Jeremy Irons: interview
The actor on pink castles, dry-cleaning fluid and why he would rather go ‘nurdling’ than attend his own film premieres
By John Preston
Published: 10:53AM GMT 15 Mar 2010
I had been planning to ask Jeremy Irons if he still rides a motorbike, but as I’m waiting outside his West London mews house, there is a dark roar from the other end of the mews and he rides up astride a large BMW.
He carefully drapes a tarpaulin over the bike, takes a large Harrods bag out of one of the panniers and unlocks the door.
According to a recent piece in the Daily Mail, Irons is currently going through the mother of all midlife crises, but if he is I must say he’s looking pretty good on it.
At 61, he’s as thin as ever and while his face may be lined and his hair streaked with grey, when he smiles his distinctive grin – simultaneously wolfish and bashful – he looks about 35.
He shows me around, pointing out with obvious pride the alterations he and his wife, Sinead Cusack, have made. Doing up houses, he explains, is the thing that has probably given him the most satisfaction in life. As for acting… Irons gives a kind of lolloping shrug.
‘All right, some things have been admired. You think, OK, but I’m not that great. Filmwise, I invariably look at my work and reckon I could have done it better.
‘I’m also conscious that I’m in a profession where we get more praise than we should compared to the usefulness of what we do.’
He is a singular man. I can’t think of any other actor of comparable stature who would happily invite a journalist into his home at a time when his feelings for journalists might reasonably be veering towards the homicidal.
But then as he says of himself later: ‘I’ve always had a desire to live on the outside. That’s where I’m most comfortable.’
We sit in his study, a small room with shelves full of an eclectic collection of books – Barbara Castle’s memoirs, the latest Colm Toibin novel. There’s no sign of the Oscar he won in 1990 for Reversal of Fortune and I wonder where he keeps it. ‘It’s down in the country,’ he says.
Prominently displayed? ‘No, I’ve got a shelf full of the things. Not Oscars – other awards. I don’t wish to sound blasé, but outside of this country I seem to attract awards. Some of them mean more than others.’
Irons rolls himself a cigarette then fishes in his pocket for a lighter. Instead, he pulls out a large duster. He stares at it in astonishment. ‘What the hell’s that doing there? I must have taken it home with me from rehearsals.’
He’s in the middle of rehearsing Dennis Kelly’s new play, The Gods Weep, which sees his return to the Royal Shakespeare Company after 23 years. He’s playing an immensely rich man who finds himself questioning all that he has achieved.
As Irons always finds whenever he starts work on a new project – and especially so at the moment – people tend to have preconceived notions about him.
‘They do seem to have this strong idea of what I’m like. It’s odd. What I always try to do is say at the beginning: “I’m an absolute c— and I know nothing.” So you strip all those preconceptions away. Besides,’ he adds, not altogether convincingly, ‘I’m actually quite an ordinary bloke.’
I don’t think for a moment that Jeremy Irons is an ordinary bloke. His clothes alone proclaim him as being way out of the ordinary. He has a fondness for big scarves and – as is the case today – his brown corduroys are tucked into his leather boots.
But then I suspect Irons doesn’t really believe it either. Indeed, in almost the next breath, he says that he’s felt different from everyone else for as long as he can remember.
He felt different from his parents as a little boy on the Isle of Wight – his father was a chartered accountant. And at boarding school – which he was off to at seven – he baulked at any attempt to make him conform.
‘They were trying to turn us into these people who “Do Well In The Colonies”. I didn’t like anyone telling me what to do. Never have.’
His schoolboy acts of rebellion were both flamboyant and discreet. ‘I used to have these coloured linings to my jackets – one red and one gold. I also used to wear this very shiny black mac.
‘It seems to me now that I needed to put out signals the whole time saying: “I’m different. I’m not like anyone else.”’
It was while he was at public school – Sherborne – that he first became involved in drama. When he left school – ‘I didn’t have the nous for university’ – Irons toyed with the idea of leading the life of a gipsy.
