Many Irons in the Fire for Oscar Winner Jeremy
by Paul Fischer
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Oscar winning Brit Jeremy Irons is very picky when it comes to leaving one of his many British homes [and Irish castle] to take on a Hollywood role, but the idea of playing the antagonistic cattle baron in the Ed Harris-directed western, Appaloosa, was clearly too good to pass up. In a Toronto hotel room, in between puffs of a cigarette, Irons chatted exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: Was it irresistible to do something that kind of reminded you of why you might have become an actor in the first place?
Jeremy Irons: Yeah. I’ve always ridden horses and like most people, I was sort of brought up on Westerns, and Westerns were movies, but I never thought I’d ever be in one. They don’t make many now and although Clint Eastwood had asked me to do Unforgiven—
PF: Which, the Richard Harris part?
JI: Yeah. And I said, “No.” I think—I’d read the script, and I thought, “I think I’m too young for this. I don’t think I’m right for this. You should ask Richard Harris,” which he did. Of course, Richard made a great success of it and I think was a lot better than I would have been. So, I had another opportunity to do one. But, you know, when Ed asked me to do this, I’d just finished doing a play in London, and was feeling like doing a movie. I thought it would be a lot of fun. I could see that he had this dream to make this picture and Viggo was on board, and Renee was on board. And I thought, “Oh, we’ll have fun. It’s a nice bunch of actors, nice script.” And it was a real pleasure to be able to say yes to it.
PF: How do you humanize a character like this?
JI: I mean, you give him his back story. We know that he worked with Chester Arthur in the New York Customs House, which you know was pretty rife with venality. You know, import-exports, and people creaming off everywhere you could look. I see him as a man who didn’t like the city that much, although he had been a city boy. And he thought, “I’m going out West. I’ve heard about this copper mind.” So he comes out to this little hick town. And discovers that they have given away the rights to a company out of Chicago to do it. So he thinks, “I’m just going to have to bully them.” So he lets his men run riot on the place, waiting for the time when he can go to the mayor, and say—and the council, and say, “Listen. If you want me to pull them off, let me have the mine.” And this is upset by the lawmakers coming to town. You know, this was at a time when the law was just coming out to the Far West. The railroads had come. As soon as the railroad came, then the law followed. But for the original guys who went out there, they ruled by the gun. And if someone walked onto your land, which you’d staked, and said they want to take some of your men, you say, “No.” And then if they insist on doing so, you’d shoot them. I mean, you know, that was the way of it. But he’s caught on the cusp. Things are changing. So he gets—he gets out of it using influence, using people he’s used before. Gets back to New York. Says to Chester Arthur, “Jesus, it’s bloody terrible out there. I mean, there’s these guys going around making the law, and there are no witnesses to this, and they say I did this.” So Chester Arthur, who was an old mate, said, “Well, I’ll give you a pardon.” He then gets backers, goes back out there and buys it. He says, “I’ll do it with cash.” And starts behaving in exactly the same way that I reckon 75 of the CEOs in America behave now. You know, you buy out the competition. But of course, in our story, he oversteps the mark. He starts courting a lady who is not his, and gets killed for personal reasons. But had he not done that, had he not put his hand on the back of that girl’s neck, and had Hitch not seen that, and Hitch not realized that Cole, now injured, so not able to be a lawman, really, wants to settle down, and that his life will be ruined because the girl will go with the stud stallion. Who is going to be Bragg. So Hitch, out of friendship, gets rid of him.
PF: Could you identify with Bragg at all?
JI: Yes. I try and identify with everyone—I mean, there is an element of the rogue in me.
JI: In all of us, I think. And—playing a hard game, I can identify with anyone who does that, plays by the apparent rules. I don’t say he’s a great guy, but I can identify with him.
PF: What do you look for in a project? I remember a couple years ago, there was a time when you would do something like—and I dare not mention it—the last time I mentioned the movie’s name, you kind of scoffed at me. But, you said you did Dungeons and Dragons because it represented yet another brick in your Irish castle. Do you have such pragmatic attitudes now, or do you really have to be passionate about something?
