Skip to main content

Actor Jeremy Irons.

Oscar winning British actor Jeremy Irons talks about his life and career. He stars in two new movies this year: "Chinese Box" and "Man in the Iron Mask". His role in the controversial film adaptation of "Lolita" has yet to be distributed in the United States. Irons plays Humbert who is obsessed with a 12-year-old girl. Irons has appeared in numerous films, television programs and stage productions. His films include: "Reversal of Fortune," "Dead Ringers," "The French Lieutenant's Woman," "Nijinski," and "Die Hard with a Vengeance. "




Related Topics


Date: MARCH 30, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 033001np.217
Head: Actor Jeremy Irons
Sect: Entertainment; International
Time: 12:00

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Jeremy Irons, first became known for his performance in the British TV adaptation of "Brideshead Revisited" and went on to star in "The French Lieutenant's Woman," "The Mission," "Dead Ringers," "Reversal of Fortune," "M. Butterfly," and "Stealing Beauty." He's now starring in "Man in the Iron Mask" and next month he'll open in Wayne Wang's film "Chinese Box."

Irons is also the star of Adrian Lyne's controversial adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Lolita," the story of Humbert Humbert, an older man romantically obsessed with a 12-year-old girl. In the movie she's 14.

Although the film has opened in Europe, no American distributor has picked it up. The distributors claim that the film is too expensive and too arty to make a profit. The filmmakers say Lolita is just too controversial for the distributors.

Although we can't yet see the movie, we can hear Irons reading the unabridged version of the novel in an eight-cassette audio book. Here's a reading from the beginning of Lolita.



JEREMY IRONS, ACTOR: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul. Lo-li-ta, the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palette to tap at three on the teeth. Lo-li-ta.

"She was Lo, plain Lo in the morning, standing four-feet-ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms, she was always Lolita.

"Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved one summer a certain initial girl child in a Princeton by the sea. Oh, when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer.

"You can always count on a murderer for the fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs envied. Look at this tangle of fawns."

GROSS: The movie Lolita has been accused of glorifying or condoning sex between an older man and an adolescent. I asked Jeremy Irons for his thoughts.

IRONS: It's a morality tale. It is above all a tragic love story. What are love stories? They're usually stories between two people who are unsuited. The reason these two people are unsuited is one is 40 and one is 14. But it's more than that. It's one of the greatest books of the 20th century.

GROSS: When did you first read Lolita?

IRONS: I first read Lolita when Adrian Lyne asked me to play the role, which was now, I suppose, about four years ago. It was of course in my consciousness as a book. I knew about it because that name, Lolita, is really a very well-known name now. I read it (Unintelligible) -- and then decided that I didn't want to do it because I felt that as an actor I'd played enough characters who behaved on the extreme edge of what was socially acceptable. I'd done "Damage," I'd done Dead Ringers, Reversal of Fortune, exploring these people who -- who push the envelope, so to speak, of what is acceptable.

And this is very interesting to do. I think one of the things that storytelling is about is to show us, the audience, or the reader, what happens if you behave in a way that most of us don't behave. And this points up to us why we should behave in the way we're encouraged to behave.

And Lolita was another story like this, and I felt I'd played enough of those characters, and so I passed on it. And it was only Adrian Lyne the director's passion to have me do it. He'd looked at many different people. He talked to Warren Beatty, he talked to Hugh Grant, people of different ages. And finally, he felt that I would be the ideal guy to play it. So, he had great passion to have me do it.

Well, I thought this is a classic book and a great role within that book, a very difficult role, because he is a man who goes beyond the pale and yet a man who we have to as an audience understand. I think it's very important that one of the things that film or plays or books do is to introduce us into other people's minds, make us in a way perhaps see the part of us in those characters and to see what happens if you follow a course of action.

And what happens in this story is that they, neither of them, have any happiness. They both die at the end, as in all good morality tales. And I feel that it's a story which, if anybody had the slightest thought of behaving in what is a criminal way, such as Humbert behaves, that seeing this story would put them off from doing that and make them keep to the straight and narrow.

And in that way I think it's a morality tale, in that way it should be part of the gamut of subjects which are covered in any medium which is interested in life and in showing us our shared humanities and in showing us -- making us as people more experienced.

GROSS: You did an audio book version of Lolita in which you read the complete, unabridged book in a series of eight cassettes. And I'd like to play an excerpt from your reading of Lolita, and I thought I'd go for something from the preface of the book, which is very funny.

