Double Take – Twice the role throws Jeremy Irons a ringer

By Candace Burke-Block

New York Times Syndicate

October 7, 1988

Resplendent in a burgundy smoking jacket and black trousers, his hair smoothed off his high forehead, Jeremy Irons looks incredibly elegant. He would be perfectly cast for his ideal part: “I would love to play Cary Grant-type roles,” he says.

But his new movie “Dead Ringers” (released two weeks ago by 20th Century Fox) is a far cry from any role ever essayed by Grant. In the film Irons plays identical twins Beverly and Elliott Mantle, gynecologists in a world-renowned fertility clinic whose love for one of their patients (Genevieve Bujold) leads to their suicidal deaths.

Contrary to suspicions, producer Marc Boyman, director David Cronenberg and Irons deny that “Dead Ringers” is based on the real-life tragedy of the Marcus twins. In July 1975 Cyril C. Marcus and Steward L. Marcus, internationally famous gynecologists at Cornell University Medical School and New York Hospital, were found dead in their shared luxury Manhattan apartment, victims of barbiturate overdoses.

Although “Dead Ringers “ is billed as a psychological drama it contains the kind of spine-tingling horror that has become a Cronenberg (“The Dead Zone,” 1983) trademark. For example, the film was shot almost entirely in neutrals, but in operating-room scenes the Mantles wear blood-red gowns resembling medieval monk robes.

This role is indeed a departure for Irons who is known for his gentler, more romantic leading parts in films as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981), “Betrayal” (1982), television’s “Brideshead Revisited” (1981), “Swann in Love” (1984) and the passionately religious “The Mission” (1987).

What prompted Irons to make “Dead ringers”? “I wanted to do more unusual, slightly riskier, work than what I’ve been doing,” he says. “I want to expand my roles as much as I can, being English, 6 foot 2, thin and 39 years old. As much as I love playing romances, I am glad to move to a different field with this picture.”

Irons was interested in a challenge after his 1984-85 run on Broadway opposite Glenn Close in the Tom Stoppard comedy “The Real Thin” for which he won the 1984 Tony Award for best actor. “I had been in theater for two years and wanted to get back and work hard in film,” he says. Describing his work in “Dead Ringers” as “hard” is an understatement. Before Irons began work on the film he researched the subject of identical twins by talking with several sets and reading books on the topic.

“Twins feel special because that is how they are treated,” he says. “Twinship gives them a privateness together. I noticed that they would take comfortable positions with each other; they always found a way to balance.

“They can’t get away from each other,” Irons continues. “A twin is not able to be an individual because the only person who sees him as an individual is the other twin, everybody else gets confused. Therefore, he needs that other twin, but also wants to get away from him.”

According to Irons, the hazard of playing twins is that one has to be careful not to make them too different. “There is always the temptation to overdo their differences. In most twin movies there is one good twin and one bad twin. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to show how they were interdependent. I thought to myself, ‘I have to find two sides of myself, because I am one person but I’m playing somebody who is split down the middle.’ In ‘Dead Ringers’ Elliott is slightly older, 2 millimeters taller and has great facility with women. He is the showman who collects the awards and gives lectures. Beverly, on the other hand, does most of the practical surgery and private treatment. He has no experience with women until he meets (his patient) Claire Neveau and falls in love with her. Then he comes across the pressures of how to pull away from his twin brother and toward the woman.”

It is eerie watching Beverly and Elliott on-screen, knowing that both men are played by one actor. I ask Irons how he is able to manifest the differences so obviously and at the same time so subtly. “I have a different feeling for each twin, they make different sounds and have different energies. That is an internal thing but it shows on the outside,” he says.

Irons hands me a production photograph showing the twins side by side. “This shows how alike and how different they are,” he says. “Elliott is on the right in the darker suit, a bit smoother. Beverly is younger, he waits for Elliott to take the lead.”

Irons’ romantic image will be restored with the release  of his just-completed film “A Chorus of Disapproval.” The comedy, co-starring Anthony Hopkins and Jenny Seagrove, is written by Alan Ayckbourn, based on his London stage play. In the film Irons plays a widower who joins an amateur  theatrical group in a Welsh city.

When he is not working, which is rare, Irons spends time with his wife of 16 years, actress Sinéad Cusack, and their sons Maximilian, 2, and Simon (*), 9. “We want at least one more,” he says, “but with our work schedules it is a matter of being in the same bed to get the operation done.”

(*) Note from web administrator: Jeremy’s eldest son Sam is mistakenly called Simon in this article.