By Douglas A Armstrong
The Milwaukee Journal – January 25, 1987
Cannes, France – Jeremy Irons offered his interviewer two conflicting impressions. One was classically British. This was tea, after all. Delicate little sandwiches with the crusts sliced off. Wedges of cake. And would you prefer lemon or milk?
Even without linen and silver trappings, Irons has a certain unmistakable elegance. Something about his manner. Perhaps it’s because the man is so intellectually scrupulous, his thoughts framed in a style of speech that has a kind of music. English as it was meant to be spoken. With precision.
The other impression formed on this occasion at a hotel in Cannes, France, was entire different. Irons’ beard and hair were sun-streaked and unkempt. He wore sunglasses to tea. He had on stone-washed jeans and sneakers and a cotton jacket. He looked, in short, like a beach bum.
And there was the matter of his peculiar jewelry.
“This?” he said fingering the beaded necklace when I asked about it.
“This was made by the Guarani Indians, yes.”
He pronounces the word Gwarh-a-nee like an imperialist whose conscience is not completely comfortable with it. It’s a subject he will talk only sparingly about. Any significance in the necklace’s design?
“Blue wards off the evil eye,” he said. “When you come to Cannes, you have to be very careful.”
Irons was in Cannes for the international launching of his latest movie, “The Mission,” at last year’s film festival. The film went on to win the festival’s top prize and now seems destined for Academy Award honors as well.
“The Mission” is an overpowering epic about a Jesuit priest (Irons) and a mercenary slave trader (Robert DeNiro) working in the jungles of Columbia, inhabited in the 18th century by Guarani Indians. The film opened in Milwaukee Jan. 16.
Listening to the tape of our conversation the other day, the strinking thing was the string of contradictions that seems to define Irons as a man and a performer. Beginning with hearing a classic Shakespearean actor praise the joys of a rugged, dangerous climb up a sheer rock cliff, showered by the mist from a 200-foot waterfall for a spectacular scene in the film.
“I love all that physicality,” he said. “I find most films rather boring. And if someone tells me I have to climb a waterfall, that’s grist to my mill. I think, ‘Thank God I don’t have to sit on a chair and be fanned by second assistants all day. I can actually get up.’
“All of the climbing I did myself. I was on a rope on the distant shots, on a harness. It was very tiring. At times it was frightening. But I love that, testing. “
“There was one very long day of shooting — getting that long shot — I had to keep going up there. It was very , very cold. The falls make a great wind, which is a wet wind.
“When I got back to the hotel that night I got a very hot bath and I went to sleep thinking, “There are men who did this originally. Men of stronger spirit than me or anyone that I know. Extraordinary men.’
“So when you say, ‘Was it hard?,’ the hard thing for me was that I knew I was representing hundreds of men who had done what I was pretending to do in reality over the last 400 years. Men of Christ. And I didn’t want in any way to sell them short, sell their memory short.
“That was much harder than any physical.”
Irons is not a particularly religious man. So, for the spiritual side of his character, Gabriel, the challenge to Irons was to overcome an old habit of his, to discover some theological path to his work (through some unorthodox chats with God) and to open himself up completely.
“No one is interested in a priest on the outside,” he said. “So one has to find his soul and possess that. All of my time was taken up with that.”
And how does one discover the soul of a priest?
“I listened to it,” he said. “If I were this man, I would talk to God before I did a scene. Which is something I don’t do.
“But I would say to Him: ‘This is a tricky one. If I . . . .it up, it’s going to reflect badly on You. So help me in this. Just concentrate on me. Just for this scene. Just get me through it as You would like me to go through it.’”
Not actually praying, but thinking how Gabriel might?
“It sounds very coy, but it’s true.”
Irons put some of his faith as well in director Roland Joffe, whose film, “The Killing Fields,” he greatly admired and whose technique inspired confidence.
“I felt he understood me very well,” Irons said. “We have similar backgrounds, Roland and I, which I felt would give me the opportunity to hand over completely my trust to him, which I had never done before.
“I’ve always kept a sort of watchful directorial third eye upon what I was doing. I knew I had to get rid of it because it does make my work a little bit restrained, studied.
“So I gave it all to Roland. And I said, ‘I will do exactly what you want me to do. I will not ask for more takes. I will not worry where the camera is, where the lights are — all of those things that one is normally aware of. I will just absorb myself in the character, and do with me what you will.’
“And I must say, last night, watching the picture, I felt my trust being rewarded because I thought he served me very well.”
“The Mission” is Irons’ sixth film, most of them European. In “Moonlighting,” he speaks Polish. “Swann in Love” was filmed entirely in French. So, other than the television series “Brideshead Revisited,” Irons is probably best known in this country for “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” with Meryl Streep, and for his Tony-winning Broadway performance in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.”