It satirizes both the moral attacks against the book Lolita and it also satirizes kind of pretentious defenses of the book. It's written in the voice of a critic who has been asked to edit Humbert Humbert's memoir after Humbert Humbert has died in prison while awaiting trial. And so I'm gonna skip to like the middle of this preface to Lolita read by my guest Jeremy Irons.


IRONS: "This commentator may be excused for repeating what he has stressed in his own books and lectures, namely that 'offensive' is frequently but a synonym for 'unusual,' and a great work of art is of course always original and thus by its very nature should come as a more or less shocking surprise.

"I have no intention to glory H.H. No doubt he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious.

"Many of his casual opinions on people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a torn dress, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author.

"As a case history, Lolita will become no doubt a classic in psychiatric circles. As a work of art, it transcends its expiratory aspects and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader. For in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson. The wayward child. The egotistic mother. The panting maniac. These are not only vivid characters in a unique story, they warn us of dangerous trends. They point out potent evils.

"Lolita should make all of us, parents, social workers, educators, apply ourselves with still-greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.

"John Ray, Jr. (ph), Ph.D., Widworth (ph), Massachusetts, August 5, 1955."

GROSS: That's Jeremy Irons reading from Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, and he has an eight-cassette audio book version of it.

What was it like for you to read the unabridged Lolita for a book on tape? That's a lot of reading and it's a lot of extraordinary language to read.

IRONS: It -- to strange out, when, I was originally approached to read it and I said, "how long is this gonna take?" And they said, "oh, a couple of afternoons." And I said, "but, is that the whole book?" And they said, "no, no, no, we do the abridged."

And I get very impatient with people who record and sell abridged versions of books. And I said to Dmitri (ph), Nabokov's son, and to Nabokov's agent, I said, "why are you allowing this? Nabokov wrote a book of a certain length. We're not all asking the audience to read the book, we're asking them to sit and do nothing but listen. Surely it's not too much to ask them to listen to the whole thing. Why can't you sell the whole book? We are selling these authors short. We're seeing, you know, do 'Jane Eyre' shortened, do this shortened. Why?"

It's -- I felt it was not faithful to the author. And indeed they said, "well, it's difficult to sell."

I said, "well, come on, it's difficult to sell. You can -- you can find a way to market it." And indeed when the film -- when the book came out, many of the reviewers, you'll remember, said how wonderful it was that it was in its full length and how more books should be recorded at their actual length.

How was it to read it? Well, it's quite long and there are...

GROSS: 'Cause a lot of the sentences are quite long, too.

IRONS: Yeah. And there are areas of it which are not great writing. I mean there are passages which are just sublime because Nabokov, this was his first book in English, he'd written all his other books in Russian, and he came to America and he fell in love with America. He fell in love with the youth of America, or rather the youngness of America, with the vulgarity of America, with the excitingness and the brightness of America.

And in a way, those qualities are reflected not only in how he writes about this story -- because Lolita is a road -- is a road -- road story really, they travel through America together -- but also in how he wrote about Lolita, who embodies the young country of America. The brashness. The vulgarity. The cruelness. The seductiveness.

And so -- and he reflects this in his language, because, rather like Tom Stoppard, who was not -- you know, English was not his first language, neither -- like Nabokov, and so they, when you read their writing or hear their writing, you realize they're having a love affair with this language, this is not something they take for granted, this is something they have met and have fallen in love with as a language.

GROSS: Jeremy Irons, were there many lines from the actual book of Lolita that were interpolated into the screenplay?

IRONS: Stephen Schiff, who wrote the script with Adrian Lyne...

GROSS: And I should mention that Stephen Schiff, who used to be film critic on FRESH AIR, just so we get that...

IRONS: That's right.

GROSS: ... mentioned.

IRONS: He altered many of the lines. And I was always on the telephone to him saying, "why? You know, Nabokov wrote this. Why have -- why have you changed that line? Why have you written that? Why don't I say Nabokov's line?"

And he said, "try saying it."

And I would do so. And strangely, Nabokov's dialogue doesn't work to the ear. It seems strangely stilted. Although it works wonderfully on the page, there is something about the fact that he was a foreigner writing in this new language. Which, although it makes it wonderful to read, when you try to speak it and sound colloquial, it doesn't ring quite right.

And so, although there are some voice-over passages, which is true, accurate Nabokov, the dialogue within the movie, very little of it is actually what Nabokov wrote, although the meaning is the same. But Stephen Schiff has just given it a slight, a slight change to make it sound more natural.

