JEREMY Irons is in many respects the quintessential English film actor. That’s not simply because of the honeyed diction and innate elegance, but the versatility that has enabled him to travel with ease between romantic leading man, edgy character actor and sinister villain, towards an Indian summer of ever-dependable supporting player.
Think James Mason. In fact, Irons and Mason even have a role in common – the riskiest of roles, Nabokov’s infamous paedophile Humbert Humbert, Mason most famously in Kubrick’s Lolita of 1962, Irons for Adrian Lyne in 1997. It’s difficult to imagine many Americans jumping at a character who came second in Time’s ‘top 10 worst fictional fathers’, or possessing the nuance necessary to make us almost like the man.
Again like many Brits, Irons is classically trained (at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, whose alumni include Daniel Day Lewis, Patrick Stewart, Pete Postlethwaite and Miranda Richardson) and cut his teeth onstage. But it was in a television and cinema double in 1981 that he became an ‘overnight’ sensation: on TV, as Charles Ryder in the adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s ode to the demise of the aristocracy, Brideshead Revisited, in cinema playing opposite Meryl Streep as both Victorian and contemporary lovers in Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
His first decade in cinema was pretty special: an adaptation of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, teaming with European auteurs Jerzy Skolimoswki (Moonlighting) and Volker Schlondörff (Swann in Love), sizing up to De Niro in The Mission, then the defining performances of his career – astonishing as the twin gynaecologists of Cronenberg’s masterpiece Dead Ringers (1988), and Oscar-winning as the real-life Claus von Bülow, the unsettling socialite accused of trying to kill his wife in Reversal of Fortune (1990).
In truth, the quality of the films since the Nineties has been more variable, though his range has never been in doubt. Recently, Margin Call (2011) again demonstrated the actor at his chilliest and most intelligent; and despite the many flaws of this year’s Batman v Superman, Irons was a perfect choice to follow Michael Caine as Batman’s new Alfred.
While his new film Their Finest was set to premier in Toronto, Irons was in London as the latest subject of BAFTA’s A Life in Pictures series, speaking to the critic and broadcaster Danny Leigh. At 68 he still cuts a dash, bounding onto the stage in a casual suit and boots, before drifting into a down-to-earth and modest reflection on his career.
He started by recalling how, as a guitar-playing schoolboy, he used to busk outside the Leicester Square cinemas, when “I could get £5 in one queue”. A few years later he casually thought he’d give acting a go himself, being told at his acting school audition that, “If I can get you to stand up straight you might look good at the side of the stage.”
On Brideshead Revisited
They wanted me to play Sebastian Flyte, but he was very similar to a role I’d just played, a man who loved his mother too much, drank too much and fell off a bridge in Episode 8. And I thought, ‘No I want to keep going to the end.’ So I wanted to play Charles Ryder.
Ryder is a sort of very internalised Englishman, not able to show a lot. I thought I knew that man. It needed an actor who was not going to perform, but an actor who was. He had to be like a host at a good party, just getting people together and enjoying them, but not playing too much on the front foot.
On being cast in The French Lieutenant’s Woman
I told Karel Reisz, ‘The studios won’t let you cast me because I’m not a star’. He said, ‘Well leave it with me’. Then he called me during Brideshead and said ‘I’ve got my star, Meryl Streep, so I can have you’.
I was very good casting, despite how I played it. I made the film in the middle of Brideshead, which of course made the other actors livid, because they had to wait for me for four months while I was doing my thing. But I was 30. I knew that if I passed that up, by being a gentleman, it would have a huge effect on my career. That kind of chance doesn’t come along very often.
Making love to Meryl Streep
For the Victorian pair we decided to think of ourselves as pressure cookers – all those emotions that we could not let out because of social convention. Of course that made the sexuality and the passion so much stronger than the modern stuff. And that was a way we found to delineate between the two couples.
To give you an example of how generous Meryl was. The love scene was the first I had done on film and I was incredibly nervous. I think we shot it at about two or three in the afternoon. But as soon as she turned up on set and throughout the day she was, without doubt, my lover – just the way she was with me, the ease with which she touched me. So that by the time we came to shoot the love scene it felt completely natural between us.
Then in the evening she invited me to dinner with her family and Meryl was Meryl again, the mum and the actress. She had chameleoned into my lover for that day, to make it easy.
I wanted to get enough fame that people would come and sit on their bottoms in the West End to see me do a play. But I never thought I would become a film actor, because in those days all the successful film actors were from the North. You know, Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay. And I was sort of effete for all that. Thankfully Brideshead swung the pendulum a bit and suddenly people wanted someone who could wear a suit.
