This story first appeared in the June 2012 Special Emmy Issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
A rainy April afternoonin New York finds Jeremy Irons, 63, chain-smoking hand-rolled cigarettes (he buys the tobacco at airport duty free shops) in his suite at the Upper East Side boutique Lowell Hotel. He is enjoying a moment away from his peripatetic work schedule: In addition to playing the lead on Showtime’s The Borgias, which shoots in Budapest, the British Oscar winner (Reversal of Fortune) also has completed work on Bille August’s Night Train to Lisbon, shot on location in Portugal, and is shooting Richard LaGravenese’s Beautiful Creatures in New Orleans. With his signature candor, Irons shares his take on the “bullshit” of fame, how a revealing dinner at the Vatican prepped him for his role as Renaissance Pope Rodrigo Borgia and the two American actors who have intimidated him.
The Hollywood Reporter: What drives you to keep working?
Jeremy Irons: It’s a bit of a drug. But it’s important that you have a very strong life with other passions that counter balances the work so that you know why you’re working. Fame and success are valueless. We have a culture where everybody wants to be famous. And you think, why? Because we’re being told that will bring happiness. And it’s all bullshit. Admittedly, it’s very nice wandering down the street and people saying, “Hi, love your work”; and going into a restaurant and people saying, “Oh, we’ll find you a table.” The whole world’s your village. But you have to put up with everybody wanting to know your business.
THR: How long do you see yourself playing Rodrigo Borgia?
Irons: I ask myself that every day. And I ask [creator and executive producer] Neil Jordan that every day. When they originally asked me to do it, they said, “Listen, it might run for four years.” And I gasped! But Neil is a filmmaker. So in a way, he’s educating himself to write for television. This makes the series a little slower than Showtime would like. But we’ve picked it up a bit, shorter scenes and more [snaps fingers] in season two.
THR: Do you like Borgia as a character?
Irons: You can’t play someone and not like him. You are inside him, and they are you. I like Borgia’s appetite; I like that he eats life, won’t take shit and that he has flaws. He’s not a good guy, he’s not a bad guy, he’s a guy. He’s power hungry; he doesn’t want to waste his time in this life. I share that with him. I’m not power hungry, just easily bored and want to make the most of the four score years and 10, if I’m lucky, while I’m on the planet.
THR: I read somewhere that when Borgias started shooting, you had dinner with an archbishop. What was that experience like?
Irons: Yes, it was at the Vatican. When he asked me in the door, he said, “You are now safe; no one can get you here; you are diplomatically immune.” I thought, “Well, that’s nice to know; I’ll put that address in my book.” We shared a bottle of wine in his kitchen, which was pretty spartan. And around 11 o’clock, we went to the roof to have a cigarette, and he pointed over the rooftops to a cell of lighted windows and said, “There’s Rodrigo Borgias’ modern counterpart; he’s still awake, doesn’t sleep much, sits and plays his piano.” Then we went downstairs, by which time [the archbishop’s] mistress had arrived.
THR: You’re allowed to have a mistress in the Vatican?
Irons: It would seem so.
THR: Who was this person?
Irons: It would be wrong to mention names. But all I can say is that nothing really has changed. We now think that the pope is next to God. Well, in those days the pope was head of the Church but behaved as any man would behave — or most men would behave.
THR: Are you Catholic?
Irons: Not really. I was baptized Church of England. My children are Catholic; my wife is Catholic. But I’m not really a club member, never have been. I go to Mass because I enjoy times of reflection. But I’m not a regular at all.
THR: How pigeonholed have you felt as an actor?
Irons: You’re always pigeonholed a bit. I do play the occasional American character, but I’m thought of as an “English actor.” I’m tall, slim and do bring a certain thing. You can’t get away from that. I’m never going to be cast as a sort of Danny DeVito character.
THR: Well, you have done a few projects with comedic elements.
Irons: Glad you’ve noticed! I seem to be known as enigmatic: Is he good, is he bad? Can we trust him, or is he just evil?
THR: But certainly no one has accused you of being Mr. Sunshine.
Irons: No, but I can show you a few films where I was Mr. Sunshine — although there’s always a touch of melancholia. I try not to put my feet in the footsteps that I’ve been in before. All actors have a certain smell. You can say that’s a Jeremy Irons role, that’s an Al Pacino role, or that’s a De Niro role. My biggest competition for roles is maybe Alan Rickman, in a way, or Bill Hurt. It’s all about the work you’ve done that adds up to your aroma.
THR: You’ve worked opposite fellow Oscar winners Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey and Helen Mirren. Do better actors make you better?
Irons: Yes. It’s like tennis; it ups your game if you have someone playing good tennis against you.
THR: Have you ever been intimidated by one of your co-stars?
Irons: De Niro used to intimidate me. He doesn’t give any quarter, but he’s mellowed now. And Al Pacino is quite intimidating.
THR: Any leading ladies?
Irons: Intimidated me? No.
Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com; Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie