Jeremy Irons is laughing heartily outside Le Bilboquet on East 63rd Street, surrounded by attentive females. Itâ€™s a cold day, but he seems oblivious to the chill as he sips an afternoon Kir Royale and languidly smokes a hand-rolled cigarette. You approach and introduce yourself. He springs up, grabbing both your arms, and stands back to appraise you. At 62, he still possesses a liquid-eyed hotness. He cheek-kisses good-bye his coterie of women (publicists, managers, friendsâ€”itâ€™s unclear), lays his hand on your shoulder, and gently guides you through the bistro door, all the while staring deeply into your eyes, so absorbed that he is halfway through the room before he realizes he forgot to put out his cigarette. With apologies, he takes his leave amid a chorus of dismay. â€œAre you kidding? He can smoke wherever he wants! Heâ€™s so cool!â€ says one entranced male diner, upon whom Irons bestows a two-palmed handshake before stepping outside to carefully deposit his cigarette butt in a trash bin.
Jeremy Irons is just so Jeremy Ironsâ€”that is to say, the man of flesh is very much the man of your fantasies. He doesnâ€™t so much occupy space as consume it. Eyes follow him, then stare, rapt. And Irons, something of an attention hog, plays to his audience. He chooses the corner that allows him to face out and survey the room as it surveys him right back.
Irons calls out for a round of â€œChÃ¢teau Bloombergâ€ (a.k.a. tap water), â€œstraight from the East River!â€ He has, he declares, â€œturned vigorously against the mayor because of the new law [banning] smoking in parks or on the beach, which I think is ludicrous and a terrible bullying of a minority that cannot speak back.â€ Irons, his teeth a testament to a life of indulgences, believes smokers ought to be protected like â€œhandicapped people and children.â€ Though he clearly relishes declamation, he is getting notably heated over a law that is very briefly touching his life. The actor spends most of his time in an Oxfordshire village or at Kilcoe, an actual Âfifteenth-century castle (â€œYouâ€™d call it a keep,â€ he clarifies) on a bay in Ireland. Kilcoeâ€™s Âhundred-foot, lovingly restored towers help to explain a spate of early-aughts parts in â€œsubâ€“Lord of the Rings stuffâ€ like Dungeons & Dragons. â€œItâ€™s the shit you do,â€ he says, to â€œpay for another six months.â€
Irons is in New York to reprise a guest role as a sex addict turned sex therapist on Law & Order: SVU (airing March 30) and to publicize his new Showtime show The Borgias (debuting April 3), a part he took at the behest of his friend Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), who wrote the series and directed the first two episodes. Irons plays Pope Alexander VI, despite having zero resemblance to the real manâ€”an enormous, hook-nosed Spaniard with an insatiable appetite for corruption, food, women, and murdering his enemies. â€œI Googled Rodrigo Borgia, and heâ€™s a voluptuary,â€ says the actor. â€œAnd I said, â€˜I think Iâ€™m a bit of an ascetic, really, for that.â€™ And Neil said, â€˜No, no, no. Because itâ€™s all about power and what power does to you and how you deal with it. And you can play all that.â€™â€‰â€
Yes, powerful and dark, Irons can do. He broke out as a heartthrob in the BBC series Brideshead Revisited, then romanced Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenantâ€™s Woman. But by his forties, he was playing against his good looks, choosing dangerous, even creepy charactersâ€”like the twin gynecologists in David Cronenbergâ€™s Dead Ringers and Claus von BÃ¼low in Reversal of Fortune, for which he won his Oscar.
In his Borgias role, an outsider beset by a Roman aristocracy bent on destroying him, Irons sees parallels with Barack Obama. â€œJust look at the gossip about your current president being from Africa or being a Muslim,â€ he says. â€œAlexander was getting all of that.â€ On the other hand, Irons thinks Alexander had it easier than another of our presidents. â€œThe medievalists would see the reaction to Clinton, for instance, and the cigars, as being deeply prohibitive. Heâ€™s a man! We ought to forgive and say, â€˜Yeah, heâ€™s got a lot of testosterone, and heâ€™s great at what he does, and he loves a bit of lady, and there you go.â€™ We see all these marriages breaking because theyâ€™re under intolerable strains, because we expect to get all our happiness from our husband or our wife. Impossible! How can you get that from one other person? I donâ€™t want a saint to be my leader. And maybe his wife after fifteen years wonâ€™t be able to provide everything he needs. Thatâ€™s fine. Thatâ€™s life.â€
Ironsâ€™s wife of 33 years, the actress ÂSinÃ©ad Cusack, is apparently fine with this; no doubt sheâ€™s used to her husbandâ€™s decreesâ€”including his disdain for organized religion (she is a practicing Catholic): â€œI donâ€™t really approve of religion â€¦ Iâ€™m not quite sure the relevance Christianity has.â€ Their son Max, 25 (brother to Sam, 32), is currently starring in Red Riding Hood. Irons hasnâ€™t seen the film, but he did catch the Jimmy Kimmel appearance in which Max talked about his eternal embarrassment over his dadâ€™s driving around in a horse and buggy in the town where he grew up. Irons smiles indulgently. The father is resigned to letting the son find his own way. â€œI hope he never gets out of touch with theater, and I hope he doesnâ€™t get too seduced by the money and all that,â€ says Irons. â€œI wish him well. But itâ€™s always, for any parent, a slightly heart-in-the-mouth situation when you see your child climbing a rock face.â€
Should The Borgias come back after the first season, the actor is committed to the series for five months out of the year, perhaps for three or four years. He is aware of and on guard against the lusty tendencies of cable TVâ€™s costume dramas: â€œI know there are some series where there is a bit of history and a bit of fucking and a bit of history and a bit of fucking,â€ he says. â€œI think [Showtime] would have liked to have made it even more about that, but I wouldnâ€™t want to be involved in something thatâ€™s just as obviously â€¦ You know, if you want fucking, thereâ€™s a lot of other channels.â€ (For the record, there is still quite a lot of fucking in The Borgias.)
As heâ€™s telling me about his desire to play King Lear (â€œThe next fifteen years, Iâ€™ll be right for it. And the next ten, Iâ€™ll be able to remember my linesâ€), a man approaches to ask if Irons would mind posing with his giggling female companion. The actor lets out an exasperated sigh. It is the first indication that being Jeremy Irons might be a bit of work. Then itâ€™s gone, the Irons of your imagination returns, and itâ€™s impossible to tell if his annoyance was real or feigned. He looks up at the woman, leaning awkwardly over him, and wraps his arm around her waist: â€œYouâ€™re falling over. Come and sit down. Just donâ€™t show it to my wife. Ha. Ha. Pleasure. My Âpleasure.â€