By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Jeremy Irons emerged as an international star more than three decades ago with the dual success of the big screen romantic drama “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and the groundbreaking British TV series “Brideshead Revisited.”
Irons, who has since enjoyed a long and productive career, wasn’t completely green in 1981. The British actor had spent 12 years refining his craft on the stage, having trained at the Old Vic Theatre School and subsequently performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In that pre-Internet age, the tall and dashing actor was able to lead a fairly normal life, without the paparazzi lurking outside his home or the tabloids chronicling his every move. Irons counts himself fortunate to have come up during a different time.
“You look at someone like Robert Pattinson who has a life that just isn’t worth living,” notes the Academy Award winning actor. “There’s no privacy. Every room he’s in, he has hundreds of kids outside wanting to get sight of him. That didn’t happen in my day. It didn’t even happen with Marlon Brando.”
At 64, the onetime leading man usually finds himself playing villains or in supporting roles, which often are more interesting and complex.
No stranger to playing quirky mysterious characters, Irons plays Macon Ravenwood, the reclusive owner of a seemingly dilapidated South Carolina mansion, in “Beautiful Creatures.” Macon recently has taken over the guardianship of his 16-year-old niece Lena (played by newcomer Alice Englert), who is going though more than the usual teenage growing pain. Naturally, she doesn’t quite fit in at her new school in this small town, which is led by the ultra-conservative and xenophobic Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson). The only schoolmate who seems to like Lena is Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), a bookish loner who thinks the girl may be the same one that has been appearing in his dreams.
As it turns out, Lena is a Caster, essentially a sorceress, who will soon be chosen by the forces of Light or Dark. Neither Macon nor any of Lena’s other magical relatives who come to see her can control what happens next.
At director Richard LaGravenese’s (“The Fisher King,” “P.S. I Love You”) instruction, Irons refrained from reading Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s young adult-oriented book on which the supernatural drama is based.
“It’ll only muddle you up,” Irons recalls the filmmaker telling him at the time.
So Irons worked with a voice coach over Skype to get the southern accent just right and focused on LaGravenese’s adaptation of the book, which is the first in a popular young adult series.
The busy actor, who lives in a centuries old Irish castle with his second wife, Sinead Cusack, recently spoke about his newest film role, how far he’s come and what’s ahead, including a return visit to the popular historic drama “The Borgias.”
Q: How did you come to be cast in “Beautiful Creatures?”
Irons: Richard LaGravenese called me and said he was making this film and told me what he wanted to do with it and that Emma Thompson was going to do it and asked me if I would do it. (This genre) is not my metier at all. It’s certainly not what I normally do, but he seemed to be up for it, and I was free so I said I’d do it.
Q: How did you get into the character of a Southerner with that voice?
Irons: I worked with a voice coach. He gives me the accent that he thought would be right. I wanted to do something a little old-fashioned, something that was slightly out of time and a slightly older American way of speaking. That was what we worked for.
Q: What about working with Emma Thompson on this?
Irons: It was a lot of fun. Richard wanted us to look at our scenes and rewrite them when it was necessary and rework them, so we did and then we’d go over it with him. Emma, of course, is a writer in her own right. So, between the three of us, we were able to hone the scenes we had together.
Q: What was the most memorable scene for you?
Irons: The scene that really broke us up was with the table goes (spinning) around, which was for real. The whole set shook. It was extraordinary. Richard didn’t want it to be a special effect. He wanted it to be basically real and then enhanced.
Q: You have some other really elaborate sets. Do those fantastic surroundings help you get into character?
Irons: It does in a way. What they always said was Macon can make his place however he wants like that. (He snaps his finger.) The difficulty with that is a place describes a person. When you walk into someone’s house, you learn about them by looking through their house. For someone who can make anything, it’s very difficult to pin down what they are. I think that is a plus and a minus for Macon. If we ever see any more of him (in sequels), we may learn more about him but I think he’s a very elusive character.
Q: He’s a self-sacrificing one, it turns out.
Irons: Yeah. No matter how much supernatural is in this, at its root, it’s basically a story of young lovers, who have all the pressures of what their friends think about them and what their parents think about them. All of that is heightened by the supernatural element in our story, but at base you could see me as the father figure for Alice. In the film I’m worrying that she’s going to turn Dark, but any father worries about his young beautiful daughter going out with a boy.
