Max Irons in Harper’s Bazaar UK

Red Riding Hood star Max Irons talks to Bazaar’s Stephanie Rafanelli about wolves, nudity and his famous dad

Max Irons and I are playing The Guessing Game; in this case, over the identity of the lycanthrope killer in the 25-year-old actor’s debut feature Red Riding Hood, a gothic thriller adapted from the original fairy tale. So, who is the werewolf? Is it him, Red Riding Hood’s (Amanda Seyfried) betrothed; or the woodcutter she really loves? The suspiciously hairy wolfhunter (Gary Oldman). Or in an implausible twist, Julie Christie, the tales’ sagacious matriarch? “I cooould be the werewolf. I’m definitely a werewolf suspect!” he chuckles, his eyes widening at the mere thought of such a betrayal. “Okay. I’m the werewolf! Red Riding Hood’s the werewolf! Everybody’s the werewolf!”

Tranquil, post-11am roll-up, Irons stares hypnotically into the log fire at Blacks in Soho; his carved cheekbones and distant jade eyes, with the potential to slip into anguish or fervour, a clue to his genetic inheritance (he is the youngest son of thespian heavyweights Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack; and the grandson of Cyril Cusack, Julie Christie’s 1966 Fahrenheit 451 co-star). It is a heady cocktail that director Catherine Hardwicke, the woman responsible for Robert Pattison’s appearance in Twilight (spawning mass hormonal surges amongst the global pubescent population), clearly responded to. Especially as her reinvention of the fairy tale, one of the first in a spate of upcoming films, promises to be as rife with smouldering teen eroticism as the hitherto dominant Vampire genre. “I heard that Robert got chased down the street in Paris in his car, before the film even came out. Two black eyebrows rise, sardonically, to form a triangle in perfect symmetry. “I really don’t think it will come anything close to that.”

Though his name recalls a strident comic strip hero, by contrast, he is gently self-effacing (“American actors are all muscular, tanned, white teeth and they have this indestructible confidence. We British are all…Dare I say it? Pessimistic”). He is also somewhat apologetic both for the brands he is sporting (Dior boots, and a Prada Jacket – scruffed beyond recognition) as for his turns as a model, during his drama student years, in Mango (2007) and Burberry’s 2008 ad campaigns. “It was about 7am Saturday morning. I’m living in this basement bedsit with no fucking kitchen and barely a window. Smells of death. My phone goes off and someone says do you want to be shot by Mario Testino with Kate Moss. I didn’t have an agent so I said yup!” He fidgets uncomfortably. “That campaign has haunted me a bit. It has a smell of ‘you’ll do anything to be in front of the camera’.”

Like his father before him, Irons is wary of trading on his looks (the veteran actor rose to fame in The French Lieutenants’ Woman and Brideshead Revisited in 1981 thereafter avoiding being cast as the dashingly decadent love interest) or being hyped by the Hollywood machine. “Actors like Rebecca Hall and Andrew Garfield don’t play the celebrity game. You don’t even know who they go out with. Once you become the story off-screen, you are less likely to be the onscreen one.” But his brief track record already suggests that he is an actor of a similar mould. He received critical acclaim for Tom Stoppard’s Artist Descending A Staircase, and was nominated, alongside Hall, for the Ian Charleson Award in 2009 for his work in Wallenstein at Chichester Festival Theatre. (Hall and Irons became acquainted on tour with Sinead Cusack in Sam Mendes’ the Bridge Project that year: “After the last performance in Greece, everyone went skinny-dipping naked, drinking vodka including my mother I think”)

Puffy-eyed from jetlag from a recent “charm offensive” meeting agents in LA, Irons is on a four-day London stopover (which included presenting a BAFTA’s with Eva Green). A few weeks ago, he bumped into Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes. “I spent time with her when my dad was filming House of the Spirits, and her daughter Gracie and I shared the same tutor. She’d recognised me and came up to me. I was so, so touched.”

Growing up, Irons divided his time between Oxfordshire and his parents stage and film locations; though he was too young to witness his father’s favourite film.“I watched The Mission again on a plane to LA recently and I was in floods of tears. My older brother, Sam, was there, and they spent six months living with the villagers. I mean, Christ – what an amazing time.”

As a teenager his holidays were spent in Country Cork where, in 2000 his father bought and renovated Kilcoe Castle (“Err well it’s more like two towers joined together.”): “He’s become like a local.” He shakes his head.”He does this steeplechase where they stop on their horses at the pub every hour for a pint. Imagine what it’s like at the end of the day. Jumping over huge stone walls, going through rivers. They’re all pissed. It’s crazy.”

With such global adventures under his belt, has he inherited his father’s gung-ho spirit? “I’ve got my dad’s height and smoking habit. But I think I’ve got my mum’s looks and sensibilities.” He smiles warmly. “My dad’s very outspoken. He’ll say what he thinks. We’ve had some fruity political arguments across the kitchen table. They are both quite political, but mum more so. She’s very active [she is president of the Burma Campaign UK] and I seriously love that.” Iron’s half-brother Richard Boyd Barratt is also a political activist, like his biological mother Cusack, with whom he was re-united, around seven years ago, after she gave him up for adoption in 1968. “It wasn’t really that she‘gave him up for adoption.’ He was taken away by the Catholic Church; as was the way in those days, because she conceived out of wedlock.” Irons explains. “It was only in around 2004 when the Irish government ordered the Church to make the details of these adoptions available. I think within a week of that happening they’d been reunited. It’s amazing. And they’re so similar and they get on so well considering they missed 43 years of each other’s lives.”

Such is the rich heritage of Max Irons, filled with moving real life epics as well as thespian and cinema classics: a mighty well from which to draw inspiration in his future acting career (and from Irons’ fledgling projects, one senses there will be a future…). For now, he is adding the finishing touches to Runaways, a six part series for Sky One set in Seventies Soho. “The Italians and Irish gangsters are fighting for control of the sex district. I play this kid who ends up O-Ding nastily on a concoction of cocaine, amphetamines and vodka,” he winces. “But I get to wear flares and kind of woollen tanks tops [laughs]. I’ve got really shit hair though. I had to have a perm!.” He has two secret Hollywood projects in the fire (“If I told you, I’d have to kill you”), after which, Irons is keen to return to the stage. “Donmar. Royal Court. Okay. Put that in.” He leans forward and enunciates into the dictaphone. “I’ll do anything. Naked. Anything! Equus – I’ll do it.” And with that, he quickly pulls out a pack of tobacco, deftly crafts a cigarette (“I’m gagging for one”), before sauntering off into Dean Street. For sure, a roll-up is the only thing Irons need be desperate for right now.

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