NEW YORK—It takes a special kind of person to sit, day after day, listening to other people’s problems.
It may take a special kind of viewer, too, to pass the test HBO will be administering beginning Monday, as it premieres “In Treatment,” its five-night-a-week series about a psychotherapist and his patients.
No one, though, is likely to be tested as much as Gabriel Byrne, who portrays therapist Paul Weston, whose meetings with five patients (including one couple) and with his own therapist, Gina Toll (Dianne Wiest), form the basis for the half-hour episodes.
Not only does Byrne appear in nearly every scene of “In Treatment,” which is based on a hit Israeli series of the same name, but he’s often wearing the acting equivalent of a straitjacket as he sits, relatively impassive, while someone else does most of the emoting.
“It was daunting,” Byrne acknowledged in a recent interview with a couple of reporters in HBO’s offices.
“And that was the challenge in it. Because ... most roles are made up of, you know, action in some form or another. This is a role that’s about reaction. And it’s very challenging as an actor to try to find ways to listen,” he said.
He’s been watching the political debates, “watching how they listen, when they’re being asked a question. And it’s kind of fascinating, the various levels of engagement and panic and pretense and, you know, running, standing still, that happens in a face when someone is thinking about the answer to a question.”
Does he think they are listening?
“The candidates? Well, that’s what I mean. It’s kind of fascinating to observe whether they are actually listening or not. To answer a question in front of millions of people that could be potentially a trap in one way or another makes your level of engagement very compelling to watch,” said the Dublin, Ireland-born actor.
“In a therapy setting, there are no outsiders waiting for the answer. It’s a place where you can be safe and where you can reveal who you really are. That’s why you’re there, because you want to reveal who you are to this non-judgmental, emotionally uninvolved person, and, you know, you pay them for that connection,” he said, calling it “a very interesting process.”
He smiled as a reporter asked if he’d researched psychotherapy or spent time with a therapist for the role.
“Are you asking me if I was in therapy?” he said. “You see, that’s an interesting thing that even asking the question about therapy has a certain kind of” stigma.
“If you say to somebody, `Do you like baseball?’ or `Do you play a sport?’ there’s no real kind of stigma or judgment attached to that. But you have to find a delicate way of saying to somebody, `Have you—?’
“Well, I’ve never attended a continuous therapy, but I know an awful lot of people who are in therapy. And I can’t see that it would be a bad thing, to get that kind of objectivity about yourself and to have somebody else perhaps hold up a mirror to who you are,” he said.
“I certainly came out of it with a huge respect for the job that therapists do. It’s not easy to sit there for an hour and listen to somebody go on about their life. You’ve got to be interested in it. It requires a huge energy to remain connected. At the end of a day, I would be absolutely wiped out,” he said.
Another reason for that might be “In Treatment’s” production schedule, which Byrne said had them filming one “patient” every two days.
Besides Paul himself, the patients are: Laura (Melissa George), a young, attractive doctor; Alex (Blair Underwood), an Air Force pilot who’s been grounded; Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), an accident-prone young gymnast; and Jake (Josh Charles) and Amy (Embeth Davidtz), a couple struggling with some difficult decisions.
Unlike the exchanges between real therapists and their patients, the actors’ were scripted and thus had to be memorized.
“You have to take it in blocks. You know, one of the things that I learned from that is that the brain is capable of much more than, you know, we think,” he said.
“It’s like any other muscle in the body—you keep using it, and you build it up. If you can memorize two lines, you can memorize 20. If you can memorize 20, you can memorize 200. But there were days, honestly, when I felt I didn’t know what I was saying,” Byrne said.
“We just took it as you only can, take by take. And those takes were phenomenally long sometimes. I mean, on film you have the luxury of filming a page or half a page every couple of days,” he said.
“To me, when I read these roles, it seemed more like the stage to me. The reserves that you have to call on are more based in the theater than for film or television. It really was like doing a one-act play every two days.”
HBO, being HBO, plans to present “In Treatment” in a variety of ways beyond the weeknight schedule, and Byrne acknowledged that it’s possible that fans who become attached to a particular patient might choose to watch the series just once a week on that patient’s night.
Drama junkies might find that tough, however.
Though I took a strong dislike to Monday’s patient, Laura—and was more than casually interested in no one but Wednesday’s patient, Sophie—I’ve somehow made it through 23 episodes so far, and found something in each that advances the storyline.
Which could, ultimately, be one of the lessons of “In Treatment.”
In consulting therapists, Byrne said he found that “they talked about the difficulty of sometimes staying connected to somebody who is not, perhaps, interesting and whose story is not that gripping. That you have to sit there and you have to give them the same kind of attention as you would give to the person, you know, who has a very dramatic story to tell.
“So once that person sits down, that becomes your world for the, you know, next 50 minutes. And you have to find something in there.”
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