Jeremy Irons on playing Humbert as a career move
Ready to test his mettle again
Scotland on Sunday - Edinburgh,Scotland,UK
... Dragons. The cause, in part, was his risky role as Humbert Humbert in Adrian Lyne's 1997 version of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. ...
Sun 5 Dec 2004
Ready to test his mettle again
JEREMY Irons’ cuttings don’t make pretty reading. Arrogant, cold, aloof and ruthless, these are not qualities that inspire you to meet the man. So when he positively bounces into the Venetian hotel room, gamely apologising for the half-hour delay, it comes as a bit of a shock. As does the fact that he starts constructing a roll-up cigarette in a licorice Rizla.
He is best remembered for playing Charles Ryder in Granada TV’s sumptuous 1980 production of Brideshead Revisited but "that was playing my opposite", Irons says. Yes, he was educated at Sherborne public school, trained to be an actor at Bristol’s Old Vic and even presented children’s institution Play Away, but Irons has always resisted convention.
"I became an actor because I wanted to be a gypsy," he says, adding that, at 56, he still likes nothing better than hopping on his BMW RT100 motorbike and leaving the world behind. "I’m always trying to keep outside what - as an adolescent - I thought was a structured society," he says. "I never wanted to join in. I’ve always thought I was too anarchic."
Irons the anarchist may not have a credible ring to it, but this son of a chartered accountant from the Isle of Wight has a subversive streak that has landed him in trouble on more than one occasion. This year finds Irons finally lifting himself from a slump that has seen him reduced to acting in Hollywood stinkers such The Time Machine and Dungeons and Dragons. The cause, in part, was his risky role as Humbert Humbert in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 version of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Playing a paedophile, however artistically filmed, was a negative career move. He barely worked for three years after, and when he did, it wasn’t worth his while.
It didn’t help that, a year before, he found himself in the eye of a media storm when he agreed to "black up" to play the late Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Muslim revered by Pakistan as their founder. It never came to fruition but the damage was done. "I was getting bored with what I was doing," he says. "The roles, they sort of dry up. People come in and out of fashion. I’d gone through the young leading man phase, and I was on the backslide of that."
This downturn in fortune coincided with his purchase of a dilapidated castle in West Cork in Ireland. For the past six years, he has been refurbishing it, even painting it rusty-pink, much to the chagrin of the locals. Overseeing a crew of 40-odd plumbers, carpenters, electricians and sculptors, he says it cost far more than was warranted. "But then I always think I earn more than is warranted when I work in films, so it was a good equation to put it into a building. I’m especially good at earning a lot of money."
Asked why he decided to rescue this crumbling pile, he says: "I had the arrogance to think I would do it right." His bluntness is endearing in a way, and while he’s anything but self-deprecating, Irons has a dry sense of humour. We drift on to the topic of Kingdom of Heaven, the Ridley Scott-directed Crusades epic that Irons most recently completed. The Moroccan army played extras on set. "I hope for that for all armies," he says. "It’d be nice if the American army acted a bit more instead of going and fighting all the time."
He says he’d like to do more comedy. Irons is the "Clouseau-like" Vatican inquisitor, Pucci, in a version of Casanova, who bumbles around trying to catch the infamous lover (played by Heath Ledger) on the job. "I like to try new things. It’s harder and harder, though. If you get a reputation for being able to do something, everybody asks you to do it."
It’s the story of his life. After wowing critics with his dual role of twins in David Cronenberg’s creepy Dead Ringers in 1988, he sought out cutting-edge projects, most of which backfired. Before reuniting with Cronenberg on the disappointing M Butterfly in 1993, he took the lead in Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka, as well as in Louis Malle’s Damage, in which he played an MP who begins an affair with his son’s partner.
All were critically reviled, losing Irons the goodwill he had gleaned for his 1991 Oscar-winning performance as Claus von Bulow, the society figure accused of murdering his wife, in Reversal of Fortune. Of late, he has found himself out of the loop with Hollywood’s new generation. "I’d like to start working with them, but they all probably think I’m too grand and too expensive."
It may be why, for the three films that have kickstarted his career once again, he has found himself working with veteran directors on projects that whiff of greasepaint. In Callas Forever, a fictionalised account of the last days of Maria Callas in which Irons plays an impresario who coaxes the opera singer out of retirement, it is the Italian Franco Zeffirelli at the helm. He takes much the same role for Hungarian maestro Istvбn Szabу in Being Julia, a Thirties-set drama in London’s theatreland co-starring Annette Bening. Finally, in Michael Radford’s version of The Merchant of Venice, he is Antonio to Al Pacino’s Shylock.
"I’m playing subsidiary characters," he says. "In Merchant I’m not doing very much. And we’ve seen me do all that before. In Being Julia, at least, I play somebody who I’ve played in the theatre - but never on film. A Thirties Englishman with humour."
The film, which sees Irons and Bening enjoy an open relationship, prompts discussion about his own 26-year marriage to actress Sinйad Cusack. They have two grown-up sons, the youngest of whom has just left school.
Yet, dogged by rumours of Irons’ infidelities, their marriage has come in for some heavy scrutiny. They evidently spend a lot of time apart, with Cusack preferring their country home in Oxfordshire to Kilcoe Castle. "My wife prefers to be in England, although she comes over to Ireland sometimes," he says. "But my horses are there, my dogs are there, my boat is there... my life is there."
So what’s the secret of a long-lasting marriage? "The secret is to get through the new day. It’s like not smoking. Don’t smoke the next cigarette. And with a wife, get through the next day."
Irons recently turned down the role of Lord Marchmain in a forthcoming big-screen version of Brideshead Revisited, on the grounds that he wouldn’t be able to compete with Laurence Olivier who played the role on TV.
Irons remains disinterested in Hollywood. "My choice not to live in the States was the biggest choice on my career," he says. "I have no regrets. I may have been more successful, richer, more famous if I’d lived there, but I don’t think I’d have been happy. I don’t like living over the shop."
The Merchant of Venice, Being Julia and Callas Forever are on general release