Law & Order: SVU Q&A: Jeremy Irons Puts On a Mask For SVU Role

by Erin Biglow

January 11, 2011

Although one of television’s longest-running and most watched crime dramas won’t be making an appearance at this year’s Golden Globes, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit will instead showcase its dramatic prowess this awards season by gracing fans with an Oscar-winning guest star this Wednesday. Jeremy Irons (Reversal of Fortune, Being Julia) will make his network television debut in this week’s episode, titled “Mask,” as Captain Jackson, a sex therapist who complicates the rape investigation detectives Benson and Stabler (Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni, respectively) are conducting. The “special victim” in this installment is none other than Jackson’s daughter, and as Benson and Stabler delve deeper into the case they discover a sordid past Jackson had hoped to keep under wraps. Both Irons and SVU executive producer Neal Baer recently participated in a conference call to discuss the experience of putting the episode together and how the boldly auspicious decision to cast Irons came to fruition.

Baer, who has been nominated for seven Emmys for his work producing ER, didn’t hesitate to express his enthusiasm for Irons’ work both on and off the SVU set, and assured reporters that Irons’ status as one of modern cinema’s true thespians will translate well to the small screen.

“Well, we wanted Jeremy on the show because we’re so respectful of his talent,” Baer began. “And what’s really interesting is when you see him, he fits into the show quite well, and yet there’s something about him — and this is what I think separates the great actors from [other] actors — you want to know him. And so, when the moment he steps on the screen you want to know who this character is, that’s the talent of great actors.”

Irons followed up by explaining how the allure of playing such a complicated character helped solidify his decision to accept the role.

“I thought he was multi-dimensional, which is always hard to find on television, or any film work actually,” Irons said. “And he contained [enigmatic] qualities. He was a mystery. Basically a good person, but a person who … had fought his battles in life and to a certain extent came through.”

Baer echoed this sentiment, agreeing that Captain Jackson isn’t your average villain, but rather a layered individual whose flaws are derived from a deeper source that may actually elicit sympathy from viewers, despite his wholly contemptible qualities. Luckily, Baer added, Irons’ performance helps make that distinction accessible. “His character is not just one-sided,” Baer acknowledged. “It’s a very multi-dimensional character who is struggling with some real fierce emotional issues that he’s able to bring to the surface in a way that we can all identify with, secrets that we have that we don’t know how to deal with … I think that’s the gift that actors give to us. They allow us to see the kinds of daily struggles we all have, and yet they play them before us and that’s what draws us to them … [Irons] does that in the show in such a way that even though there are things about [the character] you won’t like … you still empathize for what he’s been through.”

Law and Order: SVU’s trademark technique of implementing horrifying crimes within a character-driven narrative is surely to thank for the show’s accolades and longevity. When asked why he chose SVU as the outlet for his American television debut, Irons said both the content and presentation style made the decision easy. However, he was first provided with a reliable second opinion.

“Law and Order: SVU is so popular amongst a wide variety of my friends,” Irons quipped. “When I mentioned to them that I had been asked [to guest star] they said, ‘Oh, it’s a fantastic show. I always watch it,’ and then I looked at some episodes … I don’t [normally] watch a lot of television, or hardly any American television, because I live in Ireland and England, [but] I thought [SVU] had great style and reminded me of those paperback crime novels, which move very fast and have a great facility. And I liked the way [SVU] told their stories, I liked the way they were done, and I thought, ‘Yes, I’d love to go and do that.’”

In addition to his interest in SVU itself, Irons also expressed excitement to embark on an opportunity to do a network television series — a notion he admitted wouldn’t have been so enticing earlier in his career.

“More and more actors who we’re used to seeing on the big screen are coming and working on television and finding fantastic material,” Irons noted. “I mean, you know, you’ve got your Mad Men, The Wire, the list would go on and on. And I think in the last ten years there’s been a revolution in American television largely to do, I have to say, with cable, but it spreads around. And so, whereas maybe ten years ago I’d think twice about doing television unless it was to be a one-off film, now it’s something which is very attractive for actors.”

Aside from the recent increase in quality television programming, Irons mentioned a desire to keep his projects varied as another primary reason for his guest-star appearance on SVU. While he understands his own strengths and limitations as an actor, Irons said the importance of mixing both genres and mediums helps him maintain a solidly honed craft.

“One has to work within the parameters of the opportunities that are offered as an actor,” he said. “But, I always try to put my foot, so to speak, in a place where it’s not expected as I walk along my career, and that is not easy to do … It gives me great enjoyment doing new things, stepping into areas that maybe are unexpected for the audience. And I suspect … it also gives the audience a bit of pleasure because, you know, I can only be me and play the characters I can play, but at least if I’m doing it in ways and in places which are unexpected, it’ll give them a little bit of fun. It gives me a bit of fun.”

Baer cited a similar philosophy behind keeping SVU – now in its 12th season – fresh for its viewers, and how notable guest stars like Irons help perpetuate the show’s continued success.

“I know that what keeps the show fresh [is] that you get these unexpected actors who … can just deliver these, you know, soulful performances,” Baer said. “That’s what we’ve always said, that the show is really kept fresh not by changing our regular cast, but having, you know, these great performers come on and bring slices of life that … we can all identify with every week. And that’s, I think, been the secret … that we just go after people we’ve always loved watching on screen and, knock on wood, it’s worked.”

Irons delivered his own theory behind SVU’s status as a leader among the saturated market of crime dramas.

“The great thing about Law and Order: SVU is that it deals with subjects which are very important to people and which affect some of a small section of society very much, these different aspects they give to each program, different story lines,” he said. “I think it’s remained cutting-edge, which is why it still, after 12 years, has such a following … they must be doing something right. I hope inviting me to do an episode is a good decision.”

Although Irons may not have been looking for a direct answer to that statement, Baer was quick to deliver one anyway.

“It was a great decision. He’s brilliant in the show,” Baer affirmed.

Don’t miss Jeremy Irons’ guest-star appearance on Law and Order: SVU Wednesday, January 12 at 10 p.m. EST on NBC.