Interview: Jeremy Irons on Acting: “Don’t give up, or as we would say in this country, ‘Soldier on.'”

Actor Jeremy Irons

In his four-decade career, Academy Award Winner Jeremy Irons has never appeared on network television. Until now.

He’s making his network debut on Law & Order: SVU. He plays ‘Captain Jackson,’ the estranged father of a woman who was just attacked by a rapist. Jackson’s new role as a sex therapist is hindering the detectives from getting the information they need to solve the case and if Jackson won’t comply, the detectives are going to have to get creative.

Irons was joined on the call by SVU Executive Producer, Neal Baer who sung the praises of Jeremy. And why not, the guy completely rocks anything he’s in.

Jeremy talked to me on a conference call about the fast pace of working in TV, why he took on the role and what his proudest acting accomplishment is.

You haven’t done as much network TV, so why now and why this role?

Jeremy Irons: Because it fitted in time wise, because I’ve done no network TV, because Law and Order SVU is so popular amongst a wide variety of my friends. When I mentioned to them that I had been asked they said, “Oh, it’s a fantastic show. I always watch it,” and then I looked at some episodes.

I don’t watch a lot of television, or hardly any American television, because I live in Ireland and England, and I thought it had great style and reminded me of those paperback crime novels, which move very fast and had a great facility. And I liked the way they told the stories, I liked the way they were done, and I thought, “Yes, I’d love to go and do that.”

Was there anything about your role specifically that drew you in about the character you’re playing?

Jeremy Irons: No, except I thought he was multi-dimensional, which always hard to find on television, or any film work actually. And he contained enigmatic qualities, he was a mystery. Basically a good person, but a person who was – you know, who had fought his battles in life and to a certain extent come through. And I thought it was a – you know, a multi-lad role and as a result something that I’d like to get my teeth into.

Was there anything that you found particularly challenging about this role? I know you mentioned him as multi-dimensional.

Jeremy Irons: The way the program is made, which is very fast and very – you know, the guys who do it – they have such a facility for it, and I watched them in awe as they worked. And it is a very specific style and when you’re confronted by that as an actor, it’s interesting

It’s something you think, “All right, well, shall I – do I play against this? Do I play with it?” And in fact, the character is written all – a lot of the guest characters are written with a slightly different pacing, a slightly different style than the, so to speak, home-base actors. And it’s this – (it’s just about an interesting week).

Do you have any specific memorable moments you had from your time on set?

Jeremy Irons: Many, many. We had a lot of laughs; a lot of laughs. And I found I enjoyed working with Chris a great deal. He’s a tremendous actor and I just remember those days as being days that I really looking forward to going into the studio and working pretty hard, as we all did.

It’s so nice when you go into a show, which you know has a pretty tough schedule, and the week I was doing it they were shooting two at the same time, and to find that people were determined that it be an enjoyable experience for everybody and that doesn’t always happen.

Law and Order SVU has been on air for 12 seasons, what is it like for you as an actor to come in and step into such an established show?

Jeremy Irons: Well, you have to watch and see how they do it, because they know how to do it. And to a certain extent, you have to listen to – you have to watch the actors who’ve been doing it for 12 years very carefully because they can do it very well, and they know how to do it and learn from that.

But, you do feel you’re entering an area of safety because this is not an experiment. You know, they’ve honed their craft on all levels doing these programs, and you just hope that there’s an actor coming in that you give them what they want. And you know I hope that they would have told me if I wasn’t.

Jeremy-Irons---SVUAs far as working in American television versus working in British television, do you see any big differences there?

Jeremy Irons: Well, I haven’t worked in British television for a long time, and I’ve never worked in series television in that way. I’ve done on-off plays, apart from Brideshead, which was a serial really, not a series, so this is my sort of first experience. But, I’ve always felt that America is, I think it could be said a – that there is a professionalism, which sometimes makes some British work feel a little bit amateur.

Neal Baer: It’s the longest running series right now on TV.

Jeremy Irons: Yeah. Yeah, well, they must be doing something right. I hope inviting me to do an episode is a good decision.

Neal Baer: It was a great decision. He’s brilliant in the show.

Jeremy Irons: Thank you, Neal.

Since some people may not expect to see you on Law and Order SVU, how has going against the expected contributed to your identity as both a person and an actor?

Jeremy Irons: One has to work within the parameters of the opportunities that are offered as an actor. But, I always try to put my foot, so to speak, in a place where it’s not expected as I walk along my career, and that is not easy to do.

