Jeremy Irons: ‘I have the natural tendency of a benign dictator’

The veteran actors run of flawed gentlemen continues with his roles in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and High-Rise. He explains his trouble with democracy and why his statue of buddha is so important

By his own admission, Jeremy Irons is good at getting into trouble. Last week, he was on breakfast radio twice. On Chris Evanss show, he swore at 9.10am; on Today, he annoyed some by saying he would refuse a knighthood, others with his explanation (I became an actor to be a rogue and a vagabond).

His stickiest slip was three years ago, when he cautioned that gay marriage could lead fathers to marry their sons to avoid inheritance tax (Incest is there to protect us from inbreeding). There was uproar, followed by a faintly baffled clarification. Later, Ironss son Max he has two with wife Sinad Cusack said his father was just working through an argument out loud and got lost in the loopholes.

To meet Irons is to appreciate what he might have meant. Here is a smart man singularly unsuited for the social media age and egged on by its outrage. He is compassionate, but also unstudied, slightly naive, contrarian, contradictory and compulsive. Intentionally so. If he opens his mouth, its to spitball. He would like us all to do the same.

I think all of society should be a thinktank where you throw ideas about. I had hoped the internet would help. Actually, what it has done is make everybody go schtum. Theyre attacked for saying anything. So they say nothing.

Irons sighs at the memory of gay-marriage-gate. Secret homophobia seems unlikely (big break: Brideshead; best man: Christopher Biggins, who also came on the honeymoon; in 1991, Irons was the first celeb to wear an Aids ribbon to an awards ceremony). Its more likely he was interested in the tax aspect. I have developed a life which seems to need a relatively high income, he says. It includes six houses and a 15th-century castle in Cork, for which Irons took two years off to renovate; he painted the external walls peach.

As for marriage? Hes all for it all for anything that helps lead us from temptation. Our society is based on a Christian structure, he says. If you take those religious tenets away, then anything goes and it will become terrible and you usually get into trouble.

Irons with his wife, actor Sinad Cusack. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

Adultery might be very nice, but finally it fucks us up. And it fucks up the structure of society. We dont steal well, some people do because it makes life intolerable for everybody. Yes, you can be in love and raise a family wonderfully by not being married, but actually marriage does give us a strength, because its quite hard to get out of, and so it makes us fight more to keep it together. If divorce becomes dead easy which it sort of has then we dont have that backup. Because, for everybody, relationships are hard.

Take abortion, he says. I believe women should be allowed to make the decision, but I also think the church is right to say its a sin. Because sin is actions that harm us. Lying harms us. Abortion harms a woman its a tremendous mental attack, and physical, sometimes. But we seem to get that muddled. In a way, thank God the Catholic church does say we wont allow it, because otherwise nobodys saying that its a sin.

Dont be fooled by the brimstone. Irons is lovely company. He is generous as well as garrulous, warm and kind and tactile (you feel his arm behind your back before you shake his hand). He was like that at a posh supper and Q&A in Toronto last autumn and on a roof terrace the next day (steampunk coat, huge boots). Hes like that today, too, in a London rehearsal room as the sun sets, perched on a stool by the window so he can chain-smoke, swaddled in layers of leather and linen. Smudge his 18-month-old jack russell/bichon frise mix and I take a tatty sofa near the heater.

For a man who traded antiques to put himself through drama school,such decor is difficult. I make a good home, he says. Always have. The other day, he found an 1830s chair he really fancied. I thought: I want it, to sit in it and have it in my house. Its like if you meet a wonderful person and think: Id love to have them to dinner and spend time with them.

Irons as mathematician GH Hardy: He loved his mind. And I think he lived in his mind. Photograph: Warner Brothers

He sips a capful of the Famous Grouse Ive brought. I believe inanimate objects have a spirit. He continues with considered articulation: energy never dies, just travels, so the older an object is, the more it has absorbed. Sometimes, its evil (spooky experience with an African mask). Usually, its not: a sculpture from Chad acts as a real force for positivity sort of like a relationship glue; a buddha from Burma gives good vibes from the foot of the stairs.

