Playing a doctor on TV is one of the oldest roles in the book, but Gabriel Byrne’s Emmy-nominated turn as Paul Weston eschews the action of a hospital for the tense, charged silences of a therapist’s office on HBO’s “In Treatment.”
In fact, the half-hour drama is brilliant in its apparent simplicity, pairing skillful acting with rich dialogue in tightly drawn scenes that rarely find the characters doing anything more than sitting opposite each other. But the show’s surface, much like its characters, is not what it seems.
“Silence is a powerful weapon in drama,” Byrne says. “What you don’t say and what you don’t reveal can be as powerful as what you do say. My intention is to make [the performance] as real as possible but never forgetting that it’s actually drama.”
Byrne is convincing as Weston, a therapist -- in therapy himself -- who struggles with a failed marriage in his personal life and keeping his emotional involvement with his patients at a healthy level. After a first season fraught with infidelity, suicide and denial, the second season, which premiered in April, found Byrne’s character sifting through a new roster of patients with problems.
The very real complexities of the doctor and his interactions with his patients are what attracted Byrne to the role.
“I knew there were depths and areas that could be explored emotionally that weren’t necessarily obvious on the first reading,” he says.
Although each episode -- crafted around a different patient in the first four shows each week, with Paul’s own therapy sessions in the fifth show -- carefully weaves a story that builds in intensity over 22 minutes, the movements and expressions of the actors evolve almost imperceptibly to beg the viewer’s rapt attention.
“Something is always happening somewhere,” Byrne says of the show. “That’s where the role of the viewer comes in, in that you project onto that relationship between those two characters.”
Dealing with such highs and lows can be exhausting, however. “We shoot 10- to 12-minute takes, which is incredibly long,” says Hope Davis, who also was nominated for an Emmy for her role on the show this season as Mia, a single career woman who yearns for a child. “When we’d cut, everyone would explode in the room, but it makes the show seem like it’s happening in real time. It’s very hard on Gabriel. He sits there for four months, patient after patient.”
Byrne, who got his start in acting in Dublin, Ireland, at the Focus Theatre, says he goes back to his stage training for “In Treatment.” “A one-hour live theater piece seems very close to what we do in these long takes,” he says. “Of course, in film a 12-minute take is almost unimaginable, so you have to combine the skills of a theater actor with the skills of a film actor.”
While HBO has yet to pick up a third season of the show, fans are clamoring on the Internet for one, and Byrne has said publicly that he wouldn’t be opposed to picking up the Weston mantle again.
In the meantime, the actor has a variety of paths from which to choose, having written and produced for film and television over the last two decades. He’s researching a project in his native Dublin that he will write and produce, and he relishes creating his own content. As an actor, he says, “what you want to express has to be filtered through the writing that you’re acting at the moment. I want to move outside of other people’s perspectives, and I want to move into my own perspective a little bit more in the next portion of my life.”
Times staff writer Denise Martin contributed to this story.
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