Jeremy Irons explores sexual taboos on ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ – National Celebrity Q&A.
What’s Oscar winner Jeremy Irons doing on a TV series like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”? That’s a question that Irons answered when he recently did a telephone conference call with reporters to promote his guest appearance on the procedural drama about sex crimes. After all, the image of British actor Irons, who rarely does TV projects, is that if he would do American TV, it would more likely be a starring role in the kind of prestigious miniseries, series or movie that expects to get numerous Emmy nominations. It turns out that “Law & Order: SVU” is a great breeding ground for Emmys, since several actors and actresses have been nominated for or won Emmys for being on the TV series, especially those who have made guest appearances.
No one will be surprised if Irons is at least nominated for an Emmy for his “Law & Order: SVU” role as Captain Jackson, a sex therapist and the father of rape victim Ann Jackson, his estranged daughter. As detectives Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Chris Meloni) interrogate Captain Jackson, his sordid past of sexual and alcohol addiction is revealed. Irons’ guest appearance on “Law & Order: SVU” is on the episode titled “Mask,” which premieres January 12 on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern/Pacific Time. Here is what Irons had to say about his “Law & Order: SVU” experience. During the interview, he also revealed what is his favorite movie that he has ever done — and it may not be what most people would think it is. But here’s a hint: It has to do with a sexual taboos.
You haven’t done much network TV, so why now, and why this role?
Because it fitted in timewise, because I’ve done no network TV, because “Law and Order: SVU” is so popular amongst a wide variety of my friends. When I mentioned to them that I had been asked they said, “Oh, it’s a fantastic show. I always watch it,” and then I looked at some episodes. I don’t watch a lot of television, or hardly any American television, because I live in Ireland and England, and I thought it had great style and reminded me of those paperback crime novels, which move very fast and had a great facility. And I liked the way they told the stories, I liked the way they were done, and I thought, “Yes, I’d love to go and do that.”
Was there anything about your role specifically that drew you in about the character you’re playing?
No, except I thought he was multi-dimensional, which always hard to find on television, or any film work actually. And he contained enigmatic qualities; he was a mystery. Basically, a good person, but a person who had fought his battles in life and to a certain extent comes through. And I thought it was a multi-layered role and as a result something that I’d like to get my teeth into.
Was there anything that you found particularly challenging about this role in “Law & Order: SVU”? You mentioned the character as multi-dimensional.
The way the program is made, which is very fast and the guys who do it … they have such a facility for it, and I watched them in awe as they worked. And it is a very specific style and when you’re confronted by that as an actor, it’s interesting.
It’s something you think, “All right, well, shall I – do I play against this? Do I play with it?” And in fact, a lot of the guest characters are written with a slightly different pacing, a slightly different style than the, so to speak, home-base actors.
Do you have any specific memorable moments you had from your time on set?
Many, many. We had a lot of laughs; a lot of laughs. And I found I enjoyed working with Chris Meloni] a great deal. He’s a tremendous actor and I just remember those days as being days that I really looking forward to going into the studio and working pretty hard, as we all did. Ted Kotcheff, who’s one of the producers, is somebody I’ve know a little in life and it was great to be able to spend some time with him. And Donna Deitch, our director, who I hadn’t met before, but she manages to make the work enjoyable.
I’m not remembering any specific moment, I’m not telling you of any specific moment, but it’s so nice when you go into a show, which you know has a pretty tough schedule, and the week I was doing it they were shooting two at the same time, and to find that people were determined that it be an enjoyable experience for everybody and that doesn’t always happen.
What is it like for you as an actor to come in and step into such an established show?
Well, you have to watch and see how they do it, because they know how to do it. And to a certain extent, you have to watch the actors who’ve been doing it for 12 years very carefully because they can do it very well, and they know how to do it and learn from that. But you do feel you’re entering an area of safety because this is not an experiment. You know, they’ve honed their craft on all levels doing these programs, and you just hope that there’s an actor coming in that you give them what they want. And you know I hope that they would have told me if I wasn’t.
And as far as working in American television versus working in British television, do you see any big differences?
Well, I haven’t worked in British television for a long time, and I’ve never worked in series television in that way. I’ve done on-off plays, apart from “Brideshead [Revisited],” which was a not a series, so this is my sort of first experience. But, I’ve always felt that America is, I think it could be that there is a professionalism, which sometimes makes some British work feel a little bit amateur.
Now, that has strengths, but it is an oiled machine when a program … We have “Coronation Street” that’s been running for more than 12 years, yes. I suppose that’s an equivalent different sort of pacing and different sort of subject. The great thing about “Law and Order: SVU” is that it deals with subjects which are very important to people and which affect some of a small section of society very much, these different aspects they give to each program, different story lines. And in a way I think it’s remained cutting-edge, which is why it’s still, after 12 years, has such a following. I think there are few American series which have that sort of longitude. They must be doing something right. I hope inviting me to do an episode is a good decision.
Since some people may not expect to see you on “Law & Order: SVU,” how has going against the expected contributed to your identity as both a person and an actor?
One has to work within the parameters of the opportunities that are offered as an actor. But, I always try to put my foot, so to speak, in a place where it’s not expected as I walk along my career, and that is not easy to do. It gives me great enjoyment doing new things, stepping into areas that maybe are unexpected for the audience. It also gives the audience a bit of pleasure, because I can only be me and play the characters I can play, but at least if I’m doing it in ways and in places which are unexpected it’ll give them a little bit of fun. It gives me a bit of fun.
Besides the time factor, what was the biggest challenge or what did you enjoy the most about television?
