Irons' Curtain

Jeremy Irons has made a career of masterfully playing extreme and elusive characters. Jo Durden-Smith peeks behind the personae.

It's the Last Night of the Proms in London's Royal Albert Hall, one of those occasions that the British refer to when asked to define who they are. Nominally, it's merely the finale of a series of classical-music concerts given each summer—for more than a century now. But somehow or other, over the years, it's been transformed into a raucous celebration of the national identity. The first half has presented—as it always does—something of a challenge: We have had Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani, and Esa-Pekka Salonen's Giro. But now it is downhill all the way towards no-holds-barred foot-stomping and sing-along: Elgar's Rule, Britannia!and Sir Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea-Songs. In the well of the hall, the standing, swaying spectators are already a regiment on the march, waving flags like battle standards; the tiers and boxes above are a blurred riot of red, white, and blue, of Union Jack ties and hats, dresses and vests.

Into the middle of this web of frolicsome patriotism walks Jeremy Irons, dressed in a white tuxedo, with a pink carnation in his lapel. It's the 100th anniversary of the birth of NoÖl Coward, and Irons has been invited to sing (for the first time) some of his songs. As he makes his way past the second violins, you can feel the yells and chanting that greet him deepen and soften into a new note, a buzz of appreciative recognition. It's as if the audience is saying to itself: "Ah yes, Jeremy Irons—Brideshead Revisited and The French Lieutenant's Woman; an Oscar; international star and flyer of the British flag. It is an ideal match! He's a modern version of Coward: secretive, suave, ironic—a proper English gentleman-actor. What a good idea!" And as the players are rapped to order for the opening bars of Coward's anthem to oddness, "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," the audience lets out a huge, anticipatory, let's-go-then cheer.

Irons rips into the song at a furious lick, taking the words by the scruff. And though he doesn't have Coward's high breathy tone—and breaks up a bit at the top of his range—he's a good enough amateur tenor to remind the audience that he first appeared in London's West End, aged 25, in a musical: as John the Baptist in Stephen Schwartz's Godspell. What he does do to a T, however, is to perform Coward, as if Coward were a character, a comedic extension of himself and his screen persona: handsome but guarded, louche, sardonic, disguised, and distant—like everyone from Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited to Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune, the identical-twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers and Humbert Humbert in Lolita. It's a star-actor's performance, pitched high and tight—its occasion deliberately chosen to announce a comeback. (He's started work again after taking a year and a half off to rebuild for his family a ruined castle in Ireland.) It is also incredibly brave to attempt such a calculated performance surrounded by professional musicians in front of an uncritical public hopelessly in love, for this one evening, with Englishness. Only by the third song, in fact, "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage," Coward's lordly, actorish put-down of a would-be stage recruit, does it begin to pay off. With the added irony that the man singing it has not actually acted in the theater since 1987 (Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing on Broadway and a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company).

"It was madly courageous," I say to Irons two days later as he walks into a fashionable London restaurant. Today he's dressed as himself: wearing tailored, long-sleeved overalls and knee-high leather boots— like an aristocratic World War II fighter-pilot, just back from a sortie and now off to a fox hunt without having had time to change. "What on earth persuaded you to do it?"

"The idea scared me," he says, laughing. Then, as Irons settles his long, lean frame into a chair: "You know, the more you do, the older you get, the harder it is to find things that really test you, require something different from you. I like risk. It's like surfing, or horseback jumping—taking a fence," he adds as he orders a Kir Royale. "You work towards a state of mind; you do your best to time it. But as you take off, you just don't know what's going to happen, how you're going to land. Some other actors are different," he continues, as the waiter hands him a menu—which he immediately puts aside. "Ben Kingsley, for example [with whom he starred in the film of Harold Pinter's Betrayal], is always absolutely prepared, character-perfect. I can't do that. I stand outside a closed door—outside the green door, like in The Pajama Game—prepared for anything, to take on anything. Then I open the door and face whatever comes—partly to scare myself and partly because I know that if there's to be any magic, it's outside my control."

