His acting career began in the Focus Theatre before he joined London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1979. Byrne’s screen debut came in the Irish soap opera The Riordans and the spin-off show Bracken. He has now appeared in over 35 feature films, including Excalibur (1981), Miller’s Crossing (1990), The Usual Suspects (1995), Stigmata (1999), End of Days (1999), Spider (2002), Jindabyne (2006), Vampire Academy (2013) and The 33 (2015), and co-wrote The Last of the High Kings (1996). Byrne has also produced several films, including the Academy Award–nominated In the Name of the Father (1993).One of Byrne’s most identifiable roles is that of Dr. Paul Weston in the HBO drama In Treatment (2008-2011), for which he won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for two Emmy Awards and two Satellite Awards.
Byrne, the first of six children, was born in Walkinstown, Dublin, the son of a cooper and soldier, Dan, and a hospital nurse, Eileen (née Gannon) from Elphin, Co Roscommon. He has four siblings: Donal, Thomas, Breda, and Margaret; another, Marian, died at an early age. Byrne was raised a strict Roman Catholic and educated in Ardscoil Éanna in Crumlin, where he later taught Spanish and History. About his early training to become a priest, he said in an interview, “I spent five years in the seminary and I suppose it was assumed that one had a vocation. I realised subsequently that I didn’t.” He attended University College Dublin, where he studied archaeology and linguistics, becoming proficient in Irish. He played soccer in Dublin with Stella Maris.
In January 2011, he spoke in an interview on The Meaning of Life about being sexually abused by priests during his childhood.
Byrne worked in archaeology when he left UCD. He maintained his love of his language, later writing the first television drama in Irish, Draíocht, on Ireland’s national Irish-language television station, TG4, when it began broadcasting in 1996.
Before becoming an actor, Byrne had many jobs, including archaeologist, cook, and Spanish and History schoolteacher at Ardscoil Éanna in Crumlin, Dublin. He started acting at age 29, and began his career on stage with the Focus Theatre and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He later joined the Performing Arts Course in Sandymount Dublin 4 (Roslyn Park College) . Byrne came to prominence on the final season of the Irish television show The Riordans, subsequently starring in his own spin-off series, Bracken. His first play for television was Michael Feeney Callan’s Love Is … (RTÉ). He made his film debut in 1981, as King Uther Pendragon in John Boorman’s King Arthur epic, Excalibur.
Byrne was cast in a film adaptation of Flann O’Brien’s metafictional novel At Swim-Two-Birds, alongside Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy. Actor Brendan Gleeson was set to direct the film. In October 2009, however, Gleeson expressed fear that, should the Irish Film Board be abolished as planned by the Irish State, the production might fall through.
Byrne starred as therapist Dr. Paul Weston in the critically acclaimed HBO primetime weeknight series In Treatment from 2008 to 2010. He was named as TV’s “latest Dr. McDreamy” by The New York Times for this role, and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Drama Series in 2008. He also received his first Emmy Award nomination (Best Lead Actor in a Drama Series) for the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards (Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad won) that same year.
He was cultural ambassador for Ireland for a while until he criticised the tourism initiative “The Gathering”, describing it as an attempt by Ireland’s politicians and media to fleece wealthy Americans. Byrne also criticised the marketing strategy employed by Guinness known as Arthur’s Day as “a cynical piece of exercise in a country which has a huge drinking problem.”
Byrne, who retains his Irish citizenship, did not arrive in the United States until 1987, when he was 37. He had begun a relationship with actress Ellen Barkin, and had relocated to New York City to be with her. A year later, in 1988, Byrne married Barkin, with whom he has two children, John “Jack” Daniel (born 1989) and Romy Marion (born 1992). The couple separated amicably in 1993, and then divorced in 1999.
Byrne married his long term partner, Hannah Beth King, on 4 August 2014 at Ballymaloe House in Co Cork, Ireland.
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