He has won every award going, including an Oscar for Best Actor. But there’s one gong that Jeremy Irons doesn’t want – a knighthood.
In an interview with Event magazine today, the star insists he would never accept the top honour. ‘I don’t see the point of it,’ he says. ‘There are so many people who do amazing work which is unheralded and unrecognised. I do what I do because I like doing it. I’m well paid for it. I get far too much adulation compared with what it’s worth.’
The immaculately spoken Irons, 67, rose to fame playing Charles Ryder in the popular ITV period drama Brideshead Revisited, but he pulls no punches with his views on the aristocracy.
He says: ‘I just didn’t fit in. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the manners – there’s a sort of unspoken code among people in that world, which I want to kick at, I want to hit.’ He is also scathing about his last box office hit, Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, in which he played the butler Alfred. Irons calls the film ‘very muddled’.
His new film Race sees him return to a more serious subject. Race tells the story of black US athlete Jesse Owens, who triumphed at the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany.
The Oscar-winning actor shares his frank views on everything from his latest hit film Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (‘It was very muddled’) to Brexit (‘My instinct has always been anti-European’) and knighthoods (‘I don’t see the point of it’)
‘Really, ambition has gone. I look for things that tickle my fancy. You begin to see the end of life on the horizon. You think, “It’s not going on for ever, this. Let’s make the most of what time I have left”,’ said Jeremy Irons
‘I don’t like rules,’ says Jeremy Irons with a lazy growl like Scar, the creature he voiced in The Lion King.
The Oscar-winning actor takes a long drag on a hand-rolled cigarette, stares into the middle distance and says he cares less about what people think of him with every passing year.
‘I don’t mind getting older. I’m enjoying not having that raging ambition I’ve had all my life,’ says the 67-year-old, who admits that in the past he trod ‘the very thin line between being a perfectionist and a…’
The word he uses is not suitable for print, but then Irons has a reputation for speaking his mind in spectacular fashion.
He had to apologise for using the f-word on Radio 2 earlier this year and was widely attacked a few years ago for suggesting same-sex marriage could lead to men marrying their sons.
‘I will forever be playing Devil’s Advocate,’ he says, and he’ll do that again today, being surprisingly rude about his latest hit film and sharing his frank views on everything from Brexit (‘My instinct has always been anti-European’) to knighthoods (‘I don’t see the point of it’).
Irons as Avery Brundage in the Jesse Owens biopic Race. ‘He’s a man who knows how to play dirty. He cares about sport over everything else,’ he said
Irons is a Hollywood superstar and still a heart-throb with his wolfish, aristocratic looks, but he is also a great serious actor, one of the few to win the triple crown of a Tony for theatre (The Real Thing in 1984), an Oscar on film (Reversal Of Fortune in 1990) and an Emmy for television (Elizabeth I in 2006).
‘I feel sort of slightly retired,’ he says as we sit outside The Orangery café at Kensington Palace, west London.
But he’s got a funny way of showing it. Irons has produced an extraordinary amount of work this year for someone who says his career is over.
He’s about to play yet another of his brittle mavericks, the real-life construction tycoon Avery Brundage, who does a deal with the Nazi high command in Race, a film about Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
‘He’s a man who knows how to play dirty. He cares about sport over everything else.’
This follows hard on the heels of his highly acclaimed performance as an Oxford professor in The Man Who Knew Infinity, a movie about a maths genius. And Irons has just finished performing Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Bristol Old Vic, where he trained as a classical actor.
‘It did make me reflect on getting older, but I have those reflections every day. I’m just a bit stiffer.’
We’re only a ten-minute stroll from his London home but Irons has come dressed for the country in posh wellies, black jeans, a heavy, rusty-red fleece and a wax jacket, with the wide brim of a floppy farmer’s hat pulled down over his eyes.
Irons’ wife Sinead Cusack and their youngest son, Max. ‘When I met Sinead I thought, there’s a Celt, there’s a wild one. A bit of that in my blood is what we need,’ he said
It’s a kind of disguise but the elegant prowl, the exquisite manners – with a touch of the arm to ask if I want coffee – and the voice like a lord idly trying to seduce a chambermaid, these are all unmistakably his.
‘Really, ambition has gone,’ he insists. ‘I look for things that tickle my fancy. You begin to see the end of life on the horizon. You think, “It’s not going on for ever, this. Let’s make the most of what time I have left.”’
That gives him the freedom to be entertainingly frank, starting with his most recent film, Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, in which he played the loyal British butler Alfred. It was popular at the box office but got an absolute kicking from the critics.
‘Deservedly so. I mean it took £800 million, so the kicking didn’t matter but it was sort of overstuffed…’
He lets those words hang in the air, then laughs at the thought of a film described by one critic as the most incoherent blockbuster in years.
‘It was very muddled. I think the next one will be simpler. The script is certainly a lot smaller, it’s more linear.’