GROSS: Jeremy Irons stars in the new film adaption of Lolita, which has not yet been picked up by an American distributor. He'll be back in the second half of the show and we'll do a little retrospective of his career.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Jeremy Irons
High: Oscar winning British actor Jeremy Irons talks about his life and career. He stars in two new movies this year: "Chinese Box" and "Man in the Iron Mask". His role in the controversial film adaptation of "Lolita" has yet to be distributed in the United States. Irons plays Humbert who is obsessed with a 12-year-old girl. Irons has appeared in numerous films, television programs and stage productions. His films include: "Reversal of Fortune," "Dead Ringers," "The French Lieutenant's Woman," "Nijinski," and "Die Hard with a Vengeance."
Spec: Movie Industry; Arts; Entertainment; Censorship; Lolita

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Actor Jeremy Irons
Date: MARCH 30, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 033002NP.217
Head: Atlantic Records 50th Part I
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:33

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Of the hundreds of independent record labels that sprung up after World War II, only one is still in business. As Atlantic Records celebrates its 50th anniversary, we begin a three-part series saluting it.

Today, the early years.


ED WARD, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Fifty years ago, if you wanted to start a record label, all you needed was a bit of cash, a song and someone to sing it, and a lot of good luck. Good taste didn't hurt, nor did a distributor who'd pay you on time and relatively honestly. In other words, the cards were stacked against you.

So the naivete with which the two sons of the Turkish Ambassador to the United States approached the formation of their label, Atlantic, just makes the fact of its survival to the present day all the more amazing. In 1947, Ahmet (ph) and Neshui Ertegun (ph), devoted jazz fans and record collectors, decided to take over the means of production and move to New York to be closer to the industry and their friend Herb Abramson (ph) who'd produced a couple of hits.

Ahmet and Herb did some independent production work, and Ahmet, convinced that riches were coming, checked into a fancy hotel suite. Pretty soon, his inheritance and the money from his record collection were gone, and he ran back to Washington to convince his dentist to help him out.

Armed with a couple of thousand dollars, Ertegun and Abramson established Atlantic in 1948, and immediately signed a dozen acts, while announcing the imminent arrival of the complete works of Shakespeare on 78s. But first, they needed a hit.

One day, their New Orleans distributor tipped them to a song he'd heard that wasn't being promoted properly. They should make their own version of it. So, having found Stick McGee (ph), who'd recorded it, they had him record it again, and in April, 1949, Atlantic had its first hit.


Where everything's fine
All them cats is drinking and wine
Drinking that mess
Their delight
When they gets drunk, starts singing all night.
Drinking wine spoody-oody
Drinking wine
Wine spoody-oody, drinking wine
Wine spoody-oody, drinking
Pass that bottle to me

WARD: "Drinking Wine Spoody-oody" saved the label. It wasn't that they had no idea what they were doing, it's just the artist they'd been counting on as a hit machine was laid up in the hospital. They'd been hip to Ruth Brown by her manager, Cab Calloway's sister, and the two women were on their way to New York to record when they'd had an accident.

But by the time McGee's hit had worn off, Brown had finally cut a record, and in September she had the first of 17 hits for Atlantic.


Hope we'll meet again some day
Oh, that maybe then you'll say
Darling, I was wrong

So long...

WARD: Recorded in Atlantic's offices with a hand-picked group of jazz musicians as backing, "So Long" had a careful arrangement and sounded much better than the run-of-the-mill R&B record of the day. One peculiarity of Atlantic's approach in those days was that they virtually ignored vocal groups. Any fool who could read a chart could see they were big business, but the Atlantic brass didn't like them, so that was that.

Which is not to say they didn't record them when they felt they were good enough.


THE CHORDS, SINGER, SINGING: Life could be a dream
Life could be a dream
Do do, do do, sh-boom

Life could be a dream
If I could take you up
In paradise up above
And you would tell me
I'm the only one that you love

Life would be a dream
And oh hello again
Sh-boom and hoping we'll meet again
Boom da boom

Hey long de ding dong
Do lang do lang do lang...

WARD: "The Chords" were good enough -- too good. A white group called "The Crewcuts" immediately recorded their version, and captured the pop charts. The same fate awaited another Atlantic artist LaVerne Baker (ph) when her hit "Tweedle-Dee" was recorded by Georgia Gibbs (ph), using the same band and arrangement.

Another group Ahmet liked was Billy Ward's "Dominoes," especially their emotional lead singer Clyde McFadder (ph). One night he went to see them and McFadder wasn't there. Backstage, Ertegun found out that Ward had fired him, and he immediately went to McFadder's apartment and signed him after he got a promise that Clyde would form another group.

Secularizing a gospel group, "The Thrasher Wonders," Clyde came up with "The Drifters." Ahmet hated the name, but he couldn't argue with the results.


