I Am Irons, Man:
The Jeremy Irons Interview

by Tony Phillips

“Another sign of age,” Academy Award-winner Jeremy Irons slurs this last word to several syllables while picking at a hole in his natty herringbone blazer, “I think that’s moth. I travel and bring back fabrics, textiles and rugs from all over the world, Morocco and Nepal in particular, and I brought back a moth that just ate through everything.”

That’s the thing about Irons: even the pests are international. I met the actor twice over the past year. Once when he’s through town promoting dual diva-wrangling turns opposite scenery-chewers Annette Bening in Being Julia and Fanny Ardant in Forever Callas and again — months later, same jacket — when he’s on the trail with his Venetian gentleman Antonio opposite Al Pacino’s gondola-chewing Shylock in William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

By this second visit, the old British or gay parallax has become quite clear. In fact, Merchant director Michael Radford is quick to classify Irons screentime with Joseph Fiennes as “this gay relationship that is quite obviously there if you read the text of this play. Jeremy, who is quite proud of his heterosexuality, would be first to admit that Antonio and Bassanio had actually done it.”

Did you realize that sometimes your way of playing a role would frustrate Michael?
Mike came from documentaries and he was great for this because he hadn’t done Shakespeare before and approached it like he was a writer. He looked for the events to happen. For actors to get inside these characters and the writing, you have to do a little bit of work and you have to work together. We call that rehearsal and it’s something that Mike was a little frustrated by. He would pace around and not know what we were doing. But what it meant was that when it came time for the pressure to be turned on and we had short daylight hours, we knew what we were up to and could do it accurately and fast.

When you’re making the deal with Al Pacino in that scene, that’s something you have to find together?

What did you find?
What you saw. I hope the language sounds colloquial and it doesn’t sounds ancient. It should sound like naturalistic speaking. We just made our little choices – you have to when you’re creating any scene. But it’s very easy with Al because he’s one of the greats. The pleasure is enormous. Driving the best cars, eating in the best restaurants and working with the best actors – it’s great. It’s what we’ve all wanted to do. I was doing it with Al and it was a joy and very easy. The one thing about good actors is that they don’t have the bullshit. They just focus on the problem.

Had you been in this play before on stage?
No, I saw it.

When you first saw the play did you realize that Antonio’s relationship with Bassanio was as close as the director wanted it to be?
I think Joe surprised us all with the kiss. We talked about the nature of the relationship and the difficulty of today’s audience who think in just straight or gay terms. The greatest relationship they could have at that time was with another man. That was valued more than the relationship between a man and a woman. That was platonic but very deep and emotional. And we don’t know about that. We don’t do that.

The Venetians still do that though.
I suppose that’s true. And also, when I was at school, one of the privileges was that you could walk arm-in-arm with another boy. That was leftover from that time, I think. I remember saying to Joe, "What would be the difference if I was your father?" Very little is the answer. Two things: Firstly, he has to be a contender. Portia has to see that Antonio is a contender for Bassanio’s heart in order for it to kick on to the ring bit which is Shakespeare telling us through Portia that you can only really love one person.

Why did you want to play this character?
It was the chance to play Shakespeare on film, which comes rarely. He’s not a character I would have interest in playing in the theater. He’s not there enough. I can play Shakespeare on film, which releases you enormously. You don’t have to bang it out to a big audience, you can just play it very subtly. It’s a great freedom. As a writer he has more depth. And the chance to work with Al.

This character has scenes of vulnerability. You weep a lot. Was that another thing that drew you to this part?
No. I am always happy if I’m not repeating myself too much from movie to movie. I’m easily bored and I try to make characters who are different from each other so I have a better time doing it. Once I’m into doing it I just try to play what is needed to the best of my ability. It was just that this was Shakespeare and really there is nothing else for me to play in that play. Unless I played Shylock and I would never think of myself as a Shylock anyway.

Why would you not be a good Shylock?
I don’t know. I’ve never thought of that role. I might want to do Lear one day or Prospero. But I never felt like a Shylock.

Did you find the language of the film difficult?
No. It’s like a movie with subtitles. After the first five minutes you get used to it. If you're practiced in Shakespeare, and I’ve done a lot on stage, then you know how to speak it. It’s like a foreign language. Once you know how to make it work for you…You hear some actors doing and it sounds so odd, but it’s supposed to sound colloquial.

