Montreal Gazette: Jeremy Irons on playing Pope Alexander VI as a regular dude

Montreal Gazette

BY ALEX STRACHAN, POSTMEDIA NEWS

March 31, 2011

PASADENA, California – Say “Jeremy Irons” and the immediate association is of the classically trained English actor who made his name at Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre School, and honed his craft in London stage productions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Richard II, The Taming of the Shrew and The Winter’s Tale.

Then there was the Tony for his Broadway debut in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, and an eclectic film career that spans from Cannes Palm d’Or winner The Mission in 1986 and 1990’s Reversal of Fortune (for which Irons won an Oscar), to David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and, more recently, Casanova, Kingdom of Heaven, Eragon, Appaloosa and the Sundance film, Margin Call, opposite Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany and Stanley Tucci.

In person, though, Irons comes across more as the dashing actor “Mike,” the dual character he played in Harold Pinter’s 1981 film adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. That film interwove two storylines: Fowles’ original period tale of an ill-fated love affair set in Victorian England, and the contemporary story of a film crew shooting a modernized version of the novel.

“Mike” could not be more different than Charles Smithson, the Victorian anti-hero of Fowles’ original novel, and Irons could not be more different than Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI. Irons plays the malevolent schemer in The Borgias, Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan’s eye-filling, nine-week miniseries epic that debuts Sunday, April 3 on Bravo!.

Irons is in a good mood this day, loquacious and eager to talk about anything and everything, from the “miracle” that is The Borgias, to the consummate professionalism of his Canadian acting colleagues in the series, Colm Feore and Francois Arnaud. He also touches on his narration duties on PBS’ Nature — Irons narrated the just-released documentary The Lost Lions, by award-winning wildlife filmmakers Beverly Joubert and Dereck Joubert — and talks about hosting Saturday Night Live.

“I found it terrifying,” he admits plainly of SNL, and hints that, for all the time he has spent on the London stage, and despite winning the Tony, Oscar and Emmy in succession, hosting the venerable late-night sketch-comedy program was a real test of his wits.

“I love comedy, and I love things that challenge me.” Irons pauses briefly, then adds with a rueful laugh, “and Saturday Night Live was both of those things.”

There’s precious little comedy in The Borgias, though, Irons confesses. Black humour, perhaps, but not much levity.

At his age — Irons is 62 — there’s no point in signing on to do something as arduous and demanding as a 10-hour miniseries set in 15th-century Italy, unless the role has more to offer than a simple paycheque.

As Irons begins, it becomes clear that he threw himself into the role of Pope Alexander VI, giving up much of his life and creative energy to the services of, as Irons puts it, Jordan’s “words of poetry.”

The secret to playing Alexander VI, history’s most rapacious, merciless successor to the papacy, Irons suggests, was to play him more like a regular dude than a stuffy stage actor with a background in the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“I think the mistake many writers and actors make, when they play clerics, is they give them a sort of otherworldliness, which I don’t think many of them have,” Irons says, quiet and thoughtful. “So when you get to Rodrigo Borgia, you think, well, Spanish. Big appetite for everything: for power, for women, food, for life.”

Not the usual reasons a young man considers the clergy for a career. In those days, though, in 15th-century Europe, the prospect of Rome and a seat in the Vatican held the promise of power and had an allure all its own. For a person of ambition and big appetites, winning the papacy was the closest thing there was to immortality itself.

Irons didn’t let the role go to his head, though. His approach to the role was to think of Rodrigo Borgia as just another regular guy looking to get his.

Over time, Irons found himself pulled into writer Jordan’s sense of time and place. The actor in him was struck by the subtle parallels between the Machiavellian scheming in Jordan’s script — Jordan wrote all 10 hours — and the cut-and-thrust of present-day politics. The Borgias is an eye-filling costume epic with sex, scandal and savagery, but it’s also a sly, subtle commentary on temptation, power and the nature of corruption.

“Neil writes very good dialogue,” Irons says. “I think it’s because he’s a novelist. It seems, when you read it, very spare. But when you act it, it’s really good.

“He doesn’t write on the nose. He allows you to play a lot of things under and beside the dialogue, which I really like. I’m halfway through the ninth episode I’m working on now, and I understand him completely, what he’s doing as a writer.

“Also, being an Irishman, he loves life.”

The Borgias is a study, too, in emotional contrasts, extemporaneous one moment, calculating the next. Acting is a collaborative effort; Irons believes The Borgias could not have been the same without Windsor, Ont., native Colm Feore’s performance as Alexander VI’s most dangerous adversary, Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere, or Montreal actor Francois Arnaud’s convincing melange of romanticism and perversity as Cesare Borgia, Alexander’s son and eventual consigliere.

“Colm is tremendous,” Irons says, unequivocally. “As an adversary for the Pope, I think he’s really interesting, because he’s very attractive on camera. I think what is good is that you’re somewhat confused watching The Borgias — who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy, who am I rooting for here — and that’s as it should be. No doubt about it, he has wonderful charisma, and is a delightful actor to work with. Really encouraging.”

Arnaud is cut from a different cloth — young, dashing, relatively unknown, a graduate of the Conservatoire d’art dramatique de Montreal, and poised, Irons believes, to be one of the finest young actors of his generation.

“He’s grown into the role tremendously, really tremendously. Gained in confidence. I’m thrilled, really thrilled. He has a very interesting path ahead of him.”

Irons is not one to rest on his laurels or be jaded by past successes. He hopes The Borgias will return for another season after next month’s finale, which depicts the May 1495 coronation of King Charles VIII of France, in the Vatican, as “King of France and Naples.”

Alexander VI had considerable skulduggery left in him — he died in 1503 — and Irons, for one, wants to play that skulduggery to the hilt. In all its messy, bawdy glory.

The Borgias premieres Sunday, April 3 on Bravo! at 10 p.m. ET/ 7 p.m. PT.

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