Gabriel Byrne has been busy of late. He’s starring in two major international SBS drama series, ZeroZeroZero (now streaming at SBS On Demand) and War of the Worlds, set in modern-day France, in which an alien attack wipes out most of the human population. Here he talks about his character, Bill Ward, and about his experience working on the show.
Can you tell us about your character? Who do you play?
I play Bill who is a scientist, separated from his wife, and a pretty brilliant scientist, but emotionally, not so.
What is his journey throughout the series?
Well, his journey is two-fold. From a scientific point of view, it’s to try to put together these indecipherable signals that come from somewhere out beyond the universe, to try to figure that particular problem out. His emotional journey is trying to reconcile with his wife as they journey through this apocalyptic kind of landscape.
What first appealed to you about War of the Worlds?
I think it’s extremely pertinent to the world we live in today. I think that the aliens, they’re a metaphor for the unknown, the fears and terrors that are out there. I think in the films of the 1950s, for example, there were a great many stories about unseen and unknown forces coming to threaten the world and that was indicative of a time when the world was entering a nuclear age and a very scary place. The aliens there stood in for perhaps the ‘Red menace’, as it was known at that time.
I think we’ve got a great deal to fear in the world that we live in today, but a lot of those fears are un-nameable and incomprehensible. We can’t articulate what it is exactly, so that’s why this story, War of the Worlds, the H.G. Wells original story, which was written in 1908, was in a way a premonition of the Great War that was to come. The story itself can be recycled again and again to meet the changing world that we live in.
What has been the biggest challenge of the role so far?
It’s physically demanding and it’s emotionally demanding as well. Much harder than I thought it was going to be. The way this is constructed, from a producer’s point of view, it was two units working, so if you’re not working on one unit, you’re working on another. It’s like going from one film to another film with a different crew on each one, so it can be very, very difficult to keep action and emotional continuity.
Can you talk about the collaboration with Elizabeth McGovern?
Yes, Elizabeth is an actress that I’ve admired for a very long time. When I heard that she was going to be doing it, I was really thrilled and I think we have a pretty good chemistry with each other and we work very well together. She’s a tremendously collaborative actress and she’s the one I have worked mostly with.
You’ve been filming in all sorts of locations. Do you have a favourite so far, and what’s the difference between filming on location and in the studio?
Well, it’s winter-time in Wales and it’s not the Riviera, so we have to battle the weather, the cold and the rain and so forth. The studios are also cold, so it’s not like the weather or even the interiors are conducive to being in a comfortable place, but then that suits the story too, because all power in the story, electrical power and so forth, is all gone because of what happens. It helps to be in an environment that’s not exactly the most conducive to comfort.
The series is based on human relationships under immense pressure. How do you think humans or you would cope in the event of an alien invasion?
Well, first of all, I don’t think there’ll ever be such a thing as an alien invasion, but how would we cope? I don’t think we know how we’re going to cope. There are certain things that we think we would know how to do, but in the event of a catastrophe like that, we can’t predict, individually, how we would react. I mean all I know is that the biggest threat, the biggest existential threat to the human race is climate change and we don’t seem to be acting terrifically well in relation to that. I can’t think of anything more threatening, and yet I can’t think of really any great collaborative reaction to that. Maybe we’re destined to be wiped out by aliens or the weather.
Do you believe in aliens?
No, I believe they stand in for something that we cannot control, that’s fearful, that’s out there, so I believe it from that point of view, just the same way people used to believe in fairies.
How does War of the Worlds differ from other alien or sci-fi shows?
This show isn’t really about aliens. It’s about human beings under tremendous pressure at a time when all the comforts and all the securities that we’ve been used to are taken away.
How would you sell the show to people who were thinking about tuning in?
It’s tense, exciting, compelling, provocative, thoughtful, funny and sexy.
War of the Worlds is now streaming at SBS On Demand. Start here:
This week on The Playlist, Fiona and Ben ask if Australia is really ready for another round of 'Big Brother', we finally make it to a film festival - albeit virtual - with the Sydney Film Festival, we look back at 'Gladiator' and 'Westworld' in What Have We Been Watching and offer up SBS On Demand picks from the 'Sydney Film Festival Selects' collection and preview a new season of 'Filthy Rich and Homeless'.