You know, the landlord rang my front door bell
I let it ring for a long, long spell
I went to the window and peeked through the blind
And asked him to tell me what was on his mind

He said money honey
Yes, money honey
Money honey
If you want stay here with me

I was...

WARD: The Drifters, in one form or another, would continue through the 1960s. In a couple of short years, Atlantic had established itself as a major powerhouse of rhythm and blues, and when Herb Abramson was drafted during the Korean War, they simply replaced him with another R&B fanatic, the man who coined the term in fact, a young journalist named Jerry Wexler (ph).

And at the same time, they acquired a blues singer named Ray Charles who would help point the label toward a rendezvous with history.

GROSS: Ed Ward is FRESH AIR's rock historian. He's based in Berlin.

Tomorrow, soul music -- Atlantic Records was home for some of the best.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Ed Ward, Berlin; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Rock Music Historian Ed Ward begins a three-part series celebrating Atlantic Records 50th Anniversary. Today, the early years.
Spec: Music Industry; Atlantic Records
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Atlantic Records 50th Part I
Date: MARCH 30, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 033002NP.217
Head: Jeremy Irons Continued
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40


I'm Terry Gross back with more of our interview with Jeremy Irons. He stars in the not-yet-released version of "Lolita." You can see him in the new movie "The Man in the Iron Mask." And he stars in Wayne Wang's new movie "Chinese Box," which opens in April. We're going to do a retrospective of Jeremy Irons' film career.

Well, I'd like to play a couple of clips from some of your early films and talk a little bit about your acting career. And I thought we would start in 1981 with your movie "The French Lieutenant's Woman" in which you played opposite Meryl Streep. The movie was about an actor and an actress who are having an affair while they're making a movie set in Victorian England. And in the film within a film, you play a gentleman who's engaged to a fine middle-class woman but becomes romantically obsessed with a mysterious fallen woman played by Meryl Streep.

I want to play a clip from an early scene of the movie within the movie when your character is calling on the fine middle-class woman who he intends to marry.


JEREMY IRONS, ACTOR: I came here this morning to inquiry whether you would allow me to ask your father for your hand.

ACTRESS: Yes, I would allow it.

IRONS: Mind you, I don't know that he altogether approves of me. After all, I don't do what he considers to be work.

ACTRESS: Are you suggesting that it is entirely papa's decision?

IRONS: No. It is yours.

ACTRESS: Yes, it is. Papa will do what I want and I will do what I want.

IRONS: Well in that case, might you take pity on a crusty old scientist who holds you very dear, and marry me?

ACTRESS: Oh, Charles, I've waited so long for this moment.

GROSS: Now, how did you act in the movie within the movie? Did you see this actor as a great actor giving a great performance or did you see it as a mediocre performance? Did you want your acting to be really different in the movie within the movie than it was when you were playing a contemporary character?

IRONS: No. I -- the movie within the movie, as you call it -- although I would say that is the movie and the relationship between the actor and the actress is the outer movie -- but the main story, the period story, is about a man who becomes obsessed with this woman who may or may not be telling the truth, a man -- a woman quite outside his social circle.

It is a Victorian time when, you know, social circles were very important and you didn't really move outside of them. It was about obsession, about obsession at a time when you really couldn't behave like this. And then -- so, that had to be absolutely real.

And then the actor and the actress -- who weren't having an affair at the beginning of the movie, as you introduced it by saying, they -- the actor became obsessed with the actress because of his relationship with the character in the film. And we see this happening many times. I mean, it is not rare for actors to fall in love with their co-stars during the making of a movie. And this is...

GROSS: Why do you think that's true?

IRONS: Well, it's very -- if they're playing a love story within the movie, the barriers between reality and fantasy in a real relationship are difficult to draw. If you are filming a film relationship, those boundaries are very, very shady. And I think people often fall in love with the character that the actor or the actress is playing. It's a strange area.

I mean if you're experienced, if you've done it a lot, you know what it's about and you know more clearly, you recognize the boundaries. But, you know, you often see young actors or actresses doing that. And then, the movie's over and after sort of four months the relationship dribbles to a halt, because they're both off playing different relationships with different people or in different stories.

GROSS: Now, you've experienced the opposite, too, where you've played opposite your real-life wife. How does that affect things when you already know the person inside-out and then you're...

IRONS: Well...

GROSS: Yeah.

IRONS: ... that's strangely difficult, because I'm -- you're right -- I made a movie called "Waterland" playing husband and wife with my wife. And the characters we were playing were very, very different to our characters in life. And normally, when you start building a fantasy relationship with an actress you start with a bare page because you don't know them, and so you both build up this relationship, this history, this what you have between you.

