managers, and lawyers, and agents, and
publicists, and all that. (ROGERS)
Yeah, I don’t think that’s
necessarily my style. I love my agent and my manager
who I got through a theater play, but I’m… I don’t have it worked out. Doing more. Just doing more, I guess. The goal is to be solely employed.
Support myself doing acting. Which is a question I wanted to
ask you about. On your IMDB page, it pretty much seems like you started
working non-stop when you– since the late ’70s. Maybe jumping back… If there’s time, we can talk more
about my career. [audience laughter] But I— no, no. Did you have—? Because you started, you were
doing theater and then you started auditioning
for TV and film, I guess and you got on the TV show
“The Riordans?” Um… was that a goal of yours? (BYRNE)
No. At that time, there was no
film industry in Ireland. There was no television.
There was one channel. And everybody watched it on
a Sunday night and a Saturday night. And there was a soap opera on there. And to me that was the zenith of
what you could achieve as an actor. And I never thought I would ever
have the chance of being on that. I did. It was my father’s
favorite program, and the thing I’m most proud of
is that before he died, he got to see me, sitting with him in
the room, and watching me on television. It was the most surreal experience
I think he’d ever had in his life. (ROGERS)
Backstage you said that when you
told him you were gonna be an actor, he told his friends that his son
went to go join the circus, is the way he saw it. (BYRNE)
Yeah. He said it rather mournfully as
if he’d expected greater things of me. But I’d actually joined a circus. For him, that’s what the
entertainment business was. Nobody had any concept of, like— I mean, I used to go to the films as
a kid and I lived in the cinema. And then I got interested in theater
when I was in my teenage years, but I never— First of all, I never even
expected I’d come to America. Never mind being in theater or
films or anything like that. So it’s been a most unexpected
surprise to me, my life, you know? (ROGERS)
I guess that’s the way
I would like to see mine. To be fortunate enough to keep
having work come. So, answering that question of… In those down times, how do you
find yourself when you’re going from— When there’s the inevitable
end of a job, have there been long periods for
you since the early ’80s, or have you kind of known
what was coming next? (BYRNE)
No. When I went to London first, I
was out of work for 18 months. That’s a long time to try and justify
getting up every morning and saying “You’re an actor.” And eventually I stopped telling
people I was an actor because they’d say “Well, what have
I seen you in?” And you’d say “Well, really, nothing.” Um, so—
[clears throat] (ROGERS)
It’s one of those jobs that’s hard
to claim unless— I mean, how do you claim it without
a resume to show for it? (BYRNE)
True. And peoples’ definition of what
success is and what failure is can be something that affects the
way you look at your job. Like, what is the definition
of success? Is success making movies and getting
millions and millions of dollars? Is success forcing yourself to
do plays that really test you? And you’re not going to get the
reward of millions of dollars. Is success about how you live your
life as opposed to how you manage your career? And is
career more important than life? And there is a time when you’re young,
and you’re a young actor, where you really truly believe that
career is more important than life. And I think that one of the things
that I’ve slowly come to terms with — slowly, I say — as I’ve gotten older, is to realize
that “Yes, life is infinitely more important than a career.” But that’s not
to say that the career isn’t important. And in those moments when
you’re not working, I’m prey — I know this, and I know my wife
would say the same thing about me — I’m prey to all the insecurities. Am I any good? Will I ever work again? Yeah. I got really bad reviews for
all that. There are those things. I’m getting older. Are there any
roles for men of my age? And the thing about if you work
in film or television— If I look back — and sometime you
see this — this is a surreal experience. I woke up one night in a hotel room
in Berlin, jet lagged. I turned on the television. And I always remember, there was a row
of chocolate papers from the mini bar over to the bed, and I thought
“Oh no, I’ve attacked the mini bar.” [audience laughter] And on television was a movie
I made many, many, many years ago. And I looked at my younger self
and I thought “Wow, film and television has a way of
marking your age in a really… In a really forceful way. And you hear people, you know… I think that women will understand
this more than men. But I think this is something that
actors get used to hearing. Actresses more than actors. But people are really cruel about the
ageing process in movies. Really cruel. And I remember when Robert Redford
did a movie called “Havana.” He was 49 at the time. And I remember not really understanding
what the thrust of these reviews were, but they were about how old
he’d gotten. He was 49. But I thought to myself “Wow, 49.