What was your first Shakespearian role? As an actor did you embrace him instantly?
Maybe the first one was Macbeth. The line was “The Queen, my lord, is dead.” And someone came on and said, “The Lord, my Queen, is dead.” Another actor said, “Your Queen? What about my queen?" and the actor said, “Your Queen is dead too!” [laughs]. Total confusion. It’s very difficult. I feel very sorry for actors that play little roles, they get so nervous. I did too.

Do you think Antonio is anti-Semitic or was it the society?
I think he is a man of his time. The Turks had their own area in Venice as well. It was a very international trading place. There were people of many different nationalities. I think Antonio was of his own time. I think there’s two things he does which are very hard for a modern audience to accept. One is the spitting at Shylock. He’s quite a gentle man and I think he panicked at that riot. But he is a man of his own time and the Jewish race was a society apart. I think a lot of quite reasonable Englishmen might be nervous amongst Muslims now. And the other thing is when he thinks Shylock should become Christian. He gives him his life, but he has to become Christian. I think for Antonio that means he’ll get the redemption he would have never gotten as a Jew.

Do you give any credence to the concept of forgiveness in the story?
I think forgiveness is essential. Every religion breeds on that. If you don’t forgive, then you’re in trouble. I would say this is a place about anti-Semitism, but it’s not an anti-Semitism play. It’s not a play that drives you into the street hating the Jewish race. It makes you think reasonableness is the only way. Fundamentalism is the only way. It’s extraordinary because it’s relevant to today. When we were shooting in Venice there was a news report in England that a Muslim father had lost his son to a local boy and he went out to kill him. It’s that madness that religion can do to you that still exists. We still have people saying our way is right in America and in Baghdad.

Did you make the character relate to you personally or was it something you just got into?
When I play a character I become him. You have to. Otherwise you don’t do them justice.

Venice doesn’t seem like the kind of place to make a movie with just permits. Did you find that’s the case.
I think you have to grease the monkey and that’s just the nature of it. Venice is tough for production. But I loved Venice. I was there enough this year making two movies to really get inside the place and get to know people that live there and get to know their way of life. That’s one of the great privileges of working as an actor.

Are there still problems there like there were in the time of the play?

I didn’t get into that. I think Venice has enormous problems in that it doesn’t quite know what it should be doing to pay for itself. It’s surviving on these tourists and cruise ships. I was saying there should be a great recording studio there and a great concert hall. It should have painters to come in and work on scholarship. You need to get the infrastructure better and it’s run by a council that just doesn’t think in those terms.

What part of your role made you proudest?
I thought my scene with Joe was very nicely shot. He comes to ask for the money and I was very pleased with that. I like the way Anontio looked and I believed that man lived there. But I’m never really satisfied with anything and it’s never as good as I want it to be.

Recently, you worked with three brilliant directors. What have you learned?
You take different things from different directors because they have different things to offer. They’ve all been very pleasant. I’ve always sought out the best I could find to work with. The director is a very important part, not just the script. Like different friends, they bring you different things. They have different strengths and weaknesses. I know what I need as an actor from a director. I usually find it. And if you don’t get what you need from a director, then you find ways of compensating.

Is there ever a clash of egos?
Rarely, but it has happened. I’m very forceful and I have lots of ideas. I’m happy with my ideas and I always put them forth. Some directors aren’t used to that. I insist on being part of the creative process. The director can use them or not, but it’s better if everyone puts in their own ideas.

What ideas did you bring to this film?
I can’t remember. It’s difficult to know where ideas come from when you finish. Every good director makes his actor think every idea was his own creation. Through discussion you can plot ideas, but you have to let them have their own creation. I hope that I created everything I did but I know it’s not true. You’re affected by the set and other actors and it sort of evolves.

Was it hard to spit in Al Pacino’s face?
I never actually did it. The way movies work – we had that bridge and we did it in different places but neither of us were there. In other words, someone else spat in his face, and I spat in someone else’s face [laughs].

What was the first film you remember seeing and the impression it left on you?
I often think about this. I can’t remember. There was one movie. I remember the first X-rated movie I saw, it was about torpedoes. But Lawrence of Arabia was the first one I saw that I can remember the name. I remember being totally seduced by Peter O’Toole and thinking, I want to be able to do that. I discovered that you can do it if you’ve got blue eyes.