An opportunity to return to his home city was simply a bonus for Dublin-born Gabriel Byrne, rather than the sole reason he accepted the titular role in the new drama Quirke.
“I wouldn’t have taken the job just to go back to Dublin, it was an added thing for me,” says the 64-year-old, who now lives in New York. “This was a superb script and a fantastic role. Strangely enough, a lot of the locations we visited were locations that I knew extremely well, though.”
Indeed, he revisited his very first flat in the city (“They [the production team] didn’t know that, of course. It was done out to make it look like an apartment in the Fifties, so that was a strange experience”) and they filmed in the theatre where he made his first stage performance.
“That was very bizarre, because what happens in a situation like that is we live most of our lives with very definite demarcations between the past, present and future. And just for a few seconds, it felt like 1978 again, and then it disappeared.
“It was an unsettling feeling really, because the buildings stay the same but you change.”
Set in 1956, Quirke has been adapted from the books by John Banville, “probably one of Ireland’s greatest novelists”, notes Byrne.
“He normally writes pretty serious literary fiction, but this is his first foray into the world of noir fiction.”
The three-part drama follows Byrne’s city pathologist (we never discover his first name), who stumbles back to his lab after a night of drinking to find his colleague and adopted brother, Malachy Griffin, completing some paperwork for a recently deceased woman named Christine Falls.
Mal isn’t thrilled to see Quirke, a fact that troubles the pathologist when he returns the next morning to find Christine’s body gone. Consumed by curiosity, he’s determined to call Mal to account and begins asking questions that lead him on an increasingly complex trail; one that takes him across the Atlantic where he unearths a family secret.
“As most characters are in noir fiction, Quirke’s an outsider and a loner. He’s not a detective who kicks in doors and says, ‘Freeze asshole’. He’s just a curious man who cares about the bodies that are brought in,” says Byrne, who spoke to working pathologists before shooting began.
Although it’s a mystery thriller, Quirke’s also a character piece and a fictional examination of the kind of society that existed in Dublin 60 years ago. ”
Although Byrne was only a boy in 1956, he has memories of the era. “When you’re growing up in a place, you’ve no idea that it’s any different anywhere else, because that place is the centre of your universe,” he says. “And yes, I went to school there unfortunately, for the first few years of my life.”
Southern Ireland is now “a very changed place in many ways,” he continues. “And confronting the hidden truths about a society means that it begins to free itself to develop into something better.”
Byrne made his film debut in the 1981 epic Excalibur.
While he’s known for roles in 1990 gangster movie Miller’s Crossing and 1995 crime thriller The Usual Suspects, the movie he considers the game-changer is 1986 political drama Defence Of The Realm, in which he played a reporter.
“It had a limited release in America but the Coen brothers [who directed Miller’s Crossing] happened to see it, so that changed everything for me and brought me to America.”
More recently, he earned critical acclaim and a Golden Globe for his role as psychotherapist Dr. Paul Weston in the American TV series In Treatment.
“The world of film has changed in the last five years. There’s a big gap between very low budget films that are done for almost no money, and franchise pictures which cost two or three hundred million.
Quirke, BBC1, Sunday, 9pm