I often just sit and commune with him. Which you need to do. Theyre used to being spoken to; they were part of a culture, a religion. If theyre ignored, they die. But its symbiotic? He looks right through you. Something connects. It puts things in proportion. Youre working on a play or a movie and think its the end of the fucking world. What comes out of him is massive and calming and the slight smile says: Come on

The buddha must have been busy lately: at 67, Irons is working like a packhorse. Earlier this week he opened in A Long Days Journey Into Night, Eugene ONeills drama about an actor with a morphine-addict wife, last week in Ben Wheatleys film of JG Ballards High-Rise. Maths biopic The Man Who Knew Infinity is out in a fortnight and this Friday sees the release of his first blockbuster in 20 years: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Hes Alfred, Ben Afflecks butler a more competent and acid helpmeet than Michael Caines doddery codger.

In all four, he plays variations on a familiar theme: the distinguished gent with an inner flaw, apparently impeccable, actually cracked. Men of casual eloquence whose commands we like Smudge obey, wagging even when the signs point to trouble. Maybe the most recognisable for fans of Dead Ringers, Reversal of Fortune and Die Hard 3 is Anthony Royal, High-Rises architect, depravity detectable under the manners. Royal lives atop his brutalist tower block, regarding calmly as the social experiment beneath implodes.

Depravity detectable under the manners Irons as Anthony Royal in High-Rise. Photograph: Allstar/Film4

Irons shares with Royal some sensibility I have the natural tendency of a, hopefully benign, dictator but not an aesthetic. I need the earth, the garden, I need weather. He tuts at the view. I think city life encourages a certain behaviour not a behaviour I like. As more of us are compressed, we tend to cut off more from each other. The fault of the designers or the residents? The money builds the sty and the pigs have to live in it. But so much of the world now is run like that. If something is going to make money, thats allowed.

Irons felt better in Cambridge. Yet The Man Who Knew Infinity also shows the place as a golden dolls house that cossets the don he plays, Trinity College maths professor GH Hardy. It also stifles his protege, Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel), who arrives just before the first world war.

Its an unusually abashed turn from Irons: scant eye-contact, emotional gaps. Sexless, too. Hard sums are as far as the bromance goes. But Hardy loved his mind. And I think he lived in his mind.

Did he detect evidence, while shooting, of the kind of class prejudice or racial bias the film addresses? Irons says correct things about the injustice of skint kids being priced out. But, of course, if you want to succeed, then you can overcome that.

Irons was born on the Isle of Wight, educated at Sherborne, then, sick of the ramrod types he has ended up riffing on since, thought he would join the circus. He changed his mind when he saw inside the caravans, so went to Bristol Old Vic. A decade on came Brideshead.

Anthony Andrews and Irons in Brideshead Revisited, the latters big break. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features

The legacy of that series, for audiences, is to for ever associate the actor with academia. For Irons, too. Yet, being a poster boy via pretence seems to have bred in him fondness and disdain for establishment higher education. He loves being a guest at high table, with extraordinary people allowed to be real eccentrics, not smoothed out by society. But he also scoffs at overthinking and prizes being an autodidact. Hes enormously proud of being asked to be the voice of TS Eliot by the poets widow, Valerie; he hopes his gentle, sober radio reading of Four Quartets is among his best work. Im not intellectual at all. I would read them with a gut instinct and she responded to that, said thats the way, with its inconsistencies and naughtiness.

Hes similarly torn about Westminster. Sometimes, he suppers at the House of Lords. You think: God, this place is fantastic architecturally, but its a different world. What does it have to do with Bradford and Huddersfield and Swansea wrecked cities where theres no work and no investment? He loathes the Eton-alumni cabinet, yet is sceptical about the MPs that came in under Blair to whom he contributed funds who cant cut the mustard at the despatch box, because debating isnt a state-school staple.

As for Corbyn? I think he might be the death knell. I love his idealism, but hes not what I would call a politician. I think the Labour party is no longer fit for purpose. What we very, very, very strongly need is a not a party that represents the labour movement, but everyone who doesnt like that we are governed, in effect, by global economics. We have to find an intelligent alternative to the Conservative ethos.

Irons talks politics two-thirds of the time. Plugging products takes second place, perhaps third or fourth once you count chairs and sin. He shares ideas about the migrant crisis (barter EU membership with Turkey by building them a proper refugee city with makeshift embassies), Africa, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, pollution, recycling, industrial faming and prison recidivism.