If, as my wife and I did, we had -- I don't know, 20 years of history in our relationship, you have to try and scrape that board clean, wipe -- wipe off the chalk marks of your relationship so that you have a bare board upon which you can start building this new relationship.

Now, the wiping off of that history is very difficult because, I mean, how do you do that? The way we did it was that my wife moved out, she moved into a hotel, so she wasn't the person making my breakfast in the morning. I would meet her in the make-up chair in the morning and I'd meet her as I would meet any actress. And we tried to create a relationship that was totally different.

And even if we were staying when we were -- we filmed some of this in Philadelphia and we stayed in the same hotel, but on different floors and we wouldn't meet. We would meet sometimes in the corridor for a cigarette. But...

GROSS: Did you both agree this would be a good idea?

IRONS: Yeah. I was unsure about it 'cause I like having her about. But she was absolutely sure and the director was absolutely sure and he was quite right. But at the end of the shooting, or towards the end of the film, she finished before I did, and she called me and she said, "can I move into your suite now?" I said, "I'm not so sure about that. I think, I think I need to finish this movie on my own."


But eventually she persuaded me.

So, that was quite difficult. Now, I worked with her since then on a couple of things, Christopher Hampton's (ph) "Tales from Hollywood" and Bernardo Bertolucci's "Stealing Beauty" where we would both in the same film, but we weren't playing opposite each other.

It was interesting in Stealing Beauty that our characters were fairly detached from each other in the story. I was a man who went to stay with her and her husband out in Tuscany because I was dying of a terminal illness and didn't really have anywhere else to go. I was a man who had not ever made a permanent relationship in his life.

And we did a breakfast scene together where I came down to breakfast and she and I were talking. And when we looked at it on the rushes, I said to Bernardo, "do you know there's a history here between these people, there's something really going on between these two people. We have to use that in the story." And indeed there was, and it was because we knew each other so well and somehow that chemistry worked on the screen.

And so we wrote in the fact that she had been his grand amour, if you like, she had been the one that he could have gone with, that he could have lived with before she was married, on which he'd never taken that leap of faith.

GROSS: Yeah. That's interesting.

IRONS: And that that was why he'd gone back to stay with her and her husband, because she was the person closest to his heart.

GROSS: My guest is Jeremy Irons. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Jeremy Irons and he's starring in the controversial adaptation of Lolita which has not yet found a distributor in the United States. He's also starring in Wayne Wang's movie Chinese Box which opens in April and starring in Man in the Iron Mask.

Let me move on to another movie that you starred in and this is "Reversal of Fortune," the 1991 film in which you played Claus Von Bulow, who was convicted of attempting to kill his wife Sunny (ph) by injecting her with an overdose of insulin. The movie...

IRONS: No, he wasn't convicted, he wasn't convicted -- he was accused.

GROSS: The first time. In the first trial.

IRONS: Oh, right, beg your pardon.

GROSS: In the first trial. And the movie is about the appeal in which he was represented by Alan Dershowitz, who's played in the movie by Ron Silver. And in this scene Dershowitz has just taken on the case and he's asking Von Bulow, played by Jeremy Irons, to tell him what happened.


RON SILVER, ACTOR, AS ALAN DERSHOWITZ: OK, I gather though the older children denied Sunny had a problem with pills and alcohol?

IRONS, AS CLAUS VON BULOW: Spectacular understatement.

SILVER: So, there must be somebody who saw it, right, some witness, somebody somewhere, a friend?

IRONS: You want affidavits?

SILVER: Yes, I do.

IRONS: I'll get them.

SILVER: You'll get them.

IRONS: You should also know the drugs prescribed for me were taken by Sunny.

SILVER: That's a lot of drugs, Claus.

IRONS: But the prosecution's allegation that I knew about syringes, injections, totally accurate. Sunny and I used to give ourselves B-12 injections in the late '60s, it was quite the fad in London.

SILVER: Can I explain something to you? The less I know from you the more options I have. When you tell me the truth you limit me to a defense that lines up with what you have to say.

IRONS: But isn't the truth the simplest way, Alan? I mean, why did I stay all day at Sunny's side without calling a doctor? Because Sunny detested doctors. If we'd call one without her approval she went berserk. Once she broke her hip and didn't go to hospital for two full days.

SILVER: Claus, did you hear what I just said?

IRONS: Of course. Did you hear the judge sentence me?

SILVER: Sorry. Thirty years is a pretty stiff sentence.

