‘I’m a rogue and a vagabond’: Hollywood’s brought Jeremy Irons huge riches and homes around the world, but here he tells why he’d never live there
Sitting in the Hollywood hotel where we meet on one of his rare trips to LA, Jeremy Irons is telling me he sometimes works for nothing.
A couple of years ago he was bemoaning the fact that he never gets to make independent British movies to his producer friend Jeremy Thomas, who made the thriller Sexy Beast, and Thomas told him the reason was that he was too expensive.
‘I said, “That’s rubbish, because I’ll actually work for nothing if I want to,”’ recalls Irons. ‘So he sent me a script of a film he was producing, which I liked and which had a fairly young director, and I thought, “Right – I’ll do that one!”’
Despite having earned his fame and fortune in Hollywood Jeremy Irons (pictured in his Irish castle) says he is firmly rooted to England and Ireland and says Europeans are incredibly lucky to be in Europe
The result is his role as Anthony Royal in High-Rise, a darkly comic dystopian tale based on the 1975 novel of that name by JG Ballard. The film is set in a 50-storey block of flats that segregates the residents floor by floor according to their affluence.
Royal, the architect who designed the block, lives in the penthouse at the top with his wife, played by Keeley Hawes, while new resident Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) lives on the 27th floor. Life seems idyllic until those lower down the food chain revolt and all hell breaks loose.
Jeremy Thomas has been trying to get the film made for 30 years. It was first shown at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it won rave reviews for its style and originality; it’s also been criticised for the same elements, as well as its lashings of sex and violence and its pessimistic outlook on life.
‘Some people love it, some hate it,’ says Irons. ‘But it’s an interesting script and it was interesting to make. That’s good enough for me!’
It’s 35 years since the young Jeremy Irons, until then best known for playing John the Baptist to David Essex’s Jesus in musical Godspell in 1971, shot to fame: in 1981 he appeared as the idealistic Charles Ryder in the acclaimed TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited just after the release of his first big film, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which also starred Meryl Streep.
He went on to make such memorable movies as Dead Ringers, Damage and Lolita.
Now 67, he’s still one of the hardest-working actors in the business, juggling smaller projects he does for pleasure with larger ones, such as this year’s Assassin’s Creed, an action-adventure movie based on the hit video game series, and the much-awaited Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. It’s these crowd-pleasers, he admits, that make the smaller projects possible.
‘I like a mix,’ he says. ‘I’m not going to turn down Batman v Superman when I get the chance, although I’m not a great fan of that sort of film because I don’t get much of a buzz out of special effects. Assassin’s Creed is based on a game, but I think it stands up well as a movie and possibly there’ll be more.
Michael Fassbender, who stars in it, is lovely to work with. And these movies pay well so one can afford to do smaller pictures too.’
He peers through the hotel window at the reliably azure California sky. ‘That’s one reason I don’t live here in Los Angeles,’ he says, ‘because the weather is normally the same.
In England you never know what you’re going to be greeted with as you draw the curtains in the morning, and I love that.’
He certainly looks the quintessential English gentleman today, elegant in an open-necked white shirt under an impeccably cut grey suit, his hair swept theatrically back, a signet ring glinting on his left little finger; quite refreshingly in the land of blinding white gnashers, his teeth are unapologetically yellowed from the cigarettes he says he has no intention of giving up.
‘Nor, he states firmly, does he have any intention of following the current drain of British actors to the Hollywood Hills.
‘I think we Europeans are hugely privileged to be European,’ he says. ‘I mean, I love visiting this city, but my life in England and Ireland is so much more textured than anything I could have here.
‘Just the food, the countryside, the ability to go sailing or riding without any hassle. I think England and Ireland are two of the most wonderful places on the face of the earth.’
I think England and Ireland are two of the most wonderful places on the face of the earth.
Which is all very well, but what about work opportunities? ‘Aeroplanes are quite quick these days,’ he shrugs. ‘My wife and I did think about moving here once, when we were both doing plays in New York.’
In 1984 and 1985 he was appearing on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing, for which he won a Tony award, while his wife Sinead Cusack was receiving a Tony nomination for her Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.
‘We did think we’d probably get richer if we lived in this country, and maybe have more successful careers. But then I thought, “No, I’d be giving up my roots.” I’m a gardener and know that some plants just do well in a certain place. If you dig them up and plant them in a different corner, they may not do as well. So I thought I’d stay where I was.’
