17 Oct 2009: On the couch with the Irish star of HBO hit In Treatment

It doesn’t sound too promising. A television series set almost entirely in a psychotherapist’s office is not The Wire. Or House. Yet, as you might expect from a HBO drama, In Treatment is utterly compelling, pleasingly voyeuristic and unbelievably addictive. It runs five nights a week: on four days Dr Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) treats patients and on the fifth day he visits his own therapist and mentor, Gina (Dianne Wiest). HBO likes therapy: remember Tony Soprano taking himself to a private therapist in The Sopranos?

In Treatment is inspired by Be’Tipul, one of Israel’s most successful dramas. A simple idea beautifully executed, it is written with depth and intelligence. Yet its trump card is, without doubt, Gabriel Byrne, who won a Golden Globe for the role earlier this year. That this smart Irish charmer can act we have no doubt; at his best, in Miller’s Crossing, The Usual Suspects or Jindabyne, he is a contained alpha male harbouring a vulnerable streak. In Treatment allows these qualities to come to the fore. Dr Weston is the compassionate analyst who could surely talk any reluctant woman – or man – into therapy.

Byrne, who turns 60 next year, has had the sort of life a therapist would relish: born in Dublin, he moved to England to train at a seminary but left just before turning 16. He studied archaeology at University College Dublin, moved to London with Liam Neeson, fell in love with and married Ellen Barkin, and emigrated to America. They had two children before separating amicably in the early-90s. The Guardian finds him at Los Angeles’ Sunset Marquis hotel, full of cold but still great company …

Do you enjoy hanging out at the Sunset Marquis with all the bands? I thought your rock’n’roll years would be long behind you now that you’ve stopped drinking.

I can assure you that no televisions are being thrown from my window. I’ve stayed here for years, up to six months at a time, so it feels like a second home. There’s always someone interesting floating through. Once, years ago, Bruce Springsteen, Bono and Michael J Fox were sitting around under the tree strumming guitars. More recently, Jimmy Page was here so I introduced my son to him. He’s a real rock fan, a serious traditional blues guitarist. Page was a total gentleman and encouraged my son to play every day. Both my son and daughter have stayed here over the summer, which always makes it more fun.

Are you confident when it comes to approaching other famous people?

I normally leave people alone. I am extremely tentative because I know how much people value their privacy. I’d also generally be too reserved. But I couldn’t help myself with Jimmy Page.

Aren’t some of the younger bands a bit wild?

Funny you should say that. A very well-known young band threw a television out of their window a few weeks ago and it narrowly missed the head of security. They’ve been chaste and reserved around the pool ever since. I’m not sure I could even lift my plasma screen TV off the wall …

‘It’s seen as breakthrough TV in the States because there’s no action, no sex scenes, no car chases, no drugs or drink’

In Treatment has been a huge critical hit in America. Were you impressed by the script?

I immediately understood it was special. It was extremely intense; just me and another actor facing one another in our chairs. It’s more like theatre than television and, like all the best drama, it shows people connecting on an emotional level. It’s been seen as breakthrough television in the States because there’s no action, no sex scenes, no car chases, no drugs or drink. It’s just people with real problems talking to this man who has his own real problems.

The New York Times has called you “the latest Dr McDreamy”. For most women, a man who really listens is hard to resist.

Being listened to is a fundamental need. We need to be listened to and understood. We need a sacred place to do it. Traditionally that would have been the Catholic church, who were on to the notion of therapy long before Freud. When you go to confession you unburden yourself of your so-called sin and are forgiven. In therapy you are not forgiven but you are listened to. The therapist’s office is also a sacred place.

How do you feel about hordes of women falling for you after watching In Treatment?

Of course it’s nice. It happened to me before when I was younger. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t make it real for myself; it was like they were talking to somebody else. This time around I understand the dynamic a bit more. The character appeals to a lot of women. He seems to know the answers. He is totally on your side.

Why do you think In Treatment is so compelling, given that the only action is emotional?

Because it provides a voyeuristic experience for the audience. They get to empathise with the patient, to criticise and judge the patient. They have the same relationship with the doctor, too. It’s a three-character play: the doctor, the patient and the audience.

You’re confined to a chair or sofa, you rely on your hands to show empathy. Was that your idea?

Absolutely. You have to communicate silently with your hands. I’ve always been fascinated by the way people use their hands. Obama has long, slender hands. He’ll be talking about a serious issue and his hands will fall into this composed configuration. Then he’ll gesticulate with one hand. You can become mesmerised watching him. Bill Clinton uses his hands beautifully, too.

My editor wanted me to play a word-association game related back to your role as Dr Weston …

You know what? I don’t even believe in that game. I don’t think it reveals anything. You say “blue” and I say “green”. A professional may then suggest I said “green” because I’m Irish. I don’t honestly know if it would reveal anything. Tell your editor I was a total queen and refused to do it (laughs).

OK … let’s talk about God. After your experience at the seminary did you become an atheist?

I rejected the Catholic faith and church but I wouldn’t say I was completely an atheist. I’d prefer to quote Brendan Behan, who called himself a daylight atheist. When the sun is shining I don’t believe in God; when I get on a plane I think there might be one. I do believe in a spiritual dimension but it has nothing to do with organised religion and controlling people through fear. But I still have a hankering for cold Protestant churches in the English countryside in which people are singing hymns.

When do you start work on Brendan Gleeson’s adaptation of Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds, which James Joyce famously called “a really funny book”?

I was at the Emmys with Brendan and he said we would start in the spring. It should be exciting because it’s a bunch of great Irish actors – Brendan, Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy – working on one of the greatest comic novels ever written.