The celebrated actor talks about his ‘Irishness’, out-dressing ‘Lady G’ during publicity for House of Gucci, and what drew him to his role in Ridley Scott's blockbuster
It’s the night of the House of Gucci premiere in London and Jeremy Irons has done the seemingly impossible. He has out-dressed Lady Gaga, by doing the unexpected.
While everyone else (including her) was clad head-to-toe in the titular label, Irons looked a picture of what the Italians call sprezzatura – a studied insouciance – in a pea coat with waistcoat and trousers tucked into his combat boots. It’s the look of someone who is too cool to try to impress.
“I just go to the wardrobe and pick out something which I think would be the least embarrassing,” he says airily. Anyway, he never cared much for Gucci, he adds – it was “too blingy” before Tom Ford took over, which comes pretty much at the end of the period covered in the film.
“I don’t think they even did men before then,” he says with a wry smile. “Apart from jockstraps.”
Spanning three decades, the film, which is directed by Ridley Scott, is a festival of backstabbing, high fashion and almost operatic tragedy. It tells the story of Patrizia Reggiani (Gaga), the wife of Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) who was tried and convicted of orchestrating her ex-husband’s murder in 1995.
Irons plays the Gucci patriarch, Rodolfo, who is appalled when Maurizio announces he wants to marry Patrizia and disinherits him when the young man refuses to ditch her.
It’s bound to be one of the film releases of the year, made all the more impressive because it was filmed during the pandemic, which Irons admits was a challenge.
“Milan, which was where it was shot, was in lockdown. So we were getting tested all the time and we weren’t able to wander the streets and enjoy great Italian restaurants. But on the set, apart from the fact everyone was wearing masks until the cameras turned on, it was OK.”
The film inevitably conjures comparisons with Reversal of Fortune and Irons’ Oscar winning performance as Claus von Bulow, a British socialite who was found guilty of the attempted murder of his wife before being cleared after a second trial.
However, while Irons acknowledges that all of his performances come through “the same brain and the same gut”, he says there were other reasons why the role intrigued him.
Rodolfo himself had made a career as an actor in the 1920s and 1930s, before returning to the family fashion business after his father died in the 1930s. In 1967 he created the Gucci Flora scarf for Grace Kelly.
“He wasn’t a terribly good actor,” Irons explains. “I watched excerpts of his films and they made me realise that he was probably more of an artist than a businessman, although not much of an artist.
“He was desperately in love, I think, with his German wife, who was a much better actor than he was and who was dead by the time the film starts. Rodolfo was sort of living in the past. He worked on a documentary of [his wife’s] work so he can watch her on screen at night while he listens for the door to unlock with his son coming home.
“He was a very controlling father, because I think his son is one connection to that glamorous past that he had lived.”
Growing up on the Isle of Wight, Irons had a very different dynamic with his own father, an accountant.
“I was very lucky, he always encouraged me to follow my dreams,” he says.
And follow them Irons did. It was while he was at school that he first became involved in drama and when he left, he realised he didn’t want to go to university.
He once said that, during a period of hitch-hiking and busking, he toyed with the idea of leading a life as a gypsy, but in fact it was the bohemian life of an actor that beckoned.
He trained at the Old Vic and got his break in the musical Godspell (opposite David Essex), which went on a huge West End run in the early 1970s.
He was originally offered the role of Sebastian Flyte, the ill-fated aristocrat, in Brideshead Revisited, but instead took the part of the more middle-class and circumspect Charles Ryder, a decision which proved to be career changing.
The series was, the New York Times observed, the “biggest British invasion since the Beatles”. It popularised the Oxford argot – with words like “spiffing” – and became a cultural moment. And it made a huge star of Irons.
By then he had already met our own Sinéad Cusack, who is part of a famous Irish acting dynasty. She, he tells me, thought “well he [Irons] is a very proper gentleman”, but I wonder was there any tension between Irons’ very intrinsic Britishness and the Irish family he would marry into?
“Yeah, there was indeed. But of course the Irish being as they are – not valuing themselves and feeling inferior because of the bloody British, I think Cyril (Cusack, Sinéad’s father) was very pleased that his daughter was marrying a British man.”
The Cusacks gave him a “huge [artistic] inheritance” he adds. “I was immensely proud to join the Cusack dynasty, because I never felt like an artist. And so to join a family of third generation artists was an enormous pleasure. And the people I met through them were very different from the people I’d been brought up with.
“I was already acting and playing music, but somehow I felt I was coming to rest in the right nest.”
