Byrne worked with the late Sands on three films – Gothic, Siesta and All Things to All Men. He remembers a fierce, mysterious and much-loved man, fearless as both actor and adventurer
By Gabriel Byrne
Over the last few months, images of Julian have been recurring in my mind.
A summer morning, so many years ago, filming Gothic in Berkshire. Julian, Natasha Richardson and myself lounging beneath a cedar tree.
A sun-blessed day. Suddenly, an unexpected thunderstorm.
“Isn’t it dangerous to shelter under trees,” said Natasha, laughing. Julian jiggled madly in the rain to some wild music in his head until his costume was sodden and he lay prostrate in the mud. He shouted: “I am too much restrained by narrative prose, Byron!”
He played Shelley in the film, Natasha was Mary and I was Byron. It was a surreal gothic-horror directed by Ken Russell. Nightmare and hallucination, drugs and poetry; the Romantic poets as drugged-up rockstars.
We were told to conjure our deepest, darkest fears and bring them to life. I walked barefoot through a cellar full of squealing rats, and had leeches attached to my naked body. Julian hung upside down from a tree, over a lake. He chased the girls with a plaster death mask over his face.
Ken gave us champagne before a day of particularly gruesome bedroom scenes, his face puce with eczema and ill-humour. Julian held my pretend dead body in his arms, Pieta-like. Shelley was meant to be bereft with sorrow. Julian was desperately trying to turn corpsing laughter into mournful, howling grief.
“For fack’s sake,” said Ken, “stop acting the bollocks, Julian, and kiss him on the facking lips.” “Don’t you dare,” I said, but he did anyway.
Then he bear-hugged me with those powerful arms. The film didn’t receive good notices but it remains one of my fondest memories.
Julian was like the boy in class who made you laugh, with inky fingers and mischief, with spiders in matchboxes and fart noises in maths class.
We made another film in Spain, and there he was again, to my delight, linen-suited and gleefully reporting unrepeatable stories about Grace Jones. Being dismissive of Spanish wines. He knew about wine; of course he did.
And finally, we made a film in London. I was a gangster, he played my driver. As he reversed the Rolls Royce beautifully for another take he said: “How long before they’d notice if we fucked off in this motor?”
The last time I saw him was in New York, at the Irish rep theatre, enthralling the audience with his one-man theatre piece about Harold Pinter, directed by his great friend, John Malkovich.
Again, the bear hug. Muscled body beneath the John Varvatos jacket. And the laughter. Soft words about Natasha and her tragic death on a ski slope.
Julian was the golden-haired glamour boy, destined – everyone said – to be a Hollywood heartthrob. That hair, the silken voice, the razor-blade cheekbones.
But that was not what Julian wanted. Like Shelley, he craved distant fields and mighty rivers. To find pleasure in the pathless woods, rapture in the lonely shore, as Byron said. To seek out the exotic and the strange. To escape being branded, having his identity fashioned by strangers who’d tell him: “Be a good boy, we will tell you who you are.”
There was always a mystery about Julian. The heart of a child-man in which scorpions and bluebirds nested. What lay behind those restless eyes? Fiercely listening, then a dreamy drifting off to somewhere beyond.
I remember the fierce intelligence, the unquenchable curiosity. The depth of his knowledge and love of literature and paintings and antiques. His passion for life and living. His great sense of humour and gift for storytelling. His brave choices as an actor. The love of family.
You wanted to know him; to get at the essence of him. He was anxious to know your story yet elusive about his own. Here but not here, there but not there either.
Like John Muir, the mountains called him, and you cannot argue with a mountain. They will teach you about life, Julian told me. About yourself.
Once, I asked him about why people are compelled to climb. Everyone has his own reason, he answered. Some seek the mystery of the divine. To know God in the silence. Some to find harmony and order in the chaotic uncertainty of life. Or simply just because it’s there, as George Mallory said.