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A Man of Character

Jeremy Irons interviewed by Andrew Solomon

© Jeremy Irons

© Jeremy Irons

The career of actor Jeremy Irons took off with his portrayal of the brooding Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited in 1981. Since then he has slipped into the shoes of everyone from Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune, for which he won an Oscar, to a Polish laborer in Moonlighting. We saw him as a swashbuckling priest in The Man in the Iron Mask, and as the humbled Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Talk asked Andrew Solomon to get the fashion scoop from one of film’s most stylish actors via transatlantic call to London.

Talk: How much do your clothes determine your performance, and how much does your performance determine what you are going to wear? When I saw you in Brideshead Revisited I thought, oh, I just must try to look like that all of the time, and then perhaps I will be like that. Unfortunately…

Irons: Did you succeed?

Talk: I’m afraid that I didn’t succeed. And I’m pleased to say I’ve finally left these affectations more or less behind.

Irons: What are you wearing now?

Talk: A dressing gown.

Irons: Oh, God! Well, that changes things, doesn’t it?

Talk: What are you wearing now?

Irons: I’m actually wearing a jumpsuit — army surplus. Wonderful for this weather. And I motorcycle, too, so it’s very good light gear. It’s a little bit eccentric, but it’s fantastic.

Talk: It sounds a little bit eccentric. Do you wear jumpsuits a lot in London?

Irons: I actually do. Often in my life I have to get dressed, to in to work, and change into a costume. So I tend to just zip into this, go to work, then zip out of it. I don’t dress very much, really. Like with menus, deciding what to eat — deciding what to wear. The first jumpsuit I bought was for The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I supposed an awful lot of the clothes that I wear have been bought for one film or another.

Talk: I don’t offhand recall a jumpsuit sequence in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Irons: No, we never used it in the end. And when people say, “Where do you shop?” I always say, “Well, I don’t, really. If I do a movie and there’s a couple of things I like, I buy them off the movie.”

Talk: Generally, is it quite straightforward to buy the things off the movie set?

Irons: Oh, yes. They’re delighted. Of course, if you’re dealing with something like The Man in the Iron Mask, there’s not a lot that really works on a London street. In truth, I just work with very good designers. In Damage I actually thought I looked too good — because British politicians don’t look that good. I was too put together.

Talk: The Blair regime seems to endorse a certain amount of scrubbing up.

Irons: You don’t have to look too deep to discover the normal sort of Labour hopelessness when it comes to clothes. We just went to the best tailors in London, really, for all of that, Savile Row. I think I’m lucky that my body happens to be of favorable proportions, that clothes hang quite well on it. Armani’s clothes, for instance — he cuts for bodies like mine. I put something on that he’s made and it just looks a million dollars. In a way, often the problem that comes when I am playing a character who isn’t debonair, so to speak, is to try to find clothes that don’t look too good. Clothes that sort of disappear.

Talk: I wanted to ask you about that. Because I associate you with The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Man in the Iron Mask and various other things that you looked very splendid in. When you played a Polish laborer you were not dressed to the nines for the role.

Irons: Correct. I remember loving the clothes I wore for Moonlighting. My criterion is never whether I look good, but whether the character looks right. But when it comes to playing a builder there are great clothes. Overalls look great. Jeans look great. There’s nothing like a nice ex-army or ex-navy shirt. I suppose my feeling about clothes is actually an extension of my feeling about everything. I love something that does the job well and just has a little bit of edge to it. Whether it be a chair or a jacket.

Talk: You’ve used the word comfortable several times. Do you mind whether it’s actually comfortable to wear?

Irons: It’s absolutely essential. You can’t be spending weeks in something that gets you down. There’s enough to get you down in the business.

Talk: You’ve played several roles in which there was an element of vanity. I think this was most strikingly the case when you were Claus von Bulow.

Irons: I’ve never thought of Claus as vain. But I suppose he was very aware of his image. I’ve always felt that Claus was a little bit of a self-assembled man. I remember [writer] John Richardson saying to me when I was researching the character, “You know, you must play Claus like a bad actor — because he is. He’s not really a real person… as you and I would think of. He’s somebody playing an idea of himself.”

Talk: Did you recognize yourself in his role?

