by Philippa Kennedy
October 23, 2008
The connection between art, classical music and motorcycles might not be immediately obvious to the uninitiated, but according to the actor Jeremy Irons, you get an entirely different perspective from the seat of a BMW RT 100.
It’s what enticed the actor to Abu Dhabi for the first time three years ago, when he was invited by his fellow motorcycling companion, Thomas Krens, to come and see plans for the new Guggenheim Museum and take a ride into the desert. Along with Irons, Krens, who is the former director of the Guggenheim Foundation, belongs to one of the world’s most exclusive group of bikers, the Guggenheim Motorcycle Club, whose members include the actors Dennis Hopper, Lauren Hutton and Laurence Fishburne, the singer Bob Geldof, and Frank Gehry, the architect and designer of the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim. Their raison d’être is to visit art galleries around the world by motorbike, which according to Irons, heightens the senses.
“We parallel art and motorcycling. We launched the motorcycle exhibition in Bilbao, and we’ve ridden from St Petersburg to Moscow and from Munich to Monza. We try to do one journey every year. We rode down from Madrid to the new Picasso exhibition in Malaga on the principle that in order to be motorcyclists, you have to be very aware of your surroundings, the road and also be very sensitive to other people. It makes you overly conscious of everything. It’s the perfect situation to be in to see art,” he says.
In December 2005, several of the art-loving bikers were guests of Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoun, the chairman of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.
“We went over to Saadiyat Island on a car ferry, which we had to ourselves, and rode out to where the site is going to be and had a most fantastic dinner on the beach. We were here for four or five days, which allowed us to learn all about the plans for the museum.”
Irons, who will be in the UAE capital tomorrow to launch the first in a yearlong series of concerts known as the Abu Dhabi Classics, is keen to develop his cultural links with the country. “What’s going on here is very exciting,” he says. “More and more people are realising that inspiring architecture is the most wonderful environment in which to put art. Bilbao is a fantastic example, and New York and now, Abu Dhabi.”
“Approaching Bilbao from distance by bike was a marvellous experience,” he says of the Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, with its futuristic titanium-clad light-reflecting angles and curves. “At first you think, ‘What is that?’ Then the nearer you get, the more amazed you are. Then, you see the planting around it and you go into the foyer, and you are tingling and then you see the art. It’s a brilliant way to wind up the audience into that hyper-awareness. I think the way art is shown and the building that art is in is so important.”
The Abu Dhabi Classics series is “a wonderful opportunity to come back”. Irons is the narrator of A Journey of Emotions at the inaugural gala in the Emirates Palace auditorium. It is a musical journey that begins in India, the birthplace of the Abu Dhabi Classics conductor-in-residence, Zubin Mehta, which follows the music of the gypsies from Hungary, represented by the violinist Roby Lakatos, through the Arab lands, with Egypt’s Musicians of the Nile, returning to central Europe with the German jazz trumpeter Till Brönner and Russia, the homeland of the classical pianist Arcadi Volodos.
The musical voyage then crosses the Atlantic to the USA, the birthplace of jazz, spirituals and the Broadway musical, featuring songs by the young American soprano Indra Thomas. It ends in Andalusia, in southern Spain, with the flamenco group Arcángel.
“It is all about highlighting the artists around the world who bring emotions to life,” says Irons. “The performance features music from all over the world: Spanish, Austrian, American. I’m looking forward to going back to Abu Dhabi. I had been thinking for a while of trying to get some link having had such a good time there when I went for the Guggenheim trip.”
Irons was speaking at his London home, a mews cottage in Notting Hill filled with an eclectic mix of furniture and items that reflect a broad-based, international lifestyle. Comfortably distressed leather sofas, eastern weave cushions and hassocks, a cottage tweed lampshade; the house gets the leftovers from everywhere else, he says.
He and his wife, the actress Sinead Cusack, have four homes, the London mews, a wisteria-clad Georgian rectory in Oxfordshire, a townhouse in Dublin, Ireland, and a 15th century castle in West Cork, lovingly restored by Irons over a period of six years. “It’s too much, but it enables one to live the life of a rabbit – or a fox, even – whereby you have burrows where you can get away and hide in when you want to and it’s your own place. I don’t like hotels. I love creating places and got enormous joy out of doing the castle. I tend to buy things wherever I am, like handmade furniture from India and China,” he says.
Clearly, Kilcoe castle, overlooking Roaring Water Bay near Macroom, has a special place in his heart. “Wherever I am, I think of as home. Home is people, really, rather than places. But I do love Kilcoe. It has an amazing magnetic drag for me. My boat is there and my horses are there.”
Kilcoe has been a landmark since the 15th century, but even more so since Irons and Cusack bought it. A boatman who takes tourists from nearby Schull to Cape Clear Island delights in telling his passengers about the English actor who painted the castle with this amazing and very expensive paint containing copper nails. “But he hadn’t taken into consideration the fact that it rains in Ireland, and when the nails rusted it turned pink.”
Irons laughs when he hears the story. He took several years to get that paint right.
“It’s an additive that you put into lime wash. It’s called cuprous, which is iron oxide. When it goes on it’s green, but it reacts with the air and 20 minutes later it goes a browny, terracotta colour. When we put it on, we had been through four of the wettest winters working on it.” Of Kilcoe, he says, “It loves the sunset and the low light. It had been a ruin since 1963 and I spent six years in all doing it and spent much more on it than it is worth. But I never regret it. I feel a great affinity for the place, as a lot of English people have done.”
