The acting roles keep coming in his 70s, but Jeremy Irons has become fussier with age, he tells Sarah Caden. His trip to Kolkata with the Hope Foundation renewed his faith in the force of human nature
'I keep thinking I am retired," says Jeremy Irons. "And then something comes up and I think, 'That will work.' I suppose I think I shall potter on until the day I drop dead." A person who potters is not necessarily the popular impression of Jeremy Irons.
His is a more purposeful energy; a cool charm shot through with a hint of danger. His is a magnetic, almost menacing talent, which won him the 1991 Oscar for his leading role in Reversal of Fortune. Pottering, he is not.
What Irons conveys, however, is a sense of ease, and there is that, he says, at the age he has achieved.
"Well, I never thought I'd get here," says Irons of his 71 years. "And it's great. You no longer have scorching ambition and that's great, and you get to just look around and see what interests you. And having run a pretty good race, it's a nice time. I find I'm spending more time with my wife, Sinead, and more time with my kids. I'm not constantly away for months at a time.
"I've got fussier," Irons says of work and other commitments. "That's probably age. I'm not going to have a limitless number of summers, so I look at what's offered and decide if it's worth giving up four months of my life, and, really, there are so many other things I love doing."
Irons speaks to me from his home in Oxfordshire, where he lives part of the time, preferring to be based in the country than in London these days. He was in west Cork, at his Kilcoe Castle bolthole only a few weeks ago, he says, and hopes to be back there before the end of March.
It's all part of that process of being more selective with how you spend your time, Irons explains. You become more selfish of it, less willing to waste it. This applies to work, to people - to all of life, really.
Revisiting India with Sam His trip last November to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), captured on these pages in photographs by Irons's son, Sam, is a case in point. There were layers to what pulled Irons to the trip, during which they visited some of the 60 projects run in the city by the Cork-based Hope Foundation, filming footage that, it is hoped, will become a documentary to mark 2020, the 21st year of the charity.
It was also a chance to go back to India with Sam, who had worked there as a young man with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. Irons and his wife, Irish actress Sinead Cusack, had visited Sam there, he recalls. It was a "whistlestop tour", four weeks long, taking in Delhi and Kolkata, and as much of the country as they could. Last November's visit with the Hope Foundation was a very different experience, an up-close encounter with Kolkata, the real lives of its citizens and the foundation's work.
"One was hugely privileged to see all of this," Irons says. "Hope has so many establishments - schools, creches, hospitals, schools for children with special needs - all over Kolkata, and we were taken to some of them. It was eye-opening, and we saw places Sam had never seen before, and parts I would never have seen had I travelled there on holiday. And Sam saw big changes in the 15 years since he had been there."
Knowing that photographs would be a boon to the trip, it was Irons himself who suggested that Sam accompany him and record it, and that was a wonderful addition, he says.
"To have him there, with me, was great," he says of the shared experience, and there is an intimacy to the photographs that bears this out.
Irons had great interest in seeing Kolkata close up. His curiosity about life is keen, and the human spirit has always fascinated him.
"I've been to slums before and seen abject poverty in the favelas of Rio. What was so heartening to see in Kolkata was what they're doing about it," Irons says.
"I spent some time in Brazil when I was making The Mission [in 1996] and there were some Jesuits on set, and they were interested in going into the big cities to see how the poor were being treated and the facilities provided, and I would go with them. And I saw many things in the favelas. That was real abject poverty."
November's trip to India was Irons's first time to travel abroad with any charity. He has done work with the Hope Foundation for some years, though, by his own admission, Irons isn't great on times and dates.
He's not sure which came first, a Hope Foundation event at which he gave a speech, or perhaps when its founder, Maureen Forrest, came to visit him at Kilcoe Castle, his terracotta-coloured home in west Cork. Irons is not certain of sequence or specifics, but he knows for certain that when she came to the castle, Maureen Forrest threw a bucket of ice over him.
The Ice Bucket Challenge dates this visit to the summer of 2014.
A remarkable presence "I was blown away by her enthusiasm and charm and bullying of me," says Irons, with a laugh. "And I felt she had got this charity off the ground, and I felt immediately that this was something I wanted to help, if I could. It's the way it is with any organisation, it's the person at the top who motivates it, and it was she who drew me in."
You don't work almost 50 years as an actor, as Irons has done, without learning about the power of charisma. It gets things done; it carries people along with you; it is a magical power that cannot be forced. You have it, or you don't.
