The Oscar-winning actor describes his latest film, The Words, the types of characters he likes to play and his ever-changing music endeavors.
Actor Jeremy Irons
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Jeremy Irons to this program. The Oscar-winning actor is out today with a compelling new film. It’s called “The Words.”
The project is the story of a novelist who plagiarizes another writer’s work and proceeds to reap the benefits of its success. The movie also stars Dennis Quaid and Bradley Cooper. Here now a scene from “The Words.”
Tavis: So we’re all aging and you decide to play even older [laugh].
Jeremy Irons: [Laugh] I know, I know. That’s the only reason I came today because I wanted to remind people that I’m not that old [laugh].
Tavis: I was thinking on the way into the studio to talk to you about how to explain this without giving away the story and that clip gives a little bit of it away anyway.
Irons: Well, it does, it does. But, of course, it sets the problem and then the story is about how you deal with that problem. I think really it’s a film about living, or lying in the bed that you’ve made which, in a way, we all have to do in life.
The old man’s had to do that and the boy has to do that. It’s also about where you get ideas from and it’s about many things. It’s quite a good movie, I think.
Tavis: It is a really good movie. Did you like playing the old man?
Irons: I always like playing characters with secrets and with enigmas. I liked very much playing with Bradley Cooper. He’s a wonderful actor. Makes it very easy. And with these two young filmmakers who I didn’t know and to have two directors is always very interesting.
It’s a very strong cast and a very, very original script. You know, I read one or two scripts and to find something you think, yeah, this is a really original, clever idea; it’s a movie for people who think. It wasn’t hard to accept.
Tavis: I’ve got to go back and pick this up since you put it out there because I’m curious now as to what it is about playing these characters with secrets that so entices you.
Irons: Well, I’ve always thought of characters like advent calendars. You have advent calendars, you know. You have Christmas and you have all the little doors over the windows and every day you’re allowed to open one more as it gets towards Christmas and you see more and more about what’s inside that house.
I remember as a kid being fascinated by that and I’ve always thought of my character as a little bit like that. I like to have secrets and slowly let those secrets out to the audience, sometimes never let them out, but let them see as you open the shutters, open and see a little bit more of a character.
For me, I don’t know about you, but the great thing when you make a new friendship is the discovery of that person. It’s that that’s wonderful.
I try to let the audience do that with the character, so you keep some things in and slowly let them out so that that’s the fascinating area in a character. So enigma secrets are, for me, very useful.
Tavis: Beyond that, has the process that you use for choosing the kinds of roles that you want to play, has that process changed as you get older? We were talking earlier about playing an older character.
But as you age, as I quote my grandmother all the time, as you become more chronologically gifted, has your process for choosing what you want to do changed?
Irons: Not really. I choose with my gut. I’ll read a story and think, yeah, I like that story. I’d love to go and see that story; I’m interested by that character today, now. Two years ago, that might have been different. Two years hence that might be different.
It depends what your appetite is wanting. If you read a story or a character that’s a little bit similar to something you’ve just done, then you won’t be attracted by it. But if you haven’t just done that other thing, you would have been.
So it’s all dependent on the work you have been doing recently, but it’s gut. It’s like you look at a table of food and you think, “I think I want an apple.” At just that moment, you want an apple, and the next day, it might be, “I want a little bit of that ham or a bit of that beefsteak or whatever.”
I think, if you listen to yourself, listen to your instincts and follow them, which is what I try to do both in my work and in my life, then you read a script and you think, yeah, I want to do it. I’m not really sure why.
I mean, of course, who the director is makes a difference. How well it’s written makes a difference. Whether they’re going to pay you or not makes a difference [laugh].
Tavis: You used a wonderful phrase a moment ago, a simple phrase, but a wonderful phrase, the phrase “listen to,” if you listen to yourself. One of the things aside from your immense talent as an actor, one of the things that I most enjoy about you is your sound, that voice of yours.
When I’m not doing this, I have a publishing company. We publish books and oftentimes these days, of course, these books are…
Irons: Speaking books.
Tavis: Books on tape. Even though I do a radio show and a TV show, I can be in a restaurant, as happens all the time, and somebody could be sitting two tables over and they will hear my voice and say, “My God, that’s Tavis Smiley.”