IRONS: Twice trying to murder one's wife, anything less would be monstrous. But for a man like myself, who did nothing...

GROSS: Jeremy Irons as Claus Von Bulow.

Jeremy Irons, tell me what you did with your voice to convey that sense of class privilege, you know, of someone who like Claus Von Bulow has a lot of money and seems to be able to use his voice and his eyes to convey his stature and put people in their place.

IRONS: Well Claus, he wasn't English, he was Danish, and so he had a hidden accent that he was trying -- he wanted -- a bit of a snob, I think, and wanted to very much be part of London society and to sound very English. But there were some things that he couldn't do, a couple of sounds he couldn't make, because he'd been brought up speaking a different tongue.

GROSS: What sounds, do you remember?

IRONS: Oh, gosh, this is so, so long ago. I think it was, it was -- the W's always a little bit difficult if you're, if you're not used to them. But I -- but -- I wanted him to sound almost more English than the English, but with this slight problem on a couple of -- on a couple of consonants.

And he was also a very bad actor. I remember somebody, John -- John Richardson (ph), who had been a great friend of Claus throughout his -- the early days, his early teens when he was in London and who -- they lived the sort of nightclub life at that time. John said to me, "play Claus as a very bad actor."

And I said, "I'm not sure I know how to do that."


But that's what I tried to do. Claus, I think, enjoyed the notoriety, the fact -- the enigmatic quality of his life and indeed the enigmatic quality that he carried during those trials. I think he sort of enjoyed the notoriety of that.

GROSS: Now, you pitched your voice deeper than it was at the time.

IRONS: Yeah. I wanted to give him a sort of gravity. I mean Claus was, I think, about 15 years older or maybe 20 years older than I was, so we had to find ways to give me the weight of those years. We thinned my hair. I took my voice down lower. I wanted to have a sort of slimy charm.

I remember talking to women who knew Claus and some of them actually told you an awful lot about the women, more about the women than about Claus really, because some of them adored him and some of them found him so repellent that they couldn't sit next to him. And that's just very interesting and it tells you a lot about what women find attractive in men.

GROSS: Did you have to have in your mind whether you thought he was guilty or innocent as you were playing him?

IRONS: Well, I didn't have to have in my mind whether I thought he was, I had to know whether I was guilty or innocent. I mean, he knew and I was him. So, yes, of course I had to know.

GROSS: And what did you believe that he believed?

IRONS: I believed he was -- I believed he was innocent, but I didn't want the audience to know that...

GROSS: Right.

IRONS: ... because his friends were divided in life about his guilt or his innocence. I think he carried a certain amount of guilt. In my opinion, he carried the guilt of a man who had left his wife too long before calling for help.

But you have to remember this is a wife who had no desire to live and who -- when the first time he pulled her back from a suicide attempt, she gave him a very, very hard time. And so when somebody tries to do it again what do you do? If somebody wants out, you know, it's very hard to stop them. And as a husband do you keep pulling them back, especially if you're having an unhappy time with each other?

GROSS: I want to move on to another movie, "Dead Ringers," which you made in 1988, directed by David Cronenberg. And you played a dual role in this, identical twin gynecologists who kind of exchange identities when they want to with each other in both their professional lives and in their love lives. But they're also kind of mad, particularly one of them.

And in this scene one of the brothers has gotten hooked on prescription drugs, uppers and downers, and the other brother's trying to detox him by keeping him in the house and standing watch over him, making sure he doesn't take anything. So, this clip starts with the addicted brother who desperately wants a sleeping pill from the other brother. Here we go.



IRONS, BROTHER #1: Elliott (ph), I can't sleep.

IRONS, BROTHER #2: If you're asking for a sleeper, I'll tell you right now you're not gonna get one.

BROTHER #1: But what am I gonna do then?

BROTHER #2: You'll stay up.

BROTHER #1: Elliott I'll die if I don't sleep.

BROTHER #2: You'll stay up.

BROTHER #1: What if I take something when you go home?

BROTHER #2: I'm staying right here.

BROTHER #1: What if I take something when you go to sleep?

BROTHER #2: I won't go to sleep.

BROTHER #1: How will you stay awake?

BROTHER #2: I'll take something.

BROTHER #1: You'll take an up so that I don't take a down. It's crazy.

BROTHER #2: Ben (ph), don't worry about me. I'm not you.

GROSS: Great scene. Great film.

Jeremy Irons, what was it like playing identical twins who had to look exactly the same yet be distinguishable to the audience watching the movie?

