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Smoking Irons

An unapologetic lover of tobacco, the elegant English actor chooses roles that don’t pigeonhole him

Jeremy Irons likes to smoke. And he’d rather not have to apologize for it. “When I’m asked what superpower I wish I had, I used to say it would be to fly­—but now I think it would be to be able to smoke invisibly,” Irons says, relaxing in a booth near the rear of The Wolseley, a former car showroom and bank turned Grand European Café on London’s Piccadilly Street across the street from the Ritz. “If you’re going to have a cigar over dinner, you’ve got to be at home to do it. I think smokers are really singled out in a way that seems disproportionate. But smokers have no lobby.”
It’s just less than an hour until noon on this January morning, as Irons enters the restaurant, striding to his table in a dun-colored sweater, brown corduroy pants with dark brown Wellington boots pulled up to his knees, and a pair of antique leather saddlebags slung over one shoulder, which he brings to the table after checking his coat. They are, he notes, genuine U.S. Army Cavalry saddlebags from the Old West. He’s just ridden in from his home in Oxford—on his motorcycle, a 23-year-old BMW1000RT—on this brisk 40-degree day.
So he orders a bowl of porridge (oatmeal to us Yanks) with berries and a cappuccino and reclines with a catlike ease in the booth. He’s a couple days away from a trip to Los Angeles, where he will be a presenter at the 2013 Golden Globes—and then he’ll quickly be pulled into the publicity machine to promote the February release of his next movie, Beautiful Creatures, a supernatural tale in the Twilight vein in which he plays a family patriarch who is a “caster” (“A sort of male witch,” he allows). That will be followed by the March return of the third season of “The Borgias,” his popular and juicy Showtime series, in which he plays the conflicted Rodrigo Borgia, head of a powerful family who manipulated and murdered his way into being elected Pope Alexander VI.
The immediate subject, however, is cigars. His favorites? “Romeo y Julieta,” he says, adding, “being an actor, I was probably attracted to that name. And I like some of the Davidoffs; they’re sweet and smooth. I’ve got a box (humidor) in the castle (Kilcoe Castle in County Cork, Ireland, which he bought and refurbished), one at the house in Oxford and one for when I travel.
“My curse is that I’m a cigarette smoker. I make my own cigarettes. So I have a tendency to inhale when I smoke a cigar. I have to keep reminding myself not to.”
A smoker since his teens, Irons got serious about cigars while making the British miniseries that put him on the map: the 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited.”
“I was in my early 30s when I did ‘Brideshead’ and the director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, was a great cigar smoker,” Irons says. “In those days, you could smoke on the set. I would join him in a long cigar that would last most of the day. These days, I smoke a cigar maybe once a month. If I’m dining with friends who smoke and I know there’s some good talk in store, then I’ll light a cigar.
“I took a great trip to Havana, where I came away with some wonderful cigars—and a box signed by Fidel Castro. I still have the box, but not the cigars. To me, cigar smoking is about the leisure. There’s this life we have where we’re all tearing about all the time. But if you sit down and smoke a good cigar, you’re saying, ‘I have time for this.’ ”
Irons doesn’t make excuses for his cigarette consumption because, he notes, he takes as much care in their construction, using licorice-flavored cigarette papers and special tobacco, as in choosing his cigars. His craftsmanship is obvious, says Richard LaGravenese, who directed Irons in Beautiful Creatures.
“And he had the best tobacco I ever smelled,” LaGravenese says. “I started rolling them when I was very young,” Irons says. “I can’t smoke conventional cigarettes. I will occasionally; if I run out of tobacco, I might. But I find them too dry, too quick, too harsh. In America, the licorice papers I like are illegal (outlawed in the U.S. in 2009), but I say, anything to make it taste nicer. They’re still legal here; I believe Johnny Depp smokes licorice papers.”
