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If you like Jeremy Irons's story, you might also like:
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Jeremy Irons
Jeremy Irons
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Jeremy Irons Interview (page: 2 / 5)

Award-winning Stage and Screen Actor

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  Jeremy Irons

What were your parents' ambitions for you? What did they expect of you? Was it even in the air?

Jeremy Irons: No, it wasn't in the air. It was very much in the air with my brother, who was a "kicker against the pricks." He was not happy at his next school, was not doing well. I think probably, looking back, he was mildly dyslexic but nobody in those days knew about that. He had difficulty learning but had a very strong will so he was not doing particularly well at school, and indeed left at about the age of 16 to go to a crammer's to try and get some qualifications. For what, who knew? My father was very keen he go into the Navy but his eyesight wasn't good enough. So how about the Merchant Navy? My brother wasn't too keen about that. So they were worrying about him. In the middle classes one didn't really worry about the girl. My sister -- being a girl -- you know, she'd probably be a secretary.

They'd invested so much in your brother; do you think they were prepared to allow you to find the shape of your own life?

Jeremy Irons Interview Photo
Jeremy Irons: Yes. I think they felt at 11 or 12 it was too early to think about. I have a 15 year-old, and I think it's too early. I look at his talents and I wonder, but I have always tried to teach my children that the only thing they want in life if they have any sense is to learn how to be happy, and to also give them the awareness that anything is possible for them. That's putting a big responsibility on them because then they have to decide.

I envy children who know that they're going to become doctors, know they're going to go into the forces or whatever. I think choice is one of the hardest things, but that's what I try to give my children, to say you can do anything.

I think that because my father failed with my brother, when I came to that point in my life, I felt I could do anything. I knew I couldn't do everything, because I was a very bad student, so I knew that some areas were closed off to me, but I wasn't really interested in those areas, which is why I had been a bad student.

How did you make your move to acting?

Jeremy Irons: It suited me no more than anything else. I had my final report, and the head master, who by then had got to know me, said, "God knows what he'll do. Maybe the paratroopers." That was his comment. That's because I had done well in the corps. So he had no clue.

We had an organization in London and still do; the school is still connected with it, helping in South London in poorer areas. Now it's probably very fashionable, in those days it was poor. And I left because I wasn't going to university and they didn't quite know what to do with me and so they said, "Do you want to go out and work there for a bit?" And I said, "Fine, yes." So I came to London and lived in a bed-sit with a Scots landlady called Nanny Butcher, who was built like an ox, and had hair curling out like she actually looked like a good Scottish piece of cattle, and she would cook me meat and 18 veg every night.

I worked for two worker priests, worker priests being people who are ordained but who have day jobs. One was a lawyer and one was a social worker. So although they could do the services -- they were Church of England -- on a Sunday, they couldn't do the running of the parish, and they handed over that to me. Such things as visiting the old, the sick, people with problems over their gas bills, running the youth club, topping up the communion wine, interviewing people who wanted to get married. Can you believe it? On a Monday night in the cold vestry they would come and sit in front of me and say, "We want to get married." I said, "Well, is this a good idea? Is this a good idea do you think? How long have you been together? Are you pregnant?" All of those sort of things, you know.

I played the organ a little bit during the services, but most importantly I ran the youth club.

I remember a moment where I had thrown out a rival gang who had tried to take over the evening. We had Sunday night dances and I threw them out. And they set upon me, quite rightly. And as I was lying on the front grass in front of this sort of little hall, with boots kicking into me and fists flying, I thought to myself, "Now when I was at school this sort of thing didn't used to happen. I used to be able to control people with sort of day room points and black marks," and it didn't seem to work in life. And so it was a big lesson for me about how to deal with people.

And it also meant that I was able to live on my own, earn a very small wage, but that really wasn't important. I would get on my bicycle with my guitar strapped to the back and cycle up to the West End and busk the cinema queues.

Now this is the 1960s, not a bad time in London.

Jeremy Irons: Sort of mid '60s. A good time. I have to say, I look back at the '60s when I see it reported, and I think I missed all of that; I think I wasn't really in the swing of it. I wasn't in Chelsea, I wasn't in the King's Road, I was down in Peckham earning two pounds ten a week. But of course, I was 17, when everything seems a bit like the '60s. You're sort of finding out about things and daring yourself to be as naughty as you can. That was the '60s. We were looking forward to every Beatles album that came out and the Stones albums. But when you live in eras you don't appreciate them for what they are, do you?

