Jeremy Irons is still too young and fortunately too busy to be termed a legend. So let's just call him a legend-in-waiting. He probably would never accede to the compliment, in any event. Instead, the British star of stage and film claims he understands little about acting, admits he is still learning about how to behave on-set, and insists he never feels the deification the rest of us have accorded him. "What I am is a husband, father, dog-walker, horse-rider, and a boat-sailor. And everything else is a focus change," he says.
He's currently appearing in two films: as the patient husband opposite Annette Bening in Being Julia, and as a desperately lonely Antonio in The Merchant of Venice opposite Al Pacino. But, as is apparent in everything he does, and to borrow from a line from that latter project, the quality of his acting is never strained.
We never forget the first time we saw Irons on-screen. For some it was in The French Lieutenant's Woman, in which he played a working actor and that actor's film-within-a-film character opposite Meryl Streep. For others it's been Brideshead Revisited, the devastating British miniseries about love and religious devotion. There's also been Dead Ringers, in which he plays twin gynecologists; Lolita, in which he plays the pedophiliac professor; Damage, in which he plays the British politico ruined by a sexual obsession; and the film that brought him to the attention of a wider, younger audience, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, playing the playful villain, Simon Gruber.
According to Irons, however, he's best known for making films one should see alone. "Don't take your girlfriend to see Dead Ringers. Don't take the woman you're having an affair with to see Betrayal. Don't take your wife to see Lolita. The list goes on," he says. "There are so many movies I've made that you don't want to take people to. I think I do all these movies because other people have been much too sensible and turned them down, saying, 'I don't want to be associated with that.'"
He also says he's not particularly proud of any of his films. "What I'm trying to do in each particular scene, it never seems to work; it never looks as good as it feels. I'm never satisfied, in other words."
It all began, Irons recalls, the first time he made an audience laugh. At age 10 he had been cast as a woman in his prep school play. Told by his teacher to adjust his skirt before sitting down, the young actor hitched it up rather than smoothing it down. He loved the audience's huge reaction. At another school and in another production, playing Mr. Puff in Sheridan's The Critic, says Irons, he still knew nothing except to play it "on sort of chutzpah and personality."
He left school with no conscious idea of what to do next. "At the time, I didn't see what was happening," he says. "But I was reading a lot of theatrical biographies: Charlie Chaplin, Richard Burbage, Garrick, Mrs. Siddons, Sarah Bernhardt, Grimaldi, Noël Coward. I was sort of falling in love, if you like, with that way of life—sort of the gypsy way of life." His headmaster suggested the marines. As Irons recalls, "One of the ways I got through school was by being in the cadet force and realizing very quickly that the only way to enjoy it was to get to the top. And so I got to the top of that and began to have a bit of fun—able to drive Land Rovers and having great larks. As a result they thought I was going to go into the military. Last thing in the world I wanted to do. I just wanted to get out of a fairly confined private school situation. And if I could drive around on the moors at night in a Land Rover with a lot of mates, pretending to fight, fantastic."
So Irons next tried social work in South London. "I'd always wanted to get involved, and they would say to me, 'Don't get involved with the people you're working with. Be objective. Remain back from them.' And that wasn't enough for me," he says. "I wanted a real communication."
Meanwhile he was busking, "playing the guitar and earning extra loot, actually rather more than I was earning in my social work, doing cinema queues and playing pubs or whatever. And I thought, 'I love this. I want to work in the circus, or in a fun-fair, maybe, or maybe acting.'"
Answering an advertisement on the back of a stage newspaper, he found theatre work in Canterbury as dogsbody, "walking on now and again, but just living the life of the actors," he says. "And discovered that I loved it. Didn't know if I was any good. But I auditioned for theatre school and was turned down by three and got into one: Bristol, The Old Vic. Didn't show much promise during the two years there. Most of my contemporaries thought, 'He'll give up, do something else.' Because I wasn't an actor. And I'm still not an actor. I wanted to be part of that world. I wanted to be a storyteller. I could have been equally happy as a cameraman or a boom operator or a spark or anything, just to be part of that world." After theatre school, and despite a lackluster record, he and four other actors were taken into the main company. Irons lasted the longest, playing the "juv" leads for three years.
