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Berlin Interview: Jeremy Irons Talks ‘Night Train To Lisbon,’ ‘Beautiful Creatures’ And The Rationale Behind His Roles

Berlin Interview: Jeremy Irons Talks 'Night Train To Lisbon,' 'Beautiful Creatures' And The Rationale Behind His Roles

A quick look through his back catalogue or a few minutes in his company will tell you that Jeremy Irons, despite his Best Actor Oscar (for his creepy, ambiguous Claus von Bulow in 1990’s “Reversal of Fortune”) and despite the many auteurs he has worked with in the past (David Cronenberg, Steven Soderbergh, Louis Malle, Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch etc), regards himself, first and foremost, as a jobbing actor. It’s not every esteemed and awarded star, after all, who boasts a U.S. indie, two lavish TV dramas, a small role in a would-be YA blockbuster, a lead in a European co-production and the voice of a bar rag in an episode of the “The Simpsons” as his credits in just the last 14 months or so.

The European film in question, Bille August’s “Night Train to Lisbon” is the reason we got to meet Irons at the Berlin International Film Festival recently, after the movie’s premiere (you can read our review here). Affable and relaxed, but with that amazing voice that kind of makes everything, no matter how trivial, sound profound, Irons talked us through his ‘Night Train’ character, and gave us some insights into his unusually pragmatic approach to the often mysticized craft of acting. Here are a few things we learned.

Irons is on record as regarding the clothing and accessories of his characters as central to his performances. “Night Train to Lisbon” was no exception.
It was very important. We had to try to create a man who had no awareness at all of how he looked, or that anyone would be looking at him. Some men don’t — often academics, people who are very much in their own head. And yet we wanted him to… not become more aware of how he looked, but to become a little less fuddy-duddy, to show, by how he was dressed, how he was changing. The glasses were very important and difficult to find… I went to a place that does retro glasses in London and they all seemed to be trying to look fashionable. Very hard to find a pair of glasses that just looked “bleeugh.” 

I think we did, didn’t we? …All of that is very important because the character says very little and you have to communicate through many visual things how he feels about himself.

The film also gave Irons the opportunity to work a “Ferrari” cast
When Bille told me about the other actors, they were all actors I wanted to work with. Martina Gedeck I’d seen in “The Lives of Others,” and admired her so much… Bruno Ganz was an actor I’d never worked with but always admired. Tom Courtenay I knew but hadn’t worked with, Christopher Lee — again, a man I knew but never worked with. Charlotte Rampling I had worked with before, but they were all good actors and the joy of working with good actors… it’s like if you love driving to get behind the wheel of a Ferrari or something. It’s great, it’s easy – you can drive well, easily.

However Irons confesses to finding learning his lines difficult, and learning new languages even trickier.
I was so impressed with Christopher [Lee] that he knew all his lines — I’m sometimes a little edgy on my lines, and I thought if he can remember them, at that age, get your act together Jeremy. [With languages] I’m hopeless. It’s all I can do to learn my lines. I’ve been in Hungary for 15 months filming “The Borgias” over three years and I know about four words of Hungarian. It’s actually rude.

Over the years, his approach to choosing roles has not changed.
It’s always just been a gut reaction, an appetite based on many things. Based on whether I need the money, whether I’m intrigued by the character, and whether he is unlike anything else I’ve ever played — sometimes I have to go a bit close to other things I’ve played, though.

Then: who the director is, whether the story is a story that I would like to go and see or a huge part of the population would like to go and see — sometimes the two are not the same. Who the producers are, will they take care of it, or will we spend a lot of time making a film and then the film will disappear… so those are really the aspects that come into the pot, and always were.

But when it comes down to it, his heart lies with European filmmaking.
I have to say, maybe it’s because I’m European, but I do prefer a European production. It’s smaller, I think in Europe people have a sense of, whether it’s the culture or… I just find we’re more of a family, a unit who enjoy being together. I want to say in America everybody is more concerned about what other people think about them, they’re very careful not to offend or upset people. There’s a much more obvious hierarchy, and so I don’t enjoy so much making a film in the U.S.

Also “Beautiful Creatures” was a huge production and that’s always less personal. And they’d been shooting for six weeks, and I was coming in, for rather too long actually, because I’ve a very small role but because of other actors’ commitments I had to hang around for a long time. New Orleans is a long way away, I couldn’t get home to England easily.

Irons is not sure his son Max (appearing in the upcoming YA film “The Host”) will be an actor forever.
I encouraged him when he was growing up to find what made him happy and to find a profession that would make him happy. I saw in him that he had the ability to lose himself in a character, so I thought, well he is suited to be an actor in that regard. Whether he is suited to what you have to go through being an actor I am not sure. And I think even now, when he’s been relatively successful, he isn’t sure either, whether he likes the way of life enough. I know he likes earning better money than most people earn, but I think he finds the way of life difficult and doesn’t necessarily see that he’ll always be an actor.

Having made his initial breakthough in the wonderful “Brideshead Revisited,” and now working on “The Borgias” Irons doesn’t find that TV work has changed hugely for him.
The last series I did was ‘Brideshead’ 32 years ago. And there is a similarity between ‘Brideshead’ and “The Borgias” in that we are left alone pretty much by Showtime as we film in Hungary. Though not as much as we were on ‘Brideshead,’ on that the company would call the producer and ask, “What part of the world are you in now?” They just trusted him and let him do it. American television companies [today] are more hands on than that.

The pace is about the same, though, the pace of “The Borgias” is about the same as shooting a feature film, but I think we’re unusual, because I talk to friends working on other cable TV shows, and it’s much more frenetic, especially the ones made in America. So I would say [for me] it hasn’t changed much really in those 30 years, but what has changed is there are more and more good writers in that area.

Irons’ major influences are mostly culled from the ranks of Great British Classical Actors.
Laurence Olivier for his bravery, Ralph Richardson — there was really Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson. Ralph never got quite as famous, but he kept until his dying day a childlike quality. Peter O’Toole! I love the wildness and the magic and the Celtic-ness of Peter. Long before I became an actor I remember seeing “Lawrence of Arabia” and thinking “Wow! I would love to be able to do what he can do.” Of course I’ve never got anywhere near it, but then I don’t have his blue eyes.

And up next, perhaps a little more “The Borgias” after which Irons will be talking garbage…
I might go back and do another [season] of “The Borgias” just to finish it off, or perhaps a shortened fourth series, it’s up to Showtime. It would be quite nice to finish the man’s life. I hope nothing before then.

I’m slowly selling and distributing a documentary called “Trashed” about garbage and it’s screening all over the world at festivals, so there’s an opportunity to do a lot of travel. It’s a problem which feeds into many other problems, like global warming but many people are not aware of it, and it’s pretty easily solvable. The real problem is incineration, which we’re told by people who manufacture incinerators is a safe way of turning waste to energy. Bullshit. One of those plastic water bottles — if you burn that you produce 1/26th of the energy that it has taken to make it, and we live in a finite world with finite resources.

And as to the intriguingly titled “A Magnificent Death from a Shattered Hand” project, slated to be directed by Thomas Jane, to which his name has been attached?
It depends when he shoots it. I don’t think it’s financed yet and, like anything, I think I said you could put my name to it about two years ago when it seemed like a good idea. But when he comes back, it might not be such a good idea…

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