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Interview With Actor Gabriel Byrne

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Irish actor Gabriel Byrne is going into battle as an eighth century Viking chieftain in History Channel's new nine-part scripted TV series, Vikings, airing Sundays, 10 p.m.

Byrne's elder statesman Earl Haraldson is also locked in a power struggle with the adventurous young Ragnar Lothbrook (Travis Fimmel), who is looking for new worlds to conquer in the Irish/Canadian historical co-production that explores the world of the mighty Norse warriors.

Byrne, best known as the sympathetic therapist Paul Weston in HBO's series In Treatment and movie The Usual Suspects, shared his views on the importance of storytelling and why we're more similar to the Viking culture than we may realize.

What do you think will draw viewers to Vikings?
It is a tremendously exciting story, and because it's the History Channel, there will be many facts, rituals, battles and costumes that people will be intrigued to learn about. I also think people will begin to see the connection between ancient history and modern politics. And you recognize that maybe technology has changed, and maybe the way we live our lives has changed, but essentially human beings are not that different. We still make love and we make war, and we still have the need to conquer. We just do it with more effective weapons now.

Women seem to have a prominent role in the series. What can you tell us about women's roles in the Viking culture?
Generally speaking, I don't think people know a great deal about the Viking culture, apart from the label that is usually attached to them, either pillagers or deviants who came and brought back loot to Norway. It was an incredibly sophisticated, complex and layered culture. They had their own laws, many of which protected women. Viking women were able to rule kingdoms, divorce husbands, own land and Vikings were very progressive in terms of the rights of women.

Vikings is set in the eighth century. If you could travel to another time period, what might it be and why?
In Luis Buñuel's, autobiography, My Last Sigh the Spanish director talks about if he could wave a magic wand and travel in time, he would like to come back every 20 years in the future for one day, just to see how the world had changed. But I would love to go back to any time in European history, especially in Irish history, to the second or third century, prior to the arrival of Christianity when Paganism flourished. I can always go back there in my imagination, of course. It doesn't cost anything, and it's a form of time travel, I suppose.

Why is storytelling important?
Going back to ancient cultures again, there was always a man in every village, they're usually called shamans. And these men, sometimes women, took on the hopes, ambitions, fears, and the dreams of the tribe, so that the tribe could look at where they have come from and where they were going. And these shamans were the first actors. I think that when we look at something that's well acted and a story that's well told, it allows us to be a mirror of who we are as human beings and as a culture, and offers a glimpse of where we're headed.

Your 1997 autobiography, Pictures in My Head received rave reviews. Any plans for another book?
Yes. When I finish my current project, I intend to go back to writing. I've been working on bits and pieces here and there, and now I am going to seriously sit down and write this book. I really admire anybody who writes for a living. It requires such discipline, and I think you could only really do it if you loved it.

So what book is on your nightstand?
I happen to be reading a book in between takes when I was on the set today, and somebody said to me, "Well, we know what you'd like to be doing. You'd just like to be reading your book." It's true. Currently, I'm reading a wonderful book by Fred Waitzkin who wrote, Searching for Bobby Fisher. His new book, The Dream Merchant is absolutely a beautiful book, one of those books you can't put down. There is a kind of a happiness that you can go back to it and you still have 50 pages to go and you don't want it to end.

You're often described as "brooding." What does that mean exactly?
I really don't know. Maybe people think I'm very serious or something. I suppose I tend to play intense kinds of roles, and I think people are always looking for labels.

So what do you want to be when you grow up? No seriously, if you weren't an actor, you'd be...?
I used to be a teacher, so maybe I would go back to teaching. If not, I would love to be a film critic or an investigative journalist. There was a long time when I didn't enjoy acting so much. When I look back at my early days, when I was just entering the theatre, I was happy, carefree. And then I reached a stage when I got sort of tired, and I lost my enthusiasm for doing it, and I think that happens to quite a few people. But for some reason that I quite can't even explain, I feel like I've gotten my appetite back for it now, and I approach it with a different kind of excitement... I feel like I'm in a very good space in my life.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?
That I'm not really a brooding, intense person, actually almost the opposite.