But that’s ancient,” I thought. 49 is ancient. Um… and then you realize that a lot of the fire that you have
inside you is still there. But that people are beginning to
perceive you in a different way. It’s the process of growing older.
That’s what it is. It’s the process of ageing. And what you have to do, it seems
to me — I’m finding this out about my own life — is letting go.
It’s very, very difficult to let go. So lets say you’ve been a very
successful film actor and you’re known for your roles
as a heroic actor. I’m thinking of actors who look
like grotesque parodies of what they used to be. And I think,
“Wow, that must be so tough.” To think that you were a gigantic
movie star in the seventies. I remember sitting beside an actor —
I don’t want to give his name, but everybody knows who he is — and he sat beside me in a chair
and he started to cry. And he said to me, “I made billions.
Billions for those studios. And now look at me. I can’t get a
job. At least a job that’s any use. And you mark things like that,
because letting go, accepting, is, for me, maybe one of the most
difficult battles that you can wage. And that goes from the very
beginning of a career, where your definition of success
and failure has to be about letting go the result. So you go on
stage, and you say, “I’ll do the best I can.” And after
that, it’s not my business. But of course you’re an insecure
human being. And if somebody comes up to
you in the street and says, “I saw that crappy movie you were in.
Whew. What did you do—” (ROGERS)
And people do that. (BYRNE)
People do do that. People are
quite cruel, yeah. But people are intensely
complimentary, too. I remember when I did “In Treatment,”
I never knew there were so many psychotherapists in New York. [audience laughing] They were everywhere. You’d go
into Pain Quotidien for a coffee and there was four of them there
going, you know— (ROGERS)
My girlfriend’s a psychotherapist.
She’s here right now. (BYRNE)
Well, well. That’s a job.
That’s a real job. (ROGERS)
I should have let you finish the
story before I revealed that. (BYRNE)
That’s a real job. I did, when I was doing that series
— for people who didn’t see it, I played a therapist — and, uh… I reached quite a low point in
my life in wintertime and life seemed very bleak and dark
as it sometimes does, you know? And I decided, “Enough. I’m going
to go to therapy.” Because I was brought up as
a Catholic, therapy was, you know… It wasn’t confession. Confession
was where you get everything forgiven. Therapy you have to spend a fortune
and you’re there years later. [Rogers and audience laughing] Confession, you go in, they say
“three Hail Marys,” off you go. But anyway, I went to see this
therapist, and he opened the door, he had been watching me the night
before on television and he was saying, “What?” And I couldn’t get through
with this guy. He’d say, “So tell me about your thing,”
and I’d give him the answer, and he’d be staring at me going,
“What’s this guy doing in the chair?” ‘Cause he couldn’t reconcile this guy
that he’d seen on television with this guy that was sitting
in front of him. But, going back to what
success and failure is, if I could really truly believe that
success was about pleasing myself rather than pleasing other people,
that’s a big victory of yourself. And if I believe that failure was
actually a really good thing, and that you have to fail
in order to grow. Because if you stand with
your back to the audience and you don’t show your face, you learn the next time that
you have to face the audience. And so you learn from failure much
more than you learn from success. Because failure teaches you that
you’re not perfect. And failure teaches you that
you’ve got work to do. And it teaches you that there
is no top of the mountain. There’s the climbing of the mountain.
And there’s maybe planting your flag for a couple of minutes, but then you
come back down the mountain to go up a higher mountain. And, so— (ROGERS)
Is that a reason to keep coming
back to theater? To large stage, um… If you don’t find it satisfying,
necessarily, while you’re doing it or enjoyable, what is it
that brings you back? Is it the material itself, like O’Neill? (BYRNE)
It’s partly that, but it’s partly the
wish that maybe this time you’ll get it right. That this time you will actually
get to where you want to get. And you will be able to face
the possibility of criticism. ‘Cause when you stand on a stage
and a critic comes in and he’s making notes in the dark, and the
paper comes out the next day, and it says “This actor was miscast”— (ROGERS)
Has that happened to you? (BYRNE)
They never said miscast, but they did say things that made
me go in the depths of myself to say that’s true. Like if somebody says to you
“You’re really beautiful,” or “You’re really handsome,” and you think “Well, I don’t know.” And somebody comes along and says,
“You’re actually not really handsome at all, you’ve a broken
nose”—- If they tap into what your deepest
fear is about yourself, which are you gonna believe? You’re going to be drawn to believe
the thing that you least want to face. And the bravest thing an actor can
do is not the first night, but the second night to come back
out and face an audience knowing that you’ve been critically,
you know, mauled. And you know that everybody
out there knows that. That requires such courage,
to do that. (ROGERS)
Do you read the reviews
when they come out? (BYRNE)
You don’t have to read them. (ROGERS)
No, you don’t. (BYRNE)
You don’t have to read them
because people let you know it. (ROGERS)
Oh, I see. Yeah, right. (BYRNE)
And if the reviews are
really great, people are going— They’re on the phone the next morning.