Irons: I thought I probably got it right. Subconsciously, as individuals, we dress as we do to tell those around us about our individuality. Very interesting when you get to evening dress, you know, where we all look like penguin clones. Unless one wears a clever shirt. I mean, you see this at the Oscars — you see people trying to shine in various ways. I’ve done the same myself.

Talk: I don’t imagine you in a clever shirt with a dinner jacket.

Irons: I didn’t do a clever shirt, but I did wear sneakers one year. In fact, I think the year I won I had black and white deck shoes on. Which was a sort of conscious effort not to stand out in the crowd, but it was a slightly, I think, ironic desire to keep my feet very firmly in touch with the ground. I knew it was going to be a tough evening. And not just a case of not slipping on steps, but actually being able to feel the floor as well as I could under my feet… in a win or lose situation. It also knocked the edge off the formality of the dinner suit.

Talk: When you were Charles Ryder you were very much someone of that era — with a particular aura and a particular appearance. And perhaps, even a way of moving that is not necessarily so much in evidence in the new millennium. Do you have any sense of how you achieve that?

Irons: I don’t know the answer. I’ve always believed that the secret to all of that is getting the thought in your head, a huge amount comes out through the pores of your skin — in the way you move, the way your muscles are, the way you breathe.

Talk: Fairly solid Stanislavsky there, isn’t it? A sense of what the character is doing beyond what he’s doing at that exact moment on the screen.

Irons: Yes. Although I think it’s what he’s doing at that exact moment. I know that when I was doing Dead Ringers, when I had to play twins, we went out shopping, on two separate days — you know, one day for one character and one day for another character. Bought two wardrobes, and they made me two dressing rooms in the studio. And then I saw the rushes. They had them on the second day of the shoot. I said to [director] David Cronenberg, “You know, this is not it at all. They’re nothing like each other. No one will confuse that pair. They’re far too different.” And so then we mussed up all the clothes and made all the external things of them the same. And I found an internal way to change them. I had to change the energy source, basically, so that they each had a different energy source. They move differently — they were different when you saw them on the screen. And yet to somebody who didn’t know them as well as the audience began to know them you could be confused.

Talk: Did you still have two dressing rooms, or did you amalgamate?

Irons: No, no — amalgamated. Yes, stopped all that crap.

Talk: And for Humbert Humbert?

Irons: Humbert Humbert we wanted the audience to like. [Director] Adrian [Lyne] quite wanted light colors. I wanted boyishness.

Talk: But seediness as well.

Irons: Seediness? Well, the whole situation was so seedy. It’s fairly difficult to get away from that. But I’m just trying to think back to those costumes… seedyish, seedyish. I mean, we wanted also to provide a character who looked as if that girl could have actually been a bit infatuated with him, you know. I think the seediness, in a way, is in the minds of the audience. I remember Adrian saying, “He must never be in a silk dressing gown.” And I know exactly what he means. You know, I think we were constantly fighting that seedy element. Even though some of the places they spent their time– you know, the motels — were pretty seedy.

Talk: I once had lunch with Catherine Deneuve, and I remember she said that she had all of her costumes in all of her films designed by Yves Saint Laure3nt, because he put the character in the clothing, so that his interpretation of the character became a part of her interpretation as soon as she put on the clothes. I remember being fascinated by that idea — of the costumer not simply reflecting the actor’s vision but in some way helping the actor formulate it. Is that something that rings true to your own experience at all?

Irons: Absolutely, absolutely. Not only the costume and the designer, but… going back to Brideshead, I remember listening to Geoffrey Burgon’s music. And I said, “Christ! Sixty percent of my performance is in this music.” Charles doesn’t say very much. He watches a lot, and he feels a lot. And suddenly when I heard this rather melancholic, very evocative music, I was pushed on by leaps and bounds. And I think one of the reasons that actors always thank a lot of people when they get accolades is because, really, we know that we are the face of a manufactured performance. I mean, it appears to be coming out of us, but there are the costume designers, the lighting designer… the editor. I mean, everybody is working toward making that character work as best as possible. So I quite understand — I mean, Catherine is very lucky that, you know, she found that Yves Saint Laurent was her man, so to speak. I would say if a performance of mine works, it’s because 10 or 12 key people have been on my side. I describe a film as a happy film when we’re all working in the same direction… And that’s wonderful when that happens. It’s like when a piano is completely in tune, and you hear a chord, and you think, Yes.