I don’t know what’s distinct about my own voice. I don’t like my own voice, but I know voices that I love when I hear them. I just love your speaking voice. You could read book on tape all day long and I would just listen to you in my car all the time.
But I raise that, seriously, to ask have you ever considered, do you think about, or how much credit would you give to the voice in your success?
Irons: It’s not something I think about. I think it’s very dangerous to think about anything. I mean, it’s just part of the instrument that I use to try to emit emotion.
I remember years ago when I suppose I was in my last 20s and I was having a cup of coffee with a neighbor of mine, John Hurt, great English actor. He was a little bit older than me, but nevertheless, we were sitting and talking.
He said, “Have you noticed how many good new young actors there are springing up?” Of course, when you get to sort of 28 or 29, you begin to see the 19-year-old, the 20-year-old. I said, “I have, yeah.” He said, “Yeah, I know. It’s a problem, isn’t it?”
He said, “You know what I do? If I find a young actor and I think he’s really talented and he’s gonna chase me for roles, I say to him, ‘You know, you have a wonderful voice. Have you ever listened to it?'”
As soon as you say that, the guy’s career is completely over. So I don’t take any notice of it. Obviously, I feed my voice with cigarettes every day, but apart from that…
Tavis: [Laugh] To your conversation with John Hurt, I wonder if you’ll be honest and tell me whether or not you have at any point in your career as you’ve aged and been in the business longer ever felt threatened by the – you mentioned Bradley Cooper and what a wonderful actor he was. You were very kind and very effusive in your praise of him.
Have you ever felt threatened as you have gotten to a particular point in your own career by the actors coming behind you, the ones who are chasing your roles?
Irons: No. I mean, the truth of what happens is – I mean, I still feel for the 27 and my wife would say I still behave as if I’m 27. But you see a role and you say, “I should go after that. I really want to play that.” Someone would say, “No, he’s too young for it.” He’d say, “No, actually he’s the right age. You’re too old now.”
So that’s what happens is you just sort of grow out of roles and good actors who’ve been coming up behind you, they take them, and that’s the way of it. So now all that’s left for me is to play very old people, as you saw tonight.
But, no, I don’t feel threatened. There are, of course, actors of my sort of generation who can play my sort of roles who sometimes take roles that I’d like, but that’s the nature of it. It’s the nature of the game. I probably take roles that they’d like sometimes.
Tavis: This particular film, “The Words,” though, again without giving too much of it away, is about an individual played by Bradley Cooper whose wife gives him a new attaché case and, in the attaché case, he finds…
Irons: Gives him an old attaché case.
Tavis: Exactly. It’s new to him, but it’s an old attaché case. Inside the new-old attaché case, there is a manuscript that he takes and passes off as his own and, you know, obviously has to confront the person who actually wrote it one day.
Irons: Well, he didn’t know who wrote it. I mean, it was written a long time on some very old paper and maybe the guy is dead. Unfortunately for him, the guy isn’t dead.
Tavis: Exactly. He has to confront him at some point, though.
Tavis: That’s the scene we saw of the two of you on the park bench.
Irons: That happened to Hemingway, I believe. He lost…
Tavis: I read that. His wife lost…
Irons: A manuscript on the train. It was never found.
Tavis: The story is that Hemingway – a true story. Hemingway, for years, wouldn’t write. He was shut down by that, was shut down by it, was depressed by it and, to your point, this is an original screenplay for this particular project, but that is a fascinating parallel.
Hemingway just was – I suspect that could happen to you. If something lost, something tangible, something intangible is lost that means that much to you, I guess it could emotionally shut you down for a while.
Irons: It could. It happens to the character in the movie. He never writes again. It must be terrible, that feeling. You put so much into something and it’s now gone, it’s gone. You hear about people rewriting when that happens.
Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was a great British travel writer who traveled down the Danube before the Second World War and wrote diaries and those diaries were lost or stolen at the end of the journey, he then rewrote it all and then published the book. So it can be done, but it must be a terrible feeling.
