Sunday with Jeremy Irons
By Steve Daly
April 10, 2011
If there’s a cad or a creep to be played, Jeremy Irons’s antennae shoot up. “Characters who live on the outer edge of acceptable behavior have always been to my taste,” says the Oscarwinner, now starring as the power-mad patriarch of Showtime’s series The Borgias (Sundays, 10 p.m. ET/PT). Irons, 62, chats with Steve Daly about his affinity for sinners.
Why are scandalous families like the Borgias so fascinating?
Whether it be in The Borgias or Shakespeare or The Godfather, we love watching people doing what we don’t dare do. Murder and mayhem, from the safe position of our armchairs, can be delightful.
What will audiences make of Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI in 1492 but kept multiple mistresses?
He wouldn’t see that as hypocritical. He wasn’t a god—he was a man, and man was born a sinner. He’s rather endearing, in a strange way. He’s as pathetic as all men are. They want everything, don’t they?
Will people be surprised at the brutal Vatican politics?
The Vatican at that time was nothing like it is now. In a way, it was a medieval West Wing—the center of power in the known world.
Sundays have changed since Borgia days. What do they mean for you?
I’m a bit sorry we have all the shops open. But we all have to be encouraged to buy, buy, buy, to keep society going, so I suppose one has to accept that. For me, it’s a day I can have a lie-in and a relaxed brunch. I think we need a down day. Otherwise we’d just go bananas.
Your 25-year-old son, Max, is co-starring in Red Riding Hood. What’s it been like watching him deal with the publicity?
Well, it fills me with concern. I’m very happy he’s doing what he loves. But my nightmare as a young actor was to be taken up too quickly. A plant needs to get its roots into the soil before it can withstand the wind and the ice and the cold. Nowadays, the business has a huge appetite for youth and tends, when it’s tired of it, to spit it out. But I think he’s got his head screwed on quite straight.
You’ve played some very dark roles. Which gave you the most pause before saying yes?
I think Reversal of Fortune, because the protagonists [Claus and Sunny von Bülow] were still alive—or partly alive, anyway. But Glenn Close persuaded me that if I didn’t do it, someone else would. And I knew Lolita would cause fireworks. I said to my agent, “You’d better get me a wage that will keep me the next three years, because I don’t think I’ll work much after this.” That was indeed what happened.
You’re skilled at sailing the ocean and riding horses and motorcycles fast—not the safest activities. Are you a daredevil?
Living on the edge, for me, has always been one of life’s great pleasures. It’s not really the speed; it’s the fact that you have to do it well in order to survive.
Ever pushed it too far?
Oh, I have. At any time, you can tumble, but that adds to the frisson. It reminds you there is an edge. And I think we need constant reminders: The edge is there. Don’t fall over it.