Q: Once you were cast, did you go back and read the book?
Irons: No, I was warned off that. The book is not as clear as the film. One of Richard’s jobs was to clarify and simplify the book, which has a lot of extraneous ideas.
Q: Some people may be surprised that “Beautiful Creatures” is a family movie with moral lessons. Did you find that as well?
Irons: I did. I hadn’t thought of it that clearly. Certainly, I thought it was a family movie. I saw it in London with my wife and my assistant, and they both enjoyed it a lot. I was surprised because I thought it was going be a teen movie but it really is a family movie, and it has a goodness and a morality about it. When you come out of the movie, you feel very good. Everyone behaves in a surprisingly honorable way.
Q: You came into your career spectacularly and internationally with “Brideshead Revisited.” Do you see it as a different business today for young actors entering into it? Was it a different kind of pressure than Alice (Englert) and Alden (Ehrenreich) will be dealing with as this film launches their careers?
Irons: I think so. I watch my son (Max Irons) who has a movie coming out in March called “The Host.” He’s done “Red Riding Hood.” He’s now shooting a series called “The White Queen” for Starz and the BBC. At his age (27), I had just been working in theater. But now there isn’t that amount of theater for young actors but there’s all this cable television work and these big movies like “Beautiful Creatures” and “The Host.” If you are young, good-looking and can act, you get offered all this work. It’s very different from my day. I think (my son) is aware of it, and I think Alden is aware of it.
Q: What do you think of Alden and Alice?
Irons: Alden is a very intelligent and talented guy, a great artist actually. He would disappear into his trailer and paint these wonderful watercolors. He’s pretty clear about it and Alice, of course, her mother (director Jane Campion) is in the game, so she knows it.
Q: You were thrust into the spotlight at a young age because of “Brideshead Revisited.”
Irons: Yes, that and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” came out around the same time. I was 31 when that happened and I’d be acting in theater for 12 years.
Q: You had “Brideshead” groupies, didn’t you?
Irons: (He laughs.) Maybe one or two, but they never hung around my door.
Q: Did you want the part of Sebastian (the hedonistic and self-destructive character played by Anthony Andrews)?
Irons: That was the part I was offered.
Q: You ended up playing Charles, though.
Irons: I’d done a TV series called “Love for Lydia,” where I played a character called Alex who loved his mother, drank too much and fell off a bridge in episode eight. So I thought, I’ve done that trajectory. That’s Sebastian’s trajectory. I want to do something else and I wanted to be the host of (“Brideshead Revisited”), which Charles is. I played that quiet Englishman, which I thought was very interesting. When I said that, they said, “Well, who are we going get to play Sebastian then?” But we had a spectacular cast: Anthony (Andrews), (Laurence) Olivier and John Gielgud. It was a good bunch.
Q: Do you use social media?
Irons: No. I’d rather read a book. I’d rather talk to people around a table. I’m old-fashioned, probably. I’d rather walk the dog.
Q: What’s next for you?
Irons: I’ve got a lot coming out at the moment. I’ve got “Night Train to Lisbon,” a Bille August picture. It’s a delightful piece about a man learning that the life he’s lived is not necessarily the life he has to continue living. The scales drop from his eyes by the experience he has of going to Lisbon and meeting a lot of people who fought in the revolution in 1970. It’s a philosophical tale and a love story. It’s not a big picture. It’s a picture for the discerning few. I’m also selling a documentary called “Trashed,” about the garbage industry and how we make too much garbage and what we have to do about it. I may be back to (reprise Rodrigo Borgia on the Showtime series) “The Borgias.” That will be the last one if we go again.
Q: Are you surprised that the series has been such a huge success?
Irons: Is it a huge success? I guess people seem to like it. It’s (created by) Neil Jordan; it should be good. He’s a feral writer and the Borgias are a great family and a great story.
“Beautiful Creatures” opens in theaters Thursday, February 14. The four-disc DVD/Blu-ray 30th anniversary collection of “Brideshead Revisted” is available now through Acorn Media (acornmedia.com).