“Wow! That thing in the New York Times.” [ambiguous exclamations] Or, “It’s quarter past twelve.
Nobody’s called.” (ROGERS)
Right. (BYRNE)
Yeah. The silence is the thing
that tells you. And— (ROGERS)
Or, if you have my mom, she’s like
“I disagree with that review.” [audience laughing] “Oh, great. Thanks, mom.” (BYRNE)
Your mother will always
tell you the truth. (ROGERS)
It’s the thing. You believe the
review rather than— (BYRNE)
Yeah, so, um… yeah. But I think that’s true of life, too. Because we’re all so afraid to
be judged and criticized. And it’s so hard to stand there
and say, “Judge me. Criticize me.” “It’s okay, because I’m okay
with myself.” What makes it courageous is
to say, “You’re probably right, but I’m gonna get up after canvas
again and see if I can do it right the next time.” To me that’s courage,
or it’s sanity. (ROGERS)
Or I think you called it an
addiction to acting. (BYRNE)
An addiction, yes.
Probably an addiction. (ROGERS)
It’s interesting. It’s something where
it’s like that toothache that you keep pushing on or something.
It is a little— (BYRNE)
The thing is, could you give it up?
Could you walk away from it and say, “I’ll never do this again.” I often think of, say,
great footballers. I have a friend who used to play
for the New York Jets. And I’ve talked to him
about this, where— He played on one of the great
teams, and he talks about the last Saturday that he walked off. Where
there was 80,000 people chanting his name. And the
following Saturday, he was at home flicking channels
on the television. How do you let go of that? It goes
back to the same thing, again, of letting go of expectation. Accepting… accepting reality
is so difficult. (ROGERS)
And our own limitation. (BYRNE)
Our own limitations. You know,
it’s okay to be that. But accepting that you’re not perfect,
accepting that it’s okay to fail, accepting that you’re probably
never going to achieve what it is that you want to achieve. Accepting that— I find I still find
that a major battle. And O’Neill writes
beautifully about this. He talks about, in one of his letters,
in relation to “A Touch of the Poet” which I did some years ago. Very,
very, very difficult play, in my opinion. He talks about the
purpose of his function as a playwright is to remove the mask of
behavior from characters. And he talks about how, as people,
we are all haunted — he says haunted — by the masks that we wear, and
the masks that other people wear. So we are, a great deal of the time
in relation to other people, acting with masks. That person has
a mask, and you have a mask. And sometimes the mask is taken off,
and people get angry. It’s road rage or something and the masks are
gone, and people go: [gasps]
The mask has been taken off. And when that mask is taken off,
he’s talking about reality. He was talking about being
absolutely real. And that’s what he demands of
those characters in those plays. To be absolutely unmasked.
‘Cause that’s what happens. If you look at the character arc
in O’Neill’s plays, they begin as one thing and they
end completely naked, looking at each other saying “I know
who you are, and you know who I am”. And the audience is saying, “We know
who you are, and we’re that too.” That’s his great power as
a playwright, yeah. (ROGERS)
So you — staying on track with
O’Neill — you’re going to do “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”
next spring. Do you find that to hold true for that? Is that family— it’s about, essentially,
his family. O’Neill’s writing about his family. They’re trying to hold something
together through the play until finally at the end, the lies
about whatever they’re stealing— their father’s alcohol, these things
about keeping up appearances, the mother’s taking drugs until it
just becomes too much and they have to lay all the cards
out on the table. (BYRNE)
Well, I think what drama allows you to
do — what movies allow you to do — is that they can go by proxy
into a situation that perhaps you may never be
allowed to do. If you think about this for a moment
in relation to your own family… Let’s say your own family sat down
and told the truth to each other. [audience laughter[ I mean, there are some families that
would say “Yeah, sure, no problem.” But most families have secrets, and
most families survive by having the mask on. It’s crucial
to keep the mask on in order to keep the core of
the family together. (ROGERS)
And it gets thicker and thicker,
and longer— (BYRNE)
Thicker, and thicker, and thicker. What O’Neill does by the end is
that he has stripped that down. And he is saying, “This is what
the truth is. This is what truth is.” “And this is what we do most of the
time.” Most of the time, and it’s a paradox again, because
what’s happening on the stage is a fiction, but it’s the truth.