A keen supporter of hunting, Irons is the master of the West Carbery Hunt and keeps four horses in Ireland, including two hunters. He also grazes sheep on the 15 acres of land around Kilcoe.
“I’m not a city man. I have always liked sports that enable me to get out in the elements. I like riding and sailing and skiing. I have an eight-metre two-masted wooden boat in Ireland; just small enough for me to sail on my own, but big enough to sleep four people if they are prepared to get on with each other.”
He says he always wanted to marry an Irish wife and as a young actor was thrilled to be marrying into Irish thespian royalty. Cusack’s father, Cyril, was a giant of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and later joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in England.
“I was 24 when I met Sinead. My father was a chartered accountant and I didn’t have an artistic background, so I was delighted to become part of the Cusack family. I wanted to validate myself. I always knew I wanted an Irish wife. I knew that’s what my blood needed: a bit of wildness.”
The pair met when Irons was performing in Godspell at the Wyndham Theatre in London and Cusack was in London Assurance in the theatre next door. Both casts would repair to The Bunch of Grapes pub after the shows. Right from the start, theirs was a fiery relationship. “I called her Siobhan by mistake, the first time I met her and she hit me. She turned around and smacked me,” he says.
He has described both himself and his feisty wife as “difficult people” and their marriage as “dysfunctional”. But the fact remains that although they give each other a great deal of freedom, they have been married for 30 years and have two sons, Sam, a photographer and locations manager, and Max, who is studying acting at the Guildhall. Cusack is currently spreading her wings in a play in the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York after years of accepting work closer to home as the boys were growing up.
“She has worked pretty constantly throughout our marriage,” Irons says. “But she gave up a lot for the boys, especially the travelling jobs. She did some television, some films and a lot of theatre, but worked around the family. She has never done a huge television series. Those are the things that get you known if you want to be. I mean, I’m still best known for Brideshead, which I did 30 years ago.”
Their schedules are both full until well into next year. Irons may be making a film in the USA in November, although he doesn’t want to talk about it until the contract is signed. In the spring of next year, he will return to Broadway to star with Joan Allen in Impressionism, a new American play by Michael Jacobs. It will be his first time on Broadway since he was in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing in 1984. He spent this summer playing the former British prime minister Harold Macmillan in Howard Brenton’s Never So Good at The National Theatre on London’s South Bank.
The family will be together for Christmas in Oxfordshire. “Family is very important to us. We had a big family party in the garden in Oxfordshire this summer, all the Cusacks and the Irons with their children. There were 40 of us altogether and it was fantastic. I’m a great believer in family, as you only have one. I think I am even more family orientated than Sinead, although she is a fantastic mother,” he says.
Irons was born in 1948 on the Isle of Wight and his parents divorced when he was seven. He was sent to boarding school and then on to Sherborne public school. He joined the Bristol Old Vic, where he had a brief marriage to Julie Hallam, an actress. A period of odd jobbing as a gardener and builder followed before he got his break with the part of John the Baptist in Godspell with David Essex.
His reputation for playing the quintessential Englishman was established when he starred as Charles Ryder in the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, but his career was quickly marked by edgier roles such as that of Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune, for which he won a Best Actor Oscar in 1990. He has managed to maintain a presence in London and New York with a successful film career, starring in movies such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Mission, Damage, Stealing Beauty, Lolita, The Man in the Iron Mask, Callas Forever and Appaloosa.
It was a deliberate decision to base himself in the United Kingdom rather than America. “I looked at actors I admired, like Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole and Anthony Hopkins and the decisions that they made. I have always tried to do work that interests me with good people, so I suppose that’s my game plan. I decided early on that America wasn’t for me. I was going to stay over here. I haven’t done many blockbusters, I have never led a film that has made a fortune, so I’ve never become a real box office star. I have always done interesting and good work and that has meant that interesting and good work has always turned up.”
He admits that along the way, he has accepted some films simply for money. “Yes, it’s true, there are some you’ll see and you’ll wonder, ‘Why has he done that?’ Sometimes, I’ll do stuff to earn the money, but I don’t really talk about those. I needed the money to pay for the castle. It was a very expensive job.”
He says that winning the Oscar made very little difference to either his finances or his lifestyle. “It’s like winning the Booker Prize, like joining a club. I don’t think it alters very much. The only difference I remember was that everybody who had a script that was unreadable sent it to me hoping that I liked it and they could get it made. I must have received 20 scripts over the next six months and there was nothing that I wanted to do.”
He celebrated his 60th birthday in September, but says he hardly noticed it and seldom thinks about the passing of the years. “It was a bit of a surprise. The last decade crept up on me actually. They say that the older you get, the quicker life rushes by. I have decided to sleep more in my 60s. I met someone in her 90s in Australia recently and I said, ‘Come on, tell me about getting old.’ She said, ‘Well, I still think of myself as 23. But there are some things I can’t do as fast as when I was 23. The secret about getting old is not to get cross about that.’ These days, I suppose 60 isn’t that old.”
Despite the odd appearance in the gossip columns (he was photographed in 2001 embracing his sultry co-star Patricia Kaas outside a Soho nightclub), he says he isn’t bothered by the inevitable price of fame and unwelcome attention from the media.
“I don’t get bothered a lot. I think I am in a good place in that way. There are ways you can behave in order to attract that kind of attention. There are places you can go and if you don’t go to those places, you don’t get bothered. I live a fantastic life, but it’s a very ordinary life with my own people.”