After a screening of Adrian Lyne’s 1997 Lolita on Monday afternoon at the Savannah Film Festival, Jeremy Irons took the stage of the Lucas Theatre for about half an hour of fascinating questions and answers. SCAD prof Chris Auer moderated the session.
Let me first say that I was quite disappointed that there was no mention of Brideshead Revisited, the 1981 mini-series that marked many Americans’ introduction to Irons’ work.
But the session was still enlightening and entertaining in ways that I did not expect.
Irons began by talking about Lolita, which he thought should have been marketed “as a tragedy.” He noted the blowback he got from organizations that support victims of child sexual abuse — they thought that he should have played Humbert Humbert as a monster.
But Irons said that his philosophy of acting involves simply playing the characters as they are — and that most of those characters see themselves as the heroes of their own lives.
Irons also provocatively alluded to the taboos of the story and noted the particular cultural resonance in our time — a resonance that would obviously not have been found throughout much of Western history.
Irons was reluctant to take the role of Humbert, however. He noted his belief that a series of choices collectively create the “aroma” of an actor’s career: “If I add this to the pot, there’s a danger I might become unemployable.”
And then Irons noted that he was in part convinced to star in Lolita because of a call from Glenn Close, who had worked under Lyne on Fatal Attraction. She told him that playing the best characters under the best directors is what actors dream about.
Irons also noted that he met Claus von Bulow two or three years after playing him in 1990’s Reversal of Fortune. Irons won an Oscar for the role. (Again, Glenn Close encouraged him to take the part, Irons told the audience in Savannah.)
Irons had gone from his house in England to the nearby Getty estate (Wormsley, I assume) to get a footballer’s signature for his son. And Claus von Bulow was in the library, and eventually spoke to Irons.
That day on the Getty estate, von Bulow asked if Irons were aware that defense attorney Alan Dershowitz had recently picked up both Mike Tyson and Leona Helmsley as clients. Irons said that he did know about that.
And then, in the distinctive voice of von Bulow: “You haven’t been asked to play either of them?”
At another point, Irons said that he was not the top choice for David Cronenberg’s 1988 Dead Ringers, in which he played twin gynecologists. DeNiro would only do the part, according to Irons, if the characters could be lawyers. William Hurt turned it down by saying that he had enough trouble playing one part.
Irons also expressed his disillusionment with Damage director Louis Malle. In advance of filming, Irons emphasized that he thought the sex scenes should emphasize only tight shots. Sex is about immediacy and intimacy; we don’t see ourselves having sex from a distance. If the camera goes too wide, it becomes a voyeur.
Irons thought that Malle agreed with that plan, but then he “went wide.”
“Live life as deeply and richly as you can,” Irons advised the audience near the end of the session. Those words echoed advice shared with students at other presentations he gave while in Savannah.
Presented with an honorary award on Monday evening at Trustees Theater, Irons gave one of the most articulate and powerful testimonials for SCAD that I have ever heard. He praised the college for its extreme diversity, for its global reach, and for its emphasis on technical training.
Here’s the video that SCAD has posted:
I took some photos of the Q&A with Irons and Auer on Monday: