Jeremy Irons – ZEIT Magazin – 19 January 2022


[German to English translation by Google]

[Scroll down for photos by Simon Emmett]

Jeremy Irons has played a remarkable number of villains – but none of them, he says, were “exclusively malicious”.

Jeremy Irons: “I’m selfish”

Actor Jeremy Irons has had an amazing journey in life: from aimless son of an accountant in the English countryside to Hollywood star and castle owner in Ireland. During a conversation in London, he talks about his beginnings and late happiness.

By Christopher Amend

ZEITmagazin No. 4/2022

January 19, 2022

“Who is the director here?” Jeremy Irons begins his work on this December day in a London studio with this question, asked out loud and with a smile. Of course he knows that no director is present, no film is being shot. The actor is to be photographed for ZEITmagazin today and then interviewed. Irons brought his own makeup lady, the photographer and his team are ready to go.

Jeremy Irons is tall and slim, he wears his now shiny silver hair long, and he has a hand-rolled cigarette in his hand. He moves elegantly through the room, sometimes sitting at the window and sometimes at a table for the recordings. He changes his clothes a couple of times in a small adjoining room. After the shoot, Irons takes a seat there for a chat.

His new film Munich: The Edge of War opens in cinemas and on Netflix in January, directed by Christian Schwochow, who lives in Berlin and has made a name for himself in England through his work on the series The Crown. The film Munich is based on a novel by Robert Harris and tells the story of the four days in 1938 that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is in Germany with Adolf Hitler to negotiate the Munich Agreement. “Robert Harris is an old friend of mine,” says Irons, “he sends me every one of his books.” What he liked about the novel Munich was “that it reassesses Chamberlain,” who is considered “a weak man who was fooled by Hitler.” With the Munich Agreement, which was intended to secure peace in Europe, Hitler was awarded the Sudeten German territories of Czechoslovakia. A year later, despite the agreements, he began World War II. “Chamberlain was an old-school politician and seemed a little outdated in the way he dressed, the way he thought,” says Irons. “But he had experienced the previous war, he had seen the dead, he wanted to prevent something like this from happening again. I wanted to convey a fairer picture of this man in this film.”

Jeremy Irons is currently also appearing in cinemas in another role as Rodolfo Gucci in House of Gucci, directed by Ridley Scott. In one of the most impressive scenes of the film, Jeremy Irons and Al Pacino sit opposite each other as fractious brothers. How do you imagine the two working together? As a kind of competition between two grandmasters? They previously appeared together in 2004’s The Merchant of Venice. “The good thing this time was that Al and I stopped competing,” says Irons. It was different last time. At that time, Al Pacino was still able to take all the energy out of the room – at least the energy for others.

Irons explains that the great thing about working with Ridley Scott is that he always shoots with four cameras. “This covers all settings, you can play freely, each recording is complete in itself.” Play free – was there no text? “No. Of course we knew roughly what had to happen in the scene, but Ridley gave us every freedom. That was wonderful.”

Irons is now 73, a Hollywood legend, a stage star. He won an Oscar and a Golden Globe as the leading actor in Reversal of Fortune, that was in 1991. And in 2017 he was awarded the European Theater Prize together with Isabelle Huppert.

Jeremy Irons was born on the Isle of Wight in 1948. His father was an accountant and his mother was a housewife. He attended Sherborne School in Dorset, a traditional boarding school for boys. “When I left school, I had no idea what was going to become of me,” he recalls. He goes to London and finds a job as a social worker in a Catholic parish. “I quickly realized that I wasn’t made for this: you have to give so much and get almost nothing in return.” He shares his duties with two priests. “I made a lot of visits, to the elderly, to the sick. I ran the youth club and on Monday evenings I held preliminary talks with young couples who wanted to get married.” How did these talks go? He had only just come of age himself. “It was a very poor area. Whenever a couple sat across from me, I always encouraged them to get married.”

In the evenings, Irons got on his bike, rode to the West End, standing alongside cinema queues with his guitar to earn extra money. “That was about five pounds per queue, which was a lot of money for me at the time.” He also enjoyed the evenings for another reason: “I realized how good it was for me to get something back.” Above all, he means the applause. For the first time he thought, “Maybe I should try the theater.”

But how? He discovered an advertisement in a newspaper, looking for a playing assistant stage manager. “Yes, that’s what they called it,” he says with a laugh. He becomes a boy for everything: During the day he builds sets, paints backgrounds, in the evening he is on the stage. “I loved this life, I liked the people, I liked the smell of the stage, I liked the rhythm. We never started work before ten and never went home before two in the morning. It felt like we were alive outside of society.”