IRONS: Well, it was a nice game to play. I had to find a way, an internal way to make them different so that I knew who I was because I felt different. Which I did. An internal energy which was placed really in a different place in my body, which made me feel quite different as one to the other. And when I then played one pretending to be the other, I was able to keep the energy in the same place but try to put the mannerisms of the other onto that.

GROSS: What -- now what do you mean by keeping the energy in the same place?

IRONS: Well, have you ever done, ever done anything like (unintelligible)? You've done yoga?

GROSS: I've done Alexander (ph), yeah.

IRONS: Alexander, right. Well, you'd know about, you know, the feeling of the energy coming up the spine and out of the top of the head...

GROSS: Right.

IRONS: ... which pulls you up. So, you know about placing energies within yourself.

GROSS: This -- what Jeremy Irons is talking about is a kind of a body placement posture technique that I think a lot of actors and musicians study.

IRONS: That's right.

GROSS: Yeah.

IRONS: And Rykee (ph) massage uses it, I mean energy, energy points and whatever. And I would put the energy of one of the twins in my forehead, which is sort of where the third eye is, and it's a very powerful place, it makes you stand in a particular way, it makes you live very much on the front foot, gives you great energy, a little bit of aggression. It makes your eyes sparkle. It just feels very bright, a bright place to have the energy. And that was for one of the twins, for Elliott.

And the other one, I put his energy in his Adam's apple, in his throat, which makes everything different, makes the posture different, makes the -- the energy within the voice different, and takes some of the energy out of the eyes, and just changes everything.

And so by moving it from one to the other, I could -- I could make these guys apparently different and understandable to the audience. It was a simple trick.

GROSS: And when you were shooting scenes with the two brothers in the same scene, would you shoot the scene alternating back and forth between the two brothers, or shoot just all one brother and then shoot all the other brother?

IRONS: Yeah, I would do -- I -- there weren't many scenes like that where they were both in the same scene -- well, both in the same shot. We used the motion control camera when that was necessary, which is an interesting process. But, no, I would do one brother and then I'd go and change into the other brother, and come on and do the other side.

I had a tremendous stand-in who would be my eyeline as the other brother so that I could -- I would be looking in the right place, although eventually that person would not be there and I would be there. A very selfless role he had because he had to sublimate his own ego completely.

GROSS: Now, this is a very creepy movie. There are scenes...

IRONS: Isn't it creepy?

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

IRONS: Oh, I can't bear to see it...

GROSS: It's very creepy. I think especially creepy for women to watch. You know, these are gynecologists who have created these really weird instruments to use for internal gynecological exams. And they're obsessed with the insides of bodies and the inner beauty and the inner ugliness of bodies. And they're convinced that some insides are really deformed and other insides are really beautiful.

What kinds of reactions did you get from women who you know who saw the movie?

IRONS: Well, before I did the movie everybody said "don't touch it." My wife, my agent, who are both women, said don't touch it, this is hopeless. And I knew that it would be a lot of fun for an actor to play two identical twins, I mean it's a great challenge that, and so I wanted to do it for that reason.

When people then saw the movie they were sort of hideously fascinated, the women especially. I think they, you know, I think when you see any movie you think there but for the grace of God go I. And many women who had to go in for examinations thought, "well, at least my gynecologist is not like that."


But, it's...

GROSS: A small consolation, yeah.

IRONS: A small consolation. But I'm always fascinated that that is the piece of work of mine which people keep going back to and say that, you know, that really was the apogee, which is nice.

GROSS: My guest is actor Jeremy Irons. This is FRESH AIR.

Back with actor Jeremy Irons.

Now, I know one of your early roles was in the '60s rock musical "Godspell."

IRONS: You don't have to laugh when you say that.


GROSS: You were John the Baptist. What were your songs?

IRONS: "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord," "All for the Best," and then the other ones that we sang together.

GROSS: Sing a few lines of one of them.

IRONS, SINGING: Some men are born to live at ease
Doing what they please
Richer than the bees are in honey

Never growing old
Never feeling cold

IRONS: Oh, no, I can't remember it, it was so long ago. I could hardly remember it then. But it was a tap number. It was the first show I ever did in London and it was the show during which -- I suppose I'd been an actor for about six years by then, seven years -- it was the show during which that I knew I had entered the right profession.

GROSS: Right. Now, I understand you were also a busker for a while and that you'd perform on the street, sometimes in movie lines. What kinds of songs would you do then?

IRONS: Oh, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary. Good old folks songs, you know.

GROSS: Do you have a guitar?

IRONS: Yeah, I do. I do. I rarely travel without it.

