2004 was Jeremy Irons’ year for supporting roles. The quietly ubiquitous Brit plays an opera diva’s manager in “Callas Forever,” and opposite Annette Bening in “Being Julia.” But wait, there’s more. Fans can catch him next year in a film about Casanova and Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven.”
Lest we forget, there’s also his turn as the titular trader in “The Merchant of Venice,” which opened this week in New York and Los Angeles. The original courtroom drama, the Bard’s “Merchant” pits Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, against Irons’ Antonio, a bigoted businessman. When the merchant defaults on a loan he took out for his friend Bassanio, Shylock, played by a seething and not very sympathetic Al Pacino, demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh. It’s a tale of fundamentalism and platonic love, sprinkled with a dash of cross-dressing. And, some critics allege, anti-Semitism. (Spoiler alert: if you don’t know the play, skip ahead to the next paragraph.) The “happy” ending sees Antonio spared, the requisite smattering of weddings … and Shylock being forced to renounce Judaism.
The film marks the first time Irons, who launched his career on stage, has tackled Shakespeare in nearly 15 years. With an aristocratic serpentine mien and a reputation for taking on daring roles (remember those ultra-creepy twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers”?), it’s little wonder he should appear in what is perhaps the Bard’s most problematic play. So what is his take on “Merchant?” He answered that, and other questions, in a recent conversation with NEWSWEEK’s Brian Braiker. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: You seem to be everywhere all of a sudden.
Jeremy Irons: I know, it’s not good planning, is it? I always think one should spread oneself out a bit, but it seems to all be coming out at the same time.
These are all different roles and you have a reputation for taking unconventional roles. Do you see yourself as a daring actor?
No, I don’t. I may be a foolish actor in that I take on roles that other people pass on because they can see intrinsic problems with them that I don’t see. I suppose having been brought up in the theater, you look at the role and think, “is this a good role?” not “what the audience would think of me.”
Do you find intrinsic problems in these roles once you do take them?
I’m thinking mainly of “Dead Ringers,” which I know a couple of people actually passed on. I’m quite proud of it, but I remember one actor who shall remain nameless said, “Couldn’t they be lawyers?”
This is your first return to Shakespeare in 14 years. How does it feel?
It’s sort of entirely comfortable. I hope we made Antonio complicated and enigmatic enough. Shylock, I think Al plays tremendously and was a great foil. I am never entirely happy with my work. I think [this production is] a little bit conventional.
Do you see it as an anti-Semitic play?
No. I think it deals with anti-Semitism but I don’t think it’s an anti-Semitic play. It deals with people who don’t understand each other and people who carry things to the nth degree as far as the Shylock story and fundamentalism. In Shakespeare’s time it was [about] the Jews; if it was written today, it may have been Muslims. I don’t think anything’s changed, sadly.
Does it bother you when modern audiences watch this play through a lens of contemporary morality, where it’s easy to say it’s anti-Semitic, even though it was probably pretty progressive when it was written?
Well yeah, that’s one of the problems. A hell of a lot of history has happened since then. I think it’s a shame because in fact Shakespeare was such a humanist writer that he paints both sides of the coin with both Antonio and Shylock. There are moments where you are rooting for them and moments you are rooting against them.
This is considered one of Shakespeare’s comedies, but it’s got to be one of the more depressing comedies. The lovebirds have a happy ending, while at the same time Shylock’s Judaism is taken from him.
Shakespeare’s plays are divided into three: comedies, tragedies and histories. It doesn’t fit the format of a tragedy and comedy didn’t really mean comedy. Comedy meant a straight play, just life. Various people have said that Shylock should be played lighter, for laughs. I think that’s rubbish. I think he was at one point, but I think all of Shakespeare’s characters should be played for their real, core center.
Shylock is the meaty role in this play. Is it frustrating to have to play Antonio?
Not at all, because it’s really hard to get a film like this off the ground. And it’s because of Al that we got this off the ground, and that’s why the money came. Shylock isn’t a role I’ve ever lusted after. I don’t lust after many roles, actually. But I’ve never thought he’s one that I must play one day.
Is there a Shakespeare character you must play one day?
I’d like to have a crack at Prospero in “The Tempest” and maybe some time a Lear. But I’m not one of those actors who want to chalk up all the Shakespearean roles. I enjoy them when I play them; I haven’t missed [Shakespeare].
How would you characterize Antonio’s relationship with Bassanio? Do you see men having that type of closeness without having a romantic relationship today?
It’s difficult, that. We know that in Shakespeare’s time the male relationships were the most highly regarded, more so than that between a husband and wife. They really thought that it was the Rolls Royce of a relationship, and it would be platonic. You could play Antonio gay; I didn’t think that was really particularly what I wanted to do. As I said to Joe (Fiennes) when we were rehearsing, “What would be the difference if I were your father?” I was convinced it was platonic. I don’t think there was an erotic side to it at all apart from the fact that he was an attractive young man and a man of any age looks at another attractive young man and you see they’re very attractive, they’re good to be with.
I always saw it as an uncle-nephew relationship.
That’s right. And I think Bassanio perhaps doesn’t quite understand that. When he kisses him once he’s given him the money, it certainly came to be as a surprise [to me]. I thought that was the first time Antonio had been kissed by Bassanio.
That kiss was not scripted?
No. It’s something we had talked about and decided not to do and then on the take Joe did it. I thought, “Oh well, that’s interesting.” It registered on my eyes. I thought it was sort of sweet but not necessary.
Pacino shoots every scene differently, doesn’t he?
He does, he plays around. He explores the parameters of possibility. It was very interesting watching him in the courtroom scene, which is the real aria for Shylock. For a couple of days really swinging the cat about. Then finally on the third day, asking for a re-shoot, he did it very, very simply and most of that is the take that [director] Michael [Radford] used. I love working with him because he’s very free; he’s very intelligent; he’s very brave. He’s sort of everything you want in an actor.
Were you disappointed at all by the tepid reception of “Callas Forever”?
I was a little although I realize it was a difficult film. A) Opera isn’t for everybody. B) The shape of the story is not conventional. I was depressed because it didn’t get released for about a year and a half, so I was very pleased when it got released. I hoped Fanny [Ardant] would have a little more praise because I think she gives a great performance. I think some of [Franco] Zeffirelli’s work is wonderful, but mainly the opera [scenes]. He’s less interested in the modern stuff. I thought my performance was humdrum, so I wasn’t disappointed to the reaction to that.
Are you an opera fan?
No. Never have been.
What can you say about “Kingdom of Heaven”?
Well, I’m very excited to see it. I play a small role in it. It’s been my year for supporting roles, really. It was great fun to shoot. And more than that I cannot say, except that I think Ridley [Scott] thinks it will be his best picture.