Step forward Newry, Co. Down-born Ciaran Byrne, 43, who landed a breakthrough role on the show as a spirited driver for the big crime lord played by stage and screen veteran Brian Dennehy.
Set in the early 1960s in New York City, Burns’s new show follows the Irish American cops of NYPD's Public Morals Division as they walk the thin line between their own private virtue and all the tempting vice that surrounds them.
Burns, 47, whose own NYPD officer father once walked the beat he recreates here, plays good cop Terry Muldoon, who knows better than anyone that the line separating a good guy from a bad one can unravel like a sowing thread given the right offer.
But Muldoon is determined to raise his kids to remain honest in their dealings and hardworking in their lives despite all the temptations to do otherwise.
It’s a terrific period drama that resonates in our own conflicted age, and the show introduces us to newcomer Byrne. His road to the big screen started out in the most unlikely way possible. He answered an ad taped to a phone pole on Long Island.
“It was my third year not getting home to Ireland for Christmas,” Byrne tells the Irish Voice. “I saw a poster on a lamppost looking for experienced actors to take classes for the upcoming season. It suggested no one without experience should apply, but I ignored that. They didn’t turn me away and I was hooked from there on the acting game.”
Literally, Byrne just walked into his acting career. “I had no ambition to become an actor. I don’t know what it was. It might as well have been a poster that asked for ‘Eejits With Nothing Else To Do.’ I thought to myself, sure that might be something different. There was no preconceived plans or nothing like that. I was a man coming out of a bar with nothing better on.”
Nothing in his background suggested a life making films and acting on stage. In fact even going to college wasn’t something that was expected of him.
“I was born into the worst time of The Troubles, the height of the civil unrest that went all the way through to the peace process in 1994. It’s only recently being with the wife [American dialect teacher at the Juilliard School, Kate Wilson] the last seven or eight years that I reflected on it,” he says.
The decades long conflict was normal to Byrne, just an aspect of his life in Newry, he says.
“We never really thought about whether we liked it or we didn’t like it. It wasn’t usual to have your lunch box searched on your way to school by a man in a uniform with a gun. Looking back at it now you would say that was far from normal, but at the time we were all in the same boat.”
In the late eighties when he was getting ready to finish school, Byrne didn’t know what he was going to do.
“My grandmother said, ‘Why don’t you give plastering a try with your granddad?’ So I started holding the straight edges and carrying the buckets, and where I came from you didn’t think too much about college. At 16 you were out and into the trade.”
It was a film that eventually drew him to America. “I saw a movie called To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday. It was set on Nantucket, so I was interested,” Byrne recalls.
“Then I met a man who had a place in Nantucket, just a place to put my head down in the summer of 2002. It was like this. I just never left. Three months became three years and that turned into a wife and a family.”
Byrne got cast in his first starring role through his acting classes. “My first job in Nantucket was playing Father Flynn in John Patrick Shanely’s Doubt. That eventually led to work at the Irish Rep in Brian Friel’s The Freedom of the City.”
Taking acting lessons in New York with his dialect coach Wilson, Byrne took her out to lunch and told her flatly that he was going to marry her… and he did.
“She told me I was mad. I said I might be, but I’m going to marry you. She said a few things before she said yes and they weren’t good, but I remember the yes.”
Byrne describes himself with a laugh as the man who feel into the river and came out with a new suit. He underplays his own daring, but it took rare courage to jump into a new career.
“In 2008 I came to the city. Everything was closing. I was 38 years old and I was walking around the city looking for work but nothing was happening,” he recalled.
Eventually he landed a great gig as a bartender on the Upper West Side.
“My goal when I came here was to get on stage at the Irish Rep, and I just kept battering until they couldn’t ignore me anymore,” he explains. Cast as the priest in a celebrated 2012 production of Friel’s play about Bloody Sunday, The Freedom of the City, Byrne got his agent on the strength of his acclaimed performance.
“My agent took a clueless Irish lad under her wing and Ciaran and Charlotte of the Irish Rep made it happen,” he says.
Byrne auditioned for his role on Public Morals by tape (he was working on a show out of state) and producers Burns and Steven Spielberg approved him for the role.
“Talk about a man lighting up from the inside,” says Byrne. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Onscreen Byrne works with sidekick Irish American actor Peter O’Connor as a double act and Burns, on seeing their work on day one, quickly cast them as series regulars.
“I feel like he didn’t have to do that. That was him being generous. I play a fellow who drives for Brian Dennehy gangsters. Taking them to and fro,” says Byrne.
“From my perspective Public Morals is all about Ed’s absolute love for the Irish. It’s about Irish police and gangsters, and anyone with Irish blood has got to watch this show. It’s such a shout out to all that we have been and all that we are.”
Cormac Cullinane, 13, has also been cast in a breakthrough role in the series. He plays Burns’s troubled young son who is on the cusp of turning into one of the bad guys his father warns him of.
“He’s kind of a rebel, he gets drunk, he’s not a good kid and that really causes conflict in his school and with his family,” Cullinane tells the Irish Voice. “He just doesn’t apply himself and he runs into a lot of conflict with his father.”
It’s a role that’s really fun to play, Cullinane says. “I never do any of that bad stuff. It’s really interesting that he’s behaving like that and that it’s set in the sixties,” he says.
“School scenes are interesting because all my teachers on the show are nuns. That doesn’t happen now. My father told me stories about how the nuns of that era would hit him with their rulers. So it’s really cool to experience what both Ed and my father have been telling me about.”
Public Morals premieres August 25 on TNT.