Gabriel Byrne has his hands full with dysfunctional families. The Irish actor can be seen on screens starting April 8 in “Louder Than Bombs,” filmmaker Joachim Trier’s study on a family struggling in the aftermath of the death of the mother, a prominent war photographer. Byrne plays the well-intentioned patriarch, while his sons are played by Jesse Eisenberg and Devin Druid. And on April 3 he leads an all-star cast including Jessica Lange and Michael Shannon in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece about the tensions within a family all hiding secrets.
There seems to be a lot of dramatic potential in portraying messed up families.
I know this seems like a ludicrous comparison, but one of the shows I used to watch growing up in Ireland was “The Brady Bunch.” It produced a kind of incomprehensible envy in me. Those people had orange juice for breakfast and a father bounding down the stairs to give a kiss to the mother and the kids are all sitting around talking to each other so open and honestly. Then you think of something like “Long Day’s Journey,” which examines the reality of the complexity of family ties and neuroses and resentments and hatred and love. Or “Louder Than Bombs,” which is trying to look at the effect of grief on a family and what does it mean to be a father or a working mother? And how children pull away from their parents to develop their own identities. It’s the opposite of that warm fantasy of a family, that family I wanted to be in. O’Neill’s particular genius was this play, which is intensely autobiographical, is paradoxically universal. People will say, I know that situation. In “Louder Than Bombs,” we all know those moments of adolescence. We know about grief.
What appealed to you about the role in “Louder Than Bombs”?
We’re brought up to believe the heroes in our society are movie stars and basketball players when real heroes are people who go on from day to day. That’s heroism. Here’s a man trying to bring up two kids, both of whom are deceptive in their own way. The drama asks questions about not just grief but about life and death. And when you think about it, there’s only two things that matter. Life and death.
You’re deep in rehearsals now for “Long Day’s Journey.” How is it going?
It’s a pretty intense play. We’re kind of in the throes of it, just coming up to previews. It’s the time where you think, “What the f— did I get into?” Yesterday, I lost concentration for three seconds. You have to be there every single second. In a film you can shoot two pages a day, sometimes a page every three or four days. But in this situation you have to go on every night for three hours. And twice on a Saturday.
How do you keep a live audience enthralled for more than three hours?
If the play works as it should, you’re gripped for three and a half hours. Like anything else that doesn’t work, if it doesn’t, you’re screaming inside your head after 20 minutes. The difference between a movie and a play is with a movie you can make a cup of tea or flick through it. I’ve never left a movie theater during a film — it’s one of the things I’m kind of proud of. People work really hard to get movies made so it feels like a betrayal to walk out of a film. But you can’t really walk out of a play.
Except people do sometimes.
Oh, people talk during plays, they answer phones during plays. It’s one of the hazards of going to the theater. Not just for the actors — you’re in the middle of an emotional screen and you hear the “Batman” theme tune go off on a cell phone. But the audience gets involved, too. That’s another challenge altogether.
To do theater, particularly a show like this, I imagine you have to change your lifestyle to prepare.
You absolutely do. First of all, you have to harvest your energy. You have to be in bed at a certain time, you have to eat properly, you have to exercise. You have to get into a routine that is about protecting yourself. Make sure you don’t catch a cold or a flu; I try to pick up tips from opera singers and what they do to keep germs and such at bay. And stamina. Years ago when I worked at the abbey theater in Dublin I asked an actor in his late 70s the difference between younger and older actors. He said, “Energy. Stamina.” And I was a young actor I’m sure I was like, “What are you talking about?” But it’s true. That’s what you need. And when you’re emotionally engaged in a drama, you are using energy that you’re not even aware of at the time. But afterwards you feel like you’ve run a marathon.
By the way, I just realized that your son in the film is Lex Luthor and your son in the play is General Zod.
He is? Which son?
Michael Shannon, he played General Zod in “Man of Steel.”
Is he? I never knew that! Oh my gosh. I must talk to him about that tomorrow. That’s really interesting. Is he in the new one?
Well, his body makes a cameo; actually, Jesse steals it.
Oh dear God, that’s amazing. My kids are stealing each other’s bodies and God knows what else without my knowledge.