"And is that why you agreed to play the twins in Dead Ringers? Because of risk?"

"In a way, yes. Robert de Niro and Bill Hurt had already turned it down, and everyone told me not to do it" (including his wife, the actress Sinéad Cusack).

"And Lolita? The same?"

"Yes—but mostly in the end because of director Adrian Lyne, his enthusiasm. He'd talked to me about it about ten years before—he said I'd make a great Humbert when I was a little older. Well, he worked on the script a long time, and then he said he wanted me. I said no—I just thought I had played too many weirdos, too many creepy outsiders; and I wanted a Boy Scout role, a Bond script, something in that area. So he looked at others, a lot of others—Hugh Grant, Warren Beatty, to name but two—and afterwards Lyne came back and asked me again. And again I said no. But then in the end I changed my mind, really because of Adrian's passion. You know, this business is so cynical and pragmatic. I put myself in Adrian's position, and I thought that if I had come this far and the person I really wanted turned me down, I'd be really pissed off. Adrian also, I have to say, said I was only turning it down out of political correctness, and of course at that moment my hackles went up."

At this point—as the 51-year-old Irons leans over a cigarette roller, from which he ultimately produces a series of perfectly rolled brown-paper cigarettes—I should declare a small interest. For about 12 years ago, the television company that hired Irons to play the melancholy Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited asked me to dramatize a book of mine about a foray I once made into the paranoid world of radical politics in California. Somewhere along the line there was a suggestion that Irons might play the lead: i.e., me. In the end, as it happens, nothing came of it. But one night I went to see him play Richard II with the Royal Shakespeare Company; and afterwards, with two people from the television company, we had dinner to discuss the project.

At the time he'd recently come back from Broadway, where he'd won a Tony for his performance opposite Glenn Close in The Real Thing. Now he was—as he puts it today—"paying his dues" in his native country. "People were very nice to me in New York, but I thought, 'Hang on. There are hundreds like me at home.' I wanted to do difficult stuff: Leontes in The Winter's Tale, Richard II." I thought he was very good as Richard II, particularly good at the king's melancholy, his plangent poetry. ("Bits were all right," he says modestly now.) But what I mostly remember about that night, as we order, is the peculiar experience of having to assess him—first across the footlights, and then across the table (as I'm doing now)—as an actor, as a person, and as a dramatic character simultaneously.

He was, as he is now, quite charming and thoughtful and, on the surface, at any rate, very English middle-class—as well he might be. For he is the youngest child of an accountant and his wife; he was raised on the Isle of Wight, a comfortable little rural enclave off the south coast of England; he went to a "public"—i.e., private—school. His first ambition, he notes, was to be a vet, but he failed his science exams; and though the school magazine "predicted a future for me in 'histrionic art'—whatever that might be—the headmaster thought I'd probably join the Marines or the Parachute Regiment." Instead he went to work, "alongside two worker-priests," in a parish in southeast London. For extra cash he "busked in the West End, singing and playing guitar to cinema queues." And when his time in the parish was done, Irons applied for a job as an assistant stage manager and walk-on bit-player at a repertory theater in Canterbury. Arriving there, he says now, was a revelation.

"I was brought up in this structured little society. My education and schooling had qualified me perhaps to be a banker. Well, the people in Canterbury were completely different: gypsies, night people, those living outside the system. I didn't particularly want to act. I just wanted to be with them."