Irons and Dev Patel in The Man Who Knew Infinity: An unusually abashed turn from Irons.

Why such evangelism? Why so frank? In part, its because he is genuinely offended: civilising is a watchword. Despite his talk of honours rejection, there is something of a brighter Prince Charles to Irons (I know if you play music to plants they do better). Theres also perhaps an element of rebellion: his father, an accountant, advised him against involvement in such matters.

Most strongly, hes fuelled by the conviction that so irks people about some of his peers: that having a platform brings with it a duty to use it. If youre a politician, you cant, because it might affect your career. People dont take what actors say very seriously, because they know theyve nothing to win or lose. And if they dont speak freely? I think its a waste.

This vocation, he says, rolling another cigarette, affords insight, because it involves travel, and inhabiting other mindsets. He remembers asking the mayor of Jakarta why they didnt give people bins so they wouldnt chuck stuff into the river. And he said: Because people would live in them. And I said: Ah, I see your problem.

Thats why, while Irons hates committees, [hates] having to convince people, hes also allergic to interventionism. Its like genetic engineering. Everything is held in balance, whether good or not, by diverse internal forces. Syria deals with the opposition with great cruelty, but there are cruel people, as one sees from Isis, and youre not going to remove that part of nature from those fanatics at that stage of their civilising development. Yet everybody especially the Americans seems to think the only way of life is theirs. Democracy? What the fuck does that mean? Freedom? What the fuck does that mean?

Irons is a figure of everyday glamour: zipping about on his motorbike, shinning up his castle, thin as a ripped whippet, a rogue and a vagabond, dressed for the part and proud of it. Photograph: Adela Loconte/WireImage

The deeper Irons goes, the doomier he gets. Real worry is etched on his head. Its not the scotch: those caps are dinky. The US election signals maybe the end of democracy. If democracy has become a gameshow where you vote for the one who makes you laugh most, or whatever, then were not worthy to have the vote.

Brexit is no better, but weve been cheated of proper debate, because the cabinet hasnt deigned to present simply the pros and cons. They have this sort of aristocratic view of the great unwashed, how you get them to vote a certain way. Hence the rise of Farage. People feel so cut off are so cut off.

More unexpectedly, this is also one reason why he thinks Batman v Superman makes for rewarding viewing. It concludes, he says, that we must all be responsible and involved. Batman is the questioning everyman, Superman, the American drone.

Our feeling of powerlessness must be why we love superheroes, he says arts in general, in fact, be it Batman or Coriolanus or sitting in the music hall and watching Lillie Langtry walk about being very flirtatious and lovely. For a minute, shes yours, out of your own maudlin, little life.

Irons is currently starring opposite Lesley Manville in Eugene ONeills Long Days Journey Into Night. Photograph: Seamus Ryan

That said, Irons concedes he doesnt quite clock it. I dont really understand how people get obsessed by a thing on screen, he says. Never have. Is it odd that someone who has worked in cinema so long feels like this? Perhaps not. Irons does not require vicarious living. He has been a star for 40 years. He is also a figure of everyday glamour: zipping about on his motorbike, puppy riding pillion, shinning up his castle, thin as a ripped whippet, a rogue and a vagabond, dressed for the part and proud of it.

At that Toronto supper, I tell him, there seemed to be a real sense that, at 67, the crowd still found him highly attractive. He demurs. The way people see me is a sort of composite of the films theyve seen me in, and some have had a sort of sexually attractive aspect. Quite useful if 50% of the audience is female.

But how will he feel in another decade? Does that frighten him? Oh, I ache a bit more in the mornings than I used to. My relationship with my wife changes as we get older, and I find that fascinating. There are great, good things that come. But I dont think when I get old, craggy and smelly Im going to mind.

He sucks his rollup and smiles. The secret to ageing is to remain interested and not look back. I know some things could have gone better, but at the time that was the best I could do. And then he says something rather amazing: Ive never regretted anything in my life. I guess getting into trouble doesnt seem so terrible if you dont care youre there.

High-Rise is on general release; A Long Days Journey Into Night runs at the Bristol Old Vic until 23 April; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opens in the UK on 25 March, The Man Who Knew Infinity on 8 April

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