There’s a line that Jeremy Irons delivers in his latest film, Night Train to Lisbon, opening this weekend, that offers an insight into how this Oscar-winning actor selects his roles.

As a bottled-up Swiss schoolteacher who suddenly finds himself open to all the possibilities in the world after a chance encounter with a mysterious woman, he asks, “If it is so that we all live only a small part of the life within us, what happens to the rest?”

“He’s a fascinating man, isn’t he?” says the 65-year-old Irons, sitting with elegant languor in a Toronto luxury hotel, looking — as he usually does — as if he’s just come through a blissfully lost weekend and loved every moment of it.

“He’s suddenly realized that there is a possible life beyond the one he has lived for the past 60 years and he decides to embrace it, no matter what the cost.”

That’s of a piece with 40-odd-year career of Irons; when directors from Mike Nichols to David Cronenberg need someone to journey to the dark side, they turn to Irons.

“I’ve always been interested in what people keep hidden in life. The pain they suffer, how they deal with it. That tension is what constitutes drama to me,” Irons says.

“I love playing the edges. Or as Alexander Payne said so brilliantly, ‘I enjoy making films about people who live beyond the range of the bus routes.’ I’m interested in those places too.”

And that interest has led to a fascinating career for Irons, starting as a stage actor in England for the Royal Shakespeare Company and leading to movies and TV and many awards, including an Oscar for portraying the icy-cold Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune.

More recently, Irons spent three seasons as the hedonistic Pope Alexander VI in The Borgias.

He returned to Toronto for a symposium at the TIFF Lightbox in the fall to celebrate the pair of powerful films he made with Cronenberg, Dead Ringers and M. Butterfly.

Even the sardonic Irons has to admit that Dead Ringers, the twisted story about twin brother gynecologists, lay a bit outside of his comfort zone.

“I’m very practical when I make a film, believe it or not. I determine what kind of world I’m going to be living in and make all the emotional accommodations necessary.

“But with Dead Ringers, David created this strange, unreal world that was quite unlike anything I had ever been used to. It was almost like we were underwater. I was doing a lot of Pinter at the time, so it helped me get a grasp on it but still, when I just saw the film again years later, it still had a visceral impact on me.”

M. Butterfly, the saga of a French diplomat who fell in love with a Japanese man thinking he was a woman, presented different problems.

“I just tried to fall in love with John (Lone, who played his Japanese lover). He was wonderful because he never allowed me to see him dressed as a man. Even at a cast party, he would be in a kimono or a caftan He always remained very meek and subservient. So when I saw him in the courtroom dressed as a man I was literally, viscerally sick.

“But getting into it was difficult. We had a picnic scene the first day of shooting and I said to David, ‘It won’t work. I can see the size of his hands, I can see his beard line, I can see he’s a man.’ And David said, ‘You just have to forget about that. My special effects will see to it that it vanishes.’”

And while Irons admits that helped, it never totally solved things.

What would have made this difficult project viable, he now feels, is if they had known the real story, which came to light afterwards.

“I met the man I was playing in Budapest years later. At the time this all happened, he was very young, 19, unsure of his sexuality. In the film, I’m a 30-year-old married man. Come on, if you’ve been married, you know geography. When you’re completely a virgin, you can be fooled by a very clever man.

“He told me, ‘We didn’t f--- very much. It was all touching. That was our sex.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I can believe that!’”

Playing Pope Alexander in The Borgias presented Irons with yet another acting dilemma.

“Once I started my research, I found one book about him where the writer listed all the adjectives that had been applied to him and it was like a rainbow, from the very good to the very bad and I said, ‘This is what I have to play, the enigma, the fact that he is a man of god and yet can command murders. He is God’s representative on earth, but he can have mistresses and children.’ I embraced the inconsistencies.

“We had a papal adviser on the show and I asked him, ‘What would someone from the time of the Borgias make of Bill Clinton and how he was knocked from power just because of Monica and his cigar?’ He said, ‘They would see that as deeply hypocritical. We are all sinners and we should expect a man to fall, not wait for it to happen and then condemn him.’”

The Borgias had two successful seasons but was cancelled while its third season was still being filmed. That led to an oddly abrupt final episode that caused much gossip inside and outside the industry. Irons sets the record straight.

“I didn’t want to do a fourth season, but I said, ‘Why don’t we do a two-hour special and end the thing with a bang?’ Neil Jordan (the show’s creator and director) wrote an amazing script, but Showtime felt they couldn’t justify it to their investors.

“It was amazing. I had a grand death scene where I was searching for someone to hear my last confession. I felt cheated. But our paymasters are the ones who always call the tune.”

Irons picks up on his last word and uses a musical metaphor to summarize his theories on life and art.

“We all have an immense range within us, but we use very little of it. We’re like a piano that learns to play certain tunes and chords. And after a certain point in our lives, those are the only chords we play. And sometimes they can be very limited.

“But as an actor, I use all of the strings, all of the highs and lows, and make some of the most bizarre and perhaps distressing music imaginable. And when I come back to my real life, the piano still reverberates with the sounds I was making.”

He leans back on the sofa and offers up a lemon twist of a smile.

“There’s many a morning I wake up and say, ‘God, what did I do last night? I must be crazy!’” Then he laughs. “Well, fortunately not that often.”



“Charles Ryder is a good host. He doesn’t do his own party piece, but he encourages all the other guests to offer theirs.”


“When I performed in this onstage in New York with Glenn Close, I think it was probably the most complete acting experience of my life.”


“Watching it again after so many years, I didn’t like myself. Not my performance. Not the film, the characters I was playing.”


“No matter what censors say, it’s a wonderful piece. Humbert knows he’s doing wrong and he keeps on doing it. And he pays for it.”


“He was a man of enormous appetites. For life, for love, for sex, for food, for wine, for power.”