And what happens out there is we pretend it’s the truth, but actually
many times it’s fiction. So we are all brilliant actors.
Brilliant actors. Like if you meet somebody you don’t
like, you can be brilliant saying, [in a sweet voice]
Hey, how are you? Wow, that’s
amazing! Even though you think, “Wow,
this is a bitch.” [audience laughing] How do you say to somebody who
insults you or says something cruel, and you say “I’m not gonna show
that that really hurts me.” That’s profound acting. So what we do on the stage is,
we make up a lie, — as you say, with this scratching
thing — we fool the audience into thinking we’re telling the
truth, but we are. But out there, we lie all the time.
And we lie— Here’s the thing that
fascinates me, too. That you can be really, really
intimate with another person, and you still can say… “Where is the absolute, honest
truth here?” What is intimacy? What is real,
real intimacy? What is real truth? And that’s what actors do. They
say, “Look. Here, we’ll act this out for you, and you’ll make up
your mind about it.” People think that the actor came
into existence 200 years ago. The most primitive societies have
what they call “shamans” in them. The old druids used to have people
who acted out not just plays — I mean, the Greek formalized theater,
the acting out thing, in a way — but people took on the sins of the
tribe and acted them out. And you still see it in very
kind of primitive societies. There has to be that outlet.
That’s what fiction is. It has to give us that outlet,
because otherwise we remain in that territory
of the mask. (ROGERS)
Do you think that theater and film
both serve that purpose? I mean, I guess they do, for sure.
But do… What… what sides of the spectrum
do those two— What am I trying to ask? If it is,
it’s like holding a mirror up to society, to who we are. Is film capable of doing something
that theater isn’t, and vice-versa in terms of that, or is it just different
modes of the same thing? (BYRNE)
I don’t think it matters, really,
whether it’s film or theater. I think that we have an innate
recognition of the truth. When we see the truth, we know it. If you’re at a great play, and it’s really
amazing, and you’re caught up in it, what’s happening there is you’re
recognizing some version of truth. And we all know. We’ve all been
to plays where— Where is that moment that happens
when an audience en masse switches off and says,
“This isn’t working”? And where is the moment where
they say “Wow”? And the greatest applause you can
get in a play, in my opinion, is the silence at the end. Before
people come back to reality. Because they had been transported
into something else. So what you’re hoping for— I mean, I never had any training in
film criticism or theater criticism, or literary criticism, or painting, or— But there’s one… there’s one way
that is indisputable. Critique. And that is, “Does it
move you?” Does this move you? Are you
walking out of the theater going, “Wow”. Three days later, you’re
thinking about it. Three years later, you’re
thinking about it. Are you moved by it? If you see a
painting, and you look at it and say, [disinterested mumble] Or you see a painting and you say,
“Wow, that’s incredible. How did he—?” You’re moved. (ROGERS)
Is it the truth aspect that does
move us, do you think? What makes it moving? (BYRNE)
I think it’s the truth.
The truth moves people. (ROGERS)
And recognition of themselves. (BYRNE)
Through lies — through a series of
pretenses and lies — we recognize the truth. That’s
bizarre. I never understand that. But if you look at a kid, and a kid
comes up to you and says, “Yeah, and then I went, and then the
thing happened, and then—” And you look at them and say,
“This kid is telling the truth.” You don’t say, “I wonder if this
kid is up to something.” You know when they’re up to something.
But you also know absolutely. There’s no filter on a kid, really.
A dog, also. It doesn’t lie to you. A dog tells you
the truth. You look at a dog and say, “This dog is incapable of pretense.
It’s a fact. A dog isn’t pretending.” (ROGERS)
Yeah. It’s only a dog. (BYRNE)
Unless it’s our dog, who pretends
to be hungry all the time. [audience laughter] What I’m saying is that we have— (ROGERS)
He can’t not pretend to not
like food. He wants food. He ain’t saying that’s what he’s
gonna do. (BYRNE)
He wants food. Exactly. What we do, we distrust ourselves.
