After almost a decade, Jeremy Irons is returning to Shakespeare, taking on the role of King Henry IV in a new BBC series. He talks to Grace Hammond.
In a snow-covered field just a stone’s throw from the M25, Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston and a heavily-disguised Simon Russell Beale are doing battle.
It’s a surreal sight, as Irons and Hiddleston, in chain mail and red capes, charge back and forth on horses through a throng of armour-clad men, while Russell Beale, in a fat-suit and clasping a spear, runs comically away from just about everyone in his path.
On hills either side of the small valley are camps of ancient tents and, were it not for the camera crew in modern-day dress, you could almost imagine it was medieval England. Even the sounds of the M25 have been muffled – much to director Richard Eyre’s relief – thanks to the snow.
But this was January 2012 and the scene being filmed was the climax of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I, where the future Henry V, young Prince Hal, will defeat rebel leader Hotspur, ultimately taking his place in history.
Some time earlier, in the comfort of a heated modern tent, which doubles as wardrobe and canteen for the battling mob, Jeremy Irons, who’s playing the titular king, settles down to discuss his first Shakespeare play since the 2004 Merchant Of Venice film.
He looks every inch the distinguished British thespian, dressed in a red woolly jumper, Middle Eastern scarf, corduroy trousers and high black boots and with a backwards cap on his head – chic but cosy.
“Shakespeare is wonderful to come back to. You forget how fertile his language is,” says the 63-year-old, in those deep, round tones.
“You get used to working in film, where language is spare and often not well-written, and suddenly you get back to this language, his use of rhythm, the choice of words, the way he changes from one thought to another on a sixpence, which is glorious. It’s like driving an Aston Martin and you think, ‘Oh yes, this can do anything, once I get to know how to do it’. Once you’ve done some of those big roles, even though you might not have done it for a few years, you know the possibilities, you know what you’re looking for – which is to make it sound completely colloquial and understandable to an audience.”
Indeed, with their season of four Shakespeare history plays, entitled The Hollow Crown, which reaches our screens this weekend, it’s the BBC’s mission to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
As part of the Cultural Olympiad in the run-up to London 2012, the Shakespeare Unlocked season charts the rise and fall of three kings; self-indulgent Richard II (played by Ben Whishaw) who is overthrown by his cousin Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV, and finally his son Henry V.
The two parts of Henry IV tell of the king’s guilt over deposing his cousin and his struggle to retain the crown as enemies rise up against him.
“He’s a man who is governed by the fact that he took the crown, or was sort of given it, with popular support,” muses Isle of Wight-born Irons.
“Once you’ve been given it, the mystique of being king is broken down. You can imagine if the Queen was kicked out and David Cameron became king – we’d all think we had a chance. Henry therefore finds himself in a situation where nothing’s ever perfect. He knows that he hasn’t got [the crown] in a God-given way, so he feels a little guilty.”
Added to this is the problem of his son and heir Prince Hal, who seems to have no interest in taking over the throne and spends his time debauching with the drunkard Falstaff (Russell Beale).
As a father of two sons, Sam and Max, Irons could identify with Henry’s predicament.
“Shakespeare writes a relationship which isn’t based on history at all, between a son who is out living life as every young man does – behaving wildly, sowing his wild oats, having a ball, and a father who is feeling insecure, wants support, and knows that if he has a son who is seen to be an ideal heir, his position will be stronger.
“So it’s a mixture of a kingly desire to have a strong heir, and the normal battle between father and son.”
In real life, however, Irons couldn’t be more proud that his sons have found their way, one becoming a photographer and the other following him and his wife Sinead Cusack into acting.
“What you want for your children is for them to have a passion. You may think, well photography is a difficult business and so is acting, but you see so many young people who either don’t have a passion or just want to be famous or rich. We live in this terrible celebrity culture, where the only thing to want to be is a celebrity,” he says.
He admits he and his wife were a little concerned by son Max’s decision to be an actor, adding: “We didn’t encourage him at all, but he’s certainly a lot better than I was at his age and he’s determined to be successful.”
In recent years Irons, who made his name in the 1981 ITV series Brideshead Revisited before starring in films such as Lolita, The Mission, Damage, The Lion King and the Oscar-winning Reversal Of Fortune, has returned to TV acting, with an acclaimed role in the US drama The Borgias. Next month he’s off to Budapest to film the third series.
Television has become more appealing as film budgets dwindle, he says.
“Movies are really having a problem. The sort of pictures I make, what I call the £8m to £30m are not made very easily now. The £200m budget films are getting made and the £1.5m movies are getting made, but the ones in the middle are finding it very hard.
“I’ve been watching the TV series that are coming out of America and there’s such good writing happening. Mad Men, The Wire, Damages... this is really good drama, good writing.”
He still keeps busy, and during breaks from his acting Irons has more than enough to keep him busy in very different ways at home in south-west Ireland.
“I love down time because there are many other things I love doing,” he says simply. “I’ve always been a ‘doer-upper’ of things. In the early days it was furniture, then it became houses. Now I have a boat and horses, which is very lucky.
“At one stage, during my 30s, I remember leaving the house thinking, ‘Why do I have to work, there’s so much I want to get done’. Then I thought, ‘Careful, you have to work in order to support the life you want to live’.”
And with that, Irons is off to ride a horse – but this time it’s all part of the job in hand.
The Hollow Crown begins at 9pm on BBC 2 this Saturday.
Richard II: Ben Whishaw plays the vain king asked to settle a dispute between his cousin Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear), and Mowbray (James Purefoy).
Henry IV Part 1 & 2: After Richard II is murdered, the new king (Jeremy Irons) has blood on his hands and is not having a happy reign. The second part follows his son Prince Hal.
Henry V: Henry ascends the throne as a reformed man and leads his army against France.
Jeremy Irons – From stage to the Oscars
After attending Sherborne School, Jeremy Irons received a classical training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, then began his career on stage in 1969. Since then he has appeared in many London theatre productions including The Winter’s Tale, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, Godspell and Richard II. In 1984 he made his Broadway debut in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing and received a Tony Award.
Irons’s first major film role came in the 1981 romantic drama The French Lieutenant’s Woman, for which he received a BAFTA nomination. After starring in such films as Moonlighting, Betrayal, and The Mission, he gained critical acclaim for portraying twin gynaecologists in David Cronenberg’s psychological thriller Dead Ringers. In 1990, he played accused murderer Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune, earning many awards including a best actor Oscar. Other notable films have included The House of the Spirits, The Lion King, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Lolita, The Merchant of Venice, Being Julia and Margin Call.
On television, Irons earned a Golden Globe Award nomination for his role as Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited in 1981. In 2006 he starred opposite Helen Mirren in the historical mini-series Elizabeth I, for which he received a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy for best supporting Actor. Since 2011 he has starred in the US historical series The Borgias.
Last year Jeremy Irons was nominated as a goodwill ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.