Tavis: I love asking this question of certain actors because I’m always fascinated by the backstory, given who I am and what I do. How did you know that this was your vocation, your calling?
Irons: I never did really. I was educated in a private school in England amongst people who had been trained for sort of banking or the Army or business. As I came towards the end of my education, I thought I must find something or I’ll never meet any of these people again [laugh].
Tavis: [Laugh] I have those thoughts at least once a week, but I digress.
Irons: I wanted to be a gypsy. I mean, at that time, I was in the breaks from school. I was traveling with my guitar and singing around the place and just sort of busking, we used to call it.
I, in my sort of unreal mind, thought I’d like to be in the circus, in the traveling fun fairs, as we call them. I don’t know what you call them. What do you call fairs where there are merry-go-rounds, you have the big wheels and all that?
Tavis: Same thing.
Irons: Fun fairs, or in the theater.
Irons: I went and looked at a circus and I looked at the accommodation and I thought, oh, a bit small. I’m not sure I could do with that. I was too middle class, you know. I needed the possibility of perhaps having a mortgage and a house and a marriage and a family.
So then I looked at the theater and I got a job in Canterbury out of the newspaper for what they called an acting ASM, an acting stage manager, which meant that you made the props and you painted the scenery and you walked on in the evening and did little parts and didn’t say anything.
I did that for a few months, about six months, and I really liked it. I loved the fact that we were working at night when most of the world was asleep or enjoying itself.
I loved the smells. I loved the attitude of the people and I thought I’d quite like to train to do this, so I decided to train to be an actor. Why I didn’t train to be a stage manager, I don’t know because I didn’t have a burning desire to act and I still don’t.
I love being part of a group who tells stories, whether it be in the theater or in cinema, and I love creating imaginary worlds rather as children do, but I never had a burning desire to act, but it just sort of suited me. Once again, that thing of following your gut, listening to your gut. You know, what do you need?
I get bored very easily, so I love doing different things, changing, doing a job for a month and then doing another one for six months and then moving into a different group of people. I love being able to stop. That’s one of the greatest benefits we have in our profession.
I talk to so many people and I say I’m gonna stop in six months. I’m gonna do something else. They say, “You’re so lucky. I just couldn’t do that.” So we’re really fortunate and we’re paid for what we enjoy doing.
Some of it’s very hard work and there are qualities you have to have to be an actor which have nothing to do with acting. You have to be able to deal with a lot of things the business throws at you and, if you can deal with that, it’s a wonderful profession.
Tavis: You said something a moment ago that raises, for me, a deeply philosophical question that I want to ask because I think I can learn something from you.
Irons: I doubt that.
Tavis: No, I’m sure I can. You mentioned a moment ago that you love storytelling, but you don’t have a burning desire to act. I thought when you said that about a number of athletes whose names I won’t call on national TV because we guys who love sports could debate this all day long.
But there are a number of athletes who come to mind immediately who are really gifted and really talented and those of us who are sports fans, we yell and scream at these guys all the time ’cause we know they’re good.
They’ve got the body of Adonis; we know they’ve got the gift, the skill and the talent. They won’t really apply themselves, Mr. Bynum – oops.
They won’t apply themselves, so those of us who are Laker fans don’t want to talk about them, so we ship them out of town ’cause they just don’t step up consistently in the game, even though you know they’re gifted and skilled and talented.
It seems to me, when I watch these guys play, that they’re good at what they do, but they don’t have a burning desire to do it, so they don’t become great at it.
You admit you don’t have a burning desire to act, but you’re an Academy Award winner, you’re a Tony Award winner. You’re so good at what you do, so how do you put out that level of excellence without having a burning desire to even do it every day? Does that make sense?
Irons: It does, it does. I think you have to have – you know, you have to have many boxes to be an actor or to be a sportsman even.
You may be given the body, the physique, but have you got the temperament? Are you a guy who will train every morning? Are you a guy who will not go out and party the night before? Are you a guy who is consistent, who can be relied upon? All those things you need. Are you a team player? Those things don’t come as givens just because you’ve got the physique.
To be an actor, the same thing. You need various things. You need to have a head for choosing the roles. You have to be, hopefully, easy to work with so people enjoy working with you. You have to have a good head for choice because every performance is a group of tiny little choices for how you play every line and that builds up a performance.
