Somewhat mysterious and fearless, Oscar-winning British actor Jeremy Irons has played a host of different characters during his decades-long career, from Adrian Veidt in Damon Lindelof’s TV series “Watchmen,” to Rodolfo Gucci in Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci,” British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in “Munich: The Edge of War” and Alfred Pennyworth in the DC Extended Universe films, including the latest “Justice League.” Reteaming with Palme d’Or winning Bille August for the third time, Irons will next play Abbé Faria, a noble and wise character, in the prestige limited series “The Count of Monte Cristo,” starring opposite fellow British actor Sam Claflin as Edmond Dantès. The premum limited series is distributed worldwide by Mediawan Rights, in cooperation with CAA (for North America).
Currently on the sprawling set of “Monte Cristo” in sun-drenched Malta, a cheerful Irons spoke to Variety about the timeliness of “Monte Cristo’s” story, the fun of getting into his character’s skin, working again with August and his desire to slow down and possibly do more projects closer to home, in Europe. The English-language series is produced by Mediawan’s banner Palomar, the leading Italian company behind “That Dirty Black Bag” and “The Name of the Rose,” in collaboration with another Mediawan label, France’s DEMD Productions.
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What do you like about the story of “The Count of Monte Cristo”? Were you a fan of the novel?
I’m ashamed to say I’d never read it. I bought it to read once I knew I was going to be involved in this. But Alexandre Dumas is a wonderful writer and this feels rather topical. His overall view is that really we have to empathize with each other and forgive each other, and that just seeking revenge is not good for you as a person and and not good for society. But, you know it’s such a large book. There’s so much there. But I think it has something to say about modern society. We haven’t changed as people. So it sticks with us today, with all the conflicts that are happening.
What about your character in the series, the Abbé Faria? How did you relate to this character?
I don’t necessarily have to relate to the characters I play. But I always try to understand them. And here was a man who had lived a pretty full life and has done things he wasn’t proud of at all. Nevertheless, he was imprisoned unfairly, but that gave him a lot of time to think about life and how he’d behaved and in a way, he’s being given a second chance by meeting this fellow prisoner and is able to pass on what little wisdom he had to him and change this man’s life for the better.
Would you say that your character, Abbé Faria, is on a path of redemption?
I think so. Whether he realizes or not. But he’s a character who keeps in Edmund’s mind throughout the story and what Edmund learned from him. Edmund Dante is sort of a very simple man to start with. So Abbé Faria is sort of a mentor, a father figure and a man with a great appetite for life. Not a retired ascetic, but a man who had seen his fair share of the ups and downs of life and finding that human companionship and an empathy for someone else lifted him out of his depression as well. So I think they both, in some strange ways, found each other.
You have a lot of scenes with Sam Claflin. How has it been?
He’s a wonderful actor. Very clear. Works deep. I’d worked with him briefly in a film called “Their Finest” some while ago, but my son had also worked with him and now he’s very highly regarded. And I found him, like all good actors, very easy to play with.
I read that you care a lot about costumes. What was your input on Abbé Faria’s outfit?
Yes, you’re dealing with a man in a cell so it’s very constricted. So, how you can tell his story and costume, what he wears, how he spends his time, of which he has a great deal. It’s all very interesting to build up somebody in relatively short scenes, somebody you can empathize with, and costume is, of course, a big part of that.
Did you have any discussions with filmmaker Bille August about the look of your character?
Bille wanted him to wear a sort of prison uniform. But then, of course, Abbé Faria spends most of his time digging a tunnel. So one had to adapt the costume a little bit so that he could protect himself from stones, rockfalls, sore knees, sore elbows, sore hands or feet. So we had a bit of fun doing that.
It’s the first time in your career that you’re working with the same director three times, isn’t it?
For the third time, I think it might be, yes. With Cronenberg only twice. It’s always nice to be asked back. It’s lovely because you know the director by then, and, I mean, I love Bille. He’s a lovely man.
What is it about him that you love?
He’s a man who has clear thoughts. He knows what he wants to do. He’s very fast as a filmmaker and doesn’t hang about. He connects with a good crew around him, a lot of Danish, but some Italian and some French. So there’s always a very nice atmosphere on set. And that’s important because if everyone’s happy, they do better work for sure.
He seems very calm!
He’s very calm and out of that calmness, he makes the right decisions. Because each decision is a small part of the finished product. God is in the details as they say. And so it’s been a very happy shoot.
What do you think about this trend of modernizing literary classics?
