|Chinese Box - Jeremy Irons
|by Dov Kornits
When you meet Jeremy Irons, the star of the recently released Lolita and Chinese Box, the last thing you expect him to do is bum a smoke. "I've been smoking since I was 15," he explains as he starts rolling a cigarette before realising that he's run out of papers. It does take the edge off the proceedings though. After all, I'm interviewing an Oscar winner here. Dressed in loose, but stylish Chinese style clothing (okay, the man is wearing pyjamas), Irons smokes away as he reveals the creative drought that fuelled his thirst for acting.
"I'm from a middle class, middle England family. My father was a chartered accountant. Three children in the family and no artistic leanings at all. But I never had the acting bug. I went to a very conventional public school. About the only thing I knew was that I didn't want to continue my life with these people. I had begun collecting little prints of actors and reading lots of biographies dating back to Shakespeare's times. I suppose that subconsciously I built in my mind this image of a way to live beyond the pale.
"Up to a certain time actors weren't allowed to be called Esquire or Mister. They were regarded as rogues and vagabonds, and to a certain extent that still exists. I mean we're much more socially accepted now, but certain sections of the community do not regard us as normal citizens. I quite liked that. It was the gypsy in me somehow.
"I wanted to work very closely with a group of people who are working on one specific endeavour, whether it be a play or a film. And then be able to say goodbye to them and move on and join another camp in another place. It'd be a great way to get through life without being stuck with boring people like me. So as a result I went into the theatre, as a stage manager to start with and then the obvious thing was to act."
Like a lot of Australian actors, Jeremy's early introduction to acting in front of the camera was as a host on children's television.
"Basically I got into the theatre and whilst I was there I went to theatre school for two years, then I went to repertory for about three years, then I went to London and did a Westend show. Whilst I was doing that I began to work a bit in television. I did a classics series called Palaces. At the same time I did a children's television show because I could sing and play the guitar. It was very much a part of the process of getting to know the business really."
Irons is in Australia for a few reasons - his wife, actress Sinead Cusack (Stealing Beauty) is here to shoot a local film called My Mother Frank and coincidentally he's able to promote two of his upcoming films, Chinese Box and Lolita. But there are other connections between Australia and Irish based Jeremy Irons. He's even starred in a movie called Australia.
"Yes that's right. It was a French film but it doesn't actually mean Australia. Australia in French is Australie. Australia means like you say Timbuktu, basically the end of nowhere. I did shoot a bit of that here. But I was also in The Wild Duck, which is a Henrik Ibsen adaptation, which was made in Sydney. But that was 13, 14 years ago. Since then we've holidayed out here one year during Christmas. My brother lives in Canberra, so I do have associations here. But I like to fly less and less. I like to travel less and less. And so Australia always seems a long way away."
Irons goes on to say that after The Man in the Iron Mask, which was actually made after Lolita and Chinese Box, he decided to give himself a break. Not a bad idea considering the amount of time he'd spent on a plane, first to America for Lolita, then Hong Kong for Chinese Box and then on to Paris for The Man in the Iron Mask. But that's the life he had chosen when he started collecting scrapbooks of his favourite actors.
A similar dilemma faces the character Irons plays in Wayne Wang's postcard to the changing face of Hong Kong in Chinese Box. John is a journalist who witnesses a political suicide on January 31, 1996, bringing in the new year and Chinese rule to this thriving city. The film follows John until January 31, 1997, in the process unravelling the personal dramas of his and the city's life.
The film was shot in February 1997, during the early days of the Chinese takeover, and Jeremy cites that as one of the reasons he chose to do this movie.
"The character in Chinese Box is a very straight guy. I wanted to do that because I was an admirer of the way Wayne Wang [Smoke, Dim Sum] works. He told me that he wanted to make a film about Hong Kong, that he was born there, and that it was an interesting time. It would have Gong Li in it, Jean-Paul Carriere will be there writing the script as we're doing it, but it would largely be improvised and we'll see what happens. That seemed to be a very exciting and a very different way of working to what I'd done before. So I was very pleased to have the opportunity to work with people like Gong and Wayne and to be in Hong Kong at that historic time in history."
Jeremy Irons improvise?
"I use improvisation as a tool to get to the truth of the moment, if I can't find it in the actual script. But normally what I would do, having done that, is get back to the script. Because writers, if they're good writers, shoot around a lot of things before they get to put down the words on the page, and what the actor's job is, is to find what the writer wanted to say. And often you can do that when you're working with the writer by asking what they meant by that, and they'll say 'this is what that means', and I say 'then why didn't you write that, then?' Sometimes there can be a give and take in that way, but improvising for its own sake is only a means to an end. By the time we got to shoot Chinese Box, the dialogue was really set but we played around a little bit, and that was an interesting way to work. Filmmaking on the hoop."
As with most Jeremy Irons movies - The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Mission, Dead Ringers, Reversal of Fortune, Waterland, Damage, Stealing Beauty and, um, The House of the Spirits - there's an air of Academy Award anticipation. But neither Lolita nor Chinese Box, despite their high credentials, rated a mention when Kevin Spacey read out this year's Oscar nominations.
"I'm not ashamed of Chinese Box. I think my work is middling. I think it's short on dramatic drive, I think the relationships and the story is not fully carried through. But in a way that's like life. I think of it as a collage. A little piece of life at a certain time, filmed with great imagination, cinematic moments, great performances. I'm proud of it in that way."
Plus he got to work with Gong Li (Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Shanghai Triad). "She is an absolutely superb craftsman. We had a language problem in that she didn't speak much English and I didn't speak much Mandarin. So when we were preparing scenes we had to work with an interpreter. Also, sometimes with Wayne, who spoke a bit of Mandarin. But she is a wonderful actress and a delightful woman, so it was a pleasure working with her. I think it was quite difficult for her because we were improvising a fair amount, and because she didn't have a mastery of the language, that was quite hard for her. So we had to make compromises around that and I think to a certain extent the relationship suffers because of the language problem. But it was a huge pleasure and privilege working with her."
Apart from his Oscar worthy work Jeremy has indulged in some infamous villainy as Simon Gruber in Die Hard: With a Vengeance and the voice of Scar in The Lion King. Some may have called these easy choices but that's certainly not the way Irons looks at it.
"Very few jobs are just jobs. I might do something because I want to hit that side of the market. But I've never done just jobs. I've got to really want to do it, because filming is tedious. The film will suffer and I will suffer."
With the recent spate of actors turning to directing, including his countrymen Gary Oldman, Tim Roth and Alan Rickman, it is surprising that Irons is yet to direct a feature film.
"I did direct a one hour television film about Bosnian refugees which I enjoyed and I also directed a rock video years ago with Carly Simon which I also enjoyed. For me it's not such a big step in that I've always been aware of the whole process of filmmaking. I happen to be an actor. That's what I do, but that hasn't stopped me in having a great interest and input into the other stuff. Sitting in a director's chair is not a huge leap for me. I'm not sure I'm much good. Producing? Well, at the moment I'm co-producing a picture with Isabella Adjani which we hope to make later in the year. I suppose as you get older you want more control and input, so it's a natural progression.
"I've never really created my own work. Maybe I'm too lazy. And I haven't yet found a project that was available that I really wanted to do. Maybe it'll happen. We're very lucky as actors in that we can make a picture and walk away from it. Our work can be over within ten to twelve weeks. A director or a producer may have to spend years on a project. It's a long process and has to be something you really want to do and do really well. That hasn't occurred yet." ---Dov Kornits
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originally posted: 05/08/99 08:53:25
last updated: 05/19/99 01:48:12