Interview: Jeremy Irons

“I’m not everyone’s cup of tea...” admits the star of The Borgias

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Tact is required when an actor with a truculent reputation for perfection asks your opinion of their latest project, but what the hell. Jeremy Irons, at 62, is too self-deprecating and talented, although sometimes “hammy”, to take offence. “Surprisingly slow,” I comment about the first part of The Borgias, in which he plays the dissolute 15th-century Pope Alexander VI. He takes a long drag on the first of many liquorice roll-ups.

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He’s mesmerisingly slim, stretching languidly, barefoot, on a wooden bench under a flower-filled pergola in the garden of his home in London’s Notting Hill. Sandwiches and fruit are laid out in front of us; three PRs – an indication of his international clout – are on hand, but remain indoors. He ponders again. “Slow?” he repeats, smiling, baring nicotine-stained teeth that detract from his almost perfect profile. “Yes, we’re worried about that. I spoke to Neil [Jordan, the director] and he agrees it’s a danger. We’ll address it.”

He admits sometimes he’s appeared “arrogant and impatient. And I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea as an actor, but sod it.” He once told me actors are so boring that interviews with them are either fantasy or satire. Which will this be? “I’ve veered away from that. Now I like a nice chat. I call the shots and insist I work only with good writers.” He blows smoke from his second roll-up and warns, “Now and again I make a mistake. Sinéad [Cusack, his second wife] criticises me for being too frank. But that’s the only way I can be. I am what I am. I do what I do.”

On marriage and tabloid scandals…

He’s always felt an outsider from his earliest days as the son of an Isle of Wight accountant, and toyed with becoming a gypsy after leaving Sherborne public school. Instead, he worked as a jobbing gardener and busker before going to the Bristol Old Vic, where he had a brief marriage at 21 to an actress, Julie Hallam.

He met Sinéad when he played John the Baptist in the rock musical Godspell and she was in the theatre next door. They’ve been married for 33 years, even though he’s said they’re “dysfunctional” and “part of our nature is to have as many partners as possible”. “I float ideas,” he explains. “Which I shouldn’t. But why not stir the pot? Lack of privacy is faintly aggravating, particularly if you have a salacious private life, which
I hope most people have. We only live once.

“There are newspaper gossip girls who chat you up at parties when you’re in your cups and should be at home. And there it is next day on the breakfast table. We all like dirty secrets, don’t we? Every few years the Daily Mail regurgitates stuff, so at least we sell newspapers and I’ve never needed a super-injunction. They’re terribly ex- pensive you know [up to £50,000].” Another puff, another sigh. “I am by nature cynical of everything in the media, but I should be more careful.” The same with smoking, he adds. “I’m an addict. I wake wheezing in the night.”

He caused a furore by saying smokers need protection like the handicapped and children do. Political correctness is alien to him. “It’s gone too far. There are too many people in power with too little to do, so they churn out laws to justify their jobs. I hope it’s a rash that will wear itself out. Most people are robust. If a man puts his hand on a woman’s bottom, any woman worth her salt can deal with it. It’s communication. Can’t we be friendly?”

On his homes, horses and family…

He has seven homes – in London, Oxfordshire and Ireland. “I feel guilty about it. Some people can’t even afford one. Basically, I enjoy creating them and it’s my way of dealing with being recognisable. I hole up in them as opposed to hotels, where people always have cameras. I love Ireland, because I have my horses, and we need a house in Dublin because Sinéad has a son and grandson there.”

Her son, Irish political activist Richard Boyd Barratt, was born in 1967 and adopted. She and Irons have two sons – Sam, a photographer, and Max, an actor, who, at 25, has become compared with heart-throb Robert Pattinson. “My heart is in my mouth for him. It’s ‘grab ’em and spit ’em out’. In my day it was like that for Rada girls, but it now seems the same for young boys. The business is difficult. There are so many good actors. Max doesn’t yet have ‘bottom’. He’s done two good plays, but hasn’t had the luxury that I had of churning out stuff in rep and failing privately. He’s looking for theatre stuff where he can be out of the limelight.”

On playing Pope Alexander…

Irons is perfectly cast as debauched Pope Alexander, even though he’s still thought of as an archetypal English toff 30 years after his triumphant portrayal of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited (and 30 years, coincidentally, after the BBC’s much-derided telling of the Borgias saga). He says he’s much more “dirty and odd” than that. He’s slightly androgynous, louche, occasionally reptilian – in the nicest possible way.