Well, you know, there’s no difference between television and film, really. I mean, a low-budget film you work as fast as you do on television these days. There’s no doubt that I think work of a higher standard is now being done on American television than in many American films. The sort of work and the sort of actors who you’d find doing, what could loosely be termed as art movies or independent movies in America, are now finding them so hard to raise the budget for to make them, even though it’s a low budget, because of the price of distributing such films and advertising such films. More and more actors who we’re used to seeing on the big screen are coming and working on television and finding fantastic material.
I mean, you’ve got “Mad Men,” “The Wire,” the list would go on and on. And I think in the last ten years there’s been a revolution in American television largely to do, I have to say, with cable, but it spreads around. And so, whereas maybe 10 years ago I’d think twice about doing television unless it was to be a one-off film, now it’s something which is very attractive for actors. This took me just over a week and the producers were kind enough to say, “Well, when can we spot it in? You know, when can we do it? When are you free?” And so, they made it very easy for me, apart from writing me a wonderful character. So it’s not hard to make such a decision.
Will we see you again on “Law & Order: SVU”?
Maybe. Who knows? You know, they say the way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans.
Did you enjoy the fast-pace of shooting on the show, and did it affect the way you usually work?
No, I loved the fast pace of shooting. I’ve always enjoyed that. I’ve done some shoots which have been very slow and they were huge setups to organize and I find that quite tedious. It’s inevitable, but it’s tedious and I always like working fast and hard. I find it gets my juices going. And if I don’t have time to finish a crossword in a day, I’m really happy. So I enjoyed the pace we worked at and found it invigorating. And because your juices keep flowing, because there’s not so much down time, I think your work is probably better as an actor.
If actor came up to you for some advice, what would you say?
Don’t give up, or as we would say in this country, “Soldier on.”
You mentioned that your character’s basically a good person. So you prefer to play good characters or do you prefer to play villains as you’ve sometimes been type-cast as playing?
I’ve played a few villains. I like playing characters who are not necessarily what they seem. I like playing enigmas. I like playing people who live outside our normal life experience. I say “our” as audience members. People in life, people who own a watch, because I think one of the functions of the storytelling of television or film or whatever is to show people in a controlled environment they’re watching on a screen what happens if something happens, and how do people react and makes them think, “Well, how would I react?”
So to play characters who live experiences or have had experiences or live in such a way that is on the edge, possibly good, possibly not, I find very, very, very interesting. They’re sometimes called bad people. I’m not sure there is such a thing as a bad person, one or two about, but in the main, I think everybody does their best with coping with what life throws at them and what their nature is. In my experience, most people feel sort of neither good nor bad. They know they have both within them, and I enjoy playing characters who are true-to-life in that respect.
Would you ever consider starring in comedy?
Yeah, I’ve done the odd comedy. They’re not hugely successful because you wouldn’t have asked me that question if they had been, but I used to be known, before I was 30, I was mainly as a stage actor and I was known for comedy, but comedy on stage. Comedy on films is quite difficult because film, and to a certain extent television, it has to collect as many viewers as it can. The comedy tends to be quite broad, quite all-embracing, and what makes me laugh is perhaps a little bit more individual.
So it’s very hard to find the sort of humor in a film which tickles my fancy, which of course it has to do if you’re going to do it, you know? I have got one lurking around that we might make and, not this year but next year, and I’m always looking out for them. But people don’t come to me first for comedy, you know? They go to other people. They don’t think of me as a comedian actor. That’s one of the things about sort of type-casting: You’re always asked to do what you’ve done before.
Is there a medium that you prefer?
No. The medium isn’t the important thing really, it’s the story and the character. That’s what grabs you as an actor or, you know, if you’re going to work in certain media, you’ll be paid differently to others. But what you’re paid has nothing to do with how happy the work makes you when you’re doing it. So it’s really the quality of the writing, the way the work is protected by those who are because, you know, as an actor one is part of a family, if you like, you have a lot of people creating your performance with your. And if that’s a good group and the character is interesting and absorbing to you and the story is compelling, then that’s all I look for, and it could be in theater, on television, in movies. The medium is not important.
Of all the projects that you’ve done, is there one that’s most dear to your heart or that you consider your proudest accomplishment?
Yeah, and you’ll probably be surprised. I think it’s a movie called “Lolita,” which I made, which I thought did everything that a movie should do which was to stir up people and make them question things, to dealing with a tricky subject. [It was] a very well-made film by Adrian Lyne. A film which sadly got very small distribution because the studios got very frightened about it by the subject matter, and a picture which actually Showtime put out eventually …
But I think my work in that sort of spans. I suppose also because my nature is a little bit anarchy and because it was such a prolifically uncorrect movie – or incorrect movie and because I think that one of the things that movies and stories should do is to stir the sediment at the bottom of our apathetic pond, and to open people’s eyes to situations which they tend to shy away from. I think that movie pressed all those buttons; and therefore, I’m proud of that. Although I’m proud in other ways of some of the other work that I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in.
How has your experience on “Law & Order: SVU” compared with other projects you’ve done before?
There are some projects you enjoy more than others, and I have to say that “SVU” is way up with those I’ve enjoyed. It is a lovely team of people. They made me very welcome. I didn’t fall on my face, I hope. Although, I have to say I haven’t seen it, so maybe I do fall on my face …
And I’d been filming in Hungary for about five months before that, and it was very nice to come to New York for a week and not only meet some new friends on this show, but to catch up with old friends. And you know, life and work, it’s lovely when it meshes together, so it was a very happy experience.