The secret of his success—in addition to the talent he still can't recognize in himself—may have been a business sense. "What I always had is a knowledge of career," he says. "I think actors, in a way, need to look after two boxes: One box is their talent, and one box is their career. And they're quite separate. And if you ignore either, you're in trouble."
And after watching the progress and missteps of his fellow actors, he knew after those three years in a rep company that to start becoming "known" he would need to move into either a West End show or a film. "I didn't want not to be able to afford a mortgage, not to be able to afford a family," he says. "I was too middle class for that. I wanted all the things I'd had as a child."
So he auditioned in London and was offered odd jobs, still declining work in repertory. And then, to keep body and soul together, Irons—the future Tony-winner for The Real Thing, the future Oscar-winner for playing Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune—worked as a housecleaner. "And that enabled me not to collect the dole, which I found demeaning," he says. "I did it one week. I stood in line, and I thought, 'This is ludicrous. Why am I standing here? I'm able-bodied, I'm healthy, intelligent. And I'm standing at this window, asking for money. Why?'" So he cleaned to pay his bills. And he continued to audition.
But these auditions led to a two-year run in John Michael Tebelak's London production of Godspell. And during that run, when replacements were needed and the company held auditions, Irons would sit in "the gods"—the top balcony—and watch auditions. "I realized of course that you knew as soon as somebody walked out of the wings, it was their quality you were looking at—and looking for," says the actor, who had always felt uncomfortable during his own auditions. Godspell introduced London to him, and thus began his work on series television and the prestige of his name over the title in his West End work.
From Time to Time
It was all fine, Irons thought. He'd done a few series. But he realized he needed a top series to become even better known. He couldn't get cast in film, losing role after role to Simon Ward. So when Irons was up for The French Lieutenant's Woman he told director Karel Reisz, "I've read the book, and I think I'm a great choice. I think I'm actually dead-right for the character, but you won't be able to use me, sadly, because I'm not a star, and you're going to need a star." And then, as Irons recalls, "A friend of mine came to see a play I was doing and said, 'Granada Television are going to make a series of [the Evelyn Waugh novel] Brideshead Revisited. Read it, because there's a great character for you: Sebastian.' So I read the book, and I thought, 'Yeah, Charles is the guy I want to play.' Well, I'd done an H.E. Bates series called Love for Lydia, where I played Alex Sanderson. Alex had a very similar route to Sebastian, in that he drank too much, he loved too much, he loved his mother, and he fell off a bridge in Episode Eight. I thought, 'I don't want to do that route. I want to stay the whole run. And I want to play this rather closed Englishman. I know about him, and I think I can play him.'" Irons wrote to Granada, asking to be involved.
The miniseries director Mike Lindsay-Hogg and producer Derek Granger wanted Irons to play Sebastian, but Irons spoke up. It meant rethinking the rest of the casting, but rethink they did, and Irons played the lead opposite Charles' first love, Sebastian (Anthony Andrews), and then opposite Sebastian's sister (Julia Quick). He also sparked the scenes with Charles' father (John Gielgud) and anchored those with Sebastian's father (Laurence Olivier).
And then Reisz offered Irons the part in his film, playing opposite Streep. "And so, doing those two sort of gave me a boot skywards as far as international career is concerned," says Irons. "But then, of course, as all success brings the possibility of limitation, because as you succeed in something you become well-known for it, and people think of you like that and therefore ask you to continue to do that—which of course is death for an actor. And so I saw a very strong possibility of coming here and becoming a sort of resident Englishman in Hollywood. And then I thought, 'No, I can't do that,' because Americans always get Englishmen wrong, because they cliché them—as the English write Americans wrong. And so I didn't work for a year, I think, after that."