But, it is a way of – it gives me great enjoyment doing new things, stepping into areas that maybe are unexpected for the audience. And I suspect the – it also gives the audience a bit of pleasure because, you know, I can only be me and play the characters I can play, but at least if I’m doing it in ways and in places which are unexpected it’ll give them a little bit of fun. It gives me a bit of fun.

And Neal, and perhaps, Jeremy, you can talk about this as well, can you both talk about how you worked together to fit the character to Jeremy’s styles and strength as an actor?

Neal Baer: Well, we wanted Jeremy on the show because we’re so respectful of his talent. And what’s really interesting is when you see him he fits into the show quite well, and yet there’s something about him, and this is what I think separates the great actors from actors, you want to know him.

And so, when the moment he steps on the screen you want to know who this character is, and that’s the talent of great actors. And so, he brings to the show this intensity and that is very alluring, I think, to an audience, and that’s what we wanted and certainly that’s what Jeremy gives in this performance.

Neal, do you sometimes think to yourself, “How do I get some of these actors to come on my show?” Do you sometimes pinch yourself going, “Wow, these guys really love this show enough to come on?”

Neal Baer: Well, exactly. I – we go and ask actors, literally, whom I’ve loved watching on television or in the movies. And so, I’ve seen Jeremy’s films from French Lieutenant’s Woman, you know, on to Reversal of Fortune and Dead Ringers, and he’s – you know, who wouldn’t want to work with him?

And so, when I’ve seen actors like Robin Williams or Ellen Burstyn, or I saw Jeremy do a film – I saw a film that Jeremy had done with Leslie Caron called Damages that was a phenomenal film and I thought, “Well, I’m just going to ask them to do the show and see – you know, they – all they can say is no. And if they say yes then we’ll – if they say yes then we will work as hard as we can to give them a part that they will enjoy,” and will – and I know that Chris and Mariska just – you know, Chris kept texting me throughout, I don’t know if he would like me to say this, but he kept texting me throughout the shoot saying, “I love Jeremy Irons.” I mean, he would – I would get these texts, and so I know that, you know, this is…

Jeremy Irons: We are talking about getting married.

Neal Baer: So, I know that that’s what keeps the showing fresh that you get these unexpected actors who, you know, can just deliver these soulful performances. And that keeps – that’s what we’ve always said that the show is really kept fresh not by changing our regular cast, but having these great performers come on and bring slices of life that we can all identify with every week. And that’s, I think, been the secret to us that we just go after people we’ve always loved watching on screen and knock on wood, it’s worked.

The line between television and movies is starting to blur a lot now, especially cable and television, besides the time factor, what was the biggest challenge or what did you enjoy the most about doing this type of medium; television?

Jeremy Irons: Well, you know, there’s no difference between television and film really. I mean, you know, a low budget film you work as fast as you do on television these days. There’s no doubt that I think work of a higher standard is now being done on American television than in many American films.

The sort of work and the sort of actors who you’d find doing, what could loosely be termed as art movies or independent movies in America, are now finding them so hard to raise the budget for to make them, even though it’s a low budget, because of the price of distributing such films and advertising such films. More and more actors who we’re used to seeing on the big screen are coming and working on television and finding fantastic material.

I mean, you know, you’ve got your Mad Men, The Wire – the list would go on and on. And I think in the last ten years there’s been a revolution in American television largely to do, I have to say, with cable, but it spreads around. And so, whereas maybe ten years ago I’d think twice about doing television unless it was to be a one-off film, now it’s something which is very attractive for actors.

This took me just over a week and the producers were kind enough to say, “Well, when can we spot it in? You know, when can we do it? When are you free?” And so, they made it very easy for me, apart from writing me a wonderful character. So, it’s not hard to make such a decision.

Will we see you again?

Jeremy Irons: Maybe, who knows? You know, they say the way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans.

Jeremy, did you enjoy the fast-pace of shooting on the show, and did it affect the way you usually work?

Jeremy Irons: No, I loved the fast-pace of shooting. I’ve always enjoyed that. I’ve done some shoots which have been very slow and I – you know, they’re never to be – have to be, they were huge setups to organize and I find that quite tedious.

It’s inevitable, but it’s tedious and I always like working fast and hard. I find it gets my juices going. And if I don’t have time to finish a crossword in a day, I’m really happy. So, I enjoyed the pace we worked at and found it invigorating. And, you know, because your juices keep flowing because there’s not so much downtime it’s – I think your work is probably better as an actor.

If an actor came up to you and asked you for some tidbit of advice, what would you give them?

Jeremy Irons: Don’t give up, or as we would say in this country, “Soldier on.”

Do you prefer to play good characters or do you prefer to play villains as you’ve sometimes been type-cast as playing?

