Actor Jeremy Irons

The award-winning actor discusses his role in the film, The Man Who Knew Infinity.

Jeremy Irons is a British-born actor with an extraordinary legacy of film, television and theatre performances including: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, in which he starred opposite Meryl Streep; The Mission; and Die Hard: With A Vengeance to name a few. Irons starred in Damage and M. Butterfly before he made pop culture history as the voice of the evil lion Scar in Disney’s classic The Lion King. Irons won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune. He is also a Golden Globe, Emmy, Tony, and SAG award winner. Irons joined Helen Mirren and director Tom Hooper in the award-winning television miniseries Elizabeth I. Irons was also lauded for his portrayal of iconic photographer Alfred Stieglitz in the award-winning biographical picture Georgia O’Keeffe. In The Man Who Knew Infinity, Jeremy Irons plays renowned Cambridge Professor, Godfrey Harold “G. H.” Hardy FRS (7 February 1877 – 1 December 1947), an English mathematician known for his achievements in number theory and mathematical analysis.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: So pleased to welcome Jeremy Irons back to this program. The Oscar-winning actors stars in a compelling and powerful film called “The Man Who Knew Infinity”.

The project tells the true story of mathematician Ramanujan, who after growing up poor in India, earned admittance to Cambridge University where he became a pioneer in mathematical theories with the guidance of his professor and mentor, G. H. Hardy, played by Jeremy Irons. Here now a scene from the movie, “The Man Who Knew Infinity”.

[Clip]

Tavis: Welcome back, my friend. Good to see you.

Jeremy Irons: It’s nice to be here again.

Tavis: And you’re still doing high quality work.

Irons: Well, we try.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. I was saying to you before we came on the set here that I learned a lot about Ramanujan that I didn’t know, thanks to the film, but this relationship between you and Dev Patel who plays Ramanujan us a powerful bonding.

Irons: It’s very interesting. I mean, it was a true story set before the first World War. This young Indian genius mathematician is brought over by a Cambridge professor to Cambridge so they can study his work. A young man from, you know, a hot climate, just married, and he goes into this Cambridge that at the time was quite racist.

You know, India was one of our colonies and the idea that any Indian boy could know more about pure mathematics than all those guys up at Cambridge, that was a tough one. And my character, G. H. Hardy, who brings him over is a very closed–I mean, he’s a genius himself, a mathematical genius, and probably a little bit aspergic, not great on the old social language.

And watching him and Ramanujan sort of come together through this shared passion for pure mathematics, I think, is very heartwarming. You’re seeing a man slowly open up emotionally, you know.

Tavis: It is heartwarming. What did you learn and what did you make of the fact that, to your earlier point, Jeremy, he was able to buck the system, which is to say, while his other colleagues might not have accepted that this young Indian knew more than they did or as much as they did, but in that time period, he had the courage–my word here–to bring him over anyway?

Irons: Well, they were always playing. Mathematicians are always playing tricks on each other. They’re always pulling jokes on each other. His initial instinct was that this was some joke from one of his colleagues, these notebooks. And then he studied them and he thought, no, this is actually extraordinary. So he took them seriously and the other three or four great mathematicians at Cambridge didn’t.

And then, of course, when he got Ramanujan over–and Ramanujan would dream them. He’d wake up in the morning and he would describe it that his goddess had placed them on his tongue and he’d know them and he’d write them down. But Hardy, of course, said, as we saw here, you got to prove it. You’ve got to write proofs.

It’s no good–Smudge, just sort of sit. You don’t want to work the camera [laugh]. If you stay there, I know it’s a bit drafty. It’s the air conditioning. What can we say? Excuse me. But mathematicians have to prove it. And indeed some of Ramanujan’s theories are still being proved today and are being used for the research into Black Holes and to string theory.

Tavis: Since you raised this scene, Jeremy, one of the things that fascinated me about this particular scene where you and Ramanujan, you and Dev Patel, are having this conversation about his faith and about God and how these theories come to him, and you basically say to him, I get that, but you have to prove it. We have to prove it.

What I found beautiful about that scene is that I think oftentimes we think that scientists, that mathematicians, can’t be people of faith because we think that the science and the faith are in conflict. Does that make sense?

Irons: It does, it does. And, indeed, my character, Hardy, you know, he says, “I don’t believe in God because I can’t prove it.” But for Ramanujan, God was just part of his religion and his mathematics were all bound up together.

It’s as if mathematics were given to him by a goddess. It’s just a different way of thought. My feeling, of course, is that it’s ludicrous to try to prove God’s existence by science. God has nothing to do with science [laugh]. God has all to do with soul, and who can explain that?

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. At this point in your career, when you see stuff come across, what’s pulling you?

Irons: If you’re interested in the story and the character will allow you to go on a journey that you haven’t been on before, play a sort of guy you haven’t played before, then that’s very attractive.