You have to deal with missing roles, with not being asked to work, with doing good work and then being castigated by the critics for it. You have to have a skin that can deal with all of that. I, fortunately, seem to have the makeup which allows me to deal with the business. I mean, not as everybody.
I find what I call the [bleep] side of the industry very difficult. You won’t see me at other peoples’ premiers. I mean, I go to my own premiers because I have to help my film, but I don’t enjoy that whole side of it. I don’t enjoy celebrityhood.
I love getting a seat in a restaurant. I love it when people say hi when I don’t know them [laugh]. I mean, that’s fine, but apart from that, I like the elements of celebrityhood which make living in the world like living in your own village.
That’s great except, of course, that everybody in your village knows your business, so you have to be careful about your business. But it’s a profession which has treated me really kindly. It’s a profession which has some amazing people in it.
Of course, the other great thing about it is, because you’re constantly playing other characters and exploring yourself because you have to find those other characters in yourself, you sort of broaden as a person over your life because you’ve been other people. So you can empathize with many different sorts of people.
It’s great in that way and I hope, therefore, as you get older as an actor, you not only get more interesting because you lived more, but you get a bit wiser as a person. That’s what I’m hoping. My wife would say it hasn’t happened yet, but we’re waiting.
Tavis: Before my time goes, you referenced earlier in this conversation traveling around when you were much younger playing your guitar.
Irons: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Please tell me that what I read is not true.
Irons: What’s that?
Tavis: That the name of the band that you were in is?
Irons: Oh, here we go.
Tavis: There were four guys in the band, “The Four Pillars of Wisdom,” “The Four Pillars of Wisdom.”
Irons: It was a huge success, I found.
Tavis: Was that the name of the band [laugh]?
Irons: It was. It was “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” that T.E. Lawrence wrote, wasn’t it?
Tavis: Sure, yeah.
Irons: We have only four of us. We weren’t seven, only four of us [laugh].
Tavis: “The Four Pillars of Wisdom.”
Irons: We wore Arab headdresses and black tie and we were the deb’s delight, I’ll tell you. I played the drums rather worse than Ringo Starr, if you can imagine that [laugh].
Tavis: [Laugh] Do you still play? Do you still do the music thing?
Irons: I do, I do, but I play more Irish now. I live a lot in Ireland, so I play fiddle and I still play guitar and I have some drums and I play just various little things, you know.
Tavis: Let me close on this, I think. Ireland, obviously, is a place of much political mayhem now.
Irons: And economic mayhem.
Tavis: And economic mayhem these days, exactly. So we have some of that over here now, political mayhem, economic mayhem. This week has been all about the Democratic Convention, Mr. Obama and his party last week, the Republican Convention.
So for two weeks, we’ve been talking about politics every night, save Jeremy Irons. Are you a political person at all?
Irons: I have views, but I’m very glad I’m not a politician. I think it’s one step away from the gates of hell, being a politician. I really do. A nightmare, a nightmare.
But I do have views about where we have gone terribly wrong and I think we’re in the middle of – actually, just at the start of a huge economic revolution which I think has not really hit this country yet, but which we’re beginning to go through in Europe where we’re realizing that unrestrained capitalism is a hiding to nowhere and it doesn’t protect the population as it should and we have to completely start to re-evaluate how we use capitalism as an instrument for feeding and housing our population.
Tavis: Yeah. There an increasing number of folk in this country who feel the same way, that now is a good time to start rethinking capitalism as we know it.
But to even raise that conversation gets you labeled un-American in many circles, so I can imagine how difficult it must be to get off the ground.
Irons: Well, I’m not American, so I can be un-American [laugh].
Tavis: [Laugh] And you can come back on this program any time you want.
Irons: All right, Tavis.
Tavis: I’m delighted to have had you here.
Irons: Nice to see you.
Tavis: Jeremy Irons, one of the stars of the new project, “The Words.” Good to have you here. We’ll see you again soon, I hope.
That’s our show for tonight. You can download our new app in the iTunes App Store. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, goodnight from L.A., thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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