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Jeremy Irons
Jeremy Irons
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Jeremy Irons Interview

Award-winning Stage and Screen Actor

October 27, 2000
London, England

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  Jeremy Irons

I'd like you to introduce me to Jeremy Irons at age 10 or 12. Where is he living and what are his interests?

Jeremy Irons: At age 10 or 12 he's going to boarding school in the Isle of Wight. The Isle of Wight is, of course, down at the bottom of England just off South Hampton. Named by the Romans Vectus and, in fact, the buses are called now Southern Vectus so that -- nice to keep a bit of Latin going. The boarding school was around 10 or 11 miles from where our home was, on an island off an island. But in those days --

A trip to the mainland was a big event and happened maybe once a year, although now you can get across in a speed boat in seven minutes but then it was a long way away. And I was brought up in a house that was a converted stable block with a garden leading into a field leading into a woods that led to the harbor where we would keep three boats. So on the holidays when I was back from my boarding school, I would ride ponies.

You turned out rather well, but at the time it must not have seemed inevitable.

Jeremy Irons: Not at all. At the age of 12 I was going on to another boarding school in another part of the country. We change schools at 13 in this country. The mistake of my date of birth, which was September the 19th, meant that I was always quite young in my year. I went to school still young. I moved schools young. With my son, who was born September the 16th, we said, "No, hold it a year," and he stayed. So he was one of the oldest in his year when he moved schools.

I was one of the youngest, not naturally intellectual or a natural swat. But somebody whose interest had to be whetted, still the same, still the case. Sadly, because I was in the youngest stream and not that bright, I was actually in the lowest, or almost the lowest stream which attracted the least interesting teachers. I'm never one for blaming others but, I wish I had found someone who had introduced me to the joy of learning for learning's sake, and I never did.

Jeremy Irons Interview Photo
So I continued through my next school, which takes me up to the age of 17, moving from the bottom stream of one year into the bottom stream of the next year, all the way through.

I showed other talents which gave me self-respect, which is fine. I captained the rugger 15, and I did very well in the CCF, which we call the corps. It's military training, officer training. I think they do it on a voluntary basis now, but everybody used to have to do it.

That allowed me to have enormous fun, and like anything that you do with great enthusiasm, you do well in it, and I became the top rank you can become, which is a regimental sergeant major. We had a lot of fun.

I played the violin in the orchestra and enjoyed that. I had also done one play.

I always wanted to do more plays but I never quite understood how you got asked to do a play. I had done house plays, but they were sort of skits. But the main school play -- and I'd assumed that someone would see you walking about and thinking, "He speaks like an angel and looks like a God, let's have him in our play!" But nobody ever did. So I waited and waited until my final year when I was taking my A levels which, if I did well in them, would allow me to go for university entrance. And somebody thought, "Well, he doesn't speak like an angel or look like a God, but actually we need him," and asked me to do a play, The Critic by Sheridan. And I was overjoyed and I said, "Yes." I said, "I wished you'd asked me before." He said, "What do you mean?" I said, "Well, I'd love to have done a play several years ago." And he said, "Well, did you put your name on the list?" And I said, "Which list?" He said, "Well, in the Cloisters at the beginning of each autumn term there's a list of boys who want to be in the play." I said, "Is there?" I'd been at school four years. This tells you something about my inquiring mind.

However, I did the play. I succeeded on sort of chutzpah and charm. No technique at all, didn't know what I was doing, but it worked and the character suited me.

What was the role?

Jeremy Irons: Mr. Puff in The Critic, a character which Olivier made famous. He did The Critic and Black Comedy by Peter Schaffer as a two-hander, a bravura performance because they are both very different. Mr. Puff is a theatrical manager. The Critic is a play by the Irishman, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. It's mayhem and comedy.

It must have fitted you.

Jeremy Irons: It fitted at the time. I wore a powdered wig, it was fine. It came at the right time. Looking back at my school days, I think I was always finding ways to be different.

I don't think it's a bad thing, but I've always had a very strong sense of self. And whenever I'm in a situation where I'm wearing the same as 600 other people and doing the same thing as 600 other people, looking back, I always found ways to make myself different, whether it be having a red lining inside of my jacket, having red shoes, it hasn't changed. Having the only bicycle which could fold in half and be dropped from a parachute, having the only Macintosh, which was -- it was a raincoat in this country -- which was shiny and black and three-quarter length. Just various things, looking through my school days. Having the only farm nearby where I could go and smoke and drink beer on a weekend without anybody knowing.

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Nobody else had that organized. I found a way of keeping my own sense of self, and I think when I came to do the play it was sort of another way of saying "I am I."

Now I understand the world lost a potential veterinarian when you decided to become an actor. How did that come about?

Jeremy Irons: When we lived on the Isle of Wight, we had a great friend named Dennis Danby who was a vet. And he had a practice in London on the week days, and he would come down at the weekend and practice on people's dogs and horses, and hunt, and lived in the country. And I looked at this and I liked him and he brought me a couple of books, a veterinary dictionary and also a little case book, both of which I still have. And I thought, "That's a great life," you know? "He has London, he has the excitement of that, he has the money earner of being a vet in London, and yet he has his life in the country. He's with animals. He has his weekends here, and he's a nice man, and I'd like a life like that." However, I wasn't very good at the sciences or didn't have a lot of help in the sciences or something but, certainly didn't set science for my A level. And when I came to take my A levels I didn't get a good enough result to go to University. This didn't worry me at all, but it meant that I suppose at age 15 I transferred into the English and the Arts, that side of education, and knew that veterinarianism -- the veterinary life -- was not for me.

Strangely enough, I now have the life that I wanted by being a veterinarian. But we'll get to that later.

My sister was a great horse woman. Well, a little girl who liked horses. She's four years older than me, so when I was around 10 or 11 she was hitting puberty and losing interest in the horses and I began to have to exercise them more and more, which suited me because my taste was and still is to go off in a solitary manner with something I can communicate with, whether it be a boat, a dog or a horse so I would either sail or ride the horses.

Were you the youngest?

Jeremy Irons: I was the youngest. The yule lamb. The one who always got away without doing the washing up. My sister was four years older, and my brother six years. We went to separate schools because we were different ages, and we would meet in the holidays. We had our dogs. We had the ponies. We had the boats. It was an idyllic childhood.

My father was a CPA. He worked hard in the aircraft industry, and would come home more and more infrequently. He was about to leave my mother, which he did when I was 15.

Was this apparent to you?

Jeremy Irons: No, it wasn't apparent to me. I later learned that he probably wanted to leave when I was around one but had reckoned to stay around so that I would have a father around, which was nice of him. And so he was away a lot traveling and working. My mother, who had worked during the war as an ambulance driver but had not worked after that, looked after us, and by that time we had no au pair because I was old enough to go away to boarding school.

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