He wanted to continue living this life, he applied to acting schools, but was rejected everywhere. “Maybe they sensed I had a pretty relaxed attitude towards acting – too relaxed!” But then a headmaster in Bristol saw something in him: “‘If I can get you to stand up straight,’ he said to me, ‘you’ll look very good at the edge of the stage.'”

Whether it’s old furniture, buildings or roles: “I love breathing life into things.”

After two years of training, Irons was taken on at the Bristol Theater, the roles increased, and he now acted in Shakespeare plays. He moves back to London, in 1971 he gets a role in the musical Godspell. It’s the time when Jeremy Irons starts to take his job seriously: “I felt that I had something that not everyone had.” Can he describe this something in more detail? He hesitates with the answer. “I suddenly got letters from people who wrote me that my acting touched them. It was only then that I realized that as an actor, if you do a good job, you can really communicate with the audience. I then decided to give myself until I turned 30 to break through as an actor, I figured I’d still be young enough to do something else.” What could that have been? “I love architecture, maybe I could still become an architect, I thought. But I didn’t really have a plan.”

As a drama student in Bristol he sold antiques on the side – wouldn’t that have been something? “That’s right, I liked doing that,” he says in astonishment, as if he hadn’t thought about it for a long time. He’s rolling a new cigarette now. In a previous interview, he said he reduced the number of cigarettes he smoked a day to 13. “Oh,” he says, “at the moment there are probably 17.” He laughs. “But I’ve been trying not to inhale for a while.”

He continues to talk about his time in Bristol. “Across from the theater there were a couple of auction houses that had old furniture for sale. All you had to do was give the furniture a little love and attention and you could have fantastic objects.” What drew you to it, apart from the money? “I just love breathing life into things,” he says. In a way, doesn’t he also do that as an actor: breathe life into written roles? “Yes, it’s the same process,” he says. “For me it’s all about grinding, polishing and then presenting.” He drags on the cigarette. “I’ve never thought about that. Actors have all sorts of reasons for choosing this profession, that’s probably mine.”

He’s also been renovating entire buildings for a number of years, he says, “simply because I have more money now. But basically it’s the same thing I did in Bristol. It was an old chair then, now it’s an old house, for example Example the castle in Ireland.” In 1997, when he was already established as a film star, Irons bought the ruined Kilcoe Castle in southern Ireland, which had not been inhabited for 400 years. He tells of the moment he saw it for the first time: “It lay before me like an unloved creature, old, toothless. And I thought: I can bring it back.” Breathing life back into the ruins.

Jeremy Irons had come to Ireland through his wife, Sinéad Cusack, a well-known Dublin theater actress. He moves to a small country house in remote West Cork. The family often picnics at the castle, and every time he thinks, “If it ever comes out, I’ll have to try and buy it.” It comes on the market and he can buy it. Together with two friends – a retired builder and a skilled handyman – Irons plans the renovation work, which will take a total of six years. “We had up to 40 people on the construction site,” he says. During the first two years, Jeremy Irons doesn’t do anything else, not even acting, “after that I accepted very lucrative Hollywood offers to continue to finance the construction of the castle”. Which films does he mean? “Oh, like that awful Dungeons & Dragons.” The film adaptation of the role-playing game of the same name will be released in cinemas in 2000. He shot the film “exclusively for the castle,” he says and laughs.

Jeremy Irons’ long film career began on British television. In the early seventies he gets his first roles, shoots series and films. A first major success came in 1977 with a leading role in a literary adaptation alongside Judi Dench, when he was 29. So he no longer had to become an architect.

1981 saw the international breakthrough with the Brideshead Revisited series, Irons was nominated for a Golden Globe in the USA and became a star in England. He will never be forgotten, he says, as one Sunday he was seen on the front pages of four magazine inserts at the same time. “I didn’t feel comfortable with it. I thought: now everyone knows me. Which of course wasn’t true. But when I walked into a restaurant, I no longer knew who knew me and who didn’t and how to behave. It was very confusing.” He stubs out the cigarette. “To be honest, there’s something I like about being well-known – it means you’ve found your place. It’s like a village, everyone knows everyone and there’s something comforting about that too.” Jeremy Irons’ village is, if you follow his thoughts, just a tiny bit bigger.

Now, he says, he’s found a way not only to deal with being famous, “but to make the most of it.” What does he mean? “I’m not particularly flamboy…” He breaks off mid-speech and laughs. Jeremy Irons not flamboyant? He couldn’t have meant that seriously. “I live a pretty normal life,” he says. A while ago he gave a reading in his home town of Oxfordshire. “I often see you walking your dog, you fit in perfectly with us,” a man from the village said to him afterwards. “I dress like a gardener there, take care of my horse, I’m often in the garden, like many in the area.”

Actress Meryl Streep said something to him years ago that he has never forgotten: “The size of your car during a shoot has nothing to do with how important you are. The size of your car only has to do with the producers of the film have invested a lot in you and want you to get to the location on time and safely.”