“I’ve been very passive about film for a while,” he said. “So I wanted to do a picture which I hoped would break in America.”
The neglect of films reflects a slight preference Irons has for his stage work.
“I don’t have the misfortune to be able to watch my theater work,” he said. “Judgmentally, I enjoy it more for not being able to watch it.
“Doing it, I enjoy them both. They’re both so different. They call on different qualities. And I enjoy them in different ways. I would not want to be without either. And I hope in my career to be able to keep them both.”
In addition to the urge to reactivate his film career, Irons was also attracted to “The Mission” for the challenge of playing opposite “a consummate film actor,” Robert DeNiro.
“Bob always wants to go on and on and on,” Irons said, when I asked whether it was true that DeNiro often asked to shoot additional takes of a scene. “And one can forgive him because when he finds it, he finds it on the button.
“But as a man, he dislikes committing himself. He dislikes making a decision. Suggesting dinner to Robert is knowing you are in for a three-hour conversation. ‘Where? When? With whom? Why? Would it perhaps be a good idea not to?’ And one loves him for it.”
Behind the scenes, Irons worked with Daniel Berrigan, the controversial Jesuit priest who was a high-visibility war protester in the 1960s and who, as recently as 1980, poured blood on classified records during a missile protest. Berrigan became his consultant on the role of Gabriel.
“We worked very closely together, on and off the set,” Irons said. “We went into retreat together. He talked me through, as far as he could, the Jesuit instruction. He wrote most of the prayers in the film.
“Because he is a spiritual man and not a man locked into religiosity, he was very similar to Gabriel. Gabriel was a man who was only interested in God and people. He wasn’t interested in the machinery. Gabriel says in the film, ‘Why should Europe make any difference to us?’”
While Robert Bolt’s screenplay is fictional, it is rooted in fact. In 1750, the Treaty of Madrid required that Spanish territory containing seven Jesuit missions be ceded to Portugal. But the Jesuits balked at abandoning the Indians, who they knew would be killed by government troops or captured for slaves on colonial plantations.
When the Portuguese warned the Vatican that it might expel the church from Portugal and its overseas possessions if the Jesuits did not comply, a church emissary was dispatched to decide the fate of the missions, including the one represented by Irons’ Father Gabriel in the film.
In a diary of his experiences, Berrigan recalls his retreat with Irons and says the actor asked him to watch the film and “tell me if the slightest bit of ego mars things.” It seems typical of Irons’ reverent approach to this role.
Despite the religious nature of the role and his personal indoctrination for making the film, Irons doesn’t think his own religious feelings were altered.
“I just thought about them a little more,” he said. “And they are much the same as they were. Which is that I have a very strong sense that we recognize within us all a great power of good, God or love. Whatever you call it, I think it’s the same thing. It’s positive power.
“And we learn to use it within ourselves. I think you make the world a happier place and it certainly guides some of our wild instincts. We look at things from the point of view that, ‘I should love, if I can, as many people as I can. Now, which way do I go on that one?’ It’s a good guide. Rather than one which is very, very popular today, which is ‘How will I get richer if I go that way or that way?’”
Some actors have been lured into the wild to make a picture and found themselves seduced by the jungle and by tribal life. Not Irons. When I asked him whether he felt the tug of the rain forest, he unwrapped a sugar cube, popped it in his mouth and considered his answer a moment.
“It’s one of the places you can still go out and discover adventure,” he said. “It’s a tremendous place. But I didn’t like what they ate. And I didn’t like the aimlessness that pervaded the place.”
And the Guarani?
“They’re sort of hanging on by their fingernails,” he said. “They are rovers — a slash-and-burn agriculture — and the jungle is being territorialized now. It’s being bought up by mineral companies and they are being pushed out, out, out because they have no paper that says they own the land.
“It’s the old problem. Your Indians suffered the same. We introduced them to another tribe in Colombia. Mountain People. They’re very organized. They have their own computer. They have their own lawyers.
“They looked for trade work for them. They were not only unprepared, they didn’t really have the desire to learn our ways. But they were the best extras I ever worked with. There was no self-consciousness to them.”
Talk of Oscar nominations was prevalent even last May at the festival.
“It’s very nice when they come your way,” Irons agreed, with a caveat.
“As far as aiming the movie towards it, I think [producer David Puttnam] is absolutely right. Because if one gets best movie, it can be very, very helpful.
“As for actors, it’s financially important, except that I don’t want to start charging Academy Award nominee or winner fees, because I don’t know whether I will be able to work for the sort of people I want to work for. They wouldn’t be able to afford me.
“I like interesting work. Interesting work is not necessarily work that pays.”