By Al Weisel
US Magazine, 1996, pp. 92, 106-108
Like Claus von Bulow, whom he played in his Oscar-winning turn in Reversal of Fortune, 47-year-old Jeremy Irons is something of a bon vivant and a very strange man—at least in his career choices. Instead of capitalizing on his breakthrough success in 1981 as the romantic hero of Brideshead Revisited and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Irons next played a very unromantic Polish carpenter in Moonlighting. An unflattering double role as severely disturbed twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers scared off more vain and timid actors, but not Irons. When he won the Oscar two years later for Reversal of Fortune, he thanked Cronenberg, among others. And just when everyone had him pegged as an actor’s actor, he turned up in the megabudget action flick Die Hard With a Vengeance. Now, Stealing Beauty finds him playing a dying man who counsels Liv Tyler on losing her virginity -and if that weren’t incentive enough to take the role, Irons also thought it would be fun to spend the summer in Tuscany with his wife and Stealing Beauty co-star, Sinéad Cusack.
You and your wife don’t often work together on screen. Why not?
The first time I was married [when he was 21, to Julie Hallam], the theater I was working for gave us as a wedding present a season of plays opposite each other. That marriage lasted not a long time because we were working together, living together, sleeping together, rehearsing together. Sinéad’s and my instinct is to give ourselves space.
You’ve played a lot of outsiders in foreign countries—in ‘Moonlighting.’ ‘The Mission.’ ‘M. Butterfly,’ even ‘Reversal of Fortune.’ Do you ever feel like an outsider yourself?
I always feel like an outsider among actors. I feel like a charlatan. I watch people like Ian McKellan and think, “That’s a proper actor; I’m a plumber, really.”
What does he have that you don’t?
A seriousness, possibly. My wife has it more than I do. I feel like a dilettante compared with her. I tend to wing it a bit more. Probably as a result my work isn’t nearly as good.
What do you think you do well?
I think I have a lightness of touch. I dislike seeing naked acting. I adore the female form, and yet it’s never so attractive to me as when it’s covered. I love acting in the same way. I remember seeing a film once—there was a woman who was crying endlessly—and I thought, why doesn’t somebody give her a tissue? It’s frightfully clever that you can do this for hours, it’s a great sign of your technique, but I wish you could make me do that. I wish you would move me.
What other actors have a light touch?
I remember seeing Laurence Olivier doing Long Day’s Journey Into Night. There’s a scene where the two sons and he leave the stage and go into the garden [offstage]. One son went out the door into the wings. The next son went out the door into the wings. And Olivier went out the door and into the garden. I don’t know how he did it, but it hit me like a thunderbolt. Seeing it one, two, three like that made the difference very clear.
What was he like when you worked with him in ‘Brideshead Revisited’?
A tiger. Even though he was ill, he was dying, he was still watching very closely to see what I was going to do before deciding what he would do. I saw a fighter and I thought, yes, it never goes, with a great actor you’re always guarding your territory, always watching.
Why did you do ‘Die Hard With a Vengeance’?
I wanted to kick s— a bit. People were starting to think of me as a po-faced British arty actor, and I wanted to remind everyone I was a working boy.
Did you get along with Bruce Willis?
Bruce likes to party, and I like an occasional party. We had a good time.
You’ve just directed a film about Bosnia.
Sinéad was given a script by a Dutchman, Ad de Bont, who had interviewed refugees from Bosnia in Holland. He wrote it basically for school kids. Sinéad was very moved by it, and so was I. We did it at a theater in Oxford for two performances, and people reacted to it strongly. Then I was approached to film it by a man who does children’s television. I resisted for a long time because there’s so much about Bosnia on the television that in a way you switch it off. I think television filters out reality in a strange way, turns everything into an entertainment. But he said more kids would study it if it were recorded. On that argument I said, “OK, but I’d like to do it.” It’s 60 minutes; we shot it in nine days.
Was that your first time behind the camera?
I’d filmed a rock video for Carly Simon [1985’s “Tired of Being Blonde”], and that’s all. Actually, I’ve always enjoyed the process of making film more than I enjoy acting. Telling a story and being part of that team all trying to pool their talents, that’s where I get that buzz. If you look at most of the work I’ve done, it’s been stuff where I was very close to the director and involved with the camera all the time. Apart from Die Hard, I suppose.
Can you give an example?
