Jeremy Irons returned to television to play Adrian Veidt in “Watchmen,” HBO’s continuation of the iconic graphic novel of the same name.
Irons spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen recently about what attracted him to “Watchmen,” the difference in television today and how his career was affected by his Oscar win for “Reversal of Fortune.” Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: So first of all, Mr. Irons, the character you’re playing, he has this background obviously detailed in the graphic novel where he transported this big creature to New York in this big attempt to get all the world to stop fighting and come together. As we meet him in this show, he’s at this manor with clone servants, trying to escape. So in this very long career you’ve had in the business, would you regard this as one of the more unusual or challenging characters you’ve ever played?
Jeremy Irons: Yes, he is certainly unusual and, of course, fascinating for me for that because I always gravitate towards characters who are enigmatic or have secrets, who are bizarre. I don’t wanna spend my whole time playing people who are ordinary like me. It gives me extra life playing these strange characters. It was a great attraction when I read most of my script to discover how bizarre, how covered, how witty, how urbane this man was. I thought, “I think he’ll be fun to play.”
GD: How much familiarity did you have with the “Watchmen” comic or the film before you signed on? And was there something about Damon Lindelof’s vision that drew you to this sort of character?
JI: When I met Damon, I was amazed by this enthusiasm, his extraordinary mind as he talked me through his ideas for the series and it was, I think, those two things, the wit and the bizarreness of his mind and enthusiasm he brought to the idea. Enthusiasm in our business is not always 100%. When you find somebody who really wants to tell a story, who is so enthused about how one could continue such an iconic graphic novel as “Watchmen,” and make it relevant, I found this very attractive. I have to say that I knew nothing about “Watchmen.” I hadn’t read the graphic novel. I hadn’t even heard of the graphic novel because I obviously live in a dream world. So having had this extraordinary couple of hours with Damon, I thought, “Well, let’s go and read the graphic novel,” which I did and found it fascinating, on its structure fascinating and its relevance to the 1980s when it was written, fascinating and how various strands of time and story were woven together like the most wonderful sort of graphic patchwork quilts, telling multiple stories with multiple characters and I thought, “This is really thick. This is really juicy. If he can continue in this way, bringing it up to date, continuing the story from the end of the graphic novel, it could be quite remarkable.” I didn’t know Damon’s work. I knew his reputation, which was incredibly high as a writer, so I went away, I read the graphic novel and then read my sections. I think I saw two scripts complete but read my sections and I could see my arc, didn’t know at that stage how it would come together because the fascinating way he tells the story is that my world is quite separate from the main story, or seems to be — occasional little links. The audience is left wondering a great deal through my story. As it continues and then finally when I got the final episodes and I saw how it came together, I was full of admiration and wanted to be part of it, not knowing, however, the thrust of the main story. I never really read those parts of the script. The main parts of the script were the part that my character didn’t know about, so I thought, “Well there’s no point in me knowing about it because I don’t need to. That’s going on somewhere else.”
So I remained in Adrian’s mindset, obviously wondering what was going on but not knowing and wanting what he wanted in living the life he led. I found that route to be interesting, to be bizarre, to be comic in some ways and I loved all that. Damon’s imagination is extraordinary and bizarre and I think it fits in a way with my humor. I remember the first couple of episodes, when we were being directed by [Nicole] Kassell, wonderful director, and I said, “s this right, is this what you want?” Because it’s almost like recording a little bit of music which you know is going to have to fit round a great concerto either side of you and you know you have to fit in, so I was really feeling in the dark to start with and relying on Nicki, to say, “Is this right? Do you want it funnier? Is this less funny? Is my attitude right?” And word came back when we were filming of the rushes they were seeing and they were very pleased. They felt it was spot-on. So I continued in that way, still a little bit in the dark, but continued that way and I’ve only seen the first four episodes, I haven’t seen Episode 5 yet, but I began to say how the two geographic frames fit together and play off each other, and thought to myself, “What Damon has done is extraordinary,” because he’s, in a way, turned the structure of the graphic novel into television but using a very similar structure of flashbacks and other locations and other storylines and often keeping you the audience slightly on the left foot about where are we, what’s happening? Which is a fascinating way to tell a story rather than laying it all out there like a wedding cake so that everything is clear. So I’m full of admiration for him and I’m very glad that I was involved. I had a very happy shoot. We shot most of my stuff in North Wales. it’s always nice to shoot in the country you live in. Not that I live in Wales but I live in England and Ireland but I can drive there, I don’t have to fly and that was nice. I was able to ride a horse and have a horse around which I always enjoy. It means that in the downtime you can go off and discover the country over there while they’re redoing their lights and then come back and film the little bit they need. So I was quite a happy bunny, really, on the shooting. We had extraordinary directors. Damon was hard at work most of the time in Los Angeles writing future episodes but he joined us a couple of times in Wales and then I went to join them for some studio work in Atlanta and began to get to know the American lot. So it was a very pleasant experience, I have to say.
GD: As of this recording we’re about halfway through the season so we don’t quite know yet how Adrian’s story ends and I don’t want you to spoil anything obviously, but Adrian has been at this manor for years and years, pretty much alone outside of his clone servants, and I’m wondering if you think that isolation, away from humanity, has altered his sense of reality and maybe even some of his political motivations.
