Gabriel Byrne
Gabriel Byrne in his dressing room at the American Airlines Theatre, New York © Andrew Rowat

Gabriel Byrne once trained to be a priest, but he’s long since ceased to see the light.

“It’s called Long Day’s Journey into Night, not Long Night’s Journey into Day,” the Irish actor says of Eugene O’Neill’s three-and-a half-hour masterpiece, currently playing on Broadway. Byrne plays the part of James Tyrone, a washed-up thespian in pre-first world war America who dominates his irreparably dysfunctional family with drink and money.

Despite its gruelling length and apocalyptic gloominess (“I prefer to think of it as realistic,” says Byrne), what he calls “possibly the greatest American play” has been playing to full houses since April, buoyed by Tony nominations for Byrne himself as well as co-stars Jessica Lange and Michael Shannon.

If the latter provide the emotional fireworks, it’s Byrne who lights the touchpaper while smouldering away at the heart of Jonathan Kent’s restrained and rigorous staging, which takes no discernible liberties with O’Neill’s typically exhaustive text (and Kent is deservedly up for a Tony, too).

“It’s a metaphor for why the hell we’re here,” says Byrne over a beetroot salad and multiple cups of coffee in a modest French restaurant near his home in Lower Manhattan. “We’re headed for the darkness, and how we deal with that determines what kind of life we’re going to live. O’Neill doesn’t put a bow on it and say, ‘Let’s all have a group hug.’”

The Tyrones try to block out that darkness with epic quantities of morphine and whiskey. Drink, the now tee­total Byrne admits, offered him “a source of easy comfort for a long time” and, in the context of the play, represents “a way of avoiding that inevitable journey”. The Dublin of Byrne’s youth was also infused with “admiration for that kind of lifestyle”, exemplified by romantic hell-raisers such as Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien, Dylan Thomas, and O’Neill himself.

But whereas they left behind some great work, James Tyrone has nothing but the memory of his wasted talent. “I could have been a great Shakespearean actor,” he says — a line, according to Byrne, that echoes Marlon Brando’s “I coulda’ been a contender” (Long Day’s Journey was written in 1941-42, but published post­humously in 1956, two years after the release of On the Waterfront). What unites the two works, he believes, is their appreciation of how fear of failure underlies American culture.

That bleak vision helped drive O’Neill to catatonic despair, isolation and an early grave. Byrne wonders whether the price O’Neill paid was worth it in human terms, but clearly there’d be no Long Day’s Journey without the playwright’s own experience of drink-sodden misery. Alcohol, Byrne notes, drives the entire plot by bringing the male characters together and allowing them to say anything they want to each other. Byrne never experienced the same destructive rite of passage with his own father (who worked in the Guinness Brewery). “We drank separately,” he says, which sounds like it might have been the best of a bad set of options in 1960s Dublin.

Catholicism provides the play’s other essential cog. The Church haunts the Tyrones even though none of them seems to believe in it. James Tyrone thus describes himself as a “bad Catholic” — yet religion, like alcohol, has long since ceased to play any role in Byrne’s own life.

“I want to rid myself of the last unconscious vestiges of Catholic brainwashing,” he says, alluding to the three years he spent as a teenager preparing for the priesthood in a Birmingham novitiate where he suffered sexual abuse.

Byrne has long struggled to rid himself of the shame, guilt and self-laceration brought on by those experiences (and the same set of religious pathologies lies at the heart of O’Neill’s play). But aspects of that upbringing still come across in Byrne’s choice of vocabulary and disdain for the worldly trappings of success: celebrity culture is “mortifying” — “if you have one hit movie [in Hollywood], then you might as well have written the Bible”; 22 and 23-year-old actors are being told, he complains, that they’re “the Second Coming”. (Shortly after our interview, it is also announced that he will play Pope Gregory X in Netflix’s Marco Polo.)

The day before we meet he received a note from Condé Nast’s artistic director Anna Wintour offering to style him for the Tony awards ceremony, with the proviso that she have the final say over what he wears. “I couldn’t give a fuck,” says Byrne, who sports a dandyish red shirt and what looks like a black silk jacket. “Stylist? Style myself, I say.” It’s an atypical burst of profanity from Byrne, who otherwise speaks in the measured tones of the schoolteacher he once was.

And what of the nomination itself — Byrne’s second (the first was for playing James Tyrone Jr in A Moon for the Mis­begotten, O’Neill’s follow-up to Long Day’s Journey)?

“It’s nice to be called up to the front of the class,” Byrne concedes, “but we make way too much of awards . . . When are plumbers going to be recognised for what they do?”

The Clintons are another source of ire. Were he around today, the penny-pinching, tax-averse Tyrone would, Byrne concludes, vote for the “Hillary scam” rather than Trump because Irish people tend to be pro-Clinton. He admits to having been a one-time supporter himself but now insists, “I completely disagree with her foreign policy.” Bernie Sanders doesn’t hugely impress him either, but “at least he’s coming from some place of truth”.

On the whole, Byrne conveys a genial presence, but his faint curmudgeonly streak suggests that he shares some sense of the “simmering violence” that he attributes to Tyrone. During a performance a few days before our interview, he sought to demonstrate this aspect of the character by lashing out at the top of an antique chair, which promptly split in two. I happened to be in the audience and assumed this was a carefully planned piece of stagecraft. But those working backstage were less impressed. “You can’t be kicking antique chairs,” they told him.

“It’s been fixed,” he sighs, “but I’m not allowed to kick it any more.”

The broken chair demonstrates how Byrne works hard to vary his performance every night. This is necessary, he says, to maintain the production’s surprising comic energy. For instance, late in the play, he transforms an argument about the cost of attending a sanatorium with Tyrone’s consumptive younger son (played with doom-laden exasperation by John Gallagher, Jr.) into a piece of darkly humorous badinage hinging on Byrne’s mordant delivery of the qualifier “within reason”.

It’s a moment, in Byrne’s hands, that seems more typical of Beckett or Pinter than O’Neill. He tries not to overdo it however: “Give them a laugh, but don’t pander.” And he sums up with a final piece of succinct actorly advice: “Control the play, don’t let it control you.”

‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’, American Airlines Theatre, New York, to June 26,

The Tony Awards are announced on June 12

Photograph: Andrew Rowat

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