There’s no getting out of it now.
‘I’m tied into The Batman at the minute [the next instalment, Justice League Part One, is due next year], which is nice because it’s a bit of income…’
He knows exactly why I’m smiling at this, given that his worth has been estimated at £10 million.
‘Not that I need a bit of income but it’s nice to keep ticking over.’
Irons with Anthony Andrews in Brideshead Revisited, 1981. ‘I just didn’t fit in. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the manners – there’s a sort of unspoken code among people in that world, which I want to kick at,’ he said
His Alfred was the highlight of the movie: not the passive butler of the past but a bodyguard and ally in battle. This turns out to be based on a real-life encounter with an oil billionaire and the men who made up his domestic staff.
‘I had dinner a few times with Paul Getty, who was a neighbour of mine in Oxfordshire.
‘You’d arrive for dinner and there’d be a very nice man to open the gate, a very nice man to park your car, another very nice man to take your coat and another very nice man to give you some champagne. They were all ex-SAS. So the whole place was surrounded by this level of threat, and I thought, “Yeah, that’s Alfred.”
‘If I was Mr and Mrs Wayne and I had a young son I thought could be kidnapped, killed or whatever because of his wealth, I’d make sure his guardian – his tutor, his mate – was somebody pretty capable.’
That’s a typical Irons story, illustrating the company he keeps in high society.
‘Yeah, but I’m not part of that.’
Even when he has dinner with Paul Getty?
‘No! I have dinner with Paul Allen.’
He’s referring to the co-founder of Microsoft, the somewhat reclusive inventor, philanthropist and investor with a wealth approaching $18 billion. That’s not a very persuasive argument for ordinariness.
Avery Brundage stood up for Jesse Owens (played by Stephan James), the black athlete, but may have collaborated with the Nazis on their plans for an imposing embassy in Washington
‘The wonderful thing about being a known quantity is that you get to meet the best people in the world. You may not hang out for long with them but you get to have lunch or dinner or whatever.
‘The first time I did a play on Broadway, in would walk Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Diana Ross, we’d sit and chat and have a cup of tea, and I thought, ‘I’m so ****ing lucky.’
‘The terrible thing is, I could never write a book because I can’t remember what we said.’
Irons likes to see himself as an outsider, ‘a rogue and a vagabond’ who would never accept a knighthood (and actors have won them for less).
‘I don’t see the point of it. There are so many people who do amazing work which is unheralded and unrecognised.
‘I do what I do because I like doing it. I’m well paid for it. I get far too much adulation compared with what it’s worth.
‘Society needs storytellers, but I’ve always thought artists should stir the s***.’
How does he square that with hanging out at Buckingham Palace for a reception for British Oscar winners?
‘The Queen wasn’t there, it was Charlie. I’m not part of that.’
‘That’ means the aristocracy, despite having come to fame as Charles Ryder, who becomes the intimate friend of Lord Sebastian Flyte (played by Anthony Andrews, carrying a teddy bear at all times) in the acclaimed ITV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.
Irons is the son of an accountant from the Isle of Wight but Brideshead made it very cool to be posh in the early Eighties and he was invited to join those who really were.
Irons as Alfred in Batman v Superman, 2016 which attracted negative reviews but took £800 million. ‘The kicking didn’t matter but it was sort of overstuffed… It was very muddled,’ he said
‘I just didn’t fit in. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the manners – there’s a sort of unspoken code among people in that world, which I want to kick at, I want to hit.’
He almost snarls when he says that and searches for the word to describe their sense of privilege.
‘Unthinking. It’s a terrible generalisation but I just didn’t feel comfortable.’
By then he had already married a second wife, the Irish actress Sinead Cusack in 1978.
‘I am too much of a Scot and an Anglo-Saxon. I need some Celt there.
‘When I met Sinead I thought, there’s a Celt, there’s a wild one. A bit of that in my blood is what we need.’
They split up briefly, early in the marriage, but have been together since, despite rumours on both sides.
Irons was photographed kissing the French actress Patricia Kaas on a Soho street in 2002, after which he said: ‘I’m a very tactile person but it gets me into trouble.’
Gossip writers have also linked him at various times with glamorous younger women, including the heiress Francesca Bortolotto Possati, the Iranian author Maryam Sachs and Emina Ganic, executive director of the Sarajevo Film Festival. So how has he kept his marriage going?
‘Oh! One day at a time, you do it,’ he says, chuckling as he lights up again.
His first big movie role was in The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1981, but his fame reached new heights when he was the voice of Scar in The Lion King and played the villain in Die Hard With A Vengeance in the mid-Nineties.
His first big movie role was in The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1981 (opposite Meryl Streep)
His character in Race is another outsider: Avery Brundage, the real-life property speculator who represented the American Olympic Committee at the 1936 Games in Germany.