‘I travelled a lot with my guitar, hitchhiking and busking. I thought about working in a funfair, a circus, or the theatre. One Derby Day, I played in a pub on the edge of Epsom Downs – I had a girlfriend who lived near there. There was a funfair going on. I looked at the caravans that the fairground people lived in and I thought: “F— me, I’m not sure if I can cope with that.”
They were pretty grim – four bunks in each one. Circus I didn’t take too seriously because I’m too big. When I saw this advertisement for the theatre I thought, “I’ll try that”.’
Was he always confident with girls? ‘Well…’ he says, thinking about it. ‘At school, I had this relationship with this girl at the girl’s school in Sherborne. We met outside the dry-cleaners. Even now, the smell of dry-cleaning fluid is one of the most erotic things I can think of.’
Irons says that he’s remained a bit of a gipsy ever since – albeit a staunchly middle-class one. He’s plainly a romantic and I suspect he is a bit of an innocent too.
Not that he’s unsophisticated, far from it. Yet he always seems to have been happy to follow his instincts, not blindly, or heedlessly, but mainly out of fascination to see where they might lead. If at times that’s landed him in trouble, then that’s a price he’s been willing to pay.
Irons likes playing people who have some moral ambivalence to them. He turned down a chance to play Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs – in part because he felt there couldn’t be much moral ambivalence about someone who liked eating people.
‘I like doing edgy things, but at the time I had just done Dead Ringers [in which he played identical twin gynaecologists] and was about to star in Reversal of Fortune [playing the suspected murderer, Claus von Bulow]. I thought I just can’t do it; I’m already too far down this road. And when I saw what Tony Hopkins had done, I thought, thank Christ I didn’t do it.’
Whatever Irons may say, he’s a terrific actor, one with a rare capacity to be both mysterious and sympathetic. In Brideshead Revisited, he even managed to make the paralysingly dull Charles Ryder interesting.
His twin brothers in Dead Ringers were delineated by the subtlest of touches and while no one in their right mind could say that Adrian Lyne’s version of Lolita was a masterpiece, Irons was brilliant at portraying a man at once in thrall to his desires and emptied out by them.
When he first became famous – in Brideshead and shortly afterwards in The French Lieutenant’s Woman – Irons continued to play by his own rules, staunchly, even perversely, refusing to do what was expected of him.
I’d read a story that he didn’t go to the premiere of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but stayed at home re-tiling his kitchen. Was this true? ‘Actually, I was nurdling a floor from some greenhouses that were about to be demolished on Hampstead Heath.’
What’s nurdling? ‘Burgling abandoned property,’ he says with a faintly embarrassed grin. ‘But, in fact, I think I was at the premiere. Maybe it was some other screening I didn’t go to. I can’t remember.’
As for the trimmings of stardom, ‘I’ve never gone for that stuff. Doesn’t interest me. I’ve spent all my money on buildings because I love buildings. So although I’m building-rich [he owns seven houses], I’m not rich rich. You ask my wife or my two sons and they’ll tell you that I ain’t free with the money.’
At times, he says, he’s done jobs just for the money – but not that often. ‘I have played characters where I haven’t been absorbed – you know, what I call a typical film leading man role where you just have to look gorgeous and be attractive and charming. It bores me. I like a bit of dirt, a bit of sand in the oyster.’
Some of Irons’s unconventionality has been deliberate, some inadvertent. Back in 1987, he caused a stink when he smoked a cigarette while sitting next to Princess Diana at a dinner in Newcastle. Nothing so terrible about that – except it happened to be National No Smoking Day.
‘Oh God! It was at this charity do. I said to Diana after the dessert: “Do you mind if I smoke?” She looked at me and said: “You really shouldn’t; it’s not good for you.” And I said: “I know, but I’d really like a cigarette.”
So I had one. I had no idea it was No Smoking Day! Of course, it was really tactless. It made me seem very rude, which I didn’t mean to be…’
Breaking off, he gives a phlegmy smokers’s cough. However inadvertent this was, it still helped to reinforce the idea of Irons’s singularity.
