Jeremy Irons is recalling a career survival tip he learned from John Hurt. The two actors were having coffee when Hurt suddenly said, “Have you noticed there are rather a lot of good young actors appearing?”
“This was when we were in our thirties,” purrs Irons today, setting the scene with that deliciously airy voice of his.
“I was like, ‘Yes, I have. A bugger isn’t it?’”
Hurt then said to him, “Do you know what I do when I meet one? I say to them, ‘You have a wonderful voice. Have you ever listened to it?’ ”
“And then you know that they’re f***ed!” roars Irons, laughing at the memory. “If you start listening to your own voice you’re in dead trouble. So I don’t do it.”
This mantra seems to have served Irons well. Since starring in Brideshead Revisited at the not-so-tender age of 31, he’s been in constant demand: working with a vast array of major directors (Cronenberg, Soderbergh, Bertolucci, Lynch, Ridley Scott), winning an Oscar for Reversal of Fortune, starring opposite the likes of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and terrifying a generation of kids as the voice of the villainous Scar in The Lion King. At the moment he seems to be everywhere too. In the last couple of weeks alone he’s popped up as the architect in Ben Wheatley’s JG Ballard adaptation High-Rise and as Alfred Pennyworth, trusty butler to Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne in superhero smackdown Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In cinemas next week he can be seen playing Cambridge mathematician GH Hardy in period drama The Man Who Knew Infinity – and come summer British audiences can see him in Jesse Owens biopic Race and opposite Michael Fassbender in the mega-budget videogame adaptation Assassin’s Creed, which may or may not end up being one of the biggest movies of the year (Irons says he can’t tell at this stage how that one will turn out).
Then there’s the theatre work. He’s currently doing previews of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night – a role that has taken him back to Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre, where he started out as an actor in the 1970s. “That’s been extraordinary,” marvels Irons. “I’ve been riding my motorcycle around all the places I used to live. I haven’t been there for 40 years.”
The return to the stage – part of the Bristol Old Vic’s 250th anniversary celebrations – is, he says, a wonderful workout. “It’s like going to the brain gym and the physical gym. It’s three-and-a-half hours long, and we’re doing eight performances a week.”
Despite all this, he says he doesn’t really need to work as much now as he once did. “I’m happier spending more time with my family, my wife [the actress Sinead Cusack], my horses… So if I’m going to do something, it’s got to be something worthwhile.”
With Batman v Superman he knew he wasn’t going to be around too much because of the size of the film and the number of major characters jostling for screen time. But he was quite happy about that. “I’m quite glad I’m not playing a superhero because it takes a lot of time and I like to do other things,” he says, wryly.
Still, he was able to bring some interesting personal experiences to the role of Alfred. “I spoke to Zack [Snyder, the director] early on and he said, ‘I want Alfred to have a sort of military feel to him’. And I thought, ‘Good. Ex-SAS.’ Because I remember having dinner with John Paul Getty, who was a neighbour of mine in Oxfordshire, and a very nice pair of men opened the door for me, and a very nice man took my coat, and a very nice man gave me a martini and took me into the party – and they were all SAS. Every member of staff could kill you. But you would never know it. They were charming, elegant, hospitable and I thought, that’s very interesting for Alfred.”
His Alfred, then, is a little more dynamic than Michael Caine’s in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. And he’s a long way from the type of servants associated with Brideshead Revisited. That said, playing Alfred did offer a nice connection with that landmark television series: co-starring in it alongside Irons was the late Michael Gough, who went on to play Alfred in Tim Burton’s Batman films.
“I’d seen what Mickey Gough had done, but I thought, well, that’s Michael. I’ll do what I do.”
This is his approach for any role, real or fictional, original or re-imagined. “There are no ghosts,” he insists. What he seems to like most is the sleuthing involved. When he signed on to do The Man Who Knew Infinity, for instance, he didn’t bother trying to understand Hardy’s complex theories because he discovered that his passion for pure mathematics was similar to the passion others feel for art. “I was like, okay, I see what gets him going. Pure mathematics has a real creativity about it.”
Irons also likes the disparity between people’s public reputations and their private lives. That’s what interested him about playing Claus Von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune. And he likes figuring out what compromises people make and how they come back to bite them.
Which begs the question, has he made many compromises in his own career that have come back to bite him?
“I have made films that were compromises in that I did them because they were going to pay me a lot of money,” he admits. “Fortunately most bad films disappear. And they contrast wonderfully with the work that I am proud of.” Don’t take this to mean he’s automatically sniffy about doing blockbusters, though. He had a blast making Die Hard With a Vengeance, picking up the mantle from the late, great Alan Rickman and running with it (he played Hans Gruber’s brother).
“Those are great from the business side of your career as well because they’re seen by so many people. Even now I walk around Delhi or Bombay and people are like: ‘Die Hard! Die Hard!’ They don’t say, ‘Brideshead…’ ”
• Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is in cinemas now. The Man Who Knew Infinity is in cinemas from Friday.