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IRONS, JEREMY: Chinese Box

Jeremy Irons is that baddie from Die Hard With a Vengeance, that enigmatic Klaus von Bulow from Reversal of Fortune, that intense man from Damage, that imperial voice from The Lion King and now, that dying journalist from Chinese Box – ironically, though, in private life he is a fun loving party animal (sort of), as ANDREW L. URBAN discovers when he meets Irons in Sydney.

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 family"

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 on."

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 there"

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 takeover happened."

"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."

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Jeremy Irons

Jeremy Irons with Gong Li in Chinese Box



See Andrew L. Urban's interview with director


Jeremy Irons, who stars as Humbert Humbert in Adrian Lyne’s Lolita, has some pertinent comments on the controversial film and the related subject of pedophilia – see Andrew L. Urban's next interview with Irons, to coincide with the film’s release, on April 15, 1999.


Jeremy Irons in his Oscar winning role, Reversal of Fortune

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