So far, so predictable: a repressed middle-class English boy discovering a new world, his own private Bohemia. And the rest of Irons' early career is, on the surface, equally run-of-the-English-mill. He applied to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School; was accepted; "learned fencing, singing a bit;" married a fellow student; and was just memorable enough to be hired (with her) into the theater's own repertory company. But somewhere along the way, perhaps through the recollection of his parents' divorce (when he was 13), perhaps through the quick failure of his first marriage, he acquired a characteristic I recognized the first time I saw him onstage, and that I recognize in him now as he lolls, talking amiably of his Irish home. It's a guardedness—something habitually withheld—which makes his patent Englishness a sort of disguise, something to be manipulated and subtly subverted. It's a kind of interior exile, and at the same time an ability to look at himself from outside, to control his performance; and it's what Harold Pinter, who wrote the script for The French Lieutenant's Woman, recognized in him, I think, when he worked with him on TV; why he recommended him to Karel Reisz, the film's director. ("Most actors want to be liked," he's believed to have said, "but Irons does not mind being unlikeable.") It's the reason he was able to play Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited as the secretive, self-absorbed snob that he was, and yet at the same time make the audience like him. And it's at the root of his unique capacity, on film, to suck us inside the skin of deluded idealists and men with a hidden and complex interior life, like Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune, a performance that won him an Academy Award in 1991, and of which The New York Times quite rightly said: "Mr. Irons comes very close to being too good to be true."

Someone once said that if an actor is to become a star, he or she has to choose it; and Irons—though he describes it as "becoming my own man"—can remember exactly when he did. "It was while we were shooting Brideshead in Manchester," he says as he tucks into his carbonara. "The original shoot was from October to March, finishing in time for me to shoot The French Lieutenant's Woman." However, a technicians' strike put back the schedule by four months, and when Reisz did call to offer Irons the part, opposite Meryl Streep, Granada Television refused to release him from his contract. ("Take the Champagne out of the fridge, but don't open it," Reisz told Irons.) Irons went to London to consult a leading trial lawyer, who told him that if Granada took him to court over his contract, he'd probably win, but it wouldn't get to court for at least a year.

"So I went back to Manchester with my tail between my legs. I was in a horrible hotel on my own at the time—I remember the room, prisonlike, gray. I had a dry martini. Here I am, I thought, 'thirty, offered a big movie opposite Meryl Streep—and I've always said that my career would start in earnest at the beginning of my thirties.' " At this point, he explains, he could have just shrugged his shoulders: "Well, you win some, you lose some." But instead he had another dry martini over dinner and then wrote a letter to Denis Foreman, the boss of Granada. "I said that I believed I was in the right, and that if I was refused the release I would leave. They could sue me, I knew, for five million pounds [$8 million]; I could be banned by the union. But if Foreman didn't agree by six o'clock the following day, I would walk."

The next morning he had the letter hand-delivered and got on with filming. He heard nothing, tried to find out if Foreman had received the letter, and was told that he was busy. So at the end of the day, Irons simply got into his Volkswagen and drove home to London.

"It was the moment in my life when I grew up and became my own man. I was in Hampstead, Sinéad was in Stratford; and my agent called to say the shit had really hit the fan. So I went out to the premiere of Starlight Express. I partied all night, then I had lunch with my agent the next day. There was a phone call to the restaurant: I was summoned for tea at Granada's London headquarters, where I found an angry Denis Foreman, who told me he felt personally betrayed. I said I felt the same. There was a very frosty atmosphere. But finally Denis said: 'All right, all right.' If I went straight back to work, he'd have a deal for me within four days. He was a man of his word. The deal was that the film would pay part of the costs of the TV layoff while Granada would take a stake in the film." Within eighteen months, with the release of Brideshead and The French Lieutenant's Woman more or less simultaneously, Irons was a star on both sides of the Atlantic.

As we sit in the restaurant, talking on into the afternoon, I try to equate this raffishly charming and apparently open man with some of the things I've heard about him from other actors: that he's standoffish and calculating; treats his profession as a business; and is sometimes difficult to work with. He's clearly not very actorly: He has none of the trade's mannerisms or penchant for inside gossip. He describes himself as a loner, "a gypsy, not much good in groups," and says his friends tend to be people who have nothing at all to do with either movies or the theater.