Besides, he adds a little slyly, he’d seen what happened to his Brideshead Revisited co-star Anthony Andrews.
‘When that show finished I stayed in England and didn’t work for a year, then did the film Moonlighting, which was quite successful.
‘My colleague went to Los Angeles and rented a house with his family, and for all the time he was there I think he did four episodes of The Love Boat and that was all. He came home after a year! So I thought, “You know, I think I’m best in Europe.”’
His decision seems to have served him well. He’s reputed to have seven homes dotted around the globe, most notably his Grade II-listed house in Watlington, Oxfordshire, where, according to his son Max, he used to ride around the countryside in a horse and cart, and Kilcoe Castle, in County Cork, which he painted a peach colour, thereby scandalising the locals, and where, he tells me happily, ‘sometimes I don’t hear anything but the wind’.
When he fancies a bit of culture he pops up to Dublin where he and Sinead have a home in the exclusive Liberties area. Not bad for the son of an accountant from the Isle of Wight.
‘I live very simply,’ he says. ‘We actors are rogues and vagabonds and when I’m not telling my stories, that is how I live.
‘I sail my boats with people who sail boats, I ride my horses with people who ride horses, and in the evenings I tend to have a bit of company, but I sit at the back of the gathering.
‘I sing my songs, play my fiddle, and I’m just very happy to be out of the focus of the public eye.’
He says he doesn’t really care for possessions – much. ‘Sometimes I look as if I collect things, but I don’t really, I just don’t throw things away. I’m quite loyal to my things, actually. There was a period when I’d buy paintings I loved, but not in any sort of investment way; it was just that every time I did a movie and made some money I’d buy a painting.
‘And then my walls got full and I started buying bits of sculpture, and now I have about 15 pieces, all of them quite romantic. But I’m getting to the age where I begin to think I should start getting rid of some of these things, because I feel I’ve accumulated too much.
We actors are rogues and vagabonds and when I’m not telling my stories, that is how I live
‘And then I think, “No, I can’t get rid of that one because it reminds me of that time…” But I’m glad my children are now buying their own property because I can hand furniture and pictures on to them.’
Although his marriage to Sinead has been plagued with rumours of infidelity – a subject he’s never keen to discuss publicly, although he did say to me once, ‘I’m a great believer in marriage, it’s a structure that’s hard to get out of and I think it should be that way’ – there’s never been a doubt he’s an affectionate father to sons Sam, 37, a respected photographer, and Max, 30, an actor known for films The Riot Club and Woman In Gold and TV series The White Queen.
He reflects, ‘I suppose there’s nothing more important than your children, even though it’s a rather strange relationship in that they aren’t actually your children at all. They’re people with their own lives, their own souls, their own spirits, who happen to have been growing up in your house.
‘I’m not a particularly hands-on father in that a lot of fathers put huge pressure on their children to become the people they would have liked to have become, and I don’t do that. I remember my elder son once saying to my wife, “Would you and Dad mind if I never became rich and successful?”
‘I said, “What is success? Success is going to bed at the end of the day and sleeping with a clear heart and a clear conscience. That’s the only success we want for you.”’
He does admit, however, that he worries about Max’s choice of career. ‘I don’t think I’d go into the business now if I was Max’s age.
‘It was much easier when I started because we had a wonderful network of repertory theatres which gave actors a huge breeding ground to go and train in.
‘These days young actors don’t have that. They all look for the big TV series where they get made famous very quickly and then spat out after two or three years.
‘One hopes that a child you have brought up has a certain sense, and Max does seem to have it – and he’s also quite good. But it’s still true the business can eat you up, especially if you’re a beautiful young man as Max is. I told him not to be an actor, but he’s enjoying it at the moment, so we’ll see.’
It’s fair to say that ‘beautiful’ would not be the first word you’d attach to Jeremy. The one thing he does have going for him, he agrees ruefully, is that he’s kept his figure. ‘I just have the genes, I think – my mum was very slim, and I have a fast metabolism, as she did. And, of course, I smoke, which reduces my appetite. But mostly, I think, I’m just lucky.’
He pats his grey suit. ‘Strangely enough, I had this made for Damage.’ He smiles, remembering the 1992 erotic drama in which he and Juliette Binoche sizzled on the screen. ‘And it still fits. It’s a little tight in the waist, but it’s all right, I can cope with that.’
He thinks about it, and nods. ‘I’m just fortunate, I think.’
High-Rise is in cinemas nationwide from Friday.