JI: I don’t think it’s really altered him. I mean, Adrian chose to build his main work so to speak, his center, in a pretty isolated spot on Earth. I think he enjoys his own company. He enjoys his mind, his thoughts, his ideas. That is the food for him. I think he is probably a little cut off from real life, so to find him where we do, pretty much on his own, is a situation I think in which he feels pretty comfortable. There’s no doubt that he is bored. He’s tried to set up a situation which gives him some edge to his appetite, but as you say, he’s surrounded by clones who are not the most irresistible company, sweet though they are. And I have to say that those two actors are extraordinary and I enjoyed playing with them enormously as we were trying to work out how a clone is a clone and how they think and how a body who has been born at the age of 35 and therefore has the height and has the apparent ability to be a normal person but has had no experience, hasn’t lived those 35 years, how is that person? Watching our two actors struggle with those problems was fascinating and I think their performances are wonderful. They make me laugh a great deal and did at the time.
So I would say that Adrian is probably a little bored. Also, of course, in timeframe, it’s back in the ‘30s and a lot of his technical equipment which he’d be able to use if he was back on Earth are not available to him. So he has to work in a pretty Heath Robinson way but his dreams are huge and his desire to get away from what is essentially a prison is enormous and, I think, drives him. So he has purpose alongside his boredom and I think that is useful for him. But maybe we think that living in a mansion, a castle with beautiful surrounding countryside and servants to do what we want for us would be idyllic. I don’t think it is in any way. I sometimes think everybody envies the rich, or a lot of people envy the rich and I’ve always wondered how enviable that position is, really. You have a lot but what about the heart? What about the soul? I think that’s where Adrian feels a lack. Whether it changes him politically, I don’t really believe so. I think he wants to get back and get on and get into the stream of things, get back into the hustle and bustle and the tussle of life. It’s a little bit like if you’re president of the United States and when you get voted out or stop being president, you retire to your country place where you maybe think about writing your memoirs or perhaps donating something to a library of your life or creating a library or playing golf. I think Adrian probably feels a bit like a retired president. Part of him would love to be back in the cut and thrust of world politics and to feel important again. So that’s, I think, where he is in his head.
GD: You’ve really devoted yourself throughout your career to working in all these different mediums, whether it be television, film or theater.
JI: Different media.
GD: Media, yes, correct (laughs.) What is it about what TV offers you, compared to film or theater, that just keeps bringing you back?
JI: Well it’s interesting you think I keep coming back and I suppose with “The Borgias,” which was a return to television for a long time, really, I don’t think I’d done anything for about 12 years on television, but of course, what has changed completely is catchup. I would always try to avoid doing television unless it was brilliant writing because my feeling was one puts as much effort into a television film as a feature film, but half the population are probably watching the football on the other side. So I think, “Well, that’s a bit of a wasted effort.” That problem has gone away now because we can stream stuff, we can watch programs on catchup and how lucky we are to be able to do that and what it does is elevate television into almost being film. Yes, we don’t see it on a wide screen in a cinema but how many people watch films like that, sadly, now? I think many people do watch on their smaller screens, watch feature films. So that difference between television and film is sort of gone. Then, of course, we’ve had this wonderful influx because with catchup and streaming and cable and whatever, the audience has become really enormous for the best shows, which means that they can afford a budget to make hopefully a spectacular piece of work and a budget to attract the best writers, the best directors, the best actors. So the difference that used to be there between television and film and used to be felt by people working in the business is no longer there. I think some of the best work is being made for television now. The business is really changing. So that, for me, is why there was really no argument when “Watchmen” was suggested. I thought, “Yeah, if it works, it’ll go very wide. It’ll be seen by a lot of people.” And that wouldn’t have been the same 15 years ago.
GD: I think you’re exactly right there. As we wrap up, since we’re an awards website, I want to go back to your win at the Oscars back in 1991 for “Reversal of Fortune.” What are your memories of that night and also, we’re about 30 years on from that now so I wonder how you think it really affected your career moving forward.
JI: It was a most wonderful night. Award ceremonies I could take or leave (laughs.) It’s great when you win. It was a huge honor for me and it’s great for your self-esteem. How much it changes careers, I’m not convinced it changes very much. I think the big thing for me was that everybody in the business who had a script which they couldn’t get made sent it to me because they thought, “Well, if we get an Oscar winner onboard, we might get the picture made.” Of course they were all terrible scripts ‘cause that’s why they weren’t made. They weren’t very good scripts. So I had to read a lot of things which weren’t very interesting. In my career, pre-Oscar, I’d always been, as an actor, a bit fussy. I always looked for a script that makes me buzz a bit, which whets my appetite, which agitates my phagocytes, however you like to call it. Something I think, “Oh yes, I’d love to see this and what an interesting character. That’s something I haven’t played before. I’d love to examine that.” That hasn’t changed. I’ve always been like that since I started out as an actor in the theater and I remember thinking, people said, “Now your career’s going to skyrocket after the Oscar.” I said, “I don’t think so. I’ll still be attracted to the same sorts of films.” Maybe my salary went up a bit. I don’t know. But it didn’t really… it was a wonderful milestone but I think my career has continued along a natural route and now as I get older, I’m sort of, in some ways, harder to cast. So it gets a little quieter but you’re still watching for that movie, that script that really excites you and if it happens a little less than it used to, well that’s quite nice because there are even more things I like doing apart from film than there were when I was in my ‘30s.