Jeremy Irons’ filmography encompasses everything from Disney to David Cronenberg, plus a 1990 Best Actor Oscar win for Reversal Of Fortune, but his first efforts as an actor were on the stage, and one of his initial entryways into the dramatic arts came via Shakespeare’s work. Which explains why he was tapped to host an episode of PBS’ new documentary series Shakespeare Uncovered; Irons’ installment, airing February 1, will cover Henry IV and Henry V. In conjunction with the show, Irons spoke to The A.V. Club during the Television Critics Association winter press tour about how he came to participate in the program, which of the villains he’s played is the most Shakespearean, and how his training prepared him to play a bar rag on The Simpsons.
The A.V. Club: What was the initial pitch when you were approached about Shakespeare Uncovered?
Jeremy Irons: Well, it was that we were going to make a documentary about the plays, about the locations, where they were written, the historical occurrences around the period, and where Shakespeare diverges and where he follows history, and why. They said to me, “We’ll do it all in four days for you. Do you want to do it?” And I had the time, and I thought it was a very interesting idea. Because anything that opens up Shakespeare to an audience is good. You know, he has a lot of disadvantages. But he’s often taught badly, and people haven’t seen great productions, so they sort of think, “Mmm, I don’t think so. I think that’s a bit heavy.” So anything that can make people realize that he’s a fantastic playwright, a fantastic story-writer, and open it up for them in their minds… well, it must be a good thing.
AVC: Did you have carte blanche to select which plays you wanted to tackle for your episode, or did they say, “Hamlet’s off the table—David Tennant gets first pick because he used to host Masterpiece—but anything else is up for grabs”?
JI: [Laughs.] No, I was doing Henry IV at the time [for BBC2’s The Hollow Crown], so they thought it would be interesting if I did the one that included the two plays that I was doing.
AVC: What was your first introduction to Shakespeare?
JI: I think it was The Winter’s Tale… Well, no, no, no, it wasn’t. I’ll tell you what it was: It was reading ’round the class in my English lessons at school. And I think perhaps once a week in English, we would choose a bit of a Shakespeare play, and we’ll all take characters, and we’d sit at our desks and read them. But it wasn’t until I began to see productions at Stratford and… I can’t actually remember the first Shakespeare I saw, though I think it might have been the Hollow Crown series, with Alan Howard. Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, I remember seeing. That was pretty early on. And suddenly I realized how theatrical Shakespeare is, how alive, how wonderful it is when it’s opened up by a great director and a great company.
AVC: Was it Shakespeare that made you want to become an actor?
JI: He was one of many. No, I wanted to become an actor because I wanted to become a gypsy. [Laughs.] I wanted to live the gypsy life!
AVC: You mentioned The Winter’s Tale a moment ago. That was the first Shakespeare play you actually performed, correct? At the Old Vic?
JI: The Bristol Old Vic, yeah.
AVC: The Winter’s Tale is one of the lesser-adapted Shakespeare plays when it comes to film and television. Do you have any theories as to why that is?
JI: Hmm. No, I don’t. But I’d actually love to film it. It’d be very interesting to film, because it’s all about two sorts of people. It’s about the really buttoned-up and the very loose people, the people who are always touching, which is like I am. The so-called Bohemian people. [Laughs.] Especially now, in this world where we’re so politically correct, and you’re not allowed to hold the hand of a little girl under the age of 14, and you’re not allowed to do this, you’re not allowed to do that, you’re not allowed to smack your children… You have to be so correct. And you compare that with the ’60s and ’70s and that time, with hippies and free love. And to have those two societies rubbing up against each other, which you have in The Winter’s Tale, it’s interesting.
AVC: Watching your episode of Shakespeare Uncovered offers a reminder of just how many of Shakespeare's lines have filtered into pop culture, such as Christopher Plummer delivering the “dogs of war” speech in Star Trek VI.
JI: [Laughs.] Yep, yep, yep.
AVC: Do you have a favorite example of Shakespeare being adapted for current tastes in popular culture?
JI: Well, I mean, I saw Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, which was a very interesting way to show the play. Ian McKellen’s Richard III. Again, an interesting film. I suppose you could argue The Lion King, in a way. [Laughs.] We always say that he has entered our language with so many of these colorful phrases that we use in life. I suspect that they were phrases that were being used at that time, which he used in his plays. I’m not sure he necessarily invented them all.
AVC: You mentioned The Lion King, but looking beyond Scar, who would you say is the most Shakespearean villain in your back catalog?
JI: I think Simon in Die Hard With A Vengeance, a man who enjoys creating mayhem and living his own rules. Quite Shakespearean.
AVC: Earlier today, you suggested that you might have a performance of King Lear lurking within you somewhere. Is that something you anticipate letting out anytime soon?
JI: Oh, I don’t know. How soon is soon? [Laughs.] In the next 10 years, let’s say. I’d like to do Iago [in Othello], who is a wonderful character. A smiling villain. I’ve also never done a Don John, in Much Ado [About Nothing], who is a really unhappy man. I’ve always tended to play people who relish playing against the rules.
AVC: Rodrigo Borgia on The Borgias seems to qualify for that category.
JI: Oh yes. He is wonderfully bad, isn’t he? [Laughs.] He’s a man who… well, one of the great things about Shakespeare is that his characters are inconsistent, and that’s something I think makes him a writer above most writers, because inconsistency is what we as people are full of. We maybe don’t see it in ourselves too often, but we are inconsistent. We think one thing one day and something else another day. We act a certain way one day and another way a second day. And Shakespeare knew that. Now, that’s very hard to play on film. It’s very hard to get a writer who will write characters who are inconsistent. They see it as somehow a failure. But when playing the Pontiff, the great thing is, I’ve had time to develop those inconsistencies. The fact that he was no doubt a man of God—maybe his faith wavered sometimes, but he was a man of God, as most people were then—and yet he is able to authorize assassinations and live in a way which we would think, “Well, that’s not very godly.” But then you look at George W. Bush, and you think, “Well, he was also calling himself a man of God,” but he also sanctioned actions around the world—basically in Iran—where thousands of innocent civilians were killed because of his decisions. So we all contain a bit of that.
AVC: Many actors admit to taking certain TV and film projects solely to subsidize their theater work. Has that ever been the case for you?
JI: It’s sort of incidental, really. I mean, you manage a career, you have to pay bills, and… sometimes I have done work to subsidize my life. [Laughs.] And to subsidize other works, yes. Less so now. Now I’m lucky enough to be comfortable enough that I can just choose what I want to do. It sort of doesn’t matter too much what I’m paid for it, and I do what I enjoy doing now. But when I was starting, yes, very much, television would subsidize my theater work.
AVC: In what way did your Shakespearean training prepare you to play a bar rag on The Simpsons?
JI: It taught me the importance of the smallest character, the most insignificant character, who not only has a great history, but who is as involved and as caring and as emotional as the largest character, the most active character. So it taught me not to take the bar rag for granted and to realize that he was, in his soul, Hamlet. How’s that? [Laughs.]