With his luxuriously rumbling voice and elegant diction, and eyes that can shift from looking slightly haunted to deeply amused in a wink, Irons was the first choice of authors Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia to embody the character of Macon Ravenwood, the mysterious shut-in with magical powers in the teen gothic tale, Beautiful Creatures.
“They wanted someone funny and intimidating and sophisticated— and of course he has that gorgeous voice,” LaGravenese says. “He was perfect for the role. And he’s so incredibly smart. We worked together on the script on his scenes. He’s such a great professional, with so much experience. He’s wonderful at working on plot and story, and he’s got a great sense of humor.”
Irons, as the powerful but reclusive father in a story about romance between a young witch and a human teen, provided a kind of anchor for the film, LaGravenese says.
“He made the character more human—that was one of the things he helped me discover, that this was more about the humans and how much stronger we are than we think,” the writer-director says. “Jeremy made that character really human. And he found a humor that I hadn’t expected.”
“I had a lot of fun on that,” Irons says. “I got on well with the young American actors. And Eileen Atkins and Emma Thompson are in it. I really don’t understand that particular medium; I’ve never seen any of the Twilight films. But I think it will be rather good. And it was a great shoot in New Orleans, a city I love.”
Irons spends five months a year in Budapest, filming “The Borgias,” the Emmy-winning series about the conniving contemporaries of Machiavelli and the de’ Medicis in late 15th-century Rome. Lust, treachery, murder and worse—it’s all in a day’s work for what the series’ tagline referred to as “the original crime family.” Irons plays Rodrigo Borgia, a cardinal who, in the series’ first episode, manipulated the vote after the death of Pope Innocent VIII to get himself elected to the papacy.
Invested as Pope Alexander VI, he is remembered in history as a libertine who used his position to enrich himself and his family. But, as Irons points out, most of the history written about Alexander was shaped by enemies who survived him, particularly Giuliano della Rovere, who became Pope Julius II after Alexander’s death.
“If you just read what’s written about him, he was loved but mostly hated, feared and despised,” Irons says. “But he also had great passion and organizing ability. He was an extraordinarily inconsistent man. That’s what I love about doing this role in a series—the fact that, over the course of 10 hours in a season, you can really play the inconsistencies of the character in a way that you can’t in a film. He was a man of God, who lived in a world where he was involved in assassinations and poisoning. How do you align those things? It’s really interesting.
“I see modern equivalents but they don’t slap you in the face so hard. Look at George W. Bush; a Christian man, a nice man. And in the name of his government, thousands of civilians died in Iraq. But they keep that at arm’s length. Alexander did the same thing. The people who wrote about him in history books vilified his name. The impression you get from those books—I didn’t want to play that. Despite everything I read, I didn’t want to play him as an out and out rogue. I wanted to play what might have been.”
“I always thought he was perfect casting for Rodrigo—in everything except physique,” says writer-director Neil Jordan, who created “The Borgias” after trying for years to tell the story in a single film. “The real Rodrigo looks like someone who was bloated by overconsumption. I don’t want to cast for physicality.
“Jeremy has approached this as an exploration of power and religion, and how you can’t exercise power without moral justification. He’s very interested in issues of belief. The interesting thing about Rodrigo is that, no matter how monstrous he became, he was always a believer. He was ordering murders but he believed he had direct access to God. Jeremy is very interested in exploring those contradictions. He’s got the attitude of an 18th-century anarchist.”
Irons has enjoyed the opportunity to work in Budapest, using another BMW bike—a black-on-black 1150—to explore the countryside. The Hungarian studio where the show is shot is only two hours from London, but feels a world away.
“It’s a beautiful city on the Danube that hasn’t had too much of an economic resurgence since it became a democracy,” Irons says. “It’s still got this romantic, crumbling quality to it—unlike Prague, which has become much more Western and consumer-oriented. Before the wall came down, those cities were so romantic. Now I find as I travel around the way Western consumerism sort of sneaks in and makes everything the same, with all the chain stores. They don’t have that in Budapest.”
