Jeremy Irons: Beyond Brideshead


by Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times
January 8, 1991


Jeremy Irons was already an actor of rising reputation on the English stage when he played Charles Ryder in “Brideshead Revisited” in 1979 and won a wide following as well as an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a British Academy Award.

The National Society of Film Critics on Sunday followed the lead of the Los Angeles film critics and picked him as best actor for his portrayal of Claus von Bulow in the Barbet Schroeder-Nicholas Kazan film “Reversal of Fortune.”

It is the story of the scandalous Rhode Island case in which Von Bulow was accused of assault with the attempt to murder his heiress wife, who has been in a coma for years.

“I never met him,” Irons said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “I watched him on video. I felt it wouldn’t be useful. I didn’t want it to be an impersonation. And I thought he probably wouldn’t tell me anything of interest, or anything that was particularly true.”

Von Bulow, defended by the Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz (played in the film by Ron Silver), was acquitted of the charges. But he remains in life as in the film a cryptic, guarded and ambiguous figure. The strength of Irons’ portrayal is his ability to convey the ambiguity of Von Bulow and the sense of a man who is maintaining a steely control over terrible inner stresses that could be those of an innocent man facing a miscarriage of justice, or a guilty man facing a justice system that may work all too well.

“I was very concerned,” Irons says, “that the audience should leave the cinema split absolutely down the middle about whether he was innocent or guilty, since even his closest friends are split.

“He was a man hovering on the brink every day. I don’t know how he did it. But he had a secret; he has a secret. He was in a very dangerous situation. And I think he has a natural tendency to enjoy ambiguity.”

Irons is pleased with the response to the film — “It seems that everything I was trying to do came across.” It’s the more pleasing because initially he didn’t think he was right for the role. “When it was suggested that I should play him, I said, ‘You’re way off line.’ ”

At 42, Irons is about 20 years younger than Von Bulow, 15 years younger than Von Bulow was at the time of the trial. “Also slimmer. He’s very Germanic. A lot was thanks to (makeup artist) Dick Smith. Once he got my hair right, I began to see how I could play him.” Irons’ abundant hair was thinned down and grayed, and it helped to add quite satisfactorily to his apparent age.

Irons was born and raised on the Isle of Wight and had been to the mainland and London no more than 10 times before he went off to boarding school at Sherborne, at 13. He first thought to be a veterinarian, but reading theatrical biographies persuaded him that the stage might be for him.

“It was the way of life I thought I would like. It wasn’t in my nature to want to stand up and talk in front of others. And then I discovered that in a strange way you are most private when you are performing.” (It is what Sir Alec Guinness meant by the title of his autobiography, “Blessings in Disguise.”)

From Sherborne, Irons went to the Bristol Old Vic Company, where Peter O’Toole spent his early years, remarking later that he should have been knighted for service to wigs. Irons invaded London in 1971 and sustained himself as a busker (a street entertainer), among other things, until the stage and television work came along.

“I started off as a stagehand and a walk-on actor, so now in the theater I know how much work everybody else has to do to make the thing go. I’ve always enjoyed what I call ‘the-circus-comes-to-town’ aspect of the theater: all those people working to create a story.”

He did a two-year hitch in “Godspell” as John the Baptist and, to keep the juices flowing, as he says, simultaneously did a one-man tour de force in Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” at a lunchtime theater. “Brideshead Revisited” came along in 1979 and the next year he made his screen debut as Mikhail Fokine in Herbert Ross’ “Nijinsky.” A year later, he co-starred with Meryl Streep in the Karel Reisz-John Fowles “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.”

“Fortunately, Karel Reisz and Meryl Streep are both very supportive. It takes a while to get used to being the center of the focus, the person at whom everything is pointing. The only way to cope with that is to concentrate on the character and your concept of who he is.”

One day, he thinks, it will be possible for him to watch the film simply as a spectator. Not yet. “For years, you just go through the same emotions you went through when you were doing it. So if you were a little bit unsure, or nervous, or ill-prepared, these are the feelings. I watch ‘The French Lieutenant’ and see a certain scene and think, ‘I wish I’d been a little more experienced before I did that.’ ”

Irons made an astonishing impression in 1988, playing identical twins in David Cronenberg’s psychological thriller “Dead Ringers.”

“I had to find two different men who looked the same and who were apparently doing nothing different from each other. Yet you had to be able to tell the difference, to sense the motives inside each man. It was an enormous time because it demanded a lot of technicality. I was playing to somebody who wasn’t there. Even though I had an actor who said my lines, I’d be playing to a performance I knew I was going to give, or playing to a performance that was coming to me through my ear.”

Irons grins at the memory of it. “I’m intrigued in a childish way by the make-believe of film, how you fool the audience into thinking it’s happened. But of course it never has happened, and half the space you’re filming is filled with technicians and lights.”

In mid-December he finished filming “Kafka” in Prague. It is only the second feature for Stephen Soderbergh, whose “sex, lies, and videotape” was one of the sleeper hits of 1989-90. The cast of “Kafka” also includes Theresa Russell, Sir Alec Guinness, Ian Holm and Armin Mueller-Stahl, from “The Music Box” and “Avalon.”

“I play Kafka but I’m not really Kafka,” Irons explains, somewhat. “It’s a Kafkaesque film, and that’s Kafkas enough for the time being. We shot in black and white. I would have said a black-comedy thriller, set during his lifetime, in 1920, something that might have happened in his life. It has to do with many elements out of his work — elements out of ‘The Castle’ and ‘The Trial.’ People who’ve read Kafka will recognize certain things, those people who haven’t won’t miss anything.”

Being in Prague at this moment in history was both wonderful and worrying. “It’s an exceptionally beautiful city, second only to Venice, probably, in all of Europe. A city devoid of consumerism, which is a great breath of fresh air. No billboards, no advertisements, very few shop signs, even. A city that in many ways had stopped in the ’40s. . . . Now the people are rather like prisoners who’ve been in jail for 40 years and then released. The tragedy is that they come out and are just not prepared to pitch in and achieve all the things that are now required.”

One of the rewards of doing “Reversal of Fortune” was working again with Glenn Close, with whom he did two Tony-winning years on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.” In the film she plays Sunny von Bulow, speaking from her coma in Kazan’s imaginative script.

Irons remembered a performance about nine months into the run of “The Real Thing” when it was going so patly on the rails he went into his dressing room after the first act and said, “I’m boring the pants off her, off myself and the audience. And Glenn came off and said, ‘I’m sorry, love; I’m boring you, I’m even boring myself.’ And I said, ‘Go and change and come down and we’ll have a cup of tea.’ She did and I said, ‘Right, in the second act I’m going to change everything. Change lines, change positions, do everything I can to make you laugh and make you dry (forget your lines). And I want you to do exactly the same for me.’ We went into that second act like two fretful race horses. And it flew. We got it back again.”

He muses on actors working together. “There’s always a slight sense of competition. You realize, as Glenn and I do, that the better each of us is the better the other one will be. And so we encourage each other. (On ‘Reversal of Fortune’) she would always be on the set if it was a scene I was doing — and vice versa. It’s quite rare in movies to have that relationship. It’s one I value very much.”

On working with directors: “There’s nothing worse than people feeling, ‘We’ve hired him because he can do it, now let him do it.’ Because as an actor you always need pushing on. You always need a sounding board, so that what you’re doing can be questioned or tested. You test each other’s ideas and, hopefully, push each other a little bit further on at the same time.”

  • Los Angeles Times / January 8, 1991 / by Charles Champlin