Interview: Jeremy Irons, from Batman to Bath

Jeremy is the first Bath Spa University chancellor

Jeremy is the first Bath Spa University chancellor - Credit: Archant

Bernard Bale chats to Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons, who has just taken on an important Somerset role

From Batman’s butler to Bath Spa University’s first Chancellor – what a busy time it’s been for Jeremy Irons who was clearly delighted to be back in Somerset when he was inaugurated in November.

“I am just thrilled to be here,” he says. “Bath holds many wonderful memories for me as I have appeared at Bath Royal Theatre in the past and always enjoy visiting this wonderful county.

“I was deeply honoured to be asked to become Bath Spa’s Chancellor and had no hesitation in accepting, especially since the university had never had a chancellor before. Although it’s something of a figurehead role, I intend to be as hands-on as possible. I hope, that as Chancellor for whatever period I am still welcome, we can mark up some achievements. I hope we can share debate on issues that matter from environment to politics to humanity. I look forward to that kind of dialogue and playing a small part in Bath Spa university life. I hope it will be an enjoyable and beneficial journey all of us.

“There may be those students who want to pursue a career in the arts and they could not be in a better place. I look forward to discussing this when I’m able to do some kind of talk or Masterclass at the University. I am happy to talk about my own experiences, and the role of the Arts in our lives. I hope this will appeal to all students not just those interested in the arts and not just those from Britain. I look forward to sharing insights into the relevance of the arts in the lives for which our students are preparing.”

You never know quite what to expect from Jeremy Irons. One moment he is starring in a Hollywood blockbuster and the next moment he is giving a reading of letters from prison inmates to raise funds for charity. Perhaps that is the secret of his success, a suggestion which has him shrugging his shoulders.

“I’m an actor, I’m not supposed to take life too seriously so I do not look for deep reasons why some things work and others don’t,” he says. “I spend my time pretending to be other people. That’s a crazy way to lead your life – but a very nice way. It allows you to opt in and out of real life as you please.”

In so many ways, Jeremy Irons seems to be the quintessential actor who personifies an English gentleman and yet has often been cast as a bounder and a villain.

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“I quite enjoy playing bad guys, I think it brings out the real actor in me. I am naturally a nice person so I have to work harder to be nasty,” says Jeremy. He was clearly sending himself up.

His is an amazing story of how the boy born on the Isle of Wight grew up to become a thrilling-yet-threatening heart-throb.

“Someone once told me that if I had been born 30 years earlier I would have been a matinée idol. I think that was meant to be a compliment, I hope it was. I always wanted to be an actor but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I got involved in drama productions at school. It was probably my best subject. I was one of those who worked at what was interesting and shirked what wasn’t.”

Jeremy took advice and was admitted to the Bristol Old Vic School where he studied for two years.

“I learned a great deal and the best part was that you were doing productions all the time and there was a lot of encouragement to do well. At ordinary school you’re sometimes looked upon as someone a bit strange if you want to act. At a stage school everyone is there for the same reason.

“I think you get a more rounded education too because you find yourself appearing in all kinds of productions from Shakespeare to farce. I enjoyed my time there and the Bristol Old Vic is not a bad start to your career.”

Conforming to such education seems unusual for a man who has a reputation of being something of a loose cannon.

“I’m not really off-the-wall,” he assures. “I am just my own person and I do things which seem perfectly normal to me but seem to be a little strange to other people. I don’t think that is my fault. I think that some people have an odd way of viewing life and themselves, that’s all.”

Jeremy is one of the few members of an unofficial club in that he has done the actor’s grand slam of an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy, as well as a Golden Globe.

“I never know what to say when one of these things is handed to me,” he admits. “There is no doubting the delight that you feel but it is quite humbling and at the same time embarrassing. Since everyone is looking at you waiting to hear what you are going to say as an acceptance of the award, you feel decidedly uncomfortable. Winning is great but not winning is more comfortable. It was the same at the inauguration – I was worried about becoming tongue-tied.”

The awards he has received are a tribute to Jeremy’s unmistakable talent. From Brideshead Revisited to providing the voice for Scar, the villainous lion in Disney’s Lion king cartoon, Jeremy Irons has at times set female pulses racing with his sheer sensuality while at other times he has been so horrible that those same women could cheerfully lob a stiletto at him.

“That’s what acting is about,” he smiles. “If your audience can forget who you are and get involved with your character you know it’s working. I really like that. A good production will draw on the emotions of the audience so if that audience doesn’t feel anything then you should have done better.”

Away from the screen and the stage which he has graced in many productions and in many of the world’s cities, Jeremy Irons likes nothing better than spending time at home in Ireland with his wife, actress Sinead Cusack, to whom Jeremy has been married since 1978.

“I am a family man,” he reveals. “Being in the acting profession means that you are apart for some stretches of time but you learn to cope with that and there are fantastic ways of communicating in this modern age. Our marriage has stood the test of time, we are survivors.”

Jeremy is not often seen without his beloved dogs but make no mistake, he is also something of a daredevil. He loves to ski, enjoys riding motorbikes faster than he should and also has a reputation as a fine horseman.

“I like to live life a little,” he says. “I’m not a wild man or out to create an image, I just believe you should explore your passions. My work is one of my passions and I think I work hard to perform as well as I can.”

Jeremy stole the show at the last Night of the Proms by performing five Noel Coward favourites in the style of the man himself. It was a brilliant performance and one still mentioned regularly by annual Promenaders.

“I put the same effort into my leisure time. Enjoy your time off as fully as you can because you have earned it.”

Early in his career Jeremy Irons played John the Baptist alongside David Essex in the West End musical Godspell and he has appeared in other films which have been both acclaimed and criticised for pulling at some religious strings.

“There is nothing like raising the passions,” he laughs. “Whatever you do will please some people and displease others. I prefer to listen to those who are pleased.”

In between his many work commitments Jeremy finds time to compere classical concerts and help charities. The reason he was reading aloud letters from inmates in Canada was to raise money and awareness of a prison service to help offenders re-establish their self-confidence and ability to cope with life on the outside when they are released.

“I like to help where I can,” he says. “There are some serious issues out there which need support. They are very real to those involved. They should be taken seriously but not acting, never take that too seriously, it is just a professional game of pretend.”

There is no pretence about his approach to becoming Chancellor of Bath Spa University.

“I have always believed that education should be joined up and the various disciplines should not be treated as alien to each other. I believe the unity of the various elements of education makes for more rounded individuals. At Bath Spa I have seen that there is a real effort to make this happen. When I was invited to be Chancellor, it opened up the possibility of being involved in a quite new area.

“I never went to University, and have not spent much time in the world of education. It is a new adventure for me and I am already enjoying it immensely.”