Irons says he uses no particular method. "I wasn't taught through methods. I flirt with them. The only time I use substitution is when I need tears, because you have to wind up with a fairly specific emotion." Otherwise, he says, he focuses on and believes implicitly in the reality of his character's situation.
And he does so without argument. He explains, "I remember John Barton saying to me, when we were working on Shakespeare, 'Embrace the inconsistencies of a character.' I think great writing always includes inconsistencies. Because, as people, we are inconsistent beings. We behave one way in one moment, another way in another moment. We'll say one thing, and then our actions belie us. And I think the trap for an actor is to look for consistency in a character. I get very bored when I hear an actor say, 'He would never do that. He would never say that.' If it's good writing, then really examine, examine, examine; find any reason you can why he might do that or say that. Because if you find the reason for it, you'll suddenly give your character more breadth.
"You have Advent calendars here, don't you?" he asks. "I see a scene being like a little window. You open that window on the character and you play that room. In the next scene, you open another window and you play that room. They may be very different rooms. Finally, when all the windows are opened, you see the house, with its inconsistencies, with its wallpapers that don't match. And it has a depth of reality." He says when the entire house seems painted by an interior designer so it all matches, he is no longer interested in the role.
"I like allowing the audience glimpses, which enables them to imagine the rest that they can't see," he says. "I'm not interested, as an actor, in wearing my heart on my sleeve." It's probably why he's been admired for his understated work, why he's been called a minimalist.
He says the best performances, "and one very rarely achieves this," are created by not portraying the emotions yourself. "I've seen performances where there's actors weeping, weeping," he observes. "I sit there thinking, 'Don't show me your tears; make me feel mine.' That's what it should be about. And the problem with great technique, which [Olivier] had, which many English actors have—they have great technique that can be a barrier. You can sit there and admire, but it doesn't move you."
He suggests it's about reaching only a state of semi-preparedness: "You know the ballpark you're in, but you don't really know what's going to happen in the scene—so that there's an openness." Planning, he says, means you've made decisions, you've closed off in some way. And then, at the end of the scene, he cannot judge whether he's been any good. "That's why I have to trust the director," he says. "And if it's a director you trust, if he accepts it, and he says, 'That's fine, we have it,' then I give away the objectivity of it. I give away that choice to him. And that's why it's important you know you're both telling the same story."
It's been a long, fascinating road to his performance in Merchant of Venice, and the film seems to reflect all he has learned. Irons recalls that its director, Michael Radford (Il Postino), expressed distress during the month-long rehearsal period. "Mike stood at the edge, sort of going, 'That's not what I want.' And we said, 'No, no, no, that's not what you're going to get, but we have to go through this process to get inside the language, to get inside the rhythms, and to discover the characters. Because with Shakespeare, you discover through the language."
Irons has observed differences between the American and the English approaches to Shakespeare. "The English are trained to use the language and the rhythms that Shakespeare gives you to lead you towards the reality of the character," he says. "American actors tend to come from the other way. They look at a part and say, 'Now, what is his experience, therefore what color do I put onto the language?'"
Irons apparently combined the two approaches to create his Antonio. "Shakespeare gives you clues—in his punctuation, in his rhythms, whether it's prose or poetry, in where the breaks are in the lines, what the rhymes are. And if you play the dialogue, play the verse properly, it will create in you emotionally. But you have to trust it, and you have to be very practiced with it."
Then the actor added a backstory. "With Antonio you always have to make a decision about: Is he gay or not, today," Irons says. "We have such a black-and-white attitude about it. You're either gay or straight or bi. In Shakespeare's time male-male love was regarded as one of the highest forms of love. And it didn't have to be sexual." Irons gave Antonio an early marriage to a wife who died in childbirth. "He has in a way never got over it and never remarried and put all his sexual energies and all his ambitions and life force into his work, which is why he is a successful merchant. For me, Bassanio was a surrogate son. He sees in him, as you do in your son, all the promise of the future."
