Brían F O’Byrne told David Hennessy about returning to the stage in London for the first time since the 90s, returning to Ireland after decades away and that even after a Tony Award he still fears he ‘can’t swim’ as an actor.
Brían F O’Byrne has won a BAFTA TV Award and a Tony award, as well as receiving numerous other nominations for his Broadway work.
You may recognise him from screen roles such as Mildred Pierce, Little Boy Blue, Love/ Hate or Intermission but a huge proportion of his work and success has been on the stage.
Brían has been nominated for a Tony Award five times for the plays The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West, Frozen, Doubt and The Coast of Utopia and won the award for Best Featured Actor in a Play in 1999 for Frozen, Bryony Lavery’s play about the disappearance of a ten-year-old girl.
He has also won the Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Circle Award for his portrayal of a priest accused of child molestation in Doubt.
In addition to his numerous other stage nominations, he was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for his work in the TV series Mildred Pierce, in a cast that also included Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce.
In 2018 he won a Best Supporting Actor BAFTA for his work in Little Boy Blue, the series that told the true story of the murder of Rhys Jones.
Starring in the Donmar Warehouse’s production of A Doll’s House, Part 2, Brían is returning to the stage in London for the first time since he starred in the work of Martin McDonagh all the way back in 1997. Playing Pato in The Beauty Queen of Leenane would earn him his first Tony nod when it then transferred to Broadway.
Brían joins James Macdonald’s cast for the UK premiere of Lucas Hnath’s modern sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play about female empowerment.
When first written in the late 19th century, the Norwegian play was revolutionary for its depiction of Nora, a married woman, taking control of her life by walking out on her husband.
A Doll’s House, Part Two continues the story.
Brían plays the husband Torvald while Nora is portrayed by double Olivier Award-winning Noma Dumezweni. The cast is completed by Patricia Allison of Sex Education and veteran actress June Watson.
The new play takes up the story fifteen years after Nora walked out on her family and shows her return with an urgent request but has to face the family she left behind.
Brían told The Irish World: “The first play was written in 1879 where this lady seems to have her life, everything going well: Happy family, caring husband- for the time, not today’s caring husband- and prospects looking good, and she gets caught up in a lie essentially.
“But also her eyes are open to the life that she’s leading, and that she’s deeply unhappy.
“She walks out of the marriage, and her family, leaves the kids behind and walks out the door. You hear a door slam at the very end of the play.
“There’s just a door slammed and that’s it.
“And Shaw, I think, said it was ‘the door slam heard around the world’.
“The play then was printed everywhere and it became a huge hit in that to have a woman take control of her life on a stage to walk out and say, ‘Hey, I’m leaving’ was an extraordinary event to happen on a stage.
“So it provoked massive discussion and had a societal impact all across the world.
“Women felt empowered in some way from watching this lady on stage just go, ‘You know what, I deserve better than this’.
“So what happens in this play is there’s a knock on the door. The door is opened and there stands Nora 15 years later, she’s come back.
“Nobody has seen or spoken to her and she arrives back.
“And in the next 85, 90 minutes, we find out why she’s back and we see the impact on the three other characters in the play, which is the nanny in the house, her daughter and her husband.
“It’s kind of a fast paced- I would say a- comedy of sorts, an existential comedy in a way where we’re talking about the big issues in life.
“It’s a funny thing. It’s kind of a modern play because it’s written with a modern sensibility so some of the language is very modern.
“You have a discussion really where we’re looking at the state of marriage and women’s role and motherhood and class distinction back at the end of the 19th century, but of course, because it’s written now, we’re actually looking at all of those aspects of life nowadays.
“I hope it is a play where people will walk out afterwards, and have discussions afterwards and go, ‘Did you think this was right or wrong?’ Or, ‘Do you take sides in it?’
“I’m hoping it inspires talk and debate.
“It has in the process of us looking at it anyway.”
In the original play Torvald professes his love for his wife but stifles her in the marriage. Has he changed since the first play? Is he perhaps ‘the bad guy’ in the story? “That’s a good question.
“I think that’s up for debate.
“Has he changed? Yeah, he has. Has he changed enough for Nora? I don’t know.
