The Wall Street Journal
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
MARCH 25, 2011
Feeling Wrong for the Role, at First
By AMY CHOZICK
Read the original article here – Wall Street Journal Online
Thirty years after he played Charles Ryder in the British miniseries “Brideshead Revisited,” actor Jeremy Irons takes on another TV role that involves Catholicism, opulence and distrust: Rodrigo Borgia, the scheming patriarch and corrupt Pope Alexander VI in Showtime’s “The Borgias,” premiering April 3.
Watch a scene from Showtime’s new drama ‘The Borgias.’ The series stars Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI. Courtesy Showtime.
Mr. Irons, 62, is perhaps best known for film roles including Claus von Bülow in “Reversal of Fortune,” for which he won an Oscar, and Humbert Humbert in “Lolita.” He also starred in TV miniseries like the 2009 Lifetime biopic “Georgia O’Keeffe” with Joan Allen and “Elizabeth I,” with Helen Mirren.
His deep, languid voice is currently in theaters as the narrator of wildlife documentary “The Last Lions.” (He voiced the villain Scar in “The Lion King.”) In “Margin Call,” an upcoming film about the financial crisis, Mr. Irons plays an embattled Wall Street CEO based on Lehman Brothers’ Richard Fuld.
Mr. Irons was reluctant to commit to an ongoing TV series, but the nine-episode cable run and the fact that Irish director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”) would write and direct “The Borgias,” convinced him.
The Wall Street Journal: Why is “The Borgias” being touted as a kind of medieval version of “The Godfather”?
Mr. Irons: There’s an element in common in that Don Corleone was an Italian in America. Rodrigo is a Spaniard in Rome. Yes, that element of the manipulator and the immigrant trying to find power and how to hold onto it and influence people as the head of the family. But those parallels don’t run very deep. I think it’s sort of a marketing idea Showtime had. [Mario] Puzo wrote a novel [“The Family”] about the Borgias, of course.
You’ve said you don’t think you’re right for the role of Rodrigo. Why not?
Neil [Jordan] said “Do you want to play Rodrigo Borgia?” I got home and Googled him and I told him “Christ, you don’t want me. You need James Gandolfini.” I could think of four or five actors who would physically be right for the role. I said “I can’t play that guy.” I have an aesthetic quality that is expected from a pope, whereas this guy was a big, sweaty Spaniard with a big appetite—a lot of food, a lot of women.
So why did you change your mind?
Neil said “No, it’s all about power and how power corrupts you and how you manipulate it. No one knows what he really looked like.” So he convinced me.
Even though Rodrigo is an evil megalomaniac, there’s some humor in him. Did you bring that to it?
I think it’s all in Neil’s writing. There’s sort of a natural amusingness about the situation which one doesn’t have to play. You just do what you do and it brushes off on somebody and there’s a smile there.
Speaking of humor, why wasn’t the 1997 film version of “Lolita” you starred in funnier? The book is very funny.
That book is full of irony. I think we were so nervous about the subject when we were making it that we were walking on egg shells. We could have used a lot more irony. The Kubrick version had more irony but it missed a lot of other things.
In addition to “The Borgias,” you’ve recently done a couple of episodes of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” How did that come about?
Well, “SVU” is a different kettle of fish. I was in Budapest finishing “The Borgias” and they asked and I said I don’t know the show. They sent me an episode with Robin Williams and one with Isabelle Huppert. I said “This is good, it’s fine. It is what it is.” For an actor it feels a little like you’ve just finished reading Proust and you think “I’m going to read a Dick Francis novel and it will take me a day and be great.”
“The Tudors” did very well for Showtime but it got criticism for being soft porn in costumes. Will “The Borgias” have as much sex and nudity?
No. There are a lot of channels doing that. I think we can do better than that. This adaptation, for example, and there have been loads, doesn’t fall into the trap of writing all these stories about incest. In those days whole families used to sleep in the same bed. It’s better to get inside characters, who they are and why they do what they do than to make it sensationalist.
You seem to regularly go from film to TV to theater. Which do you prefer?
It’s just the material. They all have good things about them and they all have bad things about them. Theater is great because you can really stay in one place and work on the character in depth over a long period. It doesn’t pay as much as movies, but is often better written. The problem with TV is people are watching soccer at the same time. I’m really lucky to hop around. I’m a jobbing actor.
How is developing a character for TV different from one for film?
The huge luxury is time. A two-hour movie—and, if you’re lucky, it’s two hours—you can tell a story but it’s hard to develop the inconsistencies of a character and have time to bring all those inconsistencies together.
Are you Catholic?
My wife is. My children are. I don’t belong to clubs.
It may shock a lot of Catholics to see a Pope who behaves like Rodrigo Borgia.
Well, the medieval mind would’ve had no problem with a pope who has a mistress. Why do you expect him to be a God? He’s not a God. He’s a man, with all the weaknesses and failures. [Today] we expect our leaders to be squeaky clean and when they turn out to be normal people with normal desires, we say this person shouldn’t be our leader. Man is just doing his best.
Have you discussed a second season with Showtime?
We have a little. Neil has talked to me about some ideas. It’s hard to get the Pope out of the Vatican. I’m very grateful Showtime was hands-off when we were shooting. They left us alone. I hope that will continue because I don’t think you can make movies or TV series by committee.
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