Leading men in Emmy contention

Gabriel Byrne can’t walk a short block in New York City without real-life psychologists stopping him to applaud his “truthful” interpretation of a therapist in emotional crisis in “In Treatment,” HBO’s highly addictive nightly half-hour drama based on an Israeli format.

With a marriage hanging by a floss-thin thread, trouble with his kids and an unrequited longing for Laura (Melissa George), a beautiful, erotically charged patient who desperately pursues him, Byrne took on a handful in his turn as Dr. Paul Weston.

“One of the biggest challenges I had with this show is that I was required to play an entire role that is about reacting. It was a very difficult high-wire act for me to do. It was all uncharted territory, and, in a way, very much like televised radio,” explains Byrne, who, after working as an archaeologist and studying for the priesthood, discovered his passion for acting while performing lunchtime theater in Dublin.

And while Byrne says the only couch time he has ever logged has been on the upholstered furniture of the “Treatment” set, the actor intuits humanity’s collective ache for being heard, especially in a post-Sept. 11 atmosphere that begs for societal healing.

“It is a fundamental need in human beings to be listened to,” Byrne notes of Paul’s panacean influence on the five patients with whom we see him interact, “and there are people gifted with the power of being able to listen. To really, truly listen is a great compliment to pay another person, and to listen onscreen is a form of sophisticated acting.”

Where Paul does get to emote on his own terms is in his weekly sessions with his own therapist, Gina (Dianne Wiest).

“There’s a shift in the power boundaries,” says Byrne of his character’s oft-combative relationship with Gina, the one figure in whom we witness Paul confide, exposing his own naked shortcomings. “He has no answers himself. We have this idea in society that whoever is the healer is perfect and not subject to the same vagaries of human emotion that we all are. But what we find in these sessions is that the healer is also imperfect, frail and human.”

Favorite scene: “Throwing the coffee in Blair Underwood’s face was a risky moment. That was a personal choice as an actor. I said ‘OK, I’m going to do this.’ I wanted to make the point that this man is so invested that he transgresses and crosses the line and reacts as a human being.”

What you like most about your character: “That he’s flawed, angry, troubled, anxious and worried about getting older. He’s a man who gives himself to other people and puts himself at the service of other people.”

TV guilty pleasure: “I watched one episode of ‘Dr. Phil’ in preparation for the role, and what I realized was that they cut that program like it’s fiction. In follow-up, I said to the cast, ‘We have to cut fiction like it’s reality.’ I think that reality television has changed the nature of how people view fiction. People’s expectations of fictional narrative on TV has changed because now they can see something that’s real.”

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