"From the first time I went to Hollywood in 1987," he says, "my work plan has always been to alternate doing one picture here, more or less, either as an actor or a producer, and one picture over there. It's not from any high kind of idealism, I just love working here. And now that the Irish film industry is really taking off, we're finally having a chance to tell our own stories. Most people's perceptions of Ireland come from movies, and an awful lot of those movies have been made by outsiders about us, so they tend to be stereotypes, generalisations, the shillelagh and leprechaun kind of deal: you've got the stock characters, the priest, the rebel, the poet and always the whimsical, charming Irish fella. That's why it's really important that this country makes its own films... why every nation should make its own films."
Byrne's observation that Ireland's cinema is "taking off" sounds like guarded understatement. Last autumn there were no fewer than six major productions being shot in the Republic: Byrne himself is nipping back and forth between sets, from what he describes as a "poetical, lyrical love story of the post-ceasefire days" and today's Dublin-based comedy, which bears the misleadingly solemn title The Last of the High Kings. There are various reasons for this remarkable flurry of activity, not least of which is the international success of Byrne and his compatriots Stephen Rea, Colm Meaney. Byrne is one of those inside the industry who gives a good deal of credit for the Irish movie renaissance (or, more accurately, naissance) to Section 35 - the government's shrewd legislation that offers tax-breaks to film-makers as an incentive to produce movies here. He does concede, though, that this generally admirable iniatiative may prove to have some unforeseen drawbacks.
"Section 35 is a tremendous incentive - I read an estimate which said that it would be bringing in something like a hundred million dollars, which is astonishing - but it also carries its own inherent dangers. There's a risk that people might start seeing Ireland as a place where you can make movies cheaply, come in, under-pay everybody and get out, having made a film that has nothing to do with Ireland."
Byrne's involvement with The Last of the High Kings is clearly more than that of a jobbing actor who fancied a few weeks back in the Old Country: a fan of the novel by Ferdia Mac Anna, he was largely responsible for bringing it to the screen, co-writing the screenplay with its director David Keating, and serving as one of the executive producers. It's a local yarn in a familiar movie genre: the coming-of-age story.
"There was a movie years ago called Summer of '42, and I remember on the poster there was a line that said something like `In everybody's life there's a summer of '42'. Well, this is set in the summer of '77, but it's the same kind of thing, about the time when you leave adolescence behind and go into adulthood. It's about a young guy who falls in love for the first time, has sex for the first time, and belongs to this eccentric, weird family that he's in the process of breaking away from."
The members of the boy's bohemian household include the father, Mr Griffin, a ham Shakespearean actor, played by Byrne; his Guinness-crazed, romantic nationalist wife, played by Catherine O'Hara (who has previously starred with Byrne in Simple Twist of Fate); and their son, the hero of the piece, Frankie Griffin. "Frankie's mother tells him that he's descended from noble blood, and has a lineage that stretches back to the High Kings, which is, of course, complete bullshit. But then this American girl comes over to Dublin for the summer and falls for him and believes it..."
Frankie Griffin is played by Jared Leto, a name that may be familiar if you ever caught the adolescent drama series, My So-called Life. In the series, Leto was the brooding young man on whom the heroine had a major crush - a sentiment shared, it would seem, by a fair swathe of Dublin's maidenhood. These young ladies, who are thronging around the edge of the set in their excited dozens, don't seem at all impressed by the brand of more mature, dark good looks that have made Byrne so castable. They're waiting for Leto. When Byrne's own groupies arrive, they prove to be of mellower vintage, and shyly ask for autographs for their grandchildren as well as for themselves. He obliges.
Today's location is a capacious detached house commanding the kind of sea view that inspires deathless lyrics from estate agents; an assiduous team of designers and dressers have turned it into the shabby-genteel Griffin residence, cluttered with miscellaneous artsy bric-a-brac and the toys and pop-star posters of the mid-Seventies. Byrne, sporting battered floppy hat and scarf, looks every inch the florid theatrical charlatan who will regale you with his legendary, nay, wholly fictitious triumphs at the Abbey at the drop of a Cork Gin bottle. "This guy isn't meant to be, like, a great actor, he's a man who kind of fancies himself as an Olivier or a Richard Burton," Byrne explains. "In one scene, the boy wakes up with a hangover and he wants to get to the bathroom, but he can't because I'm there, doing the opening speech from Part 1, but dressed up like Richard III, with a hump and a false nose and a wig. All the other kids are in bedspreads and with pots on their heads being attendant lords. It sets up the madness of the household."
"The father doesn't really have such a big role in the novel. I added all that stuff in when I wrote the screenplay because it came to the point where they said, you're going to have to be in the film if you want to get finance for it. So I looked at the book again and realised that the only part I could play was the father. I got some friends in for other parts, too. Colm [Meaney] plays a lecherous politician, and Stephen [Rea] plays a part that is not in the book at all. I wrote it in because whenever I arrive at Dublin airport and call a cab, I always seem to get the guy with the Toyota with no springs in it, where all the signs in the cab say "Please do not smoke" and he's puffing away, and he seems to know everybody. Kind of a universal liar."
Willing as he is to cast himself in a mildly ludicrous role for this project, Byrne tends to think twice about some of the roles he's offered, particularly when they're in films that seem to perpetuate ignorant notions about the South or North. "When I open a script and see `EXTERIOR. BELFAST. STREET. DAY', I always say to myself, Uh-oh, here we go. There was one screenplay I read by an American writer about an English guy who's infiltrated the IRA - an English guy - and he's supposed to be such a brilliant actor that no one's twigged he's from Eton. He goes into a pub in Belfast and his first line is `I say, landlord, could I have a pint of that black ale...' Landlord? Black Ale? So I knocked that one on the head."
Unlike some stars, though, he's more alive to the pleasures of his business than its many idiocies. "People make LA out to be a terrible place, but I really like living there: if you're not obsessed with talking about movies all the time there are a lot of things to do." So he doesn't regret the career path that took him away from his studies of archaeology? "Well, scrubbing away at dirt with a toothbrush is a good training in patience, and you need that on a set... But as an actor I've been able to be in a western [Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man]. In black and white, with Robert Mitchum! I mean, Robert Mitchum! That's it, there's nothing else I can do with my life..."
`The Last of the High Kings' opens on Friday. See Ryan Gilbey's review, page 7