“There is no bad guys in the play which makes it kind of fun.
“I think we’re in a world of polarization at the moment, certainly with Twitter and social media, where you must have absolute ideas about certain things.
“And it gets nasty and the nasty people tend to shout the loudest, and in some ways get heard the most.
“I don’t know, maybe that’s the question we’re asking, ‘Are we available for change? Are we available to not have absolute ideas on stuff? Are we available to be vulnerable and change our minds?’
“We’re talking about a female perspective in this play.
“It’s a modern play set then and we’re looking back and we’re going, ‘How much has changed? What agency is a woman allowed to have within our society now?’”
From Mullagh in Co. Cavan, Brían moved to New York City in 1990 and was living in America until very recent years.
Asked about his preference for film/TV that he has done so much of and the stage where he made his name, he says: “I think theatre is an actor’s medium.
“I think it’s the most powerful place for an actor, you’ve got the most power when you’re on stage because you are more shaping the storytelling.
“So as a storyteller, you definitely have much more control, I guess, which you don’t have at all in film and TV.
“I did theatre almost exclusively up until about 16,17 years ago and then I just kind of fell out of love with theatre.
“And then I started doing TV and film almost exclusively.
“I’ve had what I call a couple of theatre relapses in the last 15 years so this is one of them.”
Back in the 90s, Brían starred in Martin McDonagh’s first three plays The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West.
The plays launched McDonagh towards being a massive name in theatre and now an Oscar-winning film maker.
“It was a lot of fun. I was in his first three.
“I haven’t heard from him since. I don’t know what I did to him,” he laughs.
“But it was very exciting. I mean, we went around the world with it.
“I read the play first of all.
“I thought it was some old fella who had left Mayo in the 50s had written a play.
“I was like, ‘Okay, what’s this like?’
“And then we started reading it and it’s like, ‘Oh wow, okay. There’s a new language, a language we haven’t seen before’.
“And to watch that from doing it in Galway and bringing it over to the Royal Court here and then see it kind of explode- This is a new voice that relates to people.
“Everybody had refused Martin’s work at that stage.
“In fact, he had a letter from the Abbey Theatre, not just a refusal, but a letter from the Abbey Theatre saying to stop writing.
“So I don’t think you’ll ever see a McDonagh on an Abbey stage.
“So from that (explosion), he is asked, ‘Do you have other plays?’
“And he goes, ‘Yeah, I have six others written’.
“So to take that language around the world and see his audience just continue to grow, that’s really fun, it’s really fun to watch.”
Brían has shared the screen with big names like Clint Eastwood, Sigourney Weaver and Richard Gere but he worked with one of Ireland’s biggest stars of the moment when he was still emerging acting with Cillian Murphy in the film version of Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs and then a few years later in Intermission.
“I knew Cillian from his second play.
“He had just done Disco Pigs with Enda Walsh and we did a reading of Martin’s play, The Pillowman.
“And he was like still in college going, ‘I’ve just done this play. And the band- He was in a band- might get signed. Yeah, I’m in college studying law. I don’t know what to do’.
“I’m sitting there over a pint in Nectain’s in Galway going, ‘For f**k sake, man. This kid has so much going for him.”
Something that stands out as a highlight for Brían is when he played Steve Jones, the father of Rhys Jones who was 11 when he was killed walking home from football training in Liverpool. He won a BAFTA for his portrayal of the bereaved father.
“That was a real highlight of my work experience and a story that was handled beautifully.”
Was it harrowing for Brían, a father himself, to play such a role? There certainly must have been a responsibility there..
“Responsibility- I think that’s a better word.
“I don’t think it was harrowing, you can’t really- Somebody lived that so my experiences were nothing compared to the experience of somebody who actually lived through that.
“But responsibility? Yeah. I think that everyone involved in the production felt the responsibility to do right by the family.
“Usually the first thing that comes into mind doing any job is, ‘I don’t want to suck’.
“But if you’re doing it and you’re playing actual people, the first thought is, ‘I don’t want to let them down’.
“Which in some ways takes away the pressure from you. It’s not about you. It’s about trying to honour the people that you’re playing.
“So I actually like it. I like it because there is something solid that you can kind of work around.