And then there was the spit. Shakespeare speaks of it, but it is not shown onstage. In the film, Irons was called upon to spit on Pacino's Shylock, which he does with a vengeance. "Antonio is a man of his age," explains Irons. "In other words he's prejudiced against the Jews and, I think, joined the throng. He's caught in a riot and he lashes out. It's not personal. But of course in life we've all said something or done something because we're depressed or we're in a state, and we say something to somebody, who maybe even we love, which hits them like a dagger. And we don't mean it. And you see the spit comes back to haunt Antonio. For Shylock, I think, the years of being spat on, treated badly—he's an honorable man—make him fundamentalist. I think that's what the story is about, becoming fundamentalist. I think Shakespeare uses Christians and Jews because at that time that was the big difference in society. What Portia shows him is that fundamentalism does not work. The laws we've written—in either the Koran or the Bible or the Torah—they are written by people with humanity, and you have to have humanity to translate them."
And of course Irons isn't fully satisfied with his choices. He would have liked to have given Antonio a regional accent, making him somebody not of Bassanio's class. "But I didn't," says Irons. "I played him more interior—the sort of work I know I can do. When I watched it I thought, 'Oh, it's fine, but I've seen that before.' But that's movie acting."
Indeed. Despite the quality and quantity of films he's made, he speaks most reverentially of his times onstage. It's why he prefers Broadway to the West End. Irons says when he gets into a cab in New York, the driver will say, "How is the play going?" "He'll know what it is, he'll know where it is, he'll know how well it's doing," says Irons. But when Irons gets into a cab in London, the driver won't even know Irons is in a stage production, asking instead what film the actor is working on.
Irons recalls the highlights of working with Glenn Close in the New York production of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. "We knew we were each other's best advisor, friend, whatever, when we were working," he says. He recalls one matinee about a year into the run. He felt stale, he felt he was boring himself, boring the audience. "I remember Glenn would pass my dressing room going up to hers," he says. "She had a change in the interval. And as she passed I said, 'Glenny, I'm sorry I'm being so boring this afternoon. I find this really hard.' And she said, 'Oh, God, so am I. It's so tedious, and the audience is so boring, and we're being so bad.' And I said, 'Listen, go and change; come down and have a cup of tea with me.' So she did. And I said, 'Now, listen. This is what I'm going to do. In this next act, I'm going to come on from different places, I'm going to throw you different lines, I'm going to do everything I can to put you off, to make you laugh, to throw you, and I want you to do the same to me.'
"And we started the second act; I was onstage, and she came on immediately," he continues. "The curtain went up. And we were like two racehorses, watching. 'What's she going to do?' 'What's he going to do?' And in fact we didn't change anything. But we were so [snaps fingers]. And Mike Nichols always said to us, 'Acting is like making love. If it stops working, then look in each other's eyes, and it will start again.' And he's absolutely right. And that's sort of what we were doing. We'd fallen into a pattern of the expected, and suddenly we didn't know what either of us was going to do. And so we were really watching. And it came alive again."
Early in 2004, Irons was to have appeared with the Los Angeles Opera in A Little Night Music. He had been appearing in the production in New York opposite Juliet Stevenson, but she couldn't take on the L.A. production. "It all sort of messed up," says Irons. "I was asked to sign without knowing who the woman was. I think it's so important [to know]. I suppose it's because I've been so lucky with my partners. Glenn Close and I—I think so much of the success of The Real Thing in New York was because it was her. We just played very well together. So I like to have real hands-on in the casting, purely so I can do my best, not because I want to have control."
So he declined the role. He was later sorry to learn he would not have the opportunity to work with the actor ultimately cast, Judith Ivey, and to continue with the show. "I remember lying on the floor on 47th Street [in New York], where we were rehearsing, with a cheek on the cold lino, watching the cast moving about," he reminisces. "We had just been rehearsing a big dance number. I thought, 'I'm so lucky. I'm 55, I'm having the time of my life, and there's not many people who can say that.'"
