Interview: Gabriel Byrne on 'Secret State'

The actor tells Gabriel Tate about moral courage, the art of listening and Nick Clegg's 'sailor's gait'

Gabriel Byrne as Deputy PM Tom Dawkins in 'Secret State' Gabriel Byrne as Deputy PM Tom Dawkins in 'Secret State'

He’s played a musketeer, a knight of the round table and Satan, but Gabriel Byrne’s best-known roles – from Dean Kenton in ‘The Usual Suspects’ to Tom Reagan in ‘Miller’s Crossing’ – tend to share three characteristics. They fight internal wars of conscience, and don’t always win. They dress sharply, but with a hint of dishevelment. And they grant him the opportunity to say a huge amount by doing very little: big gestures are rare, and Byrne makes them count. Greying at the temples but still strikingly handsome (and the personification of slightly unkempt chic), he’s in genial if sometimes guarded form as we sit in a central London hotel to discuss his career, his politics and his latest morally troubled quiet man in a suit.

Deputy PM Tom Dawkins is at the centre of C4’s new political thriller ‘Secret State’: a man forced to confront demons at the heart of government when the fallout from an industrial explosion and a plane crash implicates everyone from US multinationals to his own colleagues in cabinet. And, as the drama unfolds, the contemporary resonances become even clearer. This is a thriller cleaving so close to events that it risks being overtaken by them.

Byrne obviously enjoyed getting to grips with the minutiae of political body language. ‘The only distinguishing thing between David Cameron and Nick Clegg is that Clegg has a weird sailor’s gait,’ he chuckles. ‘I suspect one leg may be shorter than the other. But the most obsessive thing I got into was how the first thing any politician does, getting out of a car, is button their jacket. It covers the self-consciousness but also indicates a sense of purpose. It was the most “acted” bit of the whole series for me. I felt like a bit of a twot for doing it, but they all do…’

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Tom Dawkins is that he tells the truth. ‘And yet something like this [‘Secret State’] has to fall into the realm of fable,’ Byrne marvels. ‘We have a tremendous sense of hope invested in the idea of the just man who rises to power, that he will be the saviour of us all. Tony Blair was elected on a wave of popular acclaim and as an antidote to the awfulness of the years before. A similar thing happened with Obama, and now there’s a sense that they have both betrayed something. I think those men were taken into rooms after they were elected and told about the way it works.One man can’t change a system.’

Gabriel Byrne as Nick Mullen in 'Defence of the Realm' Gabriel Byrne as Nick Mullen in 'Defence of the Realm'

It’s not the first time Byrne has featured in a conspiracy thriller. He played a journalist in 1985’s ‘Defence of the Realm’, an neglected classic of the genre. Three years later, C4 made ‘A Very British Coup’, a superb thriller still viewable on 4 On Demand and based – like ‘Secret State’ – on the same Chris Mullin book. For all their brilliance, they both now seem rather dated. These were political dramas set in an era of ideological tensions. The concerns of both ‘Secret State’ and the real world now focus more on the relationship between government and big business, between government and the media, and the growth of a surveillance society. It feels significant that Dawkins isn’t clearly identifiable with one political party or belief system.

‘There seems little to choose between the parties [in the real world] except the colour of the tie,’ nods Byrne, vigorously. ‘But I really believe that’s changing. The election of George Galloway [as Respect MP for Bradford West] tapped into the general anger and disillusionment with politicians. When that anger coalesces, it’ll be a real threat to the system.’

Byrne isn’t about to declare his political allegiance, but he invokes left-wing veterans Tony Benn and Shirley Williams (‘uncompromising but respectful’) as politicians he admires. Both are noted for their moral courage, even in the face of potential ridicule or opprobrium. Is Byrne a morally courageous person?

He sits for a long time, stroking his chin. ‘That’s a very hard question for most people to answer. I think we’re all brave in different ways. I know I’ve been tested in certain ways…’ He looks thoughtful, before shifting in his chair and shrewdly moving the conversation back to politics. ‘I see a Shakespearean character in Blair – he has a major soliloquy going on in his head. How do you live with a decision like the one he made [over Iraq]? It fascinates me that he suddenly converted to Catholicism, where all sins are forgiven and salvation is guaranteed.’

When he poses questions, they aren’t necessarily rhetorical; Byrne clearly prefers a conversation to an interview and is a tremendous listener, chewing over each question before delivering a considered response in gentle tones that sometimes disguise the ferocity of his words. He puts this down to his formative years learning the craft, when he devoured the films of Spencer Tracy and Gene Hackman. ‘Those guys are so good at internalising information [on screen]. Really listening is a great deal of the technique of acting.’

Gabriel Byrne as Paul Weston in 'In Treatment' Gabriel Byrne as Paul Weston in 'In Treatment'

It’s a technique he honed to perfection on ‘In Treatment’, the mesmerising HBO series shown on Sky Arts and Sky Atlantic in the UK. Each episode of the show was a two-hander between Byrne’s therapist Paul Weston and a patient (his most memorable sparring partner, Mia Wasikowska, has since burst on to the Hollywood A-list in ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’). ‘Paul was a man who had to portray feelings to an audience, while denying them to the patient. It was a beautifully written role.’

‘In Treatment’ marked a return to television for Byrne after almost a decade, making him one of a growing band of big-screen stars returning to the medium where their careers began to take off. For Byrne, the reasoning is simple. ‘Actors are beginning to cop on that television is a place where writers come to nest. The medium allows them more freedom to develop, so that’s where more complex, challenging roles lie.’ But he spares modern television no criticism, blaming reality TV and the populist end of US TV drama for creating a culture of pace over subtlety, fast-cutting and pay-off without build-up.

Byrne in conversation is, if anything, the opposite: steady, measured build-ups and pay-offs whose impacts are often only felt later on. Remarkably, this even applies to his clothing: it’s only at the end of the interview that I realise that this elegantly tailored man was wearing a vest: a mildly disconcerting realisation that stays with me for some time afterwards. Even the small gestures count with Gabriel Byrne.

'Secret State' starts Wednesday November 7, 10pm, Channel 4. Read the Time Out review here.