Meryl Streep helped him in another way, on the set of The French Lieutenant’s Woman: the first love scene of his film career. He was nervous. “Meryl was wonderful,” he says. “Our changing rooms were next to each other, separated by a door. On the day of the scene, she came through the door to me earlier – and had turned into my lover. She was suddenly my lover! Then when we started shooting, it completely changed for me felt natural. We followed the script precisely: the writer had given my character just 93 seconds to climax.” He laughs. “In the evening we would have dinner with her, her husband and the children – and she had transformed back into Meryl. That’s how she got me through the day.”

When Jeremy Irons first started filming with his wife Sinéad Cusack, he found his limits for other reasons. They were both cast in the film Waterland in the early 1990s. “I found it incredibly difficult. The director had asked us to stay in different hotels, he didn’t want us to get out of the same bed in the morning. Right from our first scene together, her character was devastated. too many feelings, it was hopeless. The director stopped filming, the next day I was in control.” Why did he react like that? “There’s usually always a protective shield between actors, even if you’d like to get rid of it. With my wife, it didn’t exist. It’s the only time it’s happened to me to date.”

Sinéad Cusack comes from an Irish theater dynasty, both parents were actors, as were four of her siblings. Jeremy Irons met her in the seventies. “We were involved with theaters in London that were right next to each other,” says Irons. “One time, when I saw her in a pub, I walked up to her and introduced myself. I tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘Hi, Siobhan.’ She turned and slapped me, ‘Me name is Sinéad, not Siobhan.'”

The next time they meet at a mutual friend’s dinner, they are seated next to each other, there is plenty of wine. “After the main course, her head suddenly rested on my shoulder. My girlfriend at the time gave me a stern look.” After dinner, he offers Cusack a ride home with his girlfriend. She lives on the way, he lets her out first, and when he stops in front of Cusack’s house, she asks if he’d like to come along “for a cup of coffee,” Jeremy Irons recalls. His wife also remembers his answer to this day: “If I come up with you now, I will stay until the end of my life.” How did she react? “‘Get lost!’ So first I drove back to my girlfriend.”

In the end, the two get together and have remained so to this day. They have been a couple for 49 years, married since 1978, their son Sam, a photographer, is 43, their second son Max, an actor, is 36. How did they manage to do it for so long? “One day at a time,” says Irons, “fail, forgive the other, fail again. She’s an extraordinary woman. And difficult, as am I.” How difficult is it? “I’m selfish, sometimes closed. I’m not a simple person. I make decisions spontaneously, she prefers to make plans.” Jeremy Irons once said during a performance in front of drama students that he loves it when his characters do something surprising. “That’s what I like about people in general,” he says. He’s always on the lookout for volatile, enigmatic roles, “because I think we humans are fickle and enigmatic.”

Does he also talk to his wife about the inconstant and mysterious? The British press has reported rather public affairs between the two, but they have never denied it. “We know about each other. We probably don’t talk about these things as much as we should, but we found a way to deal with it all.”

So they both had their adventures? Jeremy Irons nods. “Yes, and we got through it. I always thought that you lose a lot when you break up, also in terms of the relationship with your children.” He rolls another cigarette. “I’m a big fixer when it comes to clothes, cars, everything.” So even when it comes to relationships? “Yes. As Leonard Cohen said: Light comes through the cracks. All the happiness and misfortune, the failure and the successes over 49 years, I couldn’t share that with anyone else like Sinéad.”

Jeremy Irons was able to celebrate many successes, he received 28 awards. His 1991 Oscar acceptance speech can be seen online, and he walks past Michael Jackson and Madonna on his way to the stage. “It’s so embarrassing,” he recalls today, “I kissed Madonna there, and I almost kissed Michael Jackson too. I was so euphoric and so nervous, I also wanted to gain some time to think about who I was with had to say thank you.” Did he think of everyone? “Yes, unlike Meryl Streep” – she really thanked everyone at an award ceremony for her role in The French Lieutenant’s Mistress, including her nanny. Just not with me – the actor at her side! I could don’t believe it!” He later told her so himself.

There are a lot of villains in Jeremy Irons’ filmography. “I never counted them,” he says. “It’s maybe 30 or 40 percent of my roles. They’re considered villains because they’re outside the law.” Doesn’t he see her as evil himself? “I don’t think I’ve ever played someone who’s all evil through and through.”

As the villain in Die Hard 3, Jeremy Irons wears hair dyed light blonde and wears a tight blue top. Bruce Willis must have liked the look so much that he copied it in one of his next films, The Fifth Element. When asked about it, Irons laughs: “I think he really did.”

