Let me preface this by telling you that Jeremy Irons is a family friend and that I remember him in a childhood context: as a tree-house builder, a cricket player in the garden, and a smoky-voiced teller of stories drinking gallons of tea at the kitchen table of his house in Oxfordshire. The palpable chemistry between him and his wife—the actress Sinéad Cusack, with whom he has two sons, Sam, a photographer, and Max, an actor—was of ceaseless fascination to us all as children, further cemented by the exotic fact that he called her by a name that wasn't her own: Janie.
Another useless fact: He owned a domestic rat, neatly christened Miss Ratty, who lived solo in a sprawling cage by the swimming pool, and who one day (immaculately, so it seemed), spawned a dozen wriggling rat babies. The mystery was answered one night by the sighting of a wild Mr. Ratty, to whom Miss Ratty was wantonly offering herself through the bars of her spinster cage.
The Wolseley, Piccadilly, is a favorite haunt of Irons's, so much so that when I arrive at the café and say I'm meeting Irons for breakfast, I'm ushered to a quiet table in the side barroom, in case, they whisper, he brings his dog, which apparently he often does.
I see him before he sees me, out the window, flying down Piccadilly on his BMW motorbike (sans dog), all in leathers. I watch him park and cross the street, pushing his salt-and-pepper hair out of his eyes, rendering a group of women giggling and flustered as he sails past them, unaware.
"Why do you call your wife Janie?" I ask after he has spooned himself into the banquette and ordered a cappuccino.
"Because it's the English for Sinéad," he says, laughing at my disappointed face.
We are not here, however, to talk through my rose-tinted-spectacles childhood version of events. We are here to talk about his career, including his turn in Impressionism, the Michael Jacobs play in which Irons is starring as a photojournalist, alongside Joan Allen as a New York gallery owner, at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York. (The show opened March 12.) Irons—who has not appeared on Broadway since Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing in 1984—is flustered because he thought he would be getting to know Allen in rehearsals but had recently been offered the part of Alfred Stieglitz to Allen's Georgia O'Keeffe in a Lifetime Channel biopic of the painter. "I'm slightly nervous," Irons says, "because I was looking forward to the process of getting to know her—and getting to know the character—when we did the play, and now, of course, I will know her already." He makes an "Oh, well" sort of face.
But this must be an occupational hazard, I counter, when you are an integral part of a small pool of prolific actors and have been working for 30-plus years. For starters, he has acted with his wife three times, including in the films Waterland and Stealing Beauty. "It's difficult, working with someone you know that well. We had to sort of try to batten down our relationship, put it away, and create this new one." I ask whether there was anything sexy about it. "It was, quite," he says, smiling at the memory. "Quite."
Irons has an impressive cast of leading ladies he's worked with repeatedly, among them Meryl Streep, with whom he has starred in both The French Lieutenant's Woman and The House of the Spirits, which costarred another longtime collaborator, Glenn Close. Irons and Close first appeared together on Broadway in The Real Thing, but it was with 1990's Reversal of Fortune, in which Close played the ill-fated Sunny to Irons's complex Claus von Bülow, that the actor won an Oscar.
Irons does not shy away from playing shadowy types. If anything, he has wholeheartedly embraced them, including the sinister Mantle twins in Dead Ringers, the fallible Dr. Stephen Fleming in Louis Malle's Damage, and that most erudite of pedophiles, Humbert Humbert, in the 1997 remake of Lolita. Even in animation, it seems, Irons can't help being bad: He's just drawn that way. Take, for instance, Scar, the villainous feline in Disney's The Lion King. Irons talks of these iffy characters with warmth and empathy, finding something redeemable in all of them.
Born on the Isle of Wight on September 19, 1948, Irons was privately educated at a boarding school in Dorset. Postschool and pre-Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, where he trained, Irons made money as a busker, singing Dylan on the pavements of London. He met Cusack during a stint in Godspell, in which he was an unlikely John the Baptist. They married in 1978, and just after this he landed the role that was to cement his place in the hearts of England's womenfolk, as the perennially floppy-haired Charles Ryder in Granada Television's adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. I ask him whether he has seen the recent film remake.
"No. It's a bit like being asked to go and meet one's ex-wife's new man," he says with a low laugh. "Think I'll pass on that one, but so glad she's happy."
The lovely thing about Irons is for all of his accolades, he's infinitely happier praising his wife, speaking of his sons and their passions, and waxing lyrical on his membership in the Guggenheim Motorcycle Club, cofounded by Thomas Krens, the museum's former director. (Fellow riders include Dennis Hopper and Lauren Hutton.)
"It's always tied up with the art," Irons explains. "We went from Los Angeles through Death Valley to an exhibition in Vegas. I love it because when you ride a bike, there's so much danger about it that all your instincts come right to the surface, all your senses. And that's a wonderful way to see art. So when you go to the gallery, you're really tingling. I think art should be dangerous and uncomfortable and surprising and all those things motorcycle riding is."
Irons collects art, mostly British and Irish oils. He has also recently restored an ancient African sculpture, but he'd like to make something clear. "It's not just sculpture," Irons says. "It's magic. It was an object of reverence of a man and a woman sitting on a stool; the legs of the stool are their children. It was a bit wormy and broken, and I bought it and brought it home and did this really careful restoration on it—oiled it up and apologized to the forebears and said, Listen, it's going to remain a revered object. And it's terribly important, especially with anything that's spiritual. You have to revere it."
Equally revered—and restored—is the castle he owns in County Cork, Ireland, which he worked on for six years. "I did the castle because I was getting very bored with my film work, and I thought it was showing," Irons says. "So I wanted to do something that galvanized me, where there was risk and danger, and so I did the castle. After that, I worked up an appetite to go back to filming. But I'm finding at the moment that the theater is all-consuming."
He is just beginning to tell me more when something quintessentially English happens: A jocular gentleman of a certain age comes bounding up to the table and says to me, "I'm terribly sorry. I think I've seen you on television. Have I?"
Irons responds with deadpan timing, "You see everyone on television these days, don't you?"
The man then does a comic double take and says, somewhat suspiciously, "You look like a film director. Are you a film director?" Irons shakes his leonine head patiently.
"I have directed, but, no, I'm not known as a film director."
"What are you known as?" Jocular persists.
"I suppose I'm known as an actor." Irons smiles at him. His long fingers are tapping on his coffee cup, and he has kicked me under the table.
"Easy Rider" has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the April 2009 issue of Men's Vogue.