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Gabriel Byrne in END OF DAYS
Taking a switch from serious roles, the actor gets to raise a little hell.
By Edward Gross
December 02, 1999
Gabriel Byrne may have been cast as the Devil in END OF DAYS, but how in...er, hell...was he going to outmuscle Arnold Schwarzenegger? 'I thought there was no point in trying to compete with Arnold physically,' smiles Byrne. 'Have you ever seen the size of his arms? So I figured that I had to, in some way, use whatever I had at my disposal.'
Part of which was to recognize that it wasn't necessary to overpower Schwarzenegger on the screen, but instead to take a more subtle approach. 'END OF DAYS is such a huge picture and such a grand scale, and I'd never done a picture of this size before, but I knew there were a lot of explosions and special effects. I figured the way to play this role most effectively was to be quiet, and to make him as human and as light as possible. I figured that was my only hope. Like when you walk out of a building and the building explodes behind you what do you really need to do? It boiled down, to me, to attitude and a guy who really enjoys his work.'
The actor admits that he didn't do much research for the role, and purposely avoided watching other actors portray evil incarnate, particularly Al Pacino's recent turn in THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE. 'A lot of actors have played the Devil, and it's always been a larger than life creation from what I've seen,' he says. 'I didn't want to end up being compared in that situation, so I figured I would make it as ironic as possible.'
Another irony, of course, is that Byrne portrayed the savior of mankind in the recent horror film, STIGMATA, which makes one wonder just how much of this good and evil stuff he believes in. 'What is the Devil, if you think about it, except a personification?' he muses rhetorically. 'We believe in good and we believe in evil, so the personification of goodness is God and the personification of evil is the Devil. Does the Devil have human form? Sometimes, yes. Is there a guy down in hell with a pitchfork, turning people over to toast them a bit more? I don't think so. But if you believe in good, you have to believe in evil. This film isn't really, as you know, a study of the nature of evil. It's not a deep psychological look at the nature of evil, so what do you do for research? I looked at a couple of agents and thought, 'Hmmm.' It's more of an attitude.
'Let's say you were playing Hitler,' he elaborates. 'The interesting thing about Hitler that I'm always fascinated by, is if you didn't know what this man had done, how evil would he appear to be when you see him on the screen? If you had no knowledge of his deeds, you'd look at him and say, 'There's a guy in a uniform with a mustache who looks kind of shy.' Anthony Hopkins and Alec Guinness have both played Hitler, two very mild men. It's really interesting to think how they got into the mind of somebody like that. I actually played Hitler on stage once, which was a play about his rise in Germany. The newsreels obviously show him as this demonic force, but actually the home movies show him as this very shy man, almost afraid of the camera. It's terrific looking at those two sides of the camera. Whenever you say the Devil, you often think Hitler. If ever the Devil was personified, I guess it was him. But a picture like this, it allows us to laugh at the notion of the Devil. There's a line in the picture where he says that God just had a better press agent. Really what he was after was an image makeover, that he was tired of always being the bad guy, and it was about time he got on some TV show to present his point of view.'
He admits that he was drawn to the film because it's in a genre he doesn't often get to act in. 'Normally I play more serious roles and it was a chance for me to be a little more lighter, more fun,' he explains. 'Also, because it's a huge action picture and I've never done an action picture before. Because I'm someone who came late into the acting business meant that I missed out a whole series of roles I possibly could have played in my twenties. I did manage to do two westerns, which I had always wanted to do, and it was like an extension of being a five-year-old kid.'