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Smoking Irons

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

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“What that year did was make me very paranoid,” Irons recalls. “I was recognizable, which was not something I was used to being. There was a year or two where I really didn’t enjoy it. And then I turned a corner.
“I realized it turns the world into your village. I grew up in a village —and one of the huge pluses of that kind of life is that everybody knows you and trusts you and, hopefully, likes you. Granted, if everyone knows your business, that can be tough. But the world now is my village; people think they know me. The way people respond to me is different from country to country. In India, they recognize me for Die Hard With a Vengeance. You relax into it and you’re fine. There are some great pluses: You can talk to anybody, meet anybody. I try to manage it in a way that I try not to put barriers up.”
Actor Bradley Cooper, who worked with Irons in 2012’s The Words, recalls, “I was struck by his kindness. He was very kind to my mother, who was thrilled to meet him. And with other people who came up to him, he wasn’t deflective; he was receptive. And he was a good listener.”
Irons hit his stride in the 1980s, acting in major studio movies like The Mission while building his reputation in independent and foreign films. He showed up in everything from an adaptation of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal to one of Swann in Love, based on the novel by Marcel Proust, gave shattering performances as a philanderer and a dupe in Damage and M. Butterfly—and starred opposite Glenn Close in the original Broadway production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. He won the New York Film Critics Circle’s best-actor award in 1988 for David Cronenberg’s creepy true-story-based Dead Ringers, in which he played a pair of drug-addicted twin gynecologists in a film that still gives some women nightmares.
Two years later, he captured an Oscar for playing Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune, another fact-based film, in which he played a wealthy socialite accused of the attempted murder of his wife, who wound up in a persistent vegetative state from a drug overdose.
Irons has continued to work steadily in film and theater, making a point of choosing a variety of roles—from the powerful CEO in the Oscar-nominated 2011 financial drama, Margin Call, to a powerless elderly writer whose best work has been stolen in 2012’s The Words, to the reclusive “caster” in the upcoming Beautiful Creatures. Most recently, he’s made a film for Danish director Bille August, Night Train to Lisbon, and a full production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, for the BBC, both also due out this year.
“I try not to put my footsteps in the same place in the snow,” Irons says. “The problem with having a body of work is that people say, ‘Oh, that’s a Jeremy Irons role.’ But you just want to do something different because you’re an actor.
“I remember I once met (German filmmaker) Werner Herzog in Sydney at a festival. I’d just made this film called Moonlighting, playing a Polish workman. And when he met me, Herzog said, ‘You can’t be Jeremy Irons. Jeremy Irons is Polish.’ That’s great—that’s what you’re looking for as an actor.”
Working with Irons, Cooper recalls, was “the best. I’m a massive fan. I was just hoping I would be up to the challenge. But he has such friendly eyes and such a nice energy. He’s a very lighthearted guy—and a ferocious actor. He comes prepared and he’s willing to do it until he gets it right. Right from the get-go, we looked at each other and knew it would be OK. I’ve always loved his elegance, even while being utterly masculine. That’s something rare.”
Ed Harris, who directed Irons as a villainous rancher in Harris’ 2008 film, Appaloosa, says, “There’s a certain deliciousness that he can employ with words. He’s got a restrained theatricality he uses to his best advantage.”
Irons is known for his discipline and immersion in the character. Writer-director J.C. Chandor recalls that, while filming Margin Call, a low-budget independent film, he only had three days to film with Irons—and Irons took charge and made it work.
“There was one rehearsal for his biggest scene—24 pages of dialogue with 12 people in the scene—and everyone was scared,” Chandor says. “Before we went in, I said to Jeremy, ‘I want you to walk in as if you’re this guy, this CEO, and whip them into shape.’ He took that to heart—and he walked in, wearing sunglasses, a T-shirt and cargo shorts and, in the way only an actor can, he took charge of the room. And then he started to turn it on me. There was this whole great creative thing that happened.”
Neil Jordan, who produces and writes “The Borgias,” only directs two episodes out of each season: “Jeremy can be very painstaking with some of the other directors,” Jordan says. “He values a vision in a director. He’s an obsessive performer—I rely on him for that. He’s obsessive about the rituals and the costumes and everything about this world. I rely on him to keep the story on track when I’m not there.”
Harris recalls with a chuckle that, on Appaloosa, “We butted heads a few times. He can be pretty obstinate. I was playing the protagonist in the film and he accused me of directing the film in character.”
Irons acknowledges that he can be a stickler and says that, early on, he sometimes let it get in his way: “I went through a period when I would spend all my energy trying to get it right. But there’s a thin line between a perfectionist and a cunt. And I sometimes went past it.”
As someone who has made the world his village, Irons also feels the responsibility that goes with it. He is a patron or supporter of several British theater companies—and, in 2012, appeared as the on-screen narrator of Trashed, a documentary about the growing crisis of solid-waste disposal in the world. At one point, wearing knee-high waders, he wandered through a trash dump on the coast of Lebanon that spilled into and polluted the Mediterranean.
“When people can’t see these things, it’s difficult to get them alarmed,” he says. “That site in Lebanon was such a disgusting mound. And you don’t get that as much in the film because it’s also deeply photogenic. There’s no way with film to transmit the smell. Or the horrible, chemical-green ooze that’s bubbling up. Sadly, things will have to get a great deal worse before they get better. I hope we gave them a bit of hope with some of the ideas we offered in the film. I think people are turned off with doom-laden messages. I hope we presented some alternatives.”
Irons is also a patron of the Prison Phoenix Trust, which offers meditation and yoga to inmates in British prisons: “They have volunteers go into prisons all over the country and do simple yoga and meditation workshops. It gives the prisoners some time out, calms their anger and gives them a sense of themselves. It’s very good for them physically and mentally—and it’s good exercise.
“I did a meditation weekend in Budapest with a guru this past year and started doing yoga. It’s terribly good for my health, my posture, my head. I’d like to say I do it regularly, but I don’t have a very routine life. I should like to find the hour at the end of the day to do it.”
Talk to the people who know him and, inevitably, they mention how funny Irons can be: “He’s freakin’ hilarious in a dry, amazing way,” Chandor says.
Yet his filmography is surprisingly short on comedy roles; Irons rarely—if ever—plays them. Asked about that, he shrugs and says, “I don’t think my onscreen persona is funny. You would think of a lot of other people before you’d think of me. Although I’m always looking for something that makes me laugh. It’s hard to find.”
When it’s pointed out that he could easily play one of Noel Coward’s suavely self-absorbed comic protagonists, he shakes his head and smiles.
“I’ve always avoided Noel Coward,” he says. “That whole area of the elegant Englishman is a cul-de-sac. At one point, I could have become David Niven, if I wanted to. I don’t think that would be a good career for me. I want to try to be more unexpected.”
Married to actress Sinead Cusack since 1978, Irons has two grown sons, one of whom, Max, is making his own way as an actor. Irons is a proud father who made sure his son was aware of just what a challenging career it could be.
“We told him, ‘You’ve been brought up by two parents who have had successful careers as actors but it’s a tough life,’ ” Irons recalls. “But I’ve seen him work and I thought, ‘He knows how to get to that other place.’ He seems to be doing all right.
“But a career is a long thing. I just hope they never learn that I’d do this for nothing.”
Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website,
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