He’s singular in other ways too. When I ask if he has lots of friends, he says: ‘Not really. I’m very open and friendly with people I’m working with, but I’m a very bad friend in that I don’t keep in touch.
‘I do sort of… a bit. I’ve got, I think, one mate who I was at drama school with. He’s wonderful at keeping in touch and because of his example I’ve started doing the same with him. We talk, I suppose, every month.’
On the rare occasions Irons does gravitate towards other people, they tend not to be actors. ‘No, no, the other way around, if anything. When I’m in Ireland, the people I do things with are sailing people or hunting people, and there aren’t that many of them.’
Nine years ago, in Ireland, Irons finished work on the one project that has given him more satisfaction than anything else: restoring Kilcoe Castle in County Cork.
He did a lot of the work himself, spent more than £1million on it and even now is still overcome with a sense of pride and incredulity at what he achieved.
‘Whenever I look at it, I think: “F— me, did I really do that?”’ But having finished the restoration work, Irons did something characteristically unexpected: he painted the castle pink. Or so it was reported in the papers. He, however, insists it’s more of an ochre colour – albeit one ‘which turns brown when it rains’.
At the time I remember thinking that only someone who didn’t give a damn about what anyone else thought of him could have done such a thing.
Was there anything in this? ‘I certainly didn’t want to annoy my neighbours, who I’m on very good terms with. In fact, they all say how much they like it now. But I do think that as you get older, you give a f— less about what people think. That’s one of the wonderful things about age. In many areas, I find I don’t really give a toss.’
Yet other areas still remain contentious − if not in his eyes, then in others’.
At one stage it looked as if our meeting might be cancelled because Irons’s American publicist was worried he might be asked about recent revelations.
In January, a Spanish actress, Loles Leon, was awarded £39,000 in damages from a hotel in Madrid after breaking her wrist and pelvis when she fell down the stairs in Irons’s suite late one night, after arriving with a group of people for a drink.
There have been other incidents too – mostly involving him chatting to models at parties. None of them exactly marked him down as a helpless philanderer, but all were exhaustively documented in that recent Daily Mail article.
How did Irons feel when he read it? He sighs. ‘You live with it,’ he says. ‘The people you worry about are the ones you love – your family. You get a bit cross. You might make a call to your lawyer and say: “Shall we do something about this?” But then you decide it’s crazy, let it go. I’m sort of used to it by now.’
Does he find it embarrassing? ‘I think I’ve developed a skin.’ He lifts a hand. ‘I mean, it’s only newspapers.’ There were also suggestions that Irons and his wife were effectively leading separate lives.
Sinead Cusack is not at home during our interview, but she’s expected back shortly and Irons gives every impression that they’re happy together.
Back in 1998, the two of them were among the largest private donors to the Labour Party. How does he feel now? ‘Disappointed. Very disappointed. It seems such an awful waste. They had such a big majority and there was such a desire for change. I just wish Tony Blair had got more done.’
Increasingly, when Irons looks at the British political system, he dislikes what he sees.
‘I feel there’s far too much government, far too many laws. The hunting ban particularly annoyed me. I do despair slightly at the state of things, but I do nothing so I have no right to despair. If I got off my a—, it would be different – but I don’t.’
He makes himself another cigarette, feeding the tobacco and then a liquorice paper into his rolling machine, then abstractedly spinning the rollers. Flicking his lighter, he leans towards the flame.
Would he say he was a contented man? ‘Ooh…’ he says – it’s part exclamation, part groan. ‘I’ve always believed that the secret to contentment is balance. I try to keep my equilibrium without hurting too many other people.
Sinead sometimes says to me when I’m low, or worried about something: “From where I stand, you have a wonderful life.”
And I have to stop and think: “F— me, I do.” I’m incredibly lucky. I’m absorbed in my work, I get very well paid for it, I have a wonderful family who are all healthy, I have places I love being… Jesus, you can’t ask for anything more than that, can you?’
‘The Gods Weep’ is at Hampstead Theatre until April 3; 0207 722 9301