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Eragon - Jeremy Irons interview

Jeremy Irons in Eragon

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ERAGON star Jeremy Irons talks about appearing in a dragon movie for the second time, getting physical and his career so far – from the early days right through to his recent return to the West End stage.

He also reveals why he thinks Eragon became such a popular best-seller and why is happy to keep reintroducing himself to younger audiences.

Q. You’ve been quoted as saying that you felt it was time for you to do a film like this. Can you elaborate?
A. I think it’s important for an actor to keep reintroducing himself to a young audience. The kids that this is really aimed towards only really know me as the voice of a lion. So, I thought we should put a face to the voice. As an actor, I try to take what opportunities come to me on a very wide range so that you cover the whole audience. Hopefully, you can then get audiences who go and see this to go and see other movies that I’m in. It’s part of a sort of career strategy.

I also thought the strength of this story is that it’s written by a 16-year-old about a 16-year-old. It’s how he sees growing up and adolescence. It’s not an aged academic writing for a nephew about what he remembers about life when he was younger and fantasy. Who can explain why Eragon is such a successful book? I can only assume it’s because that kids who read it really feel empathy with what they’re reading. They understand that world. Yes, it’s set it in a fantasy world but actually an awful lot of it’s about this boy growing up and dealing with fathers, mothers, girlfriends and things he wants to be able to do and can’t. And gently growing into a stage where he has a responsibility in life.

Q. Were you worried about doing a dragon movie again, given that your first one [Dungeons & Dragons] flopped?
A. No. I always worry about first-time directors but you have to risk things and I thought this had been better managed than the first movie.

Q. The film looks stunning. I guess one of the upsides of being an actor is being able to make films in locations as spectacular as these. What are the downsides?
A. Getting to those locations [laughs].

Q. How much did you enjoy the physical challenge of making the film?
A. I loved the riding. I could spend all day on a horse and be very happy. I was less interested in the fighting and the practising and all that. You know, a big movie is very cumbersome. It takes a long time, so it went on a little bit longer than I’d expected.

Q. How easy was it to master the different kind of swordplay?
A. It was just a little bit different. But at least it was in the movie! Somebody on Kingdom of Heaven spent the whole movie practising for this massive fight he was going to do and it was not in the final version. It may be in the director’s cut.

Q. Is there a sense where you’re teaching Eragon all these skills, especially swordfighting, that you don’t want to be shown up by this young buck of an actor? Especially in physical terms?
A. No. He was much quicker because you are quicker when you’re young. You remember more. I kept forgetting the sequence and halfway through I’d say: “Let’s stop and work through that again!” It takes longer to learn. I think your brain cells die, don’t they?

Q. I suppose you’ve gone past the stage of making films for your kids. But was there ever a stage when you did?
A. Well, they don’t watch them very much. I don’t think either of them have seen all of them even though we have them at home. Now and again they see them and say: “That’s a great movie.” But I don’t really make movies for my kids. I made Danny: The Champion of the World so that one of my kids could be in it, so he knew what the whole business was about. He’s since chosen to be a photographer having learned what the business is about [laughs].

Q. Was he put off by it then?
A. He enjoyed it at the time but he doesn’t like notoriety, he doesn’t like being known. My younger son doesn’t mind at all.

Q. Given that you’ve said in the past that you come from a boring middle class background, what did your family make of you wanting to be an actor?
A. My father, who practised trying to be severe on my elder brother and trying to get him into the type of career he thought he should be in, was overjoyed when I came to him with an idea of what I wanted to do. He didn’t give it much hope. He said it seemed to be a pretty rocky profession and it was quite difficult to hold relationships together and things. But he said: “I’ll help you because if you don’t try it, you’ll never know and you’ll always resent me for not supporting you.” So he did and he paid my fees through drama school. I had to work for money for the holidays.

Q. Was there a point where he saw his investment had come to fruition?
A. I think so. He died shortly after I’d made Brideshead [Revisted] and I was making The French Lieutenant’s Woman. So he sort of knew I was on the way and that his faith had been well placed.

Q. What was it that made you want to become an actor in the first place?
A. The desire to be a gypsy, to not have to tow the line and play by the rules. I seriously thought about the circus, or the fairground, or the theatre. I remember wandering around the circuit of the fairground at Epsom Downs before Derby Day – because I was busking in a pub on the corner of the Downs – and I saw the accommodation, which was a sort of store with four bunks in it, and I thought I couldn’t cope with that for long. I wanted a bit more than that! I then answered an advertisement on the back of The Stage and worked in Canterbury. I liked the life, especially the nocturnal aspect of it – I loved the smells, loved the people. So I thought I wanted to go to drama school and learn how to do it.

Q. Given the state of the British film industry at the time you came out of drama school, did you ever dodge a bullet or come close to making a film bow in something like a sex comedy or On The Buses?
A. No. I left theatre and I went to Bristol for three years. Then I came to London wanting a film or the West End. Simon Ward was playing all the roles that I would have been right for, such as Young Winston. But Nijinsky was the first movie I made because Nora Kaye, who was married to Herbert Ross, who made the film, had been a pupil of Mikhail Fokine, who I played, and thought I looked very like him. So she gave me that role.

Then for French Lieutenant’s Woman, I was quite good casting for my look. They didn’t need a star because they had Meryl Streep. So that’s how I got my chance. I didn’t expect to work in movies.

Q. You were also involved in Play Away. Is there a positive to being involved in something like that?
A. There’s a positive from everything, even the terrible movies one falls into sometimes. There’s always a positive. I often think there’s positives from failure more than success. But Play Away was great because it enabled me to sing and to lark about. And it’s re-run whenever anybody wants a cheap bit of television – but that’s the nature of it. Even Jack Nicholson has the dentist, or whatever it is he played, they keep showing. At least I wasn’t posing naked in some magazine, which is the other thing that some people have to worry about…

Q. You’ve just been in the West End in Embers. Was that a recharge of the batteries? Do you plan to do more?
A. It was actually a drain on the batteries. It was exhausting. But it did everything that I wanted it to do in that it got the muscles going again and got me in touch with the audience. It was very interesting because it was a new play and I wanted to see if it would work. It worked alright, not perfect but alright.

I think really at my age you have to always be looking for interesting roles because it’s harder to find them in movies. Guesting as I do on Eragon is not particularly satisfying. It’s lovely to be in control of a play or a film, as I used to be. So I think I shall keep going back to the theatre if I can find the work.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about your next film, Inland Empire?
A. It’s by David Lynch and it’s a three hour movie. It’s rather like a Jackson Pollock that you stand before and are amazed by but it’s quite difficult to see exactly what it’s about, or what the story is. I play the role of a film director making a film within this film. And David has the habit of throwing you scenes the night before and not telling you what the story is.

Laura Dern, who stars in it, had been working on it for a year and she didn’t even know what it’s about. It’s a completely different way of working – a very light crew, about 10 in all including the designer – and very fast shooting. But it was a lot of fun. David is a wonderful man.

Read our review of Eragon

Read our interview with Ed Speleers