We distrust our own incredible ability to recognize the truth. And it
always seems amazing to me. You’ll go to a play on Broadway,
and for the previews everybody’s standing up,
standing ovation. Ben Brantley comes along and
everybody’s sitting down. What’s that about? (ROGERS)
What is that about? (BYRNE)
What it’s about is that people are
led by what they think is a superior criticism instead of saying to
themselves, “You know what, I really love
that play. And I love that movie. And I don’t give a crap what
so-and-so thinks about it, because in the end
it’s only his opinion. So the basic tenet, in my opinion,
of education at school is to teach children to think for
themselves and to not be ashamed of their own opinion. Not feel
inferior to— And I was brought up like that. I was
brought up to think that everybody else — the church, the state, the teachers —
everybody knew the answer except me. Now I understand that actually I have
a pretty good recognition of what’s real and what’s not real. And a lot of
people who told me what they said was the truth were actually
lying to me. (ROGERS)
Why is that? In order to make
a society run, they have to… keep everyone within these
aisles that you walk down? (BYRNE)
Yeah. We’re lied to every single day.
We turn on the news and we think— unconsciously, we’ve been programmed
to think the news is the truth. “Let’s see what’s on the news!” I looked at the New York Post
this morning, and I was standing beside a guy and I wanted
to show him the cover. On the top was a basketball player. And then there was some pop star,
and then there was some other guy who was doing something else
really stupid. And I looked at this and I said, “Look
what’s happening around the world.” There’s refugees. There’s wars. There’s
things happening that we need to know in order to look at life. And what
do we tell ’em? We’re reading comics for adults.
Saying this is the truth. Television says, “And over now to
our reporter.” “And here I am at—” And we think,
“Oh, that”— Basically, we’re being brainwashed
by the media. And we’re brainwashed by television.
And we’re brainwashed by the movies. The movies brainwash us. Because if
you look at a movie that comes out, for the most part out of Hollywood,
you’re not just accepting the storyline. You’re accepting everything that
goes behind that. And my answer to these movies
when I sit and look at them is, I say to myself “What is this movie
saying to me?” What is the perspective in
this movie? I watched a movie last night
where everybody who— I won’t mention the name of the movie,
but everybody who wasn’t American in this movie was a stereotype. And the Americans were coming in
to sort out this very complex situation. And that, to me, is untruth.
That’s a lie. And that’s art masquerading— that’s
a lie masquerading as art. (ROGERS)
So… that leads me into a question of…
talking about movies, when you’re deciding what to do,
do you consider the message overall? Or did that ever shift for you? Um… Maybe I’ll step back first. At what
point did it go from auditioning for roles to becoming offers where
you’re getting scripts arriving at your doorstep, so to speak? (BYRNE)
Thank God. I did a movie called
“Miller’s Crossing” for the Coen Brothers, and I didn’t have to
audition after that. (ROGERS)
Did you audition for that one? (BYRNE)
I did, yeah. Myself and Marcia
Gay Harden auditioned for that, and we both got the parts. Thank God I was taken out of the
audition process because it’s hell. (ROGERS)
It’s terrible. (BYRNE)
It’s awful. You go in there and— I know this girl who’s a makeup
girl, and we joke because her nickname is “5-3-8.” And the
reason she got the name “5-3-8” was because she went for an
audition of a touring musical and she was the 538th person
to audition for the role. And she said, “Once I heard my
number, I stopped. I gave it up.” Because I just realized, you know,
auditioning was not— Look. The way I look at it is this. If Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Robert
Duvall— you name all the people. If they had to audition for the roles
they get, they probably wouldn’t get it. (ROGERS)
They probably wouldn’t, right?
‘Cause it’s a numbers game. Even if you’re the best actor
in the world. (BYRNE)
And just because you’re great in an
audition, doesn’t mean you’re gonna give a good performance.
And vice-versa. It’s a process where it’s a bit
like speed dating. This Tinder thing, where you look and
say, “He looks kind of cute.” “I’ll give him a call.”