He’s played a number of morally ambiguous men, from Humbert Humbert in Lolita and mad twin gynaecologists in Dead Ringers, to Claus von Bulow, accused of poisoning his wife in Reversal of Fortune, for which he won an Oscar in 1990. “I know I’ve sometimes been employed because producers think I might win an award and it will help sales. I couldn’t tell you how many I’ve got [perhaps he’s most proud of a Tony for Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing on Broadway in 1984]. They’re very nice, but they don’t change your life, or your fee, much.

“I was nervous about The Borgias, but not because it’s television. I don’t watch much. It’s easy to say we’re dumbing down, but do we want paternalists giving us what they think we should want? Anyway, in America there’s a golden age – The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire – and Steven Spielberg is our executive producer, so you can see where we’re coming from.

But I asked Neil, ‘Have you Googled Alexander VI?’ He’s huge [so fat that men had to jump on his coffin to close the lid], with a Roman nose. I’m nothing like him, and many good actors are – Robbie Coltrane, James Gandolfini, Tony Hopkins, who was going to play the part in a proposed movie of The Borgias Neil tried to fund for ten years. He said, ‘I don’t care what he looks like. The series is about power and how it changes people.’ It’s a pretty accurate portrayal, but it’s drama, not a documentary, and there are some inconsistencies.” Regardless, a second series started filming last month.

There’s a danger, he acknowledges, in going over the top and becoming Monty Python-esque. “Not only that, but there are intrinsic problems when you’re dealing with a pope who has a mistress and four kids we know about – actually, there were probably eight others – a murderous son, a gorgeous daughter. He had contradictory qualities: he was an amazing organiser and wonderful bon viveur, as well as being incestuous, an adulterer, a murderer. I thought, ‘Wonderful. A fantastic part. Let’s
try to find the reality.

There’s a lot to dislike, admittedly. He was a clever politician, not afraid to use any of the weaponry at his disposal. There’s an Italian tendency to both love the monster and snipe continually to get rid of him – look at Berlusconi. A danger with television is that
viewers always want outrageous licentiousness.” The Borgias provides that, as well as clichés wrapped in ecclesiastical olde English flummery and liturgical music rising to a crescendo during sex scenes.

On religion…

“I hope the Vatican won’t object, in the same way Her Majesty wouldn’t say Shakespeare’s Richard III is terrible. It has no relevance to the present organisation, although I think the Catholic church deserves a huge amount of criticism and has lost its way for the past 300 years. The child-molestation scandal has broken its stranglehold, which is probably a good thing.

“I have a fantastic priest in Ireland, although I’m not Catholic. I believe in God – but probably not the same one as yours. I go to church if I want to say hello to the community, and get the Sunday papers afterwards. At their best, Jesus’s teachings are nonpareil, but the church has gone off with the fairies. It would be wonderful to have a man in each village who could help the poor, the sick and remind the rich of their responsibility. I’m sorry religion isn’t central to our lives.

We need guidance to counter consumerism. Unregulated, it’s a monster.” In his latest film, Margin Call, loosely based on the Lehman Brothers collapse, he plays the CEO of a Wall Street bank. “He’s pretty amoral, like most guys in that business. They say they’ll go abroad if they’re over-regulated: call their bluff and let them.”

On future roles…

He took a couple of years off to restore 15th-century Kilcoe Castle in County Cork. “It cost more than a million, although I never totted it up. There are actors for whom acting is their life, but I’m not one of them. I’ve done a few things in Hollywood – not my place. I don’t like living over the shop and I enjoy what I can’t do there – sailing, skiing, riding.

“I like to do things that interest me – thumping great roles like Alexander. I’ve just done The Simpsons, which was good fun, and I’m off to sing in Camelot in New York for one performance to raise money for the Irish Rep theatre, but I don’t think I can sing any more – too many cigarettes and not enough practice. I try to cherry-pick jobs that will be fun and also good for the career. Life is a little easier now I don’t have a mortgage and my kids have been educated.”

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Nevertheless, he’ll always be restless, looking for the next hurdle, tripping up but still smiling, still causing trouble, still being “exposed” by the Daily Mail.