One of the great things about making Lolita was that we were traveling in the South and I spent I suppose about four or five weeks in New Orleans and had a sort of rebirth. I'd just bought a great guitar, a new one, steel string, and I started playing rhythm and blues in New Orleans like there's -- because there's no music like the music in New Orleans, the most fantastic city. And since then really, I think my music style will always stay in sort of New Orleans rhythm and blues.

And it means a lot to me when I travel. I like to travel with a musical instrument. I like to be able to sit and relax and sing. At that time, I was not smoking and so when I, instead of lighting a cigarette, I'd pick up the guitar and it's difficult to smoke when you're playing the guitar. And I would spend the evening sitting with friends, drinking, playing the guitar, and not smoking.

GROSS: Yeah, now, I'm glad you mentioned smoking, 'cause I always won- -- you know, I gave up smoking years ago. I always wondered, like, if I were an actor, which I'm not, and I had given up smoking and I had to smoke for a movie...

IRONS: Yeah.

GROSS: ... would I get hooked all over again? Have you had to encounter that?

IRONS: I have, interestingly, yes. Because I stopped for two years and I'm very, very ashamed of the fact that I've taken it up again. But I stopped for two years while I was making Lolita because I wanted to put on weight for Humbert, I didn't want him to be gaunt, and I find that I eat more when I don't smoke and I do put on weight.

And I was also not smoking through Chinese Box and I had to smoke a cigarette in that. We were in Hong Kong. I said, "will you get me, get me one of those vegetable cigarettes, you know, that don't have any nicotine, any tobacco in them." And they couldn't get them out there. So, eventually I said, "well, I'll just have a normal cigarette." And I smoked the normal cigarette during the scene, didn't much enjoy it, and it had no effect at all, which is interesting.

However, when I went back onto cigarettes again afterwards, I just had the one and within a week I was back to 30 a day.

GROSS: Yeah.

IRONS: So, it's -- so -- you know, I think when you're playing a character you're somewhere else.

GROSS: Right. Right.

IRONS: Do you know?

GROSS: Right. Before we wrap up, what else are you working on now?

IRONS: I'm working on nothing. I'm taking a break and doing a lot of promotion for Man in the Iron Mask, Chinese Box, and Lolita, which requires a lot of travel. I don't intend to film until October. I've intended to take a year out. I have a building project in Ireland which I'm -- which is very much a hands-on project and I'm -- I shall have to be there from May onwards.

I go through periods where I want to change direction, I want to come back and do something quite different when I act next time. Maybe I'll produce something, I don't know, maybe I'll direct something, I don't know. I want to come out of a different corner. And when I make those changes, it's quite useful to stop for a bit.

I also have a big part of my life which I have to get on with which doesn't involve filming. And so, I'm doing that. I have my family, my children.

My wife at the moment is working extremely hard, so it's very useful that I be around a bit. She's about to open -- this is Sinead Cusack (ph) -- in a play at the National Theater (ph) in London, and a play called "Our Lady of Sligo" by Sebastian Barry (ph) who wrote "Stewart (ph) of Christendom (ph)," which was in New York. And it's a fantastic role.

And so she's very tied up in that and it's good that I'm at home with the horses, with the children for a bit, and it's lovely for me. So, I don't intend to start work until October.

GROSS: Well, Jeremy Irons, thank you so much for talking with us.

IRONS: It's been a great pleasure.

GROSS: Jeremy Irons is starring in The Man in the Iron Mask, and he stars in Wayne Wang's new film Chinese Box, which opens next month. It's set in Hong Kong during the transition between British and Chinese rule. Irons plays a British journalist in Hong Kong. He's been following a mysterious woman named Jean (ph), played by Maggie Cheung (ph). In this scene he's followed her into a coffee shop.



IRONS, AS BRITISH JOURNALIST: Can I interview you, Jean? I'll pay you.


IRONS: I'm interested. I'm interested in how you, how you see, how you perceive Hong Kong, what you do here, how you earn a living.

CHEUNG: I don't want tell you.

IRONS: I mean, it interests about whether, whether you will be as free when the -- when the takeover happens, whether you can still live the life you have lived till now.

CHEUNG: Listen, what's free?


CHEUNG: My coffee'd be free if you paid for it.

IRONS: Then I'll pay for your coffee.

CHEUNG: Thank you.

GROSS: Next month we'll talk about the new movie Chinese Box with Jeremy Irons and director Wayne Wang.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Jeremy Irons
High: Interview with Jeremy Irons continued.
Spec: Movie Industry; Jeremy Irons

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Jeremy Irons Continued
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue