Jeremy Irons is a regular visitor to both Morocco and the Marrakech Film Festival. At this year’s fest, he received a career tribute award. “I’m much too young to receive an award like this,” he joked at his gracious acceptance speech, where he wore traditional Moroccan dress and grinned with happiness for several minutes straight, an expression he rarely makes in his sometimes perverse film roles. Irons later spoke about the award, his career and Moroccan colors and clothes. With every aspect of stardom, even riffing with reporters, Irons seems to have so much fun.
You said something in your very moving acceptance speech for your award…
It was all right?
Yes, very nice.
It’s very difficult to know what to say.
You talked of your long relationship with the festival; that the first time that you came here, soon after 9-11, you noticed Americans were loathe to celebrate cinema from this part of the world. Have you seen that change?
Well not this year, because they’re not here, which is a shame. Because I think they’re worried about catching Ebola and being blown up. Because, you know, the Americans are like nervous snails. Suddenly someone just sort of touches them and they just sort of [makes slithering contraction noise]. They don’t really know where Europe is, and they know Africa is sort of underneath it and it’s full of Muslims, and it’s a very dangerous place to be. The reason I came the first time was because they weren’t coming, and I thought, this is ludicrous!
I read that you said never wanted to be an actor, that you preferred to be a gypsy. Is that true, or was that a joke?
No, it’s true. I wanted to find a way of life that allowed me great freedom, not to be stuck. I went to a very traditional school, which prepared people for the army or for banking or for industry, and I wanted to be outside of that. I looked at the circus, and I looked at the carnival, at the fun fair. But I looked at sleeping accommodations and decided I was too middle class to put up with that! So then I joined the theater and found I could choose my own bedroom. I loved the atmosphere. I loved that we worked till midnight and didn’t start till ten. I loved the smells and I liked the people. And I thought, well I better learn to act, to be an actor.
So traveling is a big part of being an actor for you?
Yeah. BIG part of it. And also, you know, sitting around the campfire, telling stories. With people, some of whom you know from other campfires, and you’ve met up again with them, and you all disperse and get into your caravans.
You said that when you saw Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia” it inspired you to become an actor. That’s interesting, because that character has a formal upbringing, like you say, but he’s attracted to this other life.
That’s right. Well I’ve never seen the connection in that way, but Peter O’Toole has the most wonderful romantic quality. I mean, he has blue eyes, which I don’t have, so I could never look like Peter. But I watched him on screen and thought, that’s extraordinary what he’s doing. I’d love to be able to do that, to take a cinema of people and allow them to dream. A wonderful way to spend one’s life.
So when you got your award the other day and they did this montage of your parts, how do you feel when you look back at your career like that?
Well now I look at those montages and think, that’s quite well done, or that’s not very well edited. I look at them technically.
In looking at some of your films playing here, there’s a phrase that comes to mind, from a Catherine Breillat film, that “Sex is Comedy.”
You mean the sex is funny?
A little bit. “Dead Ringers,” “Damage.” There’s a comedy to the obsession, maybe.
I would agree with you with “Damage.” I took issue a little bit with the way Louis [Malle] shot that. Because the book is extraordinarily powerful. And takes you, as a man– I don’t know how it is for a woman–on a roller coaster ride of euphoria and the deepest depression. And Louis, I felt, a little bit sort of cold and French, pulled back.
I remember he said, “What are you going to do with the love scenes?” And I said, “Well, I’ll do what I have to do. And we’ll have to work it out with Juliette. But just do me favor, keep close.” Because when you are making love, you are close to the other person. The only person you see is the other person. So the audience becomes one or the other.
Louis, for his own reasons, pulled back. So you see… wrestling. So unless you happen to be a voyeur, it doesn’t turn you on. You think, oh, that’s interesting. So I was a little disappointed with the film finally. And I remember when we looked at the first cut, I said to him, do we like these people, because I’m not sure we do. I think they’re rather stupid people. And that shouldn’t enter your mind when you watch that film.
The films you’ve got coming up are very different. You’ve got “High Rise “and “Batman Vs. Superman.” What are your reasons for doing them?
Well “High Rise,” I asked [producer] Jeremy Thomas, “Why do I never do English independent films?” And he said, “Because you’re too expensive!” And I said, that’s crazy. There’s some interesting work, I should put that into the mix. So that was why I did that.
And “Batman Vs. Superman”?
“Batman Vs. Superman” for opposite reasons. I mean, it’s very important that if I am to bring money to small independent films, when they’re trying to raise money, that I’m as widely known as possible. And audiences have short memories. So I do one of those pictures, if there’s a really good script and an interesting director. And Zach Snyder is an interesting director. I think it’ll be a big movie, and do me no harm, and help me when I want to do smaller films, which are maybe more interesting for me.
How will your Alfred be [in “Batman Vs. Superman”]?
Oh he’ll be quite different. He has an interesting history. He’s a very competent man. He’s the sort of man I think anyone would like to be married to. He can sort of do everything: change light bulbs, blow up bridges if he has to.
The perfect husband?
In looking at your career, there are a few directors you’ve worked with twice: Billie August and David Cronenberg. But you’ve established longer relationships with theater directors. Has that been a deliberate choice?
No. No, it’s just the sad thing that most directors don’t ask to work with me again. [laughs]
But the Cronenberg and Billie August films, do they hold a special place within your life?
No, they’re so different. The characters I was asked to play were so different. It’s always nice working with friends. And if you have a director that you’ve worked with before, you don’t have to go through that first learning thing. There’s an element of trust there. But I think there’s also something exciting about working with new directors. Because it’s like meeting any new person, a new lover for instance. You’ve got to learn about each other, and that’s the fascinating thing. And you don’t take anything for granted. Whereas, working with a director again, he knows what you do. It’s only a special sort of director who will make you do something completely outside your normal. That’s the sort of directors one always looks for. You get more chances to do that in theater. While in film, people tend to ask you do what they’ve seen you do. And as an actor, one always tries to break out of that.
I think when you got the Oscar for “Reversal of Fortune” I think you thanked David Cronenberg. Does that give a sense of a special link?
Well, that’s because I always believed that I never would have gotten the Oscar for “Reversal of Fortune” had I not made “Dead Ringers.” Because “Dead Ringers” was ignored by the Oscars the year before. Which people who know about film and acting thought was wrong. But of course, the subject matter is not an Oscar subject matter; it’s not a feel good movie in any way. No one is crippled. They’re just mentally up-the-creek. So that was why I thanked David.
You mentioned that you don’t have many friends that are actors.
That’s true. When I’m not working, I don’t mix with actors, really. I have about two or three friends from theater school, and we call each other and meet. But in the main, no. I’m more happy with musicians, or horse riders, or sailors.
You’ve worn some traditional Moroccan clothes on stage. And you’re someone who’s often on best-dressed lists. Do you find fashion inspiration in Morocco?
It’s very hard to get it completely right. I love the colors, I love fabrics, but it’s not always stuff that I would wear. I remember in Fez, looking for a, not a Berber, who are the Blue people?
Yes, I wanted a blue Tuareg djellaba. All the ones I saw were this sort of dark blue with this gold and I thought, erh, I don’t like that. And then down this alley I saw this BIG man wearing this faded blue djellaba. He came into the store I was in, and he smelled wonderful! I think it was orange oil. I said, “Where did you buy this?” And he said he’s had it for years. And I said, “Can I buy it off you?” And he said, “But it’s old.” And I said, “No it’s fine.” And he went up the road and he came back in a white polyester one, and he gave me his wrapped up. And I wore it for years without washing it. Because I loved the smell of orange! Just wonderful.