Jeremy Irons’s Effortless Style

by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Men’s Fashions of the Times supplement to The New York Times Magazine
March 17, 1991

I’LL NEVER FORGET THE OVERCOAT you wore the first time we met.”

“When did we first meet?”

Jeremy Irons looked thoughtful, either trying to recall or trying to separate the garlic from the chili in his spaghetti.

“Before ‘Brideshead.’ When you came to see us about playing Sebastian.”

“Oh, that one. The cream alpaca. I’d wanted to have a beautiful overcoat. I’d made some money from a job, and I saw this wonderful material at a tailor’s. And when they told me Rex Harrison had one made from the same material, I knew I wanted one, too. I liked the idea of dressing like a successful actor.”

He laughed self-deprecatingly. “I was only 29.”

Now, at 42, Jeremy does more than just dress like a successful actor. Recently nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Claus von Bulow in “Reversal of Fortune,” he has appeared on stage, television and film on both sides of the Atlantic. He’s also earned a reputation for playing some of the most intriguing, if sometimes sinister, of men: von Bulow; the twisted twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers,” and the frustrated Charles Swann in “Swann in Love,” Volker Schlondorff’s adaptation of Proust. Soon he will add another name to this distinctive list: “Kafka,” the new film by Steve Soderbergh (“Sex, Lies and Videotape”), expected to be released later this year, in which he plays the title role. He no longer worries about the trappings of fame, alpaca or otherwise.

“The first time I wore it, this big and luxurious overcoat, a friend of mine asked me if my mother minded that I was wearing her coat. The nanny has it now,” added Jeremy, who is married to the actress Sinéad Cusack and has two sons. “It really suits her, because she’s blonde.”

Jeremy and I first met in 1978, when I was preparing to direct “Brideshead Revisited,” the television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel. He had come to talk to me and the producer, Derek Granger, about playing Sebastian, the young and irreverent scion of the Brideshead clan. I’d already seen him on stage, playing a randy younger brother in the Restoration comedy “Wild Oats,” and thought, with his great sense of comic style and lanky good looks, he would be a wonderful Sebastian. But as things will turn out in our business, when, for lots of reasons, we couldn’t find another actor to play Charles Ryder, the narrator, we all agreed that maybe that was the part for Jeremy, mainly because when the camera is on him and he is not speaking, something is going on in his head, and with Charles, that was a vital ingredient.

“I sometimes think Bill Hurt is my American counterpart,” Jeremy said. “We both appear sensitive and have a dollop of femininity, and we both look as though we seem to be thinking. I suppose we are.”

As we went on with our meal, I realized, having asked the question about the overcoat, that style is not the same thing as fashion. A person’s style has more to do with his individuality than just what he’s wearing. Other memories of Jeremy were important. They told me more about his style than the fact that, on the night we had dinner, he was wearing a flecked brown three-piece suit he had had for 20 years, a red striped shirt and a white silk tie.

For instance, early on in “Brideshead,” when we were in Oxford shooting some undergraduate scenes, I and some others went out with Jeremy during a day off to the river where he loves to punt. Punting is like being a gondolier, standing up in a narrow boat and maneuvering the craft with a long pole. It was a hot day, and Jeremy took off his shirt. I had been hoping that the actor who played Charles would have one of those scrawny, typically pale English bodies, but what I saw was the muscular torso and powerful shoulders and arms of a rugby player, which is what he had been at school.

As his work on “Brideshead” progressed, he continued to surprise me with qualities I hadn’t expected, which is partly, I think, what style is. On some days, because of locations and logistics, Jeremy would be playing a callow drunken boy in the morning, and then, in the afternoon, would have to be a world-weary 40-year-old buffeted by a marriage gone wrong and an affair with his dead friend’s sister. In both scenes, he’d be perfect in one or two takes, and the only thing he’d done between these two bits of acting, which seemed instinctive, but were, somewhere in his brain, starting to connect with “Brideshead’s” gigantic whole, was to have a big lunch and smoke a cigar.

I don’t know where Jeremy got his extraordinary daily acting strengths. But you never do know with the good ones. It’s just there, and you’re surprised that that’s what comes out, that original thing you haven’t seen before. And it turns out that Jeremy has always been an original, dating back to his days at Sherborne, one of the proper English public schools.

“It’s funny,” Jeremy said, the spaghetti plate mopped up, coffee ordered and on his second Silk Cut cigarette. “I see my older son, Sam, now, just as I was at school, going through the same things, being a good athlete, playing cricket and tennis, riding, skiing in the winter, and trying to figure out what he wants to do with himself. Those are good but hard years.”

He paused a moment. “At school, I always liked pushing the system any way I could. I partly, funnily enough, did it through clothes. We had a regulation gray suit and I managed to get mine lined with gold or burgundy material. The school didn’t like the lining — they saw it as subversive — but I was wearing their suit, so they couldn’t do anything about it.”

So style, I thought, is something you come to for reasons other than just a liking for clothes — something distinct from fashion, to do with your character.

As Jeremy and I were on our second espresso (Would he like a drink? No, he was driving), another memory from an entirely different time and place seemed to fit with the idea I was trying to formulate about him and what makes his style. When I was a boy growing up in New York, my stepfather used to take me out to the stadium to see the Yankees play. Their second baseman from 1949 to 1951 was Jerry Coleman, and in a period when a lot of other Major Leaguers were starting to wear their uniform pants long and baseball socks short, he wore his like ballplayers from a decade earlier, his socks almost up to his knees. I suppose that’s how he thought a New York Yankee should look. But for those who saw him play, the reason you remember his appearance, his style, is because you remember his playing; his agility and uncommon grace in the field, the deftness as he’d start the double play with Phil Rizzuto. It was not unlike watching Jeremy do what he does best.

“Do you think much about clothes now?” I asked him.

“Not really. I love Armani, because of his fabrics and his cut. And I think, if you can have them, good clothes are the only clothes, but you should wear them, not save them. A good suit isn’t for a special day, it’s for every day.

“What I do think about is how I’d like to play my first American or another non-English character,” he continued. “I like to stretch myself. I think actors should be chameleons, but with your own innate personality. Do you remember ‘Tootsie?’ ” He paraphrased from the film’s opening montage: ” ‘I can be taller, shorter, darker, fairer, balder, whatever the part demands.’ That’s what I think about.

“Clothes? Well, maybe sometimes. As a distraction.”