I think anything that helps connect with an audience is good, but it’s a difficult task because human beings basically haven’t changed. What’s around them has changed. So I suppose our dialogue is a little bit more contemporary than Dumas, but what you don’t want is for the period, either in dialogue or in the look or whatever, to get in the way of what the characters are feeling and what they’re communicating. So it’s a compromise.
I read that the female character in the series is going to be more prominent than in the book.
Maybe it’ll come across like that. It’s difficult to say until one sees the finished product, but when you’re dealing with the book of this length, you have to simplify in some ways and restructure. There are only 10 episodes and it’s a very long book. With any production, whether it be a play or Shakespeare or whatever, you as a director come at it from a certain angle, a certain perspective and maybe point up different areas. Ridley Scott with “Napoleon,” I think that’s probably what he’s done. Rather than making it servile to the book. When you’re having to shorten so much, I think you have to concentrate on certain aspects.
You’ve starred in many franchise-based blockbusters, like “Batman v. Superman” and the series “Watchmen.” How fulfilling is it for you to do those projects given that you aren’t a fan of comics?
They all have different qualities which are attractive. “Watchmen” is such an iconic story, it was interesting to be involved in that and it was a very strange and rather interesting character. There’s a different reason every time for why one is attracted to different things. But I love contrast in life, and the same in my work — things that are completely different. But some movies or series that will get a wider audience will draw people towards some of the work I’ve done which has a smaller audience. But I have no plan. If it’s a project that fascinates me and I think ‘I’d love to be part of that.’ Or if it’s a character I hadn’t played before and there’s a great story, with people that I like and people that I trust, then I’ll do it.
You’ve probably done a fair amount of shoots with green screen. Lately, some filmmakers like Shawn Levy have insisted on filming on location. What’s your position on that?
Well, my preference is always to shoot on location and to have as little green screen as possible. I’ve escaped green screen for most of my career. I find it very arid. You are affected by your environment as a person and as an actor. And I think it’s a great help and it adds something very difficult to pinpoint. But I do think it makes a difference to the final product.
How has it been to shoot “Monte Cristo” on location?
Malta is a wonderful place, it’s very easy to shoot here and the locations are fantastic. The building that we’re using for the castle is the same age as in the novel. So it’s really helpful. It feeds into your performance. And the weather is lovely!
And what can you tell me about your next movie, “Beekeeper”?
It’s a great what I call ‘Jason Statham movie.’ Lots of violence and explosions and pace. And I think for those people who love that sort of movie, it’s going to be really great.
You’ve been busier than ever these past few years. Do you have any plans to slow down or even retire?
No, no, no, I’m not retiring. But I am slowing down. I’m trying to slow down, travel less, enjoy the things life has given me.
What prompted this desire to slow down?
Age. Knowing that there were fewer summers left than when I was in my 30s.
Do you want to make more independent projects from Europe?
Yes, indeed. I’m always available to read those because I like working close to home and Europe is closer than America. And there are such wonderful directors in Europe. Of course, the problem is language. You know that my French… I speak a little, but not that well.
My favorite movie with you is Louis Malle’s erotic drama movie “Fatale” (a.k.a. “Damage”) with Juliette Binoche.
Really?! Well, I believe they’re making a series out of it. So that will be a modern take. I think it’s from the woman’s point of view. It’ll be very interesting to see this.
Do you have any European projects in the pipeline?
I was supposed to be doing a Palestinian film in Palestine at the moment, directed by Annemarie Jacir. Sadly, we were going to be shooting now and I was going to go there from Malta to do it. It’s about 1948 — that period in Palestine.
That’s a very timely story, for sure.
Such a shame that we weren’t able to make it a year ago, but for now it’s been delayed and she doesn’t want to have to shoot it somewhere else because it’s about Palestine. So, you know, I think COVID and war is getting in the way of many things.
And also the SAG-AFTRA strike. How has it been for you?
Yes I’m SAG as well but I was able to get permission to work on independent productions in Europe. So that was not an issue.
What about the deal that was made?
Well, I think it’s a big step in the right direction. We have to guard against AI being used in a derogatory way. And I also think it’s very important that the residual situation is sorted out because more and more actors are being asked to take a buyout. And really, if they’re part of a film which is worthy and which becomes very successful, then I think the actors and the crew should see the rewards for that.
So you worked the entire time during the strike?
No, I spent time in Ireland. I have no problem living life when I’m not working. We’re always improving the land and working with the animals. I go sailing sometimes… I have plenty to keep me occupied!
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