BULLETT: I was watching the video introductions you made for the Ireland on Film series at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. You were talking about how Hollywood was making all these films like The Quiet Man and The Informer before Ireland had a film industry of its own, and you saw your culture as the product of another—through this mirror. Was there was ever a point in time where you did the same thing with masculinity, where you saw one specific actor or film and were like, “That’s the kind of man I want to be, that’s it.”
GABRIEL BYRNE: When you’re younger, the image that you are drawn to is usually of an actor or a singer, somebody you think embodies how you yourself would like to be perceived. And then as you grow older you realize that what you’re looking for isn’t any external reflection, but you begin to crave, envy, or desire the inner qualities of certain people.
I suppose there comes a time when you become disillusioned with the kind of characters that actors embody on the screen, and you realize that you have to grow up and grow into other qualities: kindness, generosity, compassion, courage. The kind of cinema courage with which I usually associated isn’t the kind of courage I would now be drawn to. There are many ways in which I am brave, but there are also many ways in which I am a coward, and I think all of us have that dichotomy, where we can be physically brave and still be moral cowards. It’s much more difficult to be morally brave and to really stand up for what you believe in, and not in a sentimental Hollywood way, but in everyday life. I don’t look to movies for their definitions of masculinity because I think they’re pretty limited, to be honest. To me, Hollywood films seem like storybooks: I’ve outgrown them. They’re there and sometimes I flip through them, but I don’t find my inspiration from them anymore.
But so much of storytelling goes against that mature kind of courage. I feel like the people we’re supposed to look up to are very inconsequential, like the kind of character who is sincere in the moment, and then totally an asshole for the rest of the time, but somehow he’s excused because of that one moment of sincerity. Do you think there’s any way to make actual maturity sexy?
I’d never look to Hollywood to supply that answer. Unfortunately, in terms of the education that we give our kids, we don’t teach the qualities that are truly important for living a good life. Our education system tends to reflect the marketplace rather than preparation for life. It’s hard to say what we’re capable of because most of us are never really tested. What kind of a person would I be if I were living in Pakistan or Iraq and bombs were falling on my wife and children? What kind of person would I become? We’ve been protected to a great extent here, in America, from that kind of horror. We’ve glorified and deified force and violence, and the rightness that goes with that, the ideology that assumes that right is on your side simply because you are from this particular country.
There’s also the sense that we can claim God as our champion and dismiss other people as being somehow not important. Palestinian refugees and ordinary Iraqis have families and children who have been butchered and maimed, but there’s no memorial for those people because it really doesn’t matter—they come from somewhere “over there,” and they’re not us, so they really don’t count.
We don’t have to see them unless we really want to.
And the media and government ensure that we don’t really see them, so the fairy tales that most movies propagate form our education, become our perspective. Is it the business of Hollywood or movies to teach moral rectitude? Is it the duty of movies to give a balanced political perspective? No. It never has been. Top Gun, in my opinion, was a huge recruiting tool for young people who believed that being in the army or flying a jet was nothing more than walking around in a sexy green uniform giving everyone high-fives.
The reality of being in the army or the navy is very different to that, comprised of people who have no future and who are seduced into it because they think they’re fighting for an ideology—an ideology they don’t really question. In that way, politics and movies do kind of go together.
It is weird, though, that you can never disabuse someone of the notion that war is noble, especially when it’s so connected to something that you want to be.
Patriotism, nationalism, and poisoned ideologies are presented as a way of life, as a perspective that’s unquestionably assumed. The guys who came back from Vietnam were spat at in the street. War dehumanizes everybody. But a moral war, such as the one fought against Hitler—that’s a different thing. If you’re the victim of war, or the perpetrator of violence in a war, then you’re tested in ways that you ordinarily are not.
In everyday life, we’re provided with information that we can then use to make a choice: Do I stand up, or do I ignore it? If it doesn’t involve me and I’m not going to be hurt by it, should I just let it go? As an intelligent, sentient human being, if you know the facts but choose to ignore them, that’s a form of moral cowardice.
But in America at least, the more you’re told about some horrible injustice, the less you’re shocked by it and the more it just sort of buries itself. You feel like, If I start telling people about this and I start screaming injustice, I’m just going to be doing it for myself. Because what can you really do?
Nicholas D. Kristof, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, has written about “psychic numbing.” He reported on Paul Slovic’s experiment where participants examined a picture of a starving Malian, which was received with a huge outpouring of sympathy and funds. Then he did the same but depicted the child as part of a larger endemic problem— and the response dwindled. Finally, he did the same with a picture of a starving group of people, and it was psychic numbness in terms of the reaction of readers: it was too much for them to deal with. But one little girl—they could deal with that. We live in a country where over 49 million Americans have issues with hunger, and this is the richest country in the world, which raises the question: Why did the top three or four percent of the people in this country get richer in the last 10 years?
And why aren’t there jobs?
Where have the taxes gone? Where are the schools, the houses, the hospitals? George Orwell once said that if you want to judge the health of a nation, look at its hospitals and social welfare. There’s no social welfare in this country. Obama tried to get social welfare through and he was labeled a Socialist. Now there are people—politicians—applauding executions at their conventions, and booing a gay soldier who served in Iraq. This nonsense about “Don’t ask, don’t tell”? How crazy is that? There’s a tremendous reserve of compassion and humanity among the vast majority of people, but allowing ourselves to do nothing builds and builds and builds until what was once a great country is broken.
Which isn’t to say there’s not really anything you can do. The smallest thing can be important. Setting out to save the world is impossible for all of us— setting out to change a society is impossible— but I really believe in the power of conversation, of recommending a book, of going to a march, of speaking out, of being at a dinner party and giving your point of view, even at the risk of disapproval. These are the ways that we can stand up for ourselves. I think Margaret Mead once said that nothing began ever without one person first getting the idea. And that person tells another person, and that person tells another person and then suddenly, that thing becomes a movement. Because I really believe that most people are really good.