Though he continues to work regularly in film, Irons had no second thoughts about signing on for a TV series on an American pay-cable channel: “There’s a lot better work going on in American cable than in many movies,” he says. “Actors are attracted to good writing. And they’re crossing over to TV—Glenn Close, Dustin Hoffman. They’re attracted by the work, rather than the medium. In the old days, TV was frowned upon. But the business has changed. It’s harder to make the kind of movies I like to do, the smaller independent films. I look at what’s being made and I think it’s not a bad thing to spend five months a year doing this. Plus television sets you out there in front of a big audience, which is important.
“Neil made a picture last spring, between Seasons 2 and 3. He came back and said, ‘We’re so fortunate. We’ve got great equipment, we’ve got the time we need.’ On his film, he was constantly being chased about the budget, told to cut scenes, to cut budget. On ‘The Borgias,’ we have the luxury of enough time, great facilities and equipment and a great crew.”
In a sense, “The Borgias” brings Irons full circle, to the medium that launched him. Though he had worked in television and London’s West End in his 20s, it was Granada Television’s miniseries adaptation of “Brideshead Revisited” that turned Irons into a star—in both the United Kingdom and the United States. His costar, Anthony Andrews, won awards, but Irons jump-started his career.
“I remember seeing him on TV—I’d heard of him but had never seen him before ‘Brideshead,’ ” Jordan says “He was pretty marvelous in that.”
Adds LaGravenese, “I was in college when that was on PBS. It was a seminal series, one of the first big British hits like that I’d seen. He made a huge impression on me; I’d never seen homosexuality done on TV. The character he played—I’d never seen that before. He just stood out.”
The series hit American shores at almost the same time as his first major film role, opposite Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
“I wasn’t a film actor then. I worked regularly in the West End and I had my name above the title, but I don’t think it brought anyone in,” he says. “Doing a TV series was part of the process of getting known. There wasn’t the kind of snobbishness about TV in England that there was in Hollywood then; you did film and TV and theater. It’s a central business decision of your career.”
He adds with a shrug, “A lot of people still don’t know me. And there’s a big difference between doing a show here and doing one on Broadway. When you’re working on Broadway, your taxi driver always says, ‘How’s the show going?’ Broadway is a central part of the cultural life in New York in a way that theater isn’t in London. Over here, you have to be doing a TV series for the taxi driver to say that.”
After an upbringing in a village on the Isle of Wight “amongst people who were as solidly middle-class as I was,” Irons chose acting as a career “because I basically wanted to be a gypsy,” he says. He went to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, then began working on the London stage. Acting fulfilled a need he couldn’t quite express as a boy.
“I didn’t feel close to that community—I felt like an outsider, even there,” he says. “When I was considering what to do, my instinct was to find a job that would keep me outside society. I was a third child and my brother and sister were away at school a lot. I don’t like rules and I have a slight bit of trouble conforming.
“Still, I was middle-class enough that I wanted to have a family and a home. So the circus was out. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try theater.’ I had no experience but I answered an ad in the paper to be a dog’s body at a theater in Canterbury. And I loved the routine, the people and their attitude. I’d only done one play at school because, while I always wanted to try out, dummy that I am, I thought you had to be asked. I didn’t know there was a list in a room somewhere that you put your name on to audition. Once I did it, I loved it, even though I did it by the seat of my pants. In fact, I did poorly in tests that year because I’d been rehearsing when I should have been studying.”
What he enjoyed, he says, is the sense of losing himself in his character when he was on stage: “We’d been rehearsing something for two days and I came out at lunch one day and thought, ‘Where am I? Where have I been? Have I been somewhere else?’ And I got hooked on that, on being someone else. You can do that with a character.”
Irons spent a decade working in British theater and television, including a lengthy run in the original London cast of Godspell, before being launched in 1981 with “Brideshead Revisited” and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Suddenly he owned a famous face, a fact that took some getting used to.
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