Jeremy Irons speaks plainly, if elegantly
As a kid, living on the Isle of Wight off the southern coast of England, Jeremy Irons played cowboys and Indians and watched “The Cisco Kid” on television. I’m hearing this as I sit with my recorder in a suite at Toronto’s Royal York hotel, across from the 60-year-old Oscar-winner, and the information does not jibe with the man before me: a professorial-looking fellow curled up in a chair shoved next to an open window, so that the tiny skinny little brown cigarettes he smokes can waft directly back into the room.
Irons wears big owlish specs and a courtly air, and when he thinks about a question before answering, he’ll let a full 12 seconds pass before unrolling his answer.
Irons was in Toronto last month promoting “Appaloosa.” The movie is director, co-writer and co-star Ed Harris’ adaptation of a novel set in the lawless late 19th Century New Mexico territory town of the title. Irons plays a juicy supporting role, Randall Bragg, a rancher whose reign of violence meets a couple of formidable adversaries new to the region: Harris’ marshal, and the marshal’s sidekick, played by Viggo Mortensen.
“I think Ed wanted an actor who gave the feeling that he’d come from somewhere else—the foreigner, the stranger, the man not from there,” Irons says of his involvement in the project. “Which I don’t think I really gave it, because I don’t think that was terribly useful direction.”
So, he says, “I tried to play him as a good guy. Which we all think we are.” He smiles. He knows Bragg isn’t anyone’s notion of a good guy. He kills three innocent citizens point-blank in the opening scene. Anyway, he says, “it’s nice to have a chance to play that sort of character.”
The making of “Appaloosa” took place near Las Vegas, N.M. Irons acknowledged that working with a director who was also a co-star had its challenges. “Every actor sees the story from his point of view, and however clever the director is at separating himself from his role as actor ... it’s difficult.” He adds that “even Viggo would probably admit that one felt slightly hidebound by the fact that the director was also an actor.”
That said, Irons adds, Harris acquitted himself well. Quickly Irons mentions that the one time he directed himself (in a 1997 television project, “Mirad,” co-starring his wife, Sinead Cusack), his performance was “crap.”
It’s refreshing to hear someone talk about his work this way, as if the nearest studio handler were a million miles away. Irons is a gracious man, quick with the niceties (“May I offer you some fruit?”), gossipy about one of his cherished loves, the theater (“Weren’t the Tonys bad this year?”).
He returns to Broadway for the first time in decades, in next spring’s production of a new play co-starring Steppenwolf Theatre Company associate Joan Allen. It’s called “Impressionism,” written by Michael Jacobs and directed by Jack O’Brien, and it deals with a photojournalist’s relationship with a New York gallery owner.
He has high hopes, though you never know, he says: Take “Reversal of Fortune.” Irons won an Oscar for his ripe, witty portrayal of suspected killer and aristocratic rotter Claus von Bulow. “I never thought that film would work,” he says. “It was difficult to get a feeling of whether or not we were hitting the mark. I remember saying to Glenn [Close] when we were shooting: ‘It’s only because we’re in this, and because we’re hot at the moment, that this won’t end up on television.’ Didn’t seem to be working at all. But Barbet [Schroeder, the director] did a fantastic cut eventually.”
What he’d really like, Irons says, is “Sean Connery’s last 20 years. He played some interesting roles and had a bit of fun in his 60s and 70s. One of my problems is I find the [filmmaking] process incredibly boring. And unless I’m having a lot of fun, I tend to close off a bit. But then the cameras turn.
“I’ve begun relaxing up on my work more. It took me a long time to learn that you can struggle to make something perfect, and be a pain in the ass, and [often] the work’s not very good. Or you can just have a good time, enjoy working with everybody, throw ideas about, and the picture has a sort of life to it.”