JI: No, I need to earn my wages. I try not to—I mean, Dungeons and Dragons was a sort of anomaly for me, in that I was spending a lot of money on the castle, and they offered me a lot of money to do the picture. And I thought, “Yeah, come on.” What I hadn’t realized was that the director of that picture was very inexperienced, and therefore it wasn’t going to really work. But I’m afraid I had my palm crossed with silver. And so there’s an element of pragmatism. But I’ve always tried to—I’ve never wanted to work to support my lifestyle. But I do find that your lifestyle just tends to grow without you realizing. I have a lot of properties. None of which I rent, which surround the place in Ireland.
PF: Throughout Great Britain? Throughout the UK?
JI: Well, I have two in England. And five in Ireland. So it’s sort of crazy, you know?
PF: What do you do with them all? You can’t live in them all.
JI: Well, sometimes.
JI: We have a place in Dublin, because my wife has a Dublin son, grandson, she likes to get over and see, and wants to have a home there. I have the castle down in West Cork, which I did up over six years, which I adore. I have a little cottage where we used toil before, which at the moment I have a brother-in-law living in while we do up a farmhouse that he’s going to live in, that’s also half mine. You know, I love property. I love doing up property. And that’s tended to be where I put my money. But, of course, property—
PF: You don’t sell it. You just hold it.
JI: Yeah. Because it’s—I find these wonderful places, and can’t bear to get rid of them.
PF: How do you have time to act?
JI: Well, you mean get there and act.
PF: Right. And do all of that.
JI: Well, the great thing about filming is that—you know, you have these gaps. You go off and you work for four months, and then you can afford to—you know, do nothing the next four months.
PF: But it’s important to you to still do theatre.
JI: I’ve gone back to do theatre. But actually, that’s—really, that’s over the last two years. And I’ve been looking for a new play. In the last three years, rather, I’ve done two new plays. But really, that’s because I haven’t found the compelling work in film.
PF: Why is that?
JI: I think—I don’t know. I think it’s something to do with getting older. You know, there are a lot of us chasing the roles. If you think of people like Bill Hurt, Kevin Kline, Dustin Hoffman. They don’t work that often, because there aren’t that many roles around, which they really, really want. You know, in your 30s and your 40s, that’s when you’re really powering it. That’s when the roles come. Now, I think also it’s because I live in England. And I’m not a—when I’m not working, I’m not part of the community. Film community. I think that is a slight disadvantage, because out of sight, out of mind, a little bit. But I don’t know. I’m going off to do another play in New York, on Broadway, in January.
PF: Oh, really? Which one?
JI: It’s a new play. It’s called Impressionism.
PF: And who else is in it with you?
JI: Joan Allen is the leading lady.
PF: Ah. Well, that’s a pretty formidable—
JI: It’ll be nice, yeah. I’m looking forward to it. And Jack O’Brien is directing it, who’s a good director. I mean, we’ll see. I like doing new plays, because you want to see how—if you can make them work.
PF: And nobody has any preconceptions of character, either.
JI: That’s right. Yeah.
PF: Did they offer you cameo to do the Brideshead movie?
JI: They asked me originally to play Lord Marchmain and I couldn’t get Larry out of my head. I thought, “No, it’s not a good idea.” And I said to them I’d play Charles’ father, because I think that’s quite wishy. Now, that script, the one they asked me—it was about two years ago. And I don’t think it’s the script they actually filmed. I think it metamorphosized, and maybe they got another writer in. I think it was Andrew—the guy who does all the British adaptations, who I’m not very keen on. Anyway. I think his script was the one that eventually was made. But they said, “No, we feel you’re too upper-class for Charles’ father. We think he should be—we’re making a bigger class difference between Sebastian and Charles, and we want to see that in their parents as well.” And I thought, “Well, that’s a bit odd. But, anyway.”
PF: Have you seen the film?
JI: I haven’t.
PF: Have you finished any other films since you’ve done this?
JI: No, I haven’t. I went back from this to do a play at the National Theatre. Never So Good, playing Harold McMillan, which we had a great success with. And I finished that in August so I hope to film this autumn, although the two or three projects—I don’t know which one is going to go, and which one isn’t?
PF: British or American?
JI: They’re all American. I think people are very nervous about whether the strike’s going to happen, and all of that.
PF: Wouldn’t it have happened by now, if it was going to happen? You would think.
JI: They say it will be—they’ll know by the end of September. I think it’s the worst time for actors to strike. I think it’s a terrible time. You know, the whole business is changing so much.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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