Jeremy Irons - Body & Soul

Solo Performance

Actor Jeremy Irons loves sailing, but he tells John Naish, he will never join the crew 

If you compiled a list of your top healthy-outdoorsy actor types, Jeremy Irons would surely not rank toppermost (and that’s being kind). The avowed nicotine fan with the tubercular-thin frame has nurtured a less-than-wholesome image over the years, not least as the sex predator Humbert Humbert of Lolita (1997), as well as the dying gay playwright in Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (1996) and, of course, the effetely decadent lead of Brideshead Revisited (1981). Nevertheless, he is about to go racing a catamaran around the Solent in pursuit of a new speed record.

At 10am on Tuesday, the Oscar-winning actor will join his friend, Conrad Humphreys, to circumnavigate the Isle of Wight on a 40ft purpose-built catamaran as part of Cowes Week. “We’re going to race very quickly around the island and try to beat the record of 8hr 20min,” Irons explains in his quietly dismissive drawl. He has raced with Humphreys before, joining his crew for one stage of the BT Global Challenge round-the-world yacht race in 2001. “It was the easy leg between Wellington and Sydney,” he says. “I’d hoped for some great Southern Ocean weather, but it was mostly light winds. We came second in our section by about five seconds.”



Boating has been a lifelong hobby for Irons, who grew up on the edge of Bembridge Harbour, on the Isle of Wight, where his father, a chartered accountant, was a founding member of the local sailing club. “I sailed dinghies before I went to boarding school and carried on at school. My older brother got into ocean sailing, but I’ve got a little 25ft boat in Ireland that was built 15 years ago.”

Irons, 58, is a big fan not only of sailing. He also loves horse-riding, skiing and riding powerful motorbikes. But before we re-cast him as a hairy-arsed, chest-beating jock, it should be stressed that his motivation for all these sports is somewhat darker than most people’s. When I ask him about the composition of the racing catamaran’s crew, he says that he hasn’t a clue. So how did he get on with his team-mates on the Global Challenge boat? “I’m not a team player,” he says, sounding tired. “For me it’s a bit like going back to school.”

For Irons, recreational yachting is not simply a sport; it’s one part of his life’s strategy for keeping at bay the “herd” of ordinary people. “All my sports, riding, sailing, motorcycling, skiing, are solitary. I enjoy spending time on my own, but with something to keep me occupied. For holidays, sailing is fantastic: whenever I can, in places like Turkey and Greece, I rent a boat: because I’m known, it is difficult to be completely relaxed and normal, but on a boat you are with your people. You sail on to deserted beaches or you call in briefly to ports at night, when no one need know you are there.

“I also ski in winter whenever I can, but my filming schedule has made that impossible for the past three years and I’m getting withdrawal symptoms. It’s athletic and exciting, and again you can get away from people. When you’re skiing, no one recognises you.” Motorcycling is another solitary pleasure: “I bought a huge bike in my forties and it changed my life. It’s a BMW with the old-style engine, one of the last they made. I like it because it hasn’t got a computer on it or anything I don’t understand. I’ve done 60,000 miles on it. The pleasure for me of motorcycling is that it’s similar to horse-riding; you’ve got to know the ground you’re on, you know the weather and you smell the smells. I keep it in England, where we have a house in Oxford, and it’s the best thing for running into London.”

So with all this rumbustious sportiness, how come he expends much of his acting energy playing mentally and physically sick characters? “I thought we were talking about yachts,” he bridles. “I certainly play people on the edge quite a lot. I am interested in what makes people odd and what makes them different. In life I try to play the edges. I have a horror of the herd. There are many, many different sorts of people. A lot of people are fairly uninteresting. I want to play the interesting ones. The villains are always more interesting to portray. Shakespeare knew that.

“You can explore and get to know your dark side. We are all made up of so many aspects. Within all of us there is a murderer. We could all do extreme things in extreme circumstances. I remember meeting a guy when I was doing some prison visiting who was in for murder (on leaving school Irons did voluntary social work in Peckham, southeast London). He had killed his girlfriend during a row in the kitchen, just picked up a knife instead of hitting her. I thought, ‘We have all been very angry sometimes and pushed to the edge.’ He was no different from me. I’m interested in characters who have stepped over the edge or fallen over it.”

He is reported to have started therapy once; was that through fear of the edge? Oh, that was misconstrued, a joke, he says. “I had therapy for a couple of sessions in New York. It’s what you do there. And it was a waste of time. I have not got to a point in my life where I think that it would be useful. I explore myself through work.” That’s the kind of answer I’d give, I chip in. “Why don’t you just supply all the answers yourself?” he asks.

Oops. Hedonism seems a safer topic. Doesn’t he fear that his unabashed cigarette habit will make him a pariah? “I love smoking. It gives me such pleasure. I’ve been smoking since I was 15,” he says. “I fight against being made to feel a pariah. I have a big chunk of anarchism in my make-up and get pleasure out of doing what people think I should not be doing. I’ve always suspected these statistics people put out about cancer and smoking. And now that people are stopping, they still get cancer. The male side of my family has always smoked. My mother has a friend who grew and smoked her own tobacco in Greece and died at the age of 101. I think it’s the additives that are harmful.”

Nevertheless, he says that he has occasionally kicked the habit. “I stopped during Lolita because I needed to put on a stone-and-a-half. After that I went back to smoking. Now it’s banned from the pubs in Ireland (he has a home in West Cork), we get more fresh air by standing outside. Giving up for Lolita was easy. I went to the gym every day, to get an adrenalin shot, and I played the guitar as a diversion. When I was a struggling actor I used to busk to earn dinner, a drink, even a bed sometimes. When I started as a social worker, the pay was dreadful, so I busked to support that, too. I played folky stuff, Dylan, Bob Seger, and still do. I take my Martin acoustic guitar with me when I travel.”

Alcohol, however, has never been much of a diversion, he says. “I get bad hangovers. I am a very abstemious, rather boring drinker – a couple of glasses of champagne with a meal, or a glass of really good wine, otherwise I get a headache. If I want a big drink, I’ll have a beer, but I’ll probably make it into a shandy. If I really do want to drink, it will be a really good vodka; you don’t get drunk on that stuff, you get high.”

He has had one other addiction: in 1997 he gave up acting to renovate Kilcoe Castle, a 15th-century ruin on a two-acre island in West Cork, and poured hundreds of thousands of pounds into the project to faithfully return the derelict keep to its ancient splendour. He had it painted salmon pink, much to the amusement of the local population. “I took two years off for the refurbishing. Finally, I went back to work because I couldn’t afford not to,” he says. His wife, the actor Sinead Cusack, calls it “a big, dark, black hole down which one can throw money for ever”. But Irons says proudly that it’s “done and finished”.

A dandified fortress, on its own island: Irons certainly likes to have water around him.  


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