“You can find out things about who these people are, it’s easier to craft something.”
Brían and his family relocated to Ireland in recent years. What has it been like to come home after decades away from it? “It’s complex.
“I say to people- Go back and expect to be an immigrant in your country.
“If you go back thinking you’re Irish, you’ve missed that you’ve actually changed by being away.
“I think it would have been easier just to go, ‘I’m not Irish, I’m American. I’m living here and it’s familiar but it’s just not familiar at all’.
“The UK experience going back to Ireland might be different but certainly coming back from America, the system is stacked against you coming back into Ireland.
“You’re going to a different country, even if it’s a country you left for whatever number of years.
“There is nothing set up to help immigrants come home, it’s the opposite actually.
“It’s just hurdle after hurdle.
“So the kind of nonsense that you hear from politicians, particularly around Paddy’s Day around the world is just that, it’s just nonsense.
“It’s not a welcoming place for Irish people.
“There’s lots of just utter nonsense.
“We’re putting the kids into a local school, we get a piece of paper and it is asking where me and my wife were baptized.
“And you go, ‘What the f**k has that got to do with the state, or the education of my children?’
“However, on top of that, it’s a really fun place to live.
“There is a strong sense of fun.
“I know that might sound stupid, but Irish people like to have fun.
“And no matter what the situation is, somebody wants to crack a joke and laugh.
“It’s so beautiful. I live up in Sligo, and it’s stunningly beautiful.
“There’s a strong sense of community, which is, for the most part really good.
“Best decision we ever made.”
Brían played Detective Moynihan in the final two series of Stuart Carolan’s Dublin crime drama Love/Hate. Did going back to Ireland then plant the seed of an idea? “Yeah, it did actually.
“The boom was over.
“Because when we went back in the Celtic Tiger days, it was just a pain in the arse.
“You’re going, ‘Why aren’t people talking about the weather again?’
“It was just all about property prices and how much money someone’s making.
“I was like, f**k it. I never thought I’d miss conversations about the weather.
“But during Love/ Hate, it felt like the gluttony that had happened has certainly dissipated.
“And people had been through a tough time and there seemed to be a re-evaluation about what was important.
“And people were kinder and gentler. And I liked that. I liked it. There wasn’t an aggressiveness there.
“Now, I’m not saying that there was that before, but there was certainly a desire for money that was alarming.
“People were more introspective and it was an interesting time, and my wife felt the same way.
“And we went back and were like, ‘You know what? This could be a really good place to bring up the kids’.”
Brían does not think it’s any bad thing that he missed the Celtic Tiger years in Ireland.
“I think that Ireland just experienced money for the first time really and it was like a teenager just given a fortune. They just went nuts.
“Yeah, I think it consumed a lot of people and it had a devastating effect.
“The collapse obviously had a devastating effect and created a whole new wave of immigrants, which is kind of sad.
“A lot of people were destroyed by the Celtic Tiger and by malpractices of banks.
“There were very real effects of it, it’s not just a simple, ‘Oh, we went nuts and then that was the end and we learned something’.
“A lot of people died as a result of mental health issues and stuff that were really brought about by financial catastrophe and a society that couldn’t look after them.
“So there’s a very real effect of the Celtic Tiger collapse.
There was an emotional and psychological one in the country.”
Despite all his years of experience, and accolades, Brían says this production is still terrifying to leap into.
“It’s kind of like you’ve had fun with your little swimming armbands on. You’ve been jumping around and it’s real fun and then someone says, ‘Okay, today, you can all swim. Please take off your armbands’.
“And you’re like, ‘I’m not sure I can swim. I’m not sure I can swim’.
“And they’re like, ‘Just jump in. You’re gonna be fine’.
“So I think I’m at the stage where I’m just shivering in a cold swimming pool in Cavan or something and the armbands have come off and I have to jump in.
“But I’ve swum before so it should be okay.”
You still get the nerves.. “Oh God yeah, every time.
“You keep expecting a tap on the shoulder, to turn around and someone say, ‘You’ve had a good run. You’ve been found out. Go home’.”
A Doll’s House, Part Two is at The Donmar Warehouse until 6 August.
For more information and to book, click here.