Irons is very much drawn to that kind of force. He sees it in Maureen Forrest; it's what made him believe in the Hope Foundation even before seeing their work on the ground. He also saw it in Hope Foundation worker Cathy O'Shaughnessy, who runs a creche in Kolkata, whom he singles out as a remarkable presence. And he recalls with great warmth the three-hour stage show put on to celebrate the charity's Foundation Day, the children and the bright colours, and the radiant enthusiasm and joy.
"You have to have a bit of chutzpah to do that," says Irons.
You could say that Irons is attracted to energy, life force, and that is what keeps him from truly relaxing into his imagined retirement.
"I get offered a lot," he says. "But as you get older, you are offered a bit less. It's a bit like what happens to women in acting - there aren't as many roles for 70-something men as there are for 40 or 50-year-olds."
We talk about The Two Popes, the Netflix film about Benedict XVI and Francis I, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, actors in their 80s and 70s, respectively. Irons marvels at how unlikely it looks on paper. Two men, older, just talking.
"If one was offered that kind of thing, it would be a yes," he says. "But there is less of that kind of thing.
"The business has changed, and the films I used to make, the ones I liked, the smaller art films, don't tend to be made now. They now tend to be made as television series, and it's difficult to get mid-range art films made. And the problem with television series is they are such a long commitment. When I was in The Borgias, for example, that was three years."
There is great writing in television now, says Irons, but he's not sure he has the push to get involved.
"I think this business is a bit less romantic a world than when I was young," Irons explains. "I imagined myself a travelling actor when I was young, and that was possible, but now it's all run by the money men and less dramatic, and sometimes a bit less fun.
"I don't know what it is," he continues. "Everything is quicker now, and it's less of a group of people making a story, it's more a studio from above and how they want everything done."
Irons is given to agree with Martin Scorsese's dismissal of "Marvel movies" and how they lack any artistic risk. There is a danger, perhaps, that the business moves ever closer to a situation where the only films that are being made are the guaranteed successes, the ones that tick all the obvious boxes. And Jeremy Irons has never been interested in the obvious.
"I love to be on board with a project from the start, for the decision making and making my contribution. I like being hands-on with the process. I like to do my bit."
It's not pottering, and his trip to Kolkata was far from pottering, too.
The difference between giving his time to the Hope Foundation and going to Kolkata was that Irons can now ask people to "dig deep in their pockets" with extra conviction. He has seen now what the Hope Foundation's work is achieving.
Scope of their efforts "I was surprised by the scope of their efforts," Irons says. "And I didn't even see it all. I saw about 10 different establishments, but there are so many more. I didn't realise the scope of the work, and you have to go there to really grasp that. And they do take Irish kids there to work as volunteers, which is tremendous for them. What a wonderful opportunity."
Last year, Irons's big project was Watchmen for HBO, based on the 1980s vigilante-superhero graphic novel, in which he played Ozymandias. "It was a great group of people," says Irons, "and HBO are now for leaving their creatives alone, so it was a very pleasant experience. And I got to spend a few weeks in North Wales and do a lot of horse-riding." Horse-riding is a great passion of his. "I've always ridden," he says. "And I've never been a betting man or into flat racing, but I used to hunt and have a few horses here in Oxfordshire that I drive with traps."
"In fact, I'm working towards making a film about race trainer Henry Cecil and his horse, Frankel," Irons says, referencing the flat-racing legend who had his heyday in the 1960s, before decades in the wilderness and then a massive comeback early this century. It's the kind of arc of mixed fortunes, and triumph of the human spirit that appeals to Irons.
"We might use the Curragh," Irons adds. "I'm not a city person. I like walking; riding. In Ireland, I like sailing. Unless I have to go to the city, I like bigger spaces around me."
"If only the weather would get better," he says, a disappointed note in his voice. Admittedly, it hasn't been a great winter for the pottering, but one suspects Jeremy Irons will find plenty more ways to use his time and energy. Specsavers stores across Ireland are proud charity partners of the Hope Foundation, raising over €175,000 for the charity to date. At the end of 2019, a team of 10 from Specsavers stores in Ireland travelled to Kolkata, spending a week providing vital eye care to the street and slum communities. Over 1,500 eye tests were carried out, with over 1,200 pairs of glasses dispensed to those tested. The team also visited the Eye Clinic at the Hope Hospital, which Specsavers funds annually. See Specsavers.ie for details on how to support their 2020 fundraising efforts for Hope
Photography by Sam Irons
Sunday Indo Life Magazine