He feels that “more British people should try to marry a Celt”. Right, and not just for the passport. “Not just for the passport, although the passport would be nice.”
Can’t someone like him get one with the snap of their fingers? “Oh, I wish they would, but they won’t.”
Still, his Irishness is a big part of his identity. He still owns homes in Cork and the Liberties in Dublin, which, he’s pleased to note, have become “wonderfully fashionable”. In lockdown, however, he traded the fiddle, which he once played on TG4, for a viola.
“I’ve always loved the viola and I now play that more than the fiddle. I just love the vibrations of its slightly lower strings.”
We’re supposed to only talk about the movie, but there’s a sense that this may be due to nervousness about Irons himself, as much as any journalistic overreach. To say he’s liable to say anything contentious might be putting it mildly.
In a 2011 interview with the Radio Times he said political correctness had “gone too far” and that some women can handle unwanted touches from men. “Most people are robust. If a man puts his hand on a woman’s bottom, any woman worth her salt can deal with it,” he said then. “It’s communication. Can’t we be friendly?”
In another interview, in 2013, he said that gay marriage could “debase what marriage is” but later recanted, saying: “Gay marriage is wonderful” and that he applauds “the legislation of same-sex marriage, wherever it has been attained.”
In 2016, discussing abortion, he told the Guardian: “Women should be allowed to make the decision, but I also think the church is right to say it’s a sin. Because sin is actions that harm us. Lying harms us. Abortion harms a woman.”
He has since said that he supports “wholeheartedly the right of women to have an abortion should they so decide”.
Looking back at Irons’ opinion swerves makes me think of Edward de Bono’s line: “If you never change your mind, why have one?”
There’s a sense that he doesn’t really care what people think – he once said he has the “tendencies of a benign dictator” – and in the confines of a film junket there’s little chance of him saying anything controversial. But a jessed eagle is still an eagle.
He tells me he called Lady Gaga “Lady G” on set, and adds: “It’s very odd having someone called Lady Gaga. And you know what it means, right? It means…” and he twirls his finger at his temple in the universal miming of ‘bonkers’.
Nothing bonkers about a pop star starring in such a major film however, he insists, pointing out that Jared Leto, who plays Paulo Gucci, is also a musician “most of the time”.
“There are crossovers between musicians and actors. It’s the same ballpark. As a musician, you have to be able to listen for the other [performers], you have to be able to fit around them, you have to be able to carry emotion to your music, you have to have a relatively good technique. I mean, there are great similarities.”
And, anyway, everyone’s got to make a living. When I wonder why such a icon of acting is still working at the age of 73, he fixes me with one of those knowing half-smiles and says it’s quite simple: “The money.”
House of Gucci is in cinemas from Friday
Dr Stephen Fleming in Damage (1992)
The genius of Irons’ performances is often the ambiguity with which he imbues his characters, and this portrayal of a British politician who has an obsessional affair with his son’s soon-to-be fiancé (played by Miranda Richardson) captures that quality perfectly.
The story seems like a synthesis of so many British scandals and Dr Stephen Fleming, is, on the face of it, the villain of the piece. However, Irons plays the politician as a conflicted philanderer who sees the line of moral and social obligation and chooses to cross it.
It’s a film about the connection between desire and pain and Irons excels at showing repressed feelings catastrophically rising to the surface.
Nowak in Moonlighting (1982)
When you think Irons’s best performances this film might not be the first that springs to mind – even from the period The French Lieutenant’s Woman would stand out more – but almost 40 years after its release it has stood the test of time like few others (it has a 100pc rating on the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, for instance).
That might be because despite being a distillation of contemporaneous news stories, the film has hardly dated at all. It’s set at a time when martial law was introduced in Poland by the country’s then-communist regime and focuses on a Polish worker who, along with a group of his countrymen, are renovating a fancy London townhouse.
Irons delivers his performance with a kind of blank-faced gravity that seems so authentic and the movie won Best Screenplay at Cannes in the year it was released.
Scar in The Lion King (1994)
These days voiceover work is a handy pay cheque for the Hollywood elite, but surely none have brought as much to a role as Irons did to Scar in The Lion King. A generation of kids have been terrorised by the silky menace in his voice as the evil younger brother of Mufasa, who Scar wants to murder so he can take over the throne.
Irons was invited to the sequel a couple of years ago in which Chiwetel Ejiofor played the role of Scar but later told Ryan Tubridy: “It’s like being invited to the wedding of your ex-wife. You think: ‘I wish you well, but I don’t want to be there.’”