Tavis: And what is it about this guy that you had not played before in all the things you’ve done?

Irons: Well, I’d never played a mathematician. I’ve never played that sort of closed man who, through mathematics, becomes close to someone else who is very passionate about that subject. But also, I have to say, because there is an element–I made a series a long time ago called “Brideshead Revisited” and there’s an element of G. H. Hardy.

You could say, well, he could be–he’s a sort of Charles Ryder, a sort of Englishman out of touch with his emotions. But what swung it for me, I met Matthew Brown, the director. Came out to Oxford and we sat and I’d read the script and I talked to him and I thought this man has such a passion to make this movie, and the same as Ed Pressman did.

And Ed served me very well because, you know, so often you make a movie and it comes out and there isn’t that push behind it to really get it to the audience and I’d seen how Ed and Annie Pressman really work for a film and make sure that it’s not forgotten, that it flies.

Tavis: The flip side of that, though, Jeremy, is that there are some veterans in this business who would not take a chance on a director who is as inexperienced as the one that you decided to work with.

Irons: Well, I know, but I keep doing it. I keep doing it. I keep working with fairly inexperienced directors. You know, if you have a good crew, a good cameraman, you know, I know what I’m doing. If the actors know what they’re doing, we can all pull together and it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s just the way of it, you know, the way of it.

Tavis: This question is going to sound like a softball. Anyway, I’ll ask it anyway because I really am curious as to your thought about this, watching this election season that we are enduring here in the states.

That is this notion of understanding, of acceptance, of friendship, of brotherhood, this relationship that these two characters have, civility. I’m wondering like what happened to those kinds of relationships in our society?

Irons: Civility, politeness, it’s like a cement in a society, binds it together. And when we lose it, then I think we all feel lesser and slightly dirty because of it. I just think it’s good to remind ourselves. Not just in society, in marriage.

You know, if a husband and wife are polite to each other, that takes an awful long way. You’re up to 60% before you go any further, you know. And I think we’re all so focused on our own route through life and our own pace and what we got to do. We tend to just sort of knock people out of the way and don’t care. That’s not a way for a society, I think.

I think there’s an element in our film because it was, I suppose, now a story of 100 years ago, 1930, where we look at those qualities. A lot of people still have those qualities, but there’s an element of life with the speed of it that we tend to let those drop. Kindness, civility, politeness go a long way, I think.

Tavis: Another thing about this film that was fascinating for me is that, for a guy–me–who did horribly in math, you too [laugh]? You still find the film interesting, even though it brings back nightmares to me about my mathematics class [laugh].

Irons: I know, I know. Ah, yeah. But this is what–you see, pure mathematics isn’t what we used to do. We used to do boring mathematics, which got too complicated and then we thought, ugh, and we went into the arts [laugh] and got other people to add up for us.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah [laugh].

Irons: But pure mathematics is sort of like it’s something else. Hardy, my character, wrote a little booklet about mathematics and how he felt about it. And it’s like I feel about acting or painting or writing. It’s the same thing. It’s much more fluid. It’s much more unknown.

You can become passionate about it. You are discovering stuff that’s out there. And once I read that little booklet, it’s called “A Mathematician’s Apology”, I realized he wasn’t that unlike me. It’s just he spoke a different language. He spoke mathematics, I speak art.

Tavis: At that point in the game, with all the experience that you have behind you, are you still discovering things about this profession, about your work, about your artistic genius?

Irons: Oh, my artistic genius? No. I mean, I always feel like a bit, you know, when I start any new project, the profession is changing. This sort of film is becoming more of a rarity, sort of like an adult film of emotion, that it’s got no special effects, it’s got nothing blowing up.

It’s just a film about the internal workings of people, which I think our generation finds great and I think many generations find great. But they’re harder to make and harder to find for an audience. So that’s changing.

I still love that moment where one’s working either with an audience if it’s the theater or working with the camera on a particular scene when a particular occurrence is happening. Creating that, I love that moment.

But like everything, you know, I spend now 70% of my time selling product and 30% of the time acting. No, actually, 10% of the time acting, 30% of the time hanging around [laugh] and 90% of the time–no, 70%. See, I’m not a mathematician–and 70% of the time selling the product.

Tavis: Well, I’m sorry you had to come sell tonight…

Irons: No, it’s a pleasure…

Tavis: But it’s never selling when you come. It’s just a powerful conversation and I’m always enlightened and empowered by our dialog…

Irons: Thank you.

Tavis: So thank you.

Irons: Bless you.

Tavis: Powerful film. You’ve done it again.

Irons: Tavis, thanks very much.

Tavis: And, Smudge, you were quite good and well-behaved. Smudge, are you awake? Are you listening to me? Smudge, can you hear me?

Irons: No, she’s gone.

Tavis: Anyway, thanks.

Irons: Bored out of her mind.

Tavis: Thanks for watching. Keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: October 31, 2016 at 7:32 pm