And yet, for all this, there's nothing remotely shy or self-absorbed about him. ("When I'm not working, I don't feel like an actor. When I go to the theater, I feel like a plumber.") He likes risk, he says: He rides motorbikes; he goes hunting. Indeed risk—the need to frighten and test himself—is a subject he keeps coming back to. He reminisces about the day on The Mission when he persuaded director Roland Joffé to let him, instead of his stand-in, climb Iguaçú Falls in southern Brazil.

"I was roped to the man climbing alongside me, who was out of the picture. And when I got to the top, I simply lay on my stomach and unclipped the rope. The camera zoomed in and I got up and walked away, so that people could say, 'He really did it! It really is the priest!' It was a wonderful if exhausting experience!"

He even describes the year and a half he took off work to restore the ruin he'd bought in Ireland as "a test, a risk, something that scared me," and it's hard not to see this project as a symbolic rebuilding of himself—as well as of his marriage and his relationship with his two children. His wife is Irish, from a famous Irish acting dynasty; and he first saw the castle, he says, with "Sinéad standing in front of it, wearing a shawl, staring out to sea." Since then he has spent a fortune on it—"more money than sense," employing and working alongside up to 40 craftsmen. He is philosophical about the money—"I have more money than I need, and the castle costs more money than it is worth. It seems a fair exchange."

Jeremy Irons, then, has changed—"I think I'm less fussy than I was"—and now he's back in business, looking weather-beaten, fit, at least 10 years younger than his age, and with that insidious, sonorous voice of his in equally good shape. He is also raring to act. "I'd like to do theater again," he says as the coffee arrives, "but something relevant to today, not the sort of thing that people have offered me in the past—revivals of Camelot or Man of La Mancha. I would like to work at the National Theatre with Trevor Nunn; and I would love to do what Gielgud was able to do, to renew his career with modern writers." Harold Pinter, he tells me, finished a farce last week—"I don't know where he is going to do it. But I said to him: 'If you've got a part for a tall, good-looking, thirty-five-year-old with all the best lines, count me in.'" And he laughs.

Before we go, I ask him one last question: about how on earth he's able to put together—in little snippets, over the long period of a shoot—the sort of complex characters he has characteristically played. At first he compares the process to being a patchwork quilt-maker—"You choose the fabrics. You cut the shapes and stitch them together as well as you can." But then he stops for a moment, and says: "I think I'm very different from Sinéad. I'm protective of myself—I love privacy, secrecy. So I see myself as a sort of Advent calendar, each scene opening another little window. I like holding things back, making the audience come to me.

"I mean, look at the person at the next table," he says. "There's an inherent story there—but he or she's not showing everything. You're going to search for it. What's on offer is a partial performance. We never really know one another; we're affected by how others see us. All that is what I try to get at."

And suddenly—as he stands up to say hello to the restaurant's owner—I begin to think of Jeremy Irons as a spy.

It's not just a matter of his early background: the assumption made by his headmaster that he'd be a parachutist or a Marine. Nor is it his avowed love of danger, of risk. It's both these things, plus "secrecy" plus "holding things back," not to mention the subtle subversion of Englishness effected by many of the characters he's played: the politician who has an affair with his son's girlfriend in Damage, for example; the publisher in Betrayal, who has an affair with his best friend's wife; and the icy, English-educated Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune, who may or may not be guilty of attempted murder. As he charms the restaurant's owner, lines from some of his films jump into my head: "She's an actress, Bev . . . You never know who she really is" (Dead Ringers), and "Course I care, Alan. I just don't wear my heart on my sleeve" (Reversal of Fortune).

Jeremy Irons, I think as we go upstairs for our coats, is certainly not the proper English gentleman-actor the audience in the Albert Hall took him for. He's something odder and much more contrived. It is said that all good writers are spies. Perhaps all great actors are too. I can't help thinking, as we shake hands on the street outside and he makes for his motorcycle, that Jeremy Irons would have made a marvelous James Bond, or—if his headmaster had been in touch with John Le Carré's "talentspotters" at the time—a formidable MI6 agent. Even the motorcycle fits the picture. For it offers everything Jeremy Irons seems to want out of life—danger, anonymity, disguise.