New York Magazine: Jeremy Irons on His Role in the Showtime Series ‘The Borgias’

Just Like You Imagined – Jeremy Irons plays himself very well.

New York Magazine

By Jada Yuan

March 27, 2011

Jeremy Irons is laughing heartily outside Le Bilboquet on East 63rd Street, surrounded by attentive females. It’s a cold day, but he seems oblivious to the chill as he sips an afternoon Kir Royale and languidly smokes a hand-rolled cigarette. You approach and introduce yourself. He springs up, grabbing both your arms, and stands back to appraise you. At 62, he still possesses a liquid-eyed hotness. He cheek-kisses good-bye his coterie of women (publicists, managers, friends—it’s unclear), lays his hand on your shoulder, and gently guides you through the bistro door, all the while staring deeply into your eyes, so absorbed that he is halfway through the room before he realizes he forgot to put out his cigarette. With apologies, he takes his leave amid a chorus of dismay. “Are you kidding? He can smoke wherever he wants! He’s so cool!” says one entranced male diner, upon whom Irons bestows a two-palmed handshake before stepping outside to carefully deposit his cigarette butt in a trash bin.

Jeremy Irons is just so Jeremy Irons—that is to say, the man of flesh is very much the man of your fantasies. He doesn’t so much occupy space as consume it. Eyes follow him, then stare, rapt. And Irons, something of an attention hog, plays to his audience. He chooses the corner that allows him to face out and survey the room as it surveys him right back.

Irons calls out for a round of “Château Bloomberg” (a.k.a. tap water), “straight from the East River!” He has, he declares, “turned vigorously against the mayor because of the new law [banning] smoking in parks or on the beach, which I think is ludicrous and a terrible bullying of a minority that cannot speak back.” Irons, his teeth a testament to a life of indulgences, believes smokers ought to be protected like “handicapped people and children.” Though he clearly relishes declamation, he is getting notably heated over a law that is very briefly touching his life. The actor spends most of his time in an Oxfordshire village or at Kilcoe, an actual ­fifteenth-century castle (“You’d call it a keep,” he clarifies) on a bay in Ireland. Kilcoe’s ­hundred-foot, lovingly restored towers help to explain a spate of early-aughts parts in “sub–Lord of the Rings stuff” like Dungeons & Dragons. “It’s the shit you do,” he says, to “pay for another six months.”

Irons is in New York to reprise a guest role as a sex addict turned sex therapist on Law & Order: SVU (airing March 30) and to publicize his new Showtime show The Borgias(debuting April 3), a part he took at the behest of his friend Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), who wrote the series and directed the first two episodes. Irons plays Pope Alexander VI, despite having zero resemblance to the real man—an enormous, hook-nosed Spaniard with an insatiable appetite for corruption, food, women, and murdering his enemies. “I Googled Rodrigo Borgia, and he’s a voluptuary,” says the actor. “And I said, ‘I think I’m a bit of an ascetic, really, for that.’ And Neil said, ‘No, no, no. Because it’s all about power and what power does to you and how you deal with it. And you can play all that.’ ”

Yes, powerful and dark, Irons can do. He broke out as a heartthrob in the BBC seriesBrideshead Revisited, then romanced Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. But by his forties, he was playing against his good looks, choosing dangerous, even creepy characters—like the twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune, for which he won his Oscar.

In his Borgias role, an outsider beset by a Roman aristocracy bent on destroying him, Irons sees parallels with Barack Obama. “Just look at the gossip about your current president being from Africa or being a Muslim,” he says. “Alexander was getting all of that.” On the other hand, Irons thinks Alexander had it easier than another of our presidents. “The medievalists would see the reaction to Clinton, for instance, and the cigars, as being deeply prohibitive. He’s a man! We ought to forgive and say, ‘Yeah, he’s got a lot of testosterone, and he’s great at what he does, and he loves a bit of lady, and there you go.’ We see all these marriages breaking because they’re under intolerable strains, because we expect to get all our happiness from our husband or our wife. Impossible! How can you get that from one other person? I don’t want a saint to be my leader. And maybe his wife after fifteen years won’t be able to provide everything he needs. That’s fine. That’s life.”

Irons’s wife of 33 years, the actress ­Sinéad Cusack, is apparently fine with this; no doubt she’s used to her husband’s decrees—including his disdain for organized religion (she is a practicing Catholic): “I don’t really approve of religion … I’m not quite sure the relevance Christianity has.” Their son Max, 25 (brother to Sam, 32), is currently starring in Red Riding Hood. Irons hasn’t seen the film, but he did catch the Jimmy Kimmel appearance in which Max talked about his eternal embarrassment over his dad’s driving around in a horse and buggy in the town where he grew up. Irons smiles indulgently. The father is resigned to letting the son find his own way. “I hope he never gets out of touch with theater, and I hope he doesn’t get too seduced by the money and all that,” says Irons. “I wish him well. But it’s always, for any parent, a slightly heart-in-the-mouth situation when you see your child climbing a rock face.”

Should The Borgias come back after the first season, the actor is committed to the series for five months out of the year, perhaps for three or four years. He is aware of and on guard against the lusty tendencies of cable TV’s costume dramas: “I know there are some series where there is a bit of history and a bit of fucking and a bit of history and a bit of fucking,” he says. “I think [Showtime] would have liked to have made it even more about that, but I wouldn’t want to be involved in something that’s just as obviously … You know, if you want fucking, there’s a lot of other channels.” (For the record, there is still quite a lot of fucking in The Borgias.)

As he’s telling me about his desire to play King Lear (“The next fifteen years, I’ll be right for it. And the next ten, I’ll be able to remember my lines”), a man approaches to ask if Irons would mind posing with his giggling female companion. The actor lets out an exasperated sigh. It is the first indication that being Jeremy Irons might be a bit of work. Then it’s gone, the Irons of your imagination returns, and it’s impossible to tell if his annoyance was real or feigned. He looks up at the woman, leaning awkwardly over him, and wraps his arm around her waist: “You’re falling over. Come and sit down. Just don’t show it to my wife. Ha. Ha. Pleasure. My ­pleasure.”