He recognizes that he's been away from theatre for too long, and he is currently considering two scripts. But, he says, he's been spoiled by the quality and success of The Real Thing. He probably won't take on more Shakespeare; he's done with Richard II, he has no plans to play Shylock in 10 years, he regrets missing the opportunity to portray Hamlet under Harold Pinter's direction. But he's looking for a seminal production. "My standards are probably too high," he says. "I want to give the audience the best, best time."
Tales From Hollywood
In the currently running Being Julia, Irons' best and highest use seems to be to tie down the overheated Bening. He plays a former-actor-turned-director, and he's particularly charming in a scene in which he adeptly directs an unskilled young actor (Lucy Punch).
"Maybe in my next decade that's what I'll do," Irons muses about directing. In 1997 he helmed an hour-long film for television, titled Mirad, and says he felt comfortable, in the main because he gathered a cast and crew familiar to him. "I think I like getting performances out of actors more than I like acting. I always used to say I could see much more clearly how the other person in the scene should play it than how I should play it. And the great thing about Dead Ringers is that I was able to do that; I was able to say, 'Well, he should do that,' and then go round and do it, because I was playing both [twins]."
But Irons is reluctant to offer advice to new actors on acting etiquette. "Oh, I'm the worst," he says. "I find I don't like sycophancy. I have an anarchic streak in me. Because as actors on movies we are tools, we should behave well. And I think there was a time in my career—which I hope I got over—where I fell the wrong side of that. Because I was so concerned to get it right, to leap the highest with the scene."
If you're part of a group that is happy to be working together to tell a story, he says, you're likely to tell a story better than if you have one person who's neurotic and tense and searching. "It's, finally, only a film," he summarizes.
But he repeats the basics of good behavior: "Basically you should be on time, you should be cheerful, you should be positive, all things which traditionally are sort of not creative, and yet you have to behave on movies. And I hate that aspect of it. But you do." He also cautions against the trappings of stardom. "You can get led astray because you get spoiled on movies," he says. "And you get spoiled because people want you to be fit when you're in front of the camera. So they want to make sure you get there safely, so they drive you there in a car. They want to make sure you have your own space, so you have a trailer. But it's not because you're an important person but because they want your best work. You have to have a sense of perspective about that and realize that what everybody's trying to do is to create a situation where you can do your best work. And use it purely for that.
"And be adaptable," he adds. "There's not only one way to do it. It may be the way you thought as you prepared for it, but actually there are other ways, which is why I would say don't plan too much. The more you plan and rehearse and know how you're going to play a scene, the harder it's going to be for you if the director says, 'Try it like that.' I say to actors, there were two sorts of knights. There were the ones who covered themselves in chain mail and iron and leather, so nothing that hit them could hurt; and there were the sort who just wore skin and had a quiver full of arrows and a bow that was flexible, and they could shoot and run and dodge. And that's the sort of actor I think is useful, not an actor who comes completely prepared and inviolate. Keep your vulnerability, but keep your fluidity and ability to move and change and try different things. Throw pride out the window. Be malleable."
And he adds, "Also remember that you carry a jewel, which is your talent. Carry that jewel. And that jewel has to be protected, guarded, polished, felt in the palm of your hand or in your pocket. You might have to go and do crap to earn the money. But never forget that jewel, because that's what will make you great when you have the opportunity to be. Don't let your talent be tarnished, because there is so much rubbish that you have to do as actors—more and more these days. And you can get lazy, and you can get used to the big fees that rubbish always brings. But keep doing the work that you think you can't do. That, for me, is what I'm always looking for—and it gets harder and harder to find—the work that frightens you, the work you think you can't do. Keep taking risks. Because without risk, there's no possibility of great success. You do something, and you think, 'I never thought I could do that, and I did it.'" BSW