It’s a bit like that. Because there’s people coming
in one after the other. How do you judge in three minutes,
whether somebody is—? (ROGERS)
And it’s so different than what you’re
actually gonna do on the day. You’re in this sterilized room with
one or two people behind the camera. And then on the day, depending on
the movie, it’s just such an odd test for what the actual process
is going to be. (BYRNE)
Absolutely. Absolutely. (ROGERS)
I’m already getting the sign that
we’re almost out of time. Which is nuts. And we didn’t
get into some of my… But maybe I can ask, quickfire, a
couple of specific projects. I’m curious. What was it like with the
Coen Brothers? With “Miller’s Crossing”? (BYRNE)
They… are absolutely… fascinating. (ROGERS)
Are they both in tandem, doing
the whole thing? (BYRNE)
Yeah. They’re almost like they’re
the same person. They’ll finish each others’ sentences.
But what’s remarkable is that they have the same vision. (ROGERS)
And that they’ve kept it for so
many years. I don’t— (BYRNE)
You know, you have to say this, that
sometimes a gift is just a gift. And some people are just gifted. Like, a guy who can build a beautiful
building is gifted. People who can put together
a beautiful script. Direct it. Put it out there.
It’s a gift. You can’t teach somebody how
to do that. You just can’t. They were meticulous. “Cut. You said
‘the’ instead of ‘and’. Can we go again?” (ROGERS)
There was no messing with their script. (BYRNE)
No. And there was a sense of,
although it was a relaxed set, it wasn’t really relaxed because
you were very aware that there was a very serious intent
to each scene. And so, you’d know that you did
okay when they’d go
[nods head vigorously]. The two of them together. You got
two heads going at the same time, so we’re okay. I just watched recently “Dead Man”
by Jim Jarmusch. And you come in for one scene, a
very pivotal moment, where you catch your lady. You get
the sense that there was some sort of break up, and then you’re coming
back to bring her a present and she’s in bed with another guy. What’s that like, as opposed to “Miller’s
Crossing” when you’re in almost every scene, and then a movie
like “Dead Man” when you show up, I assume it was like one day of
shooting, probably. You just come in and you do this
scene. How do you prepare for something like that? (BYRNE)
Well, it’s much more difficult
to play a small part than it is to play a part every day. (ROGERS)
It’s like adding— you want to add
a limp. You want to have everything— (BYRNE)
You want to embroider. So my version of
the limp in that scene was the present. I said, “I can’t just walk in the door.” I want to make her in the bed
become something more. So what if this guy starts off on
his horse in Arizona? It’s a bit like the limp. And just
before he goes in, he buys her flowers. And he comes up the stairs full of
hope, and he opens the door, and there she is. In bed
with Johnny Depp. What do you do? In bed
with Johnny Depp. [audience laughing] So then, those flowers become
something else. Those flowers become pathetic.
The present loses its meaning. And all he can do is take out the gun
to shoot his girlfriend. Who gets in the way of Johnny Depp
and shoots her, instead. So it’s much more difficult
to do one scene. (ROGERS)
But you’re talking about having
a moment before, right? You come in with this energy, and then it gets interrupted by this
new reality that you’re faced with. To me, that’s why— I went back and
watched the one scene in thinking about this evening, and
I was amazed at how shorter it was than I realized when it first
happened. Because when you come in, there’s such an event that happens
in that first moment. I thought that was just a
nice lesson to learn. (BYRNE)
Yeah. I talked to Jim Jarmusch,
who’s a brilliant director, I said “I want this to be a good
guy, coming in.” I don’t get much time to say he’s
a good guy, but I want him to have a look on his face of “I’m home to
see the woman I love.” And what does that do to your face
when you open the door and see her in bed with somebody else? And then they cut to them in the bed,
but they’re not bad people either. They’re good people caught doing
something they shouldn’t be doing. So, yeah. When I see a small part, a performer who comes on and
who has a couple of lines, and he gives it a life, so that you
in the audience are saying, “I could follow that guy off into
another play or into another movie.” That guy’s done a good job. (ROGERS)
Yeah. I think you did that. (BYRNE)
Thank you. (ROGERS)
I guess we should wrap up. Thank you, everyone, for coming out. Thank you, Gabriel,
for talking with me. (BYRNE)
Thank you, Will. [audience applause] (ROGERS)
On behalf of Lonny Price and
Matt Cowart, we’d like to thank Godfrey Palaia,
Jordana Phokompe, Tom Dunn, Gillian Campbell, and the
staff of the David Rubenstein Atrium. Thanks for coming out tonight. (BYRNE)
And don’t forget. “Bridge of Spies.”
Steven Spielberg. Will Rogers. [applause]

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