“Am I talking too much?” Jeremy Irons asked. “I tend to get a bit loquacious.”
With that voice — you know the one — he can talk as long as he wants.
Irons was calling from his home in Oxfordshire, England, to discuss “Munich — The Edge of War” and his portrayal of the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain.
Based on Robert Harris’s historical thriller, the Netflix movie follows four frantic days leading up to the 1938 Munich conference, where world leaders tried to avert war by allowing Hitler to annex the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, which had a large German population. In Munich, Chamberlain also signed an agreement between Britain and Nazi Germany that he said would ensure “peace for our time.”
“I love reappraisals of history, and Robert was very keen to try to clear the name, to a certain extent, of Chamberlain,” Irons said. “I think we do understand that Chamberlain was a man between a rock and hard place at that time.”
After reflecting on his own history and the sources of his contentment, Irons has, in recent years, chosen to work less and revel more in immediate pleasures.
“I act to live, I don’t live to act,” he said.
In his 50s, as leading-man roles waned, he found himself “behaving not terribly well because I was bored,” Irons, now 73, said. So he channeled his creative energy into the restoration of his 15th-century Kilcoe Castle in West Cork, Ireland. Now he is rebuilding a cottage on an island about 100 yards offshore that he occasionally swims to.
“I used to think, when I was a young man, that the epitome of wisdom and what I should aim for in my life is to be able to sit beneath a tree and be entirely happy,” Irons said. “And I found the tree — it’s next to this cottage. And I sit under it, and I look at the view and look at the land around me, and I’m entirely happy.”
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
1. “Noah’s Flood” by Benjamin Britten I used to play the violin in the school orchestra. We got together with all the other school orchestras around, and we went into the amazing Gothic abbey in the middle of the town, and some professional singers came down to play the leads. And we rehearsed for three days “Noah’s Flood,” with the kids playing the little animals getting onto Noah’s ark. One morning I walked out of the abbey, and it hit me like a thunderbolt: “Where am I? Where have I been? I’ve been somewhere that I want to get back to.” It was the first time I had that thought, and it’s stayed with me. And that, I suppose, is why I shall never stop working. I’ll always keep looking for the opportunity to go into the foreign land.
2. David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” I remember seeing “Lawrence” when I was about 12. I think I was mesmerized by Peter O’Toole and by his blue eyes. But I was also mesmerized by the scale of the picture and the great emotion within the picture, and I thought, “I’d love to tell stories that way.”
3. “Brideshead Revisited”“Brideshead” was a sort of turning point. Then, of course, it was a great success and helped me get out of what I call the gravitational field of English actors. I was doing plays in the West End with my name above the title, but the way you got your name known at that time in England was really on the television. They said, “We’d love you to play Sebastian.” And I said, “No, I want to play Charles.” I’d actually just played a rather similar character to Sebastian in “Love for Lydia,” in that he loved his mother too much, he drank too much and he fell off a bridge in Episode 8. I looked at Charles, and I thought, “Now, he’s a really interesting guy, because he’s so typically English. I know all about that. I’ve been educated to be that man.”
4. The Cusack family I’m an Anglo-Saxon, middle-class boy. I come from good, boring English stock. And it makes my wife [the actress Sinead Cusack] terribly cross when I say this, but I love breeding dogs, and I know that crossbreeds are so much more interesting. And I felt I needed a bit of crossbreeding. I needed a bit of Celt.
And so when I had the opportunity to make the acquaintance of Miss Cusack, with all her color and history, I was joining in this artistic dynasty. I began to enter that Celtic twilight, that way of life, which I have wallowed in since.
5. Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing”I got a request to start rehearsal of this play in London called “The Real Thing” by Tom Stoppard, whom I’d never met. And I read the play and thought, “Good God, he knows me. This is me on the page.” But I couldn’t do it because I was doing this film “Betrayal.” Then I heard news through the grapevine that Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline had come to London and had gone to look at “The Real Thing.” And I thought, “Bugger that for an idea.” So I called my American agent, Robbie Lantz, and I said, “Robbie, you’ve never done anything for me so far. Now, if you don’t get me ‘The Real Thing,’ I’m leaving you.”
After a month or two, I was asked to play it opposite Meryl. But then Meryl, like she always does, she decided not to do it. And Glenn Close did it. So that was my introduction to New York and to Broadway, playing a part which I was made to play.
6. West Cork, Ireland David Puttnam, the film producer, had moved to just outside Skibbereen, and as I sat in his dining room, I thought, “I’m home.” I travel so much, and I’d never had that feeling before. Why did I feel I was home? Because I suppose I was brought up on the Isle of Wight, where the sea is very much part of the land. West Cork, even more so. There’s always a boat in the farmyard. It has, historically, a slightly anarchic element. It’s a place of hunting, a place of music and of conversation. And I found myself settling into West Cork with an absolute, delightful happiness.
7. T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”The “Four Quartets” is his greatest work. I fell in love with its complexity and its simpleness. It made me realize that the way to hear poetry is to hear it aloud. Josephine Hart, who wrote “Damage,” started a series of poetry readings at the British Library, and she would ask actors to read. She had started giving me Eliot. Eliot is a very complicated poet, and I read it without a lot of preparation, on a bit of a wing and prayer. Valerie Eliot, who was his widow, came up to me and said, “I think you’re today’s voice of Eliot. I think you should record his work.” So now I have recorded all his work with the BBC.
8. Martin Hayes and the GloamingThey made a television series in Ireland and asked six middle-aged personalities if they would learn something new. And they asked me, Would I learn Irish fiddle? Martin gave me these lessons, and this man is an absolute magician. The first time we met, I started playing the “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” by Handel. He stopped me after about 15 seconds. “Wait, wait, wait. Is that the note you wanted?” I said, “Well, that’s how it’s written.” He said, “No, no, no, no. The music’s yours. It comes out of you.” And I realized at that moment that Irish music is jazz.
9. Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center in New CaledoniaI had a period when I thought I was going to have to stop being an actor. One of the things I thought I might do instead was to be an architect. And I got to know Renzo Piano, who has become a great friend. He allows his imagination to travel without embarrassment. This particular building, which he built for the New Caledonians as an arts center, is just stunning because not only is it dazzling, but it comes out of the place.
10. His dog SmudgeSmudge, I just need. I got her from the Battersea Dogs Home when she was eight weeks old. She is now 7, lying at my feet with great patience. And she’s a very important part of my work and my life because she gives me respite. She reminds me it’s only a [expletive] film and that actually a walk or dinner is much more important. She’s extremely tactile, which is lovely because I’m quite tactile. And now, when you aren’t allowed to be tactile with other people, it’s wonderful. You’re still allowed to be tactile with your dog. So I’m able to cuddle her without getting into any trouble.