Gabriel Byrne is a very good listener. The 57-year-old Dublin-born actor is naturally suited for his role as therapist Paul Weston on HBO’s new show In Treatment, a painstaking and challenging investigation into what therapy is and how it works, which premieres Monday, January 28th, at 9:30 p.m. If one didn’t like to listen, it would sure be grueling work, even for an actor: sitting at attention for a one-on-one talk session, with very little movement, to dissect problems ranging from the semi- to the very disturbing. Each episode is like a little one-act play that will leave you as frustrated or relieved as a patient herself might be after 30 minutes of soul-plumbing. (And trust us, we know! If only our own therapy was conducted by someone so, well, dreamy.)
On Mondays, Paul meets with Laura, a stunning young woman played by Alias’ Melissa George (think Angelina Jolie’s sensuality crossed with Jennifer Garner’s girly innocence) who claims that she is in love with him. On Tuesdays, he spars with Alex (Blair Underwood of Dirty Sexy Money, Sex and the City and … L.A. Law!), a cocky Navy pilot who needs to confront the atrocities he committed in war, but who is also skeptical of therapy. On Wednesdays, Mia Wasikowska arrives as Sophie, a quick-witted teenage girl who has a peculiar relationship with her gymnastics coach; she is seeking a psychological assessment for an insurance claim after getting into a bicycle accident that broke both of her arms. On Thursdays, he sits down with an unhappy couple: a moody, suspicious husband played by Josh Charles (remember the 90’s cutie who swooned over ladies in Dead Poet’s Society and got naked with a Baldwin in Threesome?) and his wife, a career woman played by Embeth Davidtz (she was the art dealer in Junebug), who are trying to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy.
On the show, Paul is sagacious and soothing in his sessions. But when he meets with his own therapist (played by Oscar winner Dianne Wiest) on Friday evenings, he is troubled and egotistical. Mr. Byrne, best known as crooked cop Dean Keaton in Bryan Singer’s 1995 crime drama The Usual Suspects, seemed to emit all of those characteristics on a chilly afternoon last week at the HBO offices overlooking Bryant Park. He wore a sharp black suit and a pink shirt, which brought out the red hue of his Irish, ruddy skin and sharpened his fierce blue eyes. He has an intense presence that makes your pulse speed up as he speaks in his lilting Irish brogue about “erotic transference,” intimacy and revealing one’s most inner secrets. But when he leans back in his chair and intertwines his fingers, his giant Celtic ring glowing on his ring finger, he emits a warm calm as he waits for the next question. He is listening.
“The idea of revealing who you are to another person is a fundamental need in all human beings,” Mr. Byrne said. “The act of listening to another person is emotionally draining. It’s also one of the greatest compliments you can pay to another person, is to say they can really listen, to really hear what they’re saying.”
Many of Paul’s patients on the show don’t want him to just sit and listen. They provoke him, prod him, and demand approval or validation of their decisions to confirm their sanity. But Paul must remain composed. He calmly sits in his chair, almost stoical, to help them find answers to their problems within themselves.
“Who we become when we’re confronted with authority figures is interesting,” Mr. Bryne said. “Whether it’s a father figure, mother figure”—his Irish dialect makes “figure” sound like “figger”— “people have the need to be approved of, the need to please. I would imagine that would get in the way of therapy, that you can actually find yourself saying, ‘I need to impress this person … make them approve of me, make them like me.’”
Of his own character, Mr. Byrne said: “Basically, he’s a man in midlife crisis, for want of a better description. He’s a human being, with all of the emotion and complexities and the vulnerabilities and the frailties of a man in his middle age. [Paul’s patients] are all talking about more or less the same issues that he is dealing with. What are those issues? The issues that kind of unite everybody, patient and doctor, man and women. It’s love, sex, intimacy, family, relationships. They’re the things that we all struggle with.”
IT’S TRUE, THESE are universal problems—many of which we’d all like to ignore. So HBO is taking a risk in hoping viewers of In Treatment will have the patience (and dedication) to leap into each patient’s small, disturbing world each night of the week for nine weeks.
The show is based on an Israeli television program that became a ratings skyrocket and swept the country’s television awards (from best drama series to best actor and actress). HBO is hoping to find similar success in a country where self-help books dominate the bookstore shelves and an ever-increasing number of its citizens have sought help from a professional therapist. And that very success rests largely on the appeal of Mr. Byrne, whom audiences will watch each night for more than two months as he listens to his patients.
Mr. Byrne isn’t worried about his convincingness as a shrink. He says his favorite pastime is listening. The eldest of six kids born to a Guinness brewery factory worker and a nurse in working-class Dublin, he comes from a country with a culture based on people having their own little therapy sessions over beer at dingy pubs and watering holes.
Mr. Byrne studied at a seminary for a short time to become a priest. (The Catholic Church’s confession is one of the early models of a therapy session. “Only they offered penance, of course,” Mr. Byrne explained.) But he soon skedaddled to university, to study archaeology and linguistics. (Again with the listening!) He was a bullfighter and a Spanish teacher before becoming an actor at age 29. He didn’t come to the States until he was 37 years old.
Mr. Byrne recently relocated from his Brooklyn Heights home for a temporary move to Tribeca, which seems to drown out all of the pleasant city dialogue he loves so much. “God, the noise of it,” he winces. “At all hours and the soullessness of it. It feels like a very dislocated place to me, of guys in striped shirts living in lofts, walking on treadmills at 10 o’clock at nighttime and garbage trucks making this horrendous, grating noise at 1, 2 o’clock in the morning. Brooklyn is like the countryside in comparison.”
Mr. Byrne feels most at home in Brooklyn’s cafes, especially a spot between State and Atlantic, where he pretends to read the newspaper while actually listening in on conversations, lovers’ spats and old men prattling on about whatever is in the news. “So much of my life isn’t really about acting at all,” he said. “The time I spend acting is very small in comparison to the time I spend loping about aimlessly, sitting in cafes.
“Isn’t it one of the great, of the last, free pastimes to sit and watch other people be just people and what they do?” he said with a wry smile. “I love earwigging, just listening in on conversations. I’ve perfected the art.”
In Treatment premieres
Monday, Jan. 28, at 9:30 p.m. on HBO.
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