Sparring with De Niro in The Mission
Roland Joffé had just done The Killing Fields, with Sam Waterston and Dith Pran, an actor and a real person, and Bob wanted that relationship between his character [the slaver] and the Jesuit priest. So when I turned up in Colombia for filming he was absolutely furious, because he found himself opposite an actor – and worse, an English actor. I remember Robert Duvall saying to Glenn Close, with whom I’d just done a play on Broadway, ‘How can you trust a guy that talks like that?’ And Bob felt much the same, I think.
For the first two months we did not talk to each other. He would not even say ‘good morning’. Then we had a terrible row in the make-up bus. No holds barred. My wife Sinead [Cusack] was out there, and Bob’s girlfriend Toukie Smith. So Sinead said to Toukie, ‘Listen, the boys have had a row, I think a good dinner might be required’. So Toukie cooked up this great spaghetti bolognese. And when Bob got back we had this splendid evening and he has remained one of my greatest friends ever since.
Bob had probably used his antipathy toward English actors to fuel the way his character felt about mine. I don’t know how much of it was Method, but it was very unpleasant.
I went to buy my clothes with the costume designer – one day for one brother, and the next day for the other. And they built me two dressing rooms in the studio, one for each. Then I remember watching the rushes of the first day, where we saw the twins together, and I said to Cronenberg, ‘This is a disaster’ Any fool could tell this pair apart.’ But the story requires both the characters on the screen and the audience to sometimes be confused about which twin is which. I thought, we’ve got to do this some other way.
So I muddled up all the clothes and made them look much the same. Then I found a different, internal energy point for each twin. For Elliot, who ran the firm, got the customers, was a good speaker and all of that, I had his energy here [points to his forehead]. It’s hard, it’s where you head-butt people, by putting the energy there it gave him a certain élan. And then I put Bev’s energy here [front of his neck] which is soft and delicate and vulnerable. I was able to play the two by just doing that.
There was a lot television footage of the court case – the Americans love to televise their court cases – and a couple of chat shows during the trial. He became a real celebrity, an enigma. Nobody knew if he was guilty or not and there is something very exciting about inviting a possible murderer to dinner.
And so I watched all of that, but I still wasn’t ‘in him’. Then I thought about my dad. What if my dad had done something bad, if he’d really tripped up, how would he deal with all this publicity and attention during a trial? I thought, he’d probably do it rather like Claus, he’d keep his cool, keep his poise, keep his feelings hidden and get on with it. And I’m very like my father, so I thought, ‘OK, I’ll do that’. It gave me a way to get inside him.
I also talked to an American art critic called Jon Richardson, who was a great friend of Claus. And he said, Play him like a bad actor’.
On winning the Oscar
I got up and kissed everybody in sight. I kissed Madonna, who was sitting in front of us, who I didn’t know. And I nearly kissed Michael Jackson, who was sitting next to her, but I couldn’t get to him.
Shaking off characters after the cameras have rolled
I do find I need respite, so naturally at the end of the day a character sort of goes away. But rather like a room which has had a pipe smoked in it, I think the smell remains. Certainly with The Mission, where I had to make a big leap because I was playing a Jesuit Catholic priest – I’m not Jesuit, I’m not Catholic and I’m not a priest – I kept a bit of him always with me. Also, we were living among the Indians and so my role continued even when the filming stopped, to a certain extent. But normally I let it go. And a lot of the characters I find quite creepy.
David Lynch’s Inland Empire
Extraordinary picture. It’s like standing in front of the most obscure, enormous and odd modern painting and you just connect with it or you don’t. I talked to Laura Dern a couple of days before shooting and I asked her, ‘What’s it about, because he won’t give me a script.’ And she said, ‘Well I’ve been filming for a year and I don’t know what it’s about.’
Playing the villain in Die Hard With a Vengeance
Simon Gruber was the brother of Alan Rickman’s character from the first film. I met Alan – darling, darling man – and told him: ‘I’m going to play him just like you, but straight’. In effect, I didn’t. I went blonde. I remember jogging on the beach in Santa Monica and an actor who I knew vaguely came up and said, ‘Are you alright? Or is this a midlife crisis?’
And I found that wonderful t-shirt, which was the best thing I did in the movie. Bruce [Willis] was deeply envious of that. In his next movie he was wearing a turquoise, cut-off t-shirt with blonde hair. He was playing me, because he could see it really worked.
The Lion King
When I finally saw the film, of course I was horrified, because [the animators] based the lions on us. And I looked at James Earl Jones’s lion, who was big and rippling with muscles and a mane that shone in the sunlight. And my lion was scrawny – you could see the ribs. And I thought, ‘So that’s how I come across’.
I do like risk. Even when I look at my pleasures – sailing, horse-riding, motorcycles – it seems that I like risk. It energises me. I’m going off now to finish he next Batman. Then I’m off to America to make two comedies. And I’m not really known for my comedy. So I’m going to do something that I’m not sure I can do. And that is grist to my mill.
This article first appeared on Indiewire