When I was doing The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Meryl Streep and I had a scene where I eventually find her. [Director] Karel [Reisz] said, “I just want to show you the shot.” It was to be of me going up the staircase and the camera backing up the stairs in front of me. I said, “I think the camera’s in the wrong place. It should be where I am because you’ve seen enough of me in this movie for a bit. I think what I can see, this fleeting woman at the top of the landing, is a wonderful shot.” And he said, “Geez, you always come up with these ideas.” I said, “I’m sorry, I’m sure it’s absolutely wrong.” He came to my dressing room 15 minutes later and said, “You’re right. I’ve turned the shot around:” There’s Karel, eminently experienced and twice my age, and here’s this whippersnapper actor, and he thought about it and said, “I think it is more interesting.” That was a great lesson, the humility of being really talented.
How was it, working with Liv Tyler in ‘Stealing Beauty’?
She was so natural and had such a leggy beauty, like a colt, still slightly clumsy, and our feeling was perhaps she wasn’t that experienced. But as soon as we started shooting we realized she was a seasoned professional. She had a desire to do her very best, which is so American. She said, “If you’ve got any ideas, please tell me, because I want to be very good.” [Laughs] I don’t think I had to give her very much [advice]. Maybe a few more early nights.
How is the attitude toward sexuality in the film different from the British attitude?
The weather has a lot to do with it. We’re much more closeted up because it’s colder here. The days when you can do it in the orchard are few and far between. I think you can carry that into an emotional and mental attitude, too. Somebody once said to me, if you meet an Italian man, it’s like you come to a house, open a door, walk in and there he is, and you know him. If you meet an Englishman, you come to a house, open a door, walk in and there’s another door, and after about six doors you get to know him. This particular person happened to say it was worth the journey.
There’s a similar theme in your next film, ‘Lolita’ [due in 1997]. Is that just a coincidence?
Absolutely. What I was dealing with in Stealing Beauty was a man who was regretting that he’d never had the nature to commit, and even in his last few days he wanted to create something of permanence with this girl, and he couldn’t, really. With Lolita, you have a man who commits absolutely. It’s a wonderful book and difficult to film. I hope the film will be interesting. I just know we all did our best, and I’m very pleased to have done it, but I did it with great trepidation. It’s a very difficult subject.
How was your relationship with your father?
I had a relationship that started when I was 21. He had been working extremely hard [as an accountant], and I was away at boarding school, so I didn’t see too much of him as a boy. Geography brought us together. I was working in London; he was living in London and was remarried. For the next 13 years we had a very close relationship. I realized we were terribly similar. It was rather comforting to know that you weren’t the only one minted like this.
Have you noticed similarities to your father in parenting your own children?
My lack of patience with the children, my lack of finding enough time to spend with them. I see my father in both of those things.
You’ve worked more than once with Glenn Close and Meryl Streep. What are the advantages to acting with the same people again?
I always feel when I’ve finished a piece of work with somebody that that’s when I’d like to start work with them because I’ve got through all the shyness and the bulls—, and now we know each other well. Glenn keeps me off the mark, doesn’t let me get away with anything. If she thinks I’m boring, she tells me, or if I’m not working hard enough. And I remember Meryl once saying when we were tussling over some problem in a scene and I lit up a cigarette,” You know, the answer to this, Jeremy, is not another cigarette.” For the first time I realized it wasn’t.
Is John Lone, your co-star in ‘M. Butterfly,’ the only man you’ve ever kissed?
No, I’ve kissed lots of men. I’m terribly European. But I think kissing heavily on the mouth, which I probably did with John – I can’t remember now, it’s all a dream – yes, well, that is the only man I’ve kissed, yes.
Even though you went to an English boarding school?
Correct. I kept myself heavily reined in.
I had this image of British boarding schools as…
“Cesspits of homoeroticism”? Not true at all.
What was boarding school like?
It taught me to manipulate the system. I went to boarding school much too young, when I was 7. I think that’s a shame. It breaks something in the family. It taught me to live in an oppressive society, which I suppose we spend the rest of our lives doing.
You played drums in a band in school. Do you remember those rock & roll days?
They’re still going. Actually, I’m more into blues than rock & roll. New Orleans [where Irons filmed Lolita] sort of fired me up again. I bought a new steel-string guitar, and as we went around the South, I began to play in quite a different way.
Does your 18-year-old son, Sam, turn you on to contemporary music?
Yeah, he’s forever buying stuff. I keep asking where he gets the money.