There's no doubt about it, Jeremy Irons is a living legend.
The 67 year old actor first appeared on stage in 1969 and has had a prolific career treading the boards. TV came calling in 1971 and has continued to be a part of his life, with parts in The Borgias, Longitude and Law & Order. Many will know him from his numerous big screen performances, from early work in the likes of Dead Ringers and The Mission to blockbusters like Die Hard with a Vengeance and Kingdom of Heaven.
He's set to take on a new challenge in 2016 with his first superhero film and stepping into the DC Universe. Irons will play Alfred Pennyworth, confidante to Ben Affleck's Bruce Wayne and constant helper to the Dark Knight himself. It's a wonderful piece of casting, both fitting and suitably different from the recent version played by Michael Caine in Christopher Nolan's sequence of Bat films. This Alfred is harder, with a military background and a strong grounding in the tech needed to keep Batman flying. Read on for some word from Irons about dealing with that technology as well as his thoughts on director Zack Snyder and how comic books figure into our moden world.
QUESTION: When Zack Snyder first approached you for the role of Alfred, what were your thoughts and how did you work with Zack to create this new iteration of an iconic character?
JEREMY IRONS: When Zack suggested I play Alfred, I didn’t want to be constrained by what came before so I approached it as an entirely new character. I wanted to be able to embody what Zack wanted – his vision of Alfred – so I came to it fresh, as you would with a Shakespeare play. You’re aware that many other people have played the role and other people have come up with different ideas for dealing with that particular character, so you try to get inside him as if no one has ever done so before, and tell the story afresh.
And I was very aware that my work was relatively simple compared to all Zack had to carry on this film, and I was respectful of that. The pressures on the director with a film like this are enormous, but you wouldn’t know it with Zack. I knew he was carrying a lot in his head that I didn’t know about, but he has a great sense of humor and creates a relaxed, easy feeling on set. It’s always great when you look forward to going to work. Doesn’t always happen, but it happened on Zack’s set.
QUESTION: In preparing to take on this character, how did you find your way into the role or did Alfred come to you intuitively?
JEREMY IRONS: I listened to Zack’s ideas and talked to the writer, Chris Terrio, about him. Finally for me it’s always intuitive. You work out his back story from what the writer has given you, working out the sort of man he is. The clues lie in what he does on screen and that tells you a little bit about who he is. I didn’t refer to past characterizations of Alfred, because I felt that we were trying to create something fresh and a bit different.
In this futuristic world of mayhem I wanted to make an Alfred who was very practical, multitalented and yet very earthbound. Aware of the massive power that Bruce Wayne has, Alfred almost reacts against all this power and technology, needing to surround himself with normal things. He grows his own vegetables; lives in a trailer, an Air-Stream, on the edge of the Wayne estate [laughs]. He surrounds himself with normality as an antidote to what he knows he’s going to have to do when he goes to work, rather as I do as an actor. I’m a fairly practical person and I made that part of my input to the character.
QUESTION: How does Alfred react to this dark turn his ward or his friend …
JEREMY IRONS: … his governor….
QUESTION: … his governor is taking, in terms of how personal the conflict with Superman has become for Bruce?
JEREMY IRONS: Alfred is Bruce Wayne’s protector. He deals with Bruce very much the way a parent might deal with their child. You want to make sure your child knows what you feel about what he’s doing and make sure that he has thought seriously about it. But, after that, he’s his own man. Whatever way you’ve brought him up, how you’ve guided him through his youth, he’s now a man and must do his own thing. He must act in the way he thinks right. You keep nudging them and saying, ‘Are you sure this is what you want?’ And you support them, because that’s your job. But, as you know, however you’ve brought them up, you have to finally let them go and say, ‘All right, do your thing. See where it gets you.’
Now that Bruce is an adult, their relationship is very multi-layered. Alfred looks after him, tries to keep him comfortable and safe. His butler, mechanic, mentor, assistant. The kind of guy you dream about having around when you get in trouble!
QUESTION: Can you talk about creating this dynamic with Ben and the qualities he brings to the role of Bruce?
JEREMY IRONS: Well, Ben is very big presence. There’s no doubt that he has great power as an actor, as the film shows, and yet he has a great depth. You see the vulnerability, the neuroses, of this character. Bruce is tussling with how much to become involved in the mayhem, in protecting the world as a lone individual, and much of our debate is on the morality of that – how much an individual who has great powers should be able to try and put things right and how much one should leave it to others. Alfred is trying to keep Bruce grounded, as well as keeping him safe. I like to keep my feet very firmly on the ground, and that’s where I was coming from when we’d find ourselves on the set playing a certain scene.
I think always, when you’re playing a role, you do your preparation beforehand, but then go out on the tennis court and you hope you’re ready for anything that’s coming at you and hope you’re going to return something interesting. You don’t know, but if your preparation’s all right, then hopefully the scene – the tennis game – will fly.
QUESTION: In addition to being Bruce’s eternal father figure and moral compass, Alfred has an added Special Forces background in this film. How does that add to his role in the Batcave, and what was it like for you to play that as an actor?
JEREMY IRONS: Well, in my youth I had a bit of military training, and I do know a little bit about mechanics; I know the principle of how things work, but I don’t know how to do computers and all of that, so I had to pretend when I was working on the Batmobile. I’d be hard put to mend that. I probably couldn’t even find the right channel on the screens Alfred’s operating. So, yeah, that was acting [laughs]. I can fly, so operating the Batwing remotely sort of felt quite natural because I’ve flown an aircraft.
But I was slightly at sea and had to rehearse a little bit with that technical stuff. My generation, we – well, I, anyway – have sort of left that to the next generation. That’s one thing I’m not going to learn. I’ve learned a lot in my life, but I’m not going to learn that new stuff about buttons and computers and I hope that I will always be surrounded by enough people able to do it for me.
QUESTION: Your son can do it for you.
JEREMY IRONS: He does it a lot.
QUESTION: However, I understand that you took a spin in the Batmobile.
JEREMY IRONS: Yes. I wanted to get it outside. I drove it in a very large, empty studio with walls all the way around, so I couldn’t do quite what I wanted, what I felt it was capable of. I was very concerned not to damage it for them, but it was great to drive it. Great fun. They promised to get me on a race track with it, so I could see if we could just do a few donuts and that sort of thing, but …
QUESTION: You need to hold them to that.
JEREMY IRONS: Yeah, I know!
QUESTION: The mythologies of comics have always reflected back on our culture, and I’m wondering what your thoughts are on how this story speaks to today’s world?
JEREMY IRONS: I think it’s particularly relevant now, with modern media making us immediately aware of all the problems happening everywhere in the world. We’re told instantly on our pages, or in the newspapers, or on television, or whatever, of all these things which we think are appalling, but which we can do nothing about.
Even though we live in democracies, we are a long way away from the seat of power. We’re a long way away geographically, in some cases. We don’t have the power to sort things that we would like to sort. And that weighs on us, I think, as individuals. So to be able to fantasize for a couple of hours – to become Batman, to become Superman, to be able to actually do things and change things and fight for right – can be very invigorating for an audience. That’s the attraction of these Super Heroes because these stories make us feel, for a moment, empowered.
Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice is in cinemas from the 25th of March 2016.