TORONTO — Being immersed in Leonard Cohen’s music for his new film “Death of a Ladies’ Man” brought Gabriel Byrne back to his teenage years in Dublin filled with stoned conversations about the Canadian troubadour’s lyrics.
Available in select theatres and on video-on-demand platforms Friday, the Canadian-Irish co-production stars Byrne as a hard-drinking, womanizing McGill University poetry professor who starts suffering from hallucinations.
Among those strange visions: strangers singing and dancing to Cohen tunes.
Byrne says he’s been a fan of the late Montreal musician-poet since the days of his 1960s song “Suzanne,” when “there were a lot of stoned conversations regarding what it was about” and “a lot of people associated Leonard Cohen with misery.”
“You’d go to a party and if you were walking up the street and heard Leonard Cohen coming up from the basement, you thought, ‘Oh, no, it’s going to be one of these kinds of parties, where everybody’s going to sit around stoned and be saying “Wow, wow,”‘” the Irish stage and screen star said in a recent phone interview.
“But I appreciated him as a poet. Although there were poems of his that I didn’t understand, I loved the sound the words made. And later on, when I got to know who his influences where, it made sense. He was deeply influenced by modern Spanish poetry, which I had studied at university, especially Lorca.”
Cohen “spoke to a generation of people who wanted more than lyrics,” Bryne added.
“He was somebody who was writing about the human condition — about love and loss and yearning.”
Montreal filmmaker Matthew Bissonnette wrote and directed the film, which was shot in his home city and in Ireland, where Byrne’s character, Samuel, travels after a diagnosis from his doctor.
Other cast members include Jessica Pare, Brian Gleeson, Antoine Olivier Pilon, Karelle Tremblay and Suzanne Clement.
Bryne recalled checking into a Montreal hotel to start production and seeing a huge photograph of Cohen behind the concierge desk.
Cohen seemed to be looking directly at Byrne, and the actor could almost hear the folk singer-songwriter warning him not to mess up the role, he said with a laugh.
“I think that Leonard Cohen probably should have won the Nobel Prize, too, if you put value on prizes like that,” Byrne said as he discussed the differences between Cohen and another poetic lyricist — Bob Dylan, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016.
“I went to the last concert (Cohen) gave in Dublin — he was always fond of Ireland — and I think everybody there felt that it was more of a religious experience than a concert. And I know what they meant. They didn’t mean it in any kind of coy or trivial way. They were saying that the way he was communicating with the audience was almost religious.”
Cohen had a humility standing before his audience and band, he added, noting he preferred his “dulcet, reassuring tones” to that of Dylan’s singing.
“You felt like he was channeling something deep through himself to the audience.”
Byrne even kept a token of Cohen memorabilia from the film.
“I had a bracelet in that film, which is inscribed: ‘There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,'” he said, citing the lyrics from Cohen’s song “Anthem.”
“I still wear that, because of the memory of him and of making the film.”
Montreal-raised Pare’s character plays Samuel’s love interest as he stays in his family shack in remote Ireland to try to write that great novel he’s always wanted to pen.
She said she was already friends with Bissonnette as well as several cast members before filming. And she understood Byrne’s character well.
“Some of my best friends are Samuels, not even kidding,” said the former “Mad Men” star, who’s now on the series “SEAL Team.”
“I think what keeps him relatable is his honesty. He’s very wry.”
Byrne said he’s also known men like Samuel all his life.
“They are the products of a particular kind of culture,” he said. “Maybe a culture that has now passed, or at least it’s beginning to be questioned — to a great extent, sexist; men who felt entitled to treat the world in the way they wanted, treat women in the way that they felt they were entitled to.”
Samuel also represents men who subscribe to “the mythical idea of the romantic artist,” Byrne added.
“The idea that if you drink and carouse and take drugs, that that’s somehow linked to creativity. And that was a myth that so many people in my generation grew up with,” said the 70-year-old Golden Globe winner for HBO’s “In Treatment.”
“And it’s a dangerous myth, because it doesn’t lead anywhere. It doesn’t necessarily lead to creativity. In fact, it leads oftentimes to the opposite. And the literary world is littered with people like that.”
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press