Follow this link for the original story – An Actor’s Masterclass with Jeremy Irons
From a conversation backstage at the National Theatre with Felicity Norrie and Andrew Rogers, where Mr. Irons, CSC’s longstanding patron, is currently playing Harold Macmillan in Never So Good, to widespread critical acclaim.
Andrew Rogers with Jeremy Irons backstage at the National Theatre
What made you choose to play Macmillan?
It was a new play, which I thought was good, by a writer Howard Brenton whom I admire. Howard Davies, an old friend, is one of my favourite directors. I had never played the National Theatre – all these elements fuelled my decision. I think my nature is that of a test pilot, not a commercial pilot – I enjoy seeing if something will fly. It is interesting to explore the lives of people who are knocked about by the world and fashioned by events. Plays which explore such development of a person are attractive to me – Never So Good is one such, Richard II, which I played at the RSC, is another.
How do you go about portraying a person many remember?
I do not have the talent for impersonation or mimicry. I need to get to know the character from within, develop an empathy with him and understand him. That involves background reading and meeting with people who knew my subject. For example, there are few photographs of Macmillan wearing spectacles, but his daughter-in-law recalls him wearing them most of the time, but pushed up on his forehead when reading. I also try to watch film footage of the subject, which can tell you a great deal about their spirit. Then there are some instinctive discoveries. Mac had a chipped and dead front tooth which he was embarrassed about as a young man. That affected the way he spoke.
What is it about acting that makes you passionate about it?
It is the craft I have chosen to learn to master. I’m interested in human nature, how we cope with events. Most people are private; we don’t really ever know anyone other than ourselves. We may have someone, a spouse or a friend, who we think we know well, but we don’t really know how it feels to be them. The best part of a relationship is trying to know another person, exploring what makes them what they are, which is sort of what falling in love is. And that is what I try to do to an audience, allowing them to get to understand this person. For me acting is not about showing off but about opening up a character and inviting the audience in.
Have you ways of working which you find particularly helpful?
I sometimes ask myself what would happen if a particular scene wasn’t in the script. How would that affect the story or character? When you learn what would be lacking, then you understand the function of the scene. It leads you to what must be communicated from that scene. It is essential to understand what your character wants. That girl? To kill that girl? Food? And then how does he set about getting it? Each character often wants different things, which is why when they come together we get drama. So that you might know the purpose of each line, Max Stafford-Clark does this intention thing. You have to say after each line “…he said, to….” and then an action word, maybe “impress” or “make angry”. Actors can be terribly sloppy, especially with Shakespeare. They play huge phrases with the same intention when each half line, or line, may have a different one. If you get the thoughts behind each line right that will then help you keep the lines in your mind. I always learn through thoughts – I know what I’m thinking, therefore I know what I am saying. Sometimes I continually get a certain line wrong in rehearsal. It is always because I haven’t considered accurately what am I saying there, and why. When I know a part, I know the thoughts all the way through. and the lines simply hang on them, and of course, if you are thinking those thoughts and feeling those thoughts, then, the lines come alive, and hopefully an audience will understand.
Jeremy Irons as Harold Macmillan and Anne Chancellor as Dorothy
Is there anything different for an actor in working on Shakespeare?
No, I think it is like being given a Rolls Royce to drive. It is wonderful language, in that it can (except for some of the more esoteric jokes) sound like natural speech if it is done right – Simon Russell Beale is a master at this and yet he doesn’t make any concessions to modernity. In Shakespeare’s work so much of the character is invoked by what he says and how he is saying it, so if you speak Shakespeare right, with confidence, knowing it, using the verse, it will take you to emotional places which you don’t have to search for, they will appear. I think breathing technique is especially important in Shakespeare, you have to know when to breathe. You need to be entirely comfortable with the text so that you can make it work for you – you are not having to work hard for the text. It has to be second nature. Making Shakespeare’s comedy work for a modern audience without selling out Shakespeare is always an interesting challenge. The comedy is often in the script and not in trying to make the script funny. Actors often get it wrong. To over embellish may ruin the moment. Yes, you have to have instinct and timing but you have to play the situation for real and not think ‘I’m doing a funny bit’. It’s funny; you’re not.
How would you describe the role of a director?
He is the chef: he decides what dish he is trying to make, he chooses the ingredients, yet he is not certain how it will turn out. He goes through a process, sometimes applying heat, sometimes letting it stand. Every now and then he tastes it – perhaps adds a little more of this, a little of that. When he has to serve it up he lays it out in front of his audience, and awaits their response. How much is he a part of the creation? He is essential. Food doesn’t cook itself. Some directors talk a lot before they start to block. Howard Davies is very experienced. With Never So Good he put it on its feet immediately. Just by doing that we all learnt a lot about the structure and needs of the play. But this does not suit all plays, and Howard has the ability to recognise that actors work at different paces. That what you have to do is encourage them and make them feel comfortable, letting them come to the boil at their own pace. You must know the right moment to give input to an actor. If they are working properly, actors are doing much of their own work at home, out of the theatre, going over the lines, mulling over a scene. You go home and think about it, and stuff happens, in the bath, while you are sleeping, in the supermarket. Some directors think that every actor needs an answer to: “how do I do this?” or “what is this moment about?” Sometimes the best thing the director can say is: “I don’t know. We’d better find out.”
Looking to the future, what Shakespeare would you like to do?
There are always parts waiting for you in Shakespeare. I’ve dreamed of filming Richard II, though I’m now too old to play him myself. This man raised amongst the sophisticated culture of Bordeaux, and forced by events to come to England. John O’Gaunt’s speech is central to the theme of the piece. His great love for this country is echoed when Richard returns from Ireland and kisses the beach as he disembarks in Wales. I would film it almost like a requiem, with music accompanying shots of some of the great beauties of this country, in their fairest seasons, with the finest light. People moving distantly in a landscape, but hearing the language in your ear. I’ve always wanted to film this great requiem, this long, long phrase of a falling man. Like an onion, skin after brittle skin comes off until finally you reach the soft centre of the onion. And then you understand him.