Brundage stood up for Owens, the black athlete, but may have collaborated with the Nazis on their plans for an imposing embassy in Washington. He certainly cut a deal to leave two Jewish runners out of the final relay race, so as not to offend Hitler.
‘David Puttnam, a neighbour of mine in Ireland, knew Brundage later in life and said: “He was an absolute out-and-out s***.” I said: ‘“Well OK, that’s how you read him.”
‘I’ve never believed in good and bad, black and white, God and the Devil. We make constant choices and try to get it as right as we can, and sometimes we fall over the line.’
Race pulls no punches, comparing racism in America in the Thirties to the Nazi way of thinking.
‘I said to Stephen [Hopkins, the director]: “We must make this with the attitude of the time, because history sweetens everything.”
‘People were talking about racial superiority in every country of the world then, certainly in America.’
The action takes place before the gas chambers.
‘They didn’t know all that was happening in Germany, just as we only know partly what is happening now in Syria and places where people are being murdered.’
Would Jeremy Irons have stood up to the Nazis?
‘It’s impossible to tell. One is surprised by how people work under pressure.’
He was one of Labour’s biggest donors in the days of Tony Blair but is disenchanted with politicians on all sides now, with the EU referendum looming.
‘Elections are like a game show. It’s miserable, crazy.
‘I mean, I agree that the Brexiteers are a slightly suspicious lot – but then anybody who has an instinct to play against the game is very easily suspected. What are their motives?’
Irons with Glenn Close in Reversal Of Fortune, 1990 for which he won an Oscar.
‘I don’t have prejudices because I spend my life playing people of completely different ways of thought,’ he said
Does he have any sympathy with their views?
‘I do, because I don’t like rules. I think we have too many from Brussels. I think it’s very difficult for small businesses, all the red tape which we follow because we’re English. The French I don’t think do.
‘I don’t like the idea of the European Parliament eating up the sort of money it does, just to keep going.
‘And of things being decided quite outside our voting realm. So my instinct has always been non-European.’
However, there is a caveat.
‘The world is in a fairly volatile position. I don’t think it’s the time to break up unions. I think it’s the time to hold them together and try to make them better.’
He’s more European than most of us, living in both England and Ireland.
‘I think it’s the Scotsman in me – or as an actor, because I’ve never known where the next job is coming from – but I’ve always been very cautious and I like to see the money working.
‘So I’ve renovated a few houses and fallen in love with them and kept them.’
He rebuilt Kilcoe Castle in west Cork from a ruin and painted it peach. Didn’t the locals call it an eyesore?
‘That was a storm in a teacup. You only have to go down there and see all the other colours to see that actually mine’s quite natural. It’s often a grey sky there, so you paint your house a bright colour.’
He may be about to let the castle go, though.
‘I wouldn’t be too sad to sell, because as you get older you think, “I don’t need all this stuff.’’’
A far more serious controversy came in 2013 when he said he was worried about the implications of same-sex marriage becoming legal: ‘If I wanted to pass on my estate without death duties I could marry my son.’
Scar, who he voiced for The Lion King, 1994
There was outrage at that. He wasn’t misquoted, so did he really mean to say it?
‘Absolutely not. I was just wondering how things would change. You change one thing and there’s a knock-on effect.’
His son Max, who is also an actor, said: ‘I remember thinking, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re thinking through a problem out loud.’’’
That is indeed what Irons says he was doing.
‘I will forever be playing Devil’s Advocate, just because I like a good discussion, and from that I begin to work out what I actually feel.
‘I don’t have prejudices because I spend my life playing people of completely different ways of thought, but I love trying to find out, ‘What do you think? What do I think?’’
For the benefit of the doubt, where does he really stand on same-sex marriage?
‘I think anything that makes people happy should be encouraged.’
He and Sinead have raised two sons: Sam is a photographer.
‘My kids are hard-working and pretty balanced, they haven’t been brought up in a very wealthy environment, it was normal.
‘Privileged, yes, but not flamboyantly wealthy. So I know their values are absolutely right, and if they need a roof over their head and or other help then yes, I’ll do that.’
He’s relaxed about that, as it seems he is about everything. Irons takes out liquorice papers and tobacco and rolls another cigarette, very expertly.
‘I had a very fine doctor for a film check-up, who said: “You’re pretty fit. You’re a smoker. Don’t try and give it up.
‘You live a very pressured life, whatever you’re doing is working. Try and keep it down to 12 a day, if you can.” For me it’s a sort of meditation, it calms me.’
Presumably there are lots of people telling him he should stop?
‘Always have been.’
But he’s not going to stop. He doesn’t like rules. Tell him not to do or say something and he’ll want to do or say it straight away.
Jeremy Irons takes another long drag, grins and says: ‘Well, quite!’
‘Race’ is released on June 3