That Irons gravitas, that image of a man deep in thought, comes from the fact that he
is trying to remember his lines, says Jeremy Irons with a deadpan expression, and
that’s because he works with great focus. Totally blinkered, actually, so much so
that his wife - actress Sinead Cusack – has to hiss into his ear: ‘remember to
ring the children’… Not that Irons is a callous father; indeed, he cares a great
deal for his two sons, Samuel and Maximilian, 13 and 20, and regards the bonds of his
family unit as crucially important.
"that is why I have had a strong desire for
Growing up in the south of England in an upper middle class family (his father was a
workaholic chartered accountant) Irons and his two siblings all went to boarding school,
he from age seven. "I now think that this made our family fragmented…and looking
back, I think that is why I have had a strong desire for family – my sons, my wife
and my two sons."
Irons’ screen image as a fairly intense and weighty character was created with his
award winning performance as Charles Ryder in Granada TV’s Brideshead Revisited
(1982), but is also bolstered by the fur-lined rumble of his voice combined with his
elegantly elocuted accent, a family heirloom, not a drama school product, he explains.
In fact, he was rejected by several drama schools, for the very reason that he
couldn’t satisfactorily answer the question: why do you want to be an actor.
"I’m never particularly happy when people go on
about how I sound"
(Needless to say, many people comment on his voice, but Irons studiously ignores the
remarks, "because it’s very bad to become conscious of any particular strengths
one may have; it’s better to focus on the weaknesses. So I’m never particularly
happy when people go on about how I sound…" We didn’t pursue the subject.)
Irons had no burning acting ambition as a teenager: "Not at all. I’ve always
tended to live for the day." He grew up with ponies and sailing boats in the well fed
bosom of his well structured, hard working family – who were grooming him for a
polite and conservative life. Irons would have none of it, attracted by the lifestyle of
actors. "I had no idea what I wanted to do, but what was happening – I later
realised – was that I was collecting theatrical biographies, film biographies –
everything from Chaplin to Noel Coward – and collecting little prints of 17th
and 18th century actors. But when I left school, I started as a social worker,
but didn’t have the selflessness required. And then I thought I might join a theatre
and answered an advertisement for assistant stage manager." As he realised one night
in the theatre, he just drifted into acting.
"I like the life of an actor"
Irons didn’t know exactly why, but he wanted the life of an actor – "I
like the life of an actor, the life in theatre, the fact that we worked outside normal
hours, and the people I was working with were colourful and interesting and less
structured. So different from my upbringing, where people were trained for business and so
The appeal of this bohemian lifestyle reflects his real persona – as distinct from
his regular screen image – of a relaxed and life-loving father, husband, socially
aware individual. A party animal, even, of sorts: just prior to our interview, Irons,
chatting to Amanda Huddle and John Thornhill, executives from Beyond Films who distribute
Chinese Box, is discussing the evening’s premiere and the post-premiere party, held
(Wednesday February 17, 1999) at the Chinese Gardens in Darling Harbour. "Let’s
get some glamour into this thing!" he urges his hosts.
He is in white canvas shoes, deep blue casual slacks and a pale blue shirt with
grandfather collar, his hair short and dark brown, his demeanour relaxed. He rolls a brown
cigarette in a little machine and sits with his arms folded, occasionally looking into
space as he concentrates on some answer. There is an easy smile on call, and his charm is
worn with the ease of a favourite jumper, without artifice.
"I knew nothing about Hong Kong until I went
Glamour, of course, is the one thing missing from Chinese Box: Irons plays John, a
dying journalist infatuated with Vivian (Gong Li), who has been supporting her Chinese
lover Chang (Michael Hui) for some years. Now a leading figure in the business community,
Chang is unwilling to legitimise their relationship, as Vivian's past as a pricey
prostitute would not be accepted in his circle of important businessmen. John's compulsive
desire to record the last months of a quickly disappearing Hong Kong is encouraged by his
friend Jim (Ruben Blades), and he meets Jean (Maggie Cheung), a streetwise young woman who
has learned the skills of survival. He wants her personal testimony to reveal the real
Hong Kong. But her story, like Hong Kong’s own, is a patchwork of truths and lies.
When director Wayne Wang approached him with the script of Chinese Box, Irons was
intrigued by Hong Kong; "I knew nothing about Hong Kong until I went there, which is
why I wanted to go there." He feels that "Mrs Thatcher had given away the New
Territories…just pissed that away." But he also feels that "perhaps in
today’s world, Britain had no business in being there. But I was sad on the night the
"I like the fear that comes when I’m not quite on
top of something"
His political views aside, the film gave him an opportunity to work with Gong Li,
"whom I have always admired…" It also appealed because of how Wang
approached the film, with a skeletal script that grew with on-set decision making. "I
like the fear that comes when I’m not quite on top of something…it really gets
me, and I like being surprised, so I don’t come onto the set with a rock solid
performance I want to give."
It follows, then, that Irons was attracted to Wang’s willingness to "let the
actors run with it." He had seen Wang’s films and liked the way he is not too
interested in structure in the conventional sense. But Irons candidly admits that the
short story concerning Jean, played by Maggie Cheung, didn’t come off very well. Nor
does he think the dramatic structure is entirely successful. But he does like the
character he plays, and they talked about how he should be dying to make him a symbolic
figure – and how that fact makes him look at his life and want to tie it up in some
way…" which is how he comes to pursue Jean for her story of Hong Kong.
"it’s me really" on
the character of John
"It’s a collage, this movie, with various themes running through it,"
says Irons. As for the character of John, "it’s me really. He is me in that
situation, he is me if I’d been living there and I was going to die in six months,
and I was obsessed with this woman to whom I had not committed, and who had not committed
to me. And it was a documentary almost, in that I show the audience what Wayne saw. I only
added things that I wasn’t – and I used everything I am."