Were you worried about the future? About finding a craft, a way of life?

Jeremy Irons: No.

I had done a fair bit of traveling during the holidays in my school days with my guitar and discovered that I could live on it. Admittedly, I traveled with a sleeping bag but I could always find somewhere to lay my head. I could always find the money for food. So I had a sort of -- a passport -- and I traveled in Europe and around England with that. I had a family home that I could always go back to if things went badly wrong. In fact, I had two family homes by then. I was -- looking back at it -- waiting and listening, which I think is one of the secrets.

Jeremy Irons Interview Photo
I had a walk with my father on Hampstead Heath. He lived in London on Hampstead at that time, and I said, "I think I want to try to be an actor."

He said, "Oh, God. If you look at people who are actors, they tend to have an awful lot of marriages and they don't seem to be very happy."

But he was a great father. By then he'd failed with my brother, who was off sailing around the world trying to find the secret of water, and still is, strangely enough.

So my father was quite keen that I wanted to do anything, and he said, "Well, I don't recommend it but I would say to you that if you don't try it you'll never know, and you'll always resent me for not supporting you. So see if you can get a job."

I got a job off the back of a newspaper as a - what they call an "Acting ASM," I think it was called then. An acting assistant stage manager in a theater in Canterbury, a rep theater. A small wage but just enough to get by on, and I made props and I walked on and I changed scenery and I realized that I just loved it. Not the acting. I wasn't acting. I liked the theater. I liked the people. I liked the time that we worked. Now looking back I see what I was doing, but at the time I didn't know. You never know at the time. What I was doing was finding a way not to have to be stuck with any of the sort of people I'd been educated with, but finding a way of creating the life of a gypsy really, of being able to move from camp to camp, singing around the fire, getting to know those people and then moving on maybe with some of them -- or maybe not -- to another place.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

A career seemed to me something rather like a prison sentence. That was how I viewed a career, that I would start at the bottom and I'd work my way up the ladder and then I'd retire, and after a little bit I'd die. And I thought there's nothing I want to do like that really. Nothing I want to do enough but I'd like to -- I had read a lot of autobiographies of actors, from Burbage (Shakespeare's leading man), through to Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, and all the people in between. That was while I was at school, under the notion that I was collecting them but with no knowledge as to why. But in fact, a lot was -- you know, you don't collect things without reason, and a lot of their lives soaked into me and their attitudes. And to be an outsider seemed to me to be very, very attractive.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Did you see actors as outsiders?

Jeremy Irons: I think so. They are privileged in that they can, at their best, stand beside the King's ear and tell him, "You ain't got no clothes on, chummy," and get away with it. I think that's what we should do. I always worry in this country when actors get knighted and lorded and decorated. I think, "No. Stay away. Stay awake. Keep behaving badly. Keep stirring the mud."

Perhaps you already saw yourself as an outsider and you found a profession that allowed you to be one.

Jeremy Irons: That's right. And yet it has given me so much more than that.

It's allowed me to go on great journeys into other people, which I enjoy. I have a very blinkered mentality. I tend to -- there's good things and bad things about that. I tend to see what I'm after and go for it and everything else doesn't exist, which is very useful when you're creating a character, or when you're acting in front of a camera with 100 people, you know. It's quite difficult for those who live with you, who suddenly don't exist, like your wife or your children or your secretary. You know? But they're used to it now.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

They know that when I'm working, that's pure. It's also very good when you're deciding what to go for. I've always said to people, "You've got to know what number you're trying to get on the dart board. Get that number and throw the dart at that." It's no good saying, "There's a dart board over there. Wallop!" I loved working in the theater but I knew nothing. So what was the next step?

My next step must be to go to drama school. Well, I get into drama school, so I did that. Fortunately, my father was able to pay the fees and he said, "But I'm not paying for you on the holidays. You know, any extra money you want." So I worked as a builder, building new bathrooms for people outside their houses where they didn't have bathrooms and that enabled me to run a car and to go through my two years of theater training.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

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This page last revised on Aug 25, 2009 13:43 EDT
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