By Frazier Moore
March 29, 2011
NEW YORK – Jeremy Irons couldn’t resist.
The role he was invited to play — Rodrigo Borgia — is a towering historical figure who, five centuries ago, becomes pope through whatever-it-takes scheming, then ruthlessly defends his claim to the papacy against mounting efforts to unseat him.
As perhaps the Western World’s biggest boss, the new Pope Alexander VI denies himself nothing, including family, whose support he drafted in his rise to the top, and an additional mistress supplementing the mother of his children.
Thus begins the ungodly power trip that is “The Borgias,” a new Showtime drama series.
Created, written and produced by Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game,” “Michael Collins”), “The Borgias” has a two-hour premiere on Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT, with seven subsequent episodes airing Sundays at 10 p.m. EDT.
“The list of adjectives that were used to describe him by his contemporaries are all the colors of the rainbow,” Irons says with wonder. “From charming, thoughtful, a man of God, to licentious, carnal, a murderer! And I thought, `Well, this is fascinating.'”
Particularly within the sacred walls of the Vatican, the bald ambition of the future pope is chilling to behold as the series begins in 1492 and Borgia plots his game plan as a long-shot candidate to succeed the dying Pope Innocent VIII.
But perhaps the most impressive sequence in the first installment is the papal coronation. During the lavish procession, then the crowning, Alexander registers a mix of fierce triumph and all-consuming awe.
“You go for this job, and when you get there — wooooooo — you’re on the top of the mountain with no one around you. There’s no one to call, except, you know, Him.” Irons points heavenward. “I think that’s both humbling and frightening.”
During that scene, a range of colors of the character play across his face as gathering evidence of his human complexity.
That complexity is something Irons will get to explore at length.
“That’s the great thing about doing a series as opposed to a film,” says Irons. “You’ve got time for a character to behave in what appears to be inconsistent ways. You’re able to say, `This scene is about that strand in the man, and THIS scene is about another strand,’ and you play each scene for all it’s worth. Then, gradually, you draw those strands together and you say, `Wow, THAT’S the guy — an extraordinary guy!'”
The five-month “Borgias” shoot took Irons to Budapest, Hungary, where he joined his series co-stars, who include Joanne Whalley as Rodrigo’s longtime mistress and matriarch of his family household; Francois Arnaud as the son Rodrigo forces into the priesthood and is grooming to be a future pope, even as he uses him, a Cardinal, as his dirty-dealing consigliere; and David Oakes as his other son, a bully who leads the Papal armies to further the pope’s interests.
Even Rodrigo’s sweet 12-year-old daughter, Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), must serve her father’s ends. He will soon marry her off to seal favor with a political rival.
You got to do what you got to do, Irons suggests.
“What’s the difference between all that and the selling of influence through lobbyists in Washington? I think power corrupts. Period. And at this stage in Europe, the Catholic Church was about power. It was the thing that was holding together Europe, with all its wild monarchies — or tribes, if you like.
“Of course, when you play a character, you get into that character and you justify his actions,” adds Irons, flinging one leg across the other with a flourish. “You don’t judge your character. You ARE him.”
Through his long career, the 62-year-old Brit has given dozens of memorable film performances, from his TV breakthrough in 1979’s “Brideshead Revisited” and the more recent TV movie “Georgia O’Keeffe” through such features as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” “Dead Ringers,” “The Man in the Iron Mask,” “Casanova,” “Being Julia” and, in 1990, his Oscar-winning turn as Claus von Bulow in “Reversal of Fortune.”
Even so, he says acting never gets easier.
“I find it hard — always have,” he says, as he unfolds a leather kit with tobacco and rolls a cigarette, but refrains from lighting up in this smoke-free hotel suite.
“As you grow older,” he continues, “you have to guard against resting on your laurels. And, of course, the opportunities not to rest on your laurels get fewer and fewer. More and more people think, `Well, that’s a Jeremy Irons role, so we’ll ask him.’ But I’ve played THAT before! Why do they ask me to do it again?”
Meanwhile, he must live with a critical consensus that includes him among the finest actors working today.
“But you know it’s not true!” he scoffs, and points to an experience just the day before when he was shooting a scene of NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (the episode airs Wednesday).
“I was working with two girls, and what they were producing was mind-blowing,” Irons marvels, “and I thought, `That’s the stuff! How do they DO that?'”
“You don’t believe what other people say,” he sums up, an eyebrow cocked for emphasis. “You just tell them, `Thank you very much.’ You put it like that.”
Showtime is owned by CBS Corp.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org.