Jeremy Irons: I’ve played a few villains. They are – I like playing characters who are not necessarily what they seem. I like playing enigmas. I like playing people who live outside our normal life experience.

I say “our” as audience members. Life – people in life, people who own a watch, because I think one of the functions of the storytelling of television or film or whatever is to show people in a controlled environment they’re watching on a screen what happens if something happens, and how do people react and makes them think, “Well, how would I react?

So, to play characters who live experiences or have had experiences or live in such a way that is on the edge, possibly good, possibly not, I find very, very, very interesting. They’re sometimes called bad people. I’m not sure there is such a thing as a bad person, you know, one or two about, but in the main I think everybody does their best with coping with what life throws at them and what their nature is.

In my experience, most people feel sort of neither good nor bad. They know they have both within them, and I enjoy playing characters who are true to life in that respect.

Would you ever consider starring in comedy?

Jeremy Irons: Yeah, I’ve done the odd comedy. They’re not hugely successful because wouldn’t have a asked me that question if they had been, but I used to be known when I was – before I was 30 I was mainly a stage actor and I was known for comedy, but comedy on stage.

Comedy on films is quite difficult because film by its very, and to a certain extent television, by – the way it has to collect as many viewers as it can, the comedy tends to be quite broad, quite all-embracing, and my – what makes me laugh is perhaps a little bit more individual. So, it’s very hard to find the sort of humor in a film which tickles my fancy, which of course it has to do if you’re going to do it, you know?

I have got one lurking around that we might make and, not this year but next year, and I’m always looking out for them. But, people don’t come to me first for comedy, you know? They come to other people – go to other people. They don’t think of me as a comedian actor. That’s one of the things about sort of type-casting, you know, you’re always asked to do what you’ve done before.

Jeremy, you’ve done so many different genres of performance, is there a medium that you prefer to work in?

Jeremy Irons: No. The medium isn’t the important thing really, it’s the story and the character. That’s what grabs you as an actor or, you know, if you’re going to work in certain medium – media, you’ll be paid differently to others. But, what you’re paid has nothing to do with how happy the work makes you when you’re doing it.

So, it’s really the quality of the writing, the way the work is protected by those who are because, you know, as an actor one is part of a family, if you like, you have a lot of people creating your performance with your. And if that’s a good group and the character is interesting and absorbing to you and the story is compelling, then that’s all I look for, and it could be in theater, on television, in movies. The medium is not important.

Jeremy, of all the projects that you’ve done, is there one that’s most dear to your heart or that you consider your proudest accomplishment?

Jeremy Irons: Yeah, and you’ll probably be surprised. I think it’s a movie called Lolita, which I made, which I thought did everything that a movie should do which was to stir up people and make them question things, to dealing with a tricky subject.

A very well made film by Adrian Lyne. A film which sadly got very small distribution because the studios got very frightened about it by the subject matter, and a picture which actually show time put out eventually and then it had a very small (unintelligible).

But, I think my work in that sort of spans. I just – I suppose also because I’m a little bit – my nature is a little bit anarchy and because it was such a prolifically uncorrect movie – or incorrect movie and because I think that one of the things that movies and stories should do is to stir the sediment at the bottom of our apathetic pond, and to open people’s eyes to situations which they tend to shy away from.

I think that movie pressed all those buttons; and therefore, I’m proud of that. Although, I’ve – I’m proud in other ways of some of the other work that I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in.

Neal, how are actors chosen and approached for guest roles on the show?

Neal Baer: In a couple of ways. One, when they’re actors we really want to work with, we go to them, say like Jeremy, and we see if there’s any interest and then we develop a story specifically for them. So, this show that’s going to be on Wednesday, as we’ve said, is a very complex character, so it demands kind of the large talent that Jeremy has.

So, we specifically wrote a part that he could play that was complicated. So, we go after various folks and design stories that we think that they’ll be interested in doing that challenge them and can tell some, as Jeremy was saying about Lolita, can tell some important – or can raise some important questions in the minds of the viewers.

Jeremy, I was wondering, how has your experience on SVU compared with other projects you’ve done before?

Jeremy Irons: Well, there are some projects you enjoy more than others, and I have to say that SVU is way up with those I’ve enjoyed. It’s – it is a lovely team of people. They made me very welcome. I didn’t fall on my face, I hope. Although, I have to say I haven’t seen it, so maybe I do fall on my face.

Neal Baer: No. No, you don’t. Not at all.

Jeremy Irons: Good. And I’d been filming in Hungary for about five months before that and it was very nice to come to New York for a week and not only meet some new friends on this show, but to catch up with old friends. And you know life and work, it’s lovely when it meshes together, so it was a very happy experience.

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