The photographer’s team was also enthusiastic about Jeremy Irons’ special fashion style today, for example about his stand-up collar shirts. “I once met David Tang, who used to run the Shanghai Tang fashion chain, I really liked that he made Chinese designs to fit Western bodies. I bought a lot of shirts from him, including the one I have today I’ve worn. And I hate ties, so I tend to wear scarves. They’re more fun.” He gets up, touches the clothes rack with his hand, everything he brought with him hangs there. “I don’t buy much. The jacket I was wearing today is one that my son discarded, I kept other things after filming. The socks,” he looks down at himself, “were given to me for Christmas, I love them very.”

He also wears two small metal Berlinale bears to pin on, two years ago he was the jury president of the film festival. Before the opening, his appointment was criticized, the then culture committee chairwoman of the Bundestag, Katrin Budde from the SPD, called the decision wrong, referring to earlier statements by Jeremy Irons about abortions and same-sex marriage. At his inaugural press conference in Berlin, Irons made it clear that he had long since distanced himself from these quotes. The statement he made of his own accord before the first question was asked was well received, and the Irons debate was over. Was he nervous that day? “I didn’t want to damage the Berlinale,” he says. He sometimes misses empathy in public discussions these days, he adds, “but it’s easy for me to say: I’m white, male, privileged.”

Are there roles that he would have liked to have taken on in his career? “I would have liked to do Out of Africa,” he says, but in the end Robert Redford prevailed against him. He also really wanted to play in The Constant Gardener, the film adaptation of a novel by John le Carré, and Ralph Fiennes got the role. “There was a problem with le Carré,” he explains. “I used to live in Hampstead, London, and used to take my dog ​​out there a lot. One day, my dog ​​fought with le Carré’s dog.” Irons does not recognize the author – but le Carré does, as he later reported in his autobiography. “Apparently I didn’t react humbly enough,” says Irons. “In any case, in the following years I was the director’s choice three times for a film adaptation of one of his books, and each time he said: I’m not working with him.” Irons can smile about it, he’s had plenty of other role offers.

In the meantime he is deliberately shooting less, he now says, he is aware that he no longer has infinite time. “Maybe I still have 20 years to go. I travel less, I’m more with my family. The magic of filmmaking itself is gone. I still love working with great directors on special stuff, but that combination is only coming seldom.” The financial pressure is no longer there.

Jeremy Irons looks at his watch, he wants to go to the theater with his wife in the evening. And soon he’s going back to Ireland, he’s looking forward to the rest. “I love being by myself. Sometimes I sit in the garden with a cup of tea and allow myself to enjoy the moment and not think.”

At the Munich film party in London, a few weeks before our interview, the director Christian Schwochow introduced me to Irons and we talked about a possible conversation. Irons’ first reaction was, “I’m just an actor, I have nothing to say.” He’s smiling now. Wasn’t that a bit flirtatious? “I really believe in it. Actors get a lot of attention, but in the end they don’t really do anything, they just act. And just because I’m saying what’s on my mind, I shouldn’t be taken too seriously.” Does he take himself seriously? “Not really. I took my career seriously for a long time, but not anymore. I never wanted to move to Los Angeles either. I had watched too many British colleagues like Anthony Hopkins or Richard Burton. They got very rich – but happy? Here I am not so sure.”

So he has stayed in England (and Ireland) all his life, even if he is not happy about the political developments in his home country. For a long time he was a euro skeptic, but he voted to stay on Brexit: “I believe in sticking together, not in breaking up. The standard of living in England will drop, no question. We never gave Europe a chance.”

Jeremy Irons gets up, packs his things, one of the photographer’s employees helps him. A car has been ordered for him, we walk out of the studio and wait on the street together. Time for one last cigarette, then the car is there.

“Would you like me to take you a little further?” Irons asks. So we drive together for a good quarter of an hour through dark London. Irons himself is still passionate about motorcycling, he says, a BMW R100. “You’re fast and you know exactly where you are. Your senses are sharper because motorcycling is pretty dangerous.” He perceives everything more intensely, the weather, the street, smells. “I bought my bike when I turned 40, I still have the same model and I still remember my first ride clearly. After that I thought: This is absolute freedom.” He beams when he talks about his tours through Italy and France, traveling alone on empty country roads, “a sandwich at a café, a Pernod, a cigarette”. Luckily, Jeremy Irons doesn’t need much more. Or as he puts it himself: “It just suits me.”

Who is the director here? That’s what Jeremy Irons asked earlier in the day. If you have experienced him, listened to him, even when he talks about his motorcycle trips, the answer becomes clear: the director is of course none other than Jeremy Irons himself.

Styled by Paul Mather; makeup Linda DeVetta; photo assistance Claudia Gschwend, Brad Polkinghorne, Oscar Eckel; Produced by Ellen Miller

All photos by Simon Emmett