Jeremy Irons on ‘The Borgias’ and Margin Call

The veteran actor tells us about playing Rodrigo Borgia and the undercurrent behind his role in Margin Call.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

“The Borgias” is currently airing its second season on Showtime. The series dramatizes the history of the papal family in 15th century Italy. Jeremy Irons is Rodrigo Borgia, the man who would become Pope Alexander VI. He’s also the legendary actor from films like Dead Ringers, Damage, Reversal of Fortune, The Lion King, Die Hard with a Vengeance and recently Margin Call.

At the Television Critics Association session for “The Borgias,” we focused on Irons and gained insight into work and his knowledge of history and politics.


CraveOnline: With the allowance for adult content on pay cable, do you feel even more freedom than on very edgy R-rated movies like Dead Ringers?

Jeremy Irons: I’d say it’s about the same. I’d say what is going out on cable is about what we were doing on what I call artistic movies like Damage. It’s pretty free. I had to dub the word “bitch” out the other day because apparently on airlines that’s not allowed. So I had to change it to “witch.” Those sort of anomalies are curious but in a way I think we have about the same freedom.

CraveOnline: Is playing the historical figure Rodrigo Borgia similar or different to playing Claus von Bulow who was still alive while you’re playing him?

Jeremy Irons: Everything’s different. Everything’s different, everything’s similar. You’re playing a role, that’s similar but it’s a completely different character, so that’s different. There are similarities and differences and you can’t really compare Claus and the Pope.

CraveOnline: But two real life people, one still alive, one long passed.

Jeremy Irons: I suppose I can be a little bit more free with playing the pope because historically we know a bit about him, but not as much about him as we know about Claus who was still walking around outside and still is.

CraveOnline: Are there some episodes with a lot of really juicy dialogue in this season?

Jeremy Irons: Yeah, there’s a little, there’s a little. Inevitably it becomes more and more about the family so as Lucrezia, as Cesare develop those characters, they are more in the center of the story and they have more juicy dialogue but he always tries to give me something to get my mouth around.

CraveOnline: How does doing “The Borgias” compare to the "Brideshead Revisited" series you did for BBC a long time ago? 

Jeremy Irons: It's strange you should say that because I was talking just now about the fact that it's such a happy time doing "The Borgias." We are such a great new mix, out in Budapest, wonderful actors, wonderful production team, wonderful technicians. And Budapest is a lovely place to be. 

We are able to work over a five month period, telling this story with tremendous support.  I was saying just before we came on to do this that it's not since doing "Brideshead" that I felt so comfortable about making a program. It just works. The way it's constructed, it works. Of course we are always fighting to make things better. But, for me, it's a very similar experience in many ways to making "Brideshead," which was a very hands off production. 

Granada Television, who produced "Brideshead," the governors would ring up our producer and say, "Now, where in the world are you today?" They sort of let us do it.  They set it up right. We are very lucky to have James Flynn, for example, who is there on the spot, organizing it. And when it's set up right, it rolls right.  It's like a motorcar that's been built right. It's huge fun to drive. And, for me, that's what the experience of doing "The Borgias" is and thinking back what "Brideshead" was.


CraveOnline: In Margin Call you actually had me convinced to give you all my money. Was that an interesting way to make a guy like that charming?

Jeremy Irons: Well, I think these CEOs are enormously charming and enormously convincing. That’s why they have their job. That’s why they’ve gotten there and their job is to keep that ship afloat, and that’s what he does quite pragmatically. I think from the outside we can look and say, “How useful is it to society that these very talented people do nothing but make money out of money? Isn’t it an awful waste of their talents?”

And if you have no morality, which business doesn’t have, all business is amoral, it’s out to increase profits for their shareholders, so if you take that into consideration, and I think that is why we have gotten into that position. We must introduce morality into business and we musts question whether money should be used for what I believe its purpose is which is to buy and make things that we need, and not be used to make yet more money.

That’s where it goes wrong and interestingly, the early Christians, you weren’t allowed to do it. Money was not to be used to make money and it was the Jews who then started charging interest on loans. Not allowed for the Christians until they realized in about the 1300s I think that Jews were making an enormous amount of money doing that so therefore maybe some of them should do the same thing.

But I think it got out of hand in the last 15 years and we were encouraged to live beyond our means, to have interest free credit, to allow our houses to increase in value way above any sense of reality. We enjoyed that, we enjoyed the fruits of that, being able to re-mortgage and go away on holidays and buy absurd cars, and I think now we’re paying for that. You lesser in this country but I think you have it to come I’m afraid, and the idiocy of the Republican candidates now saying that the reason for the crash was overregulation. Overregulation!

And that that’s being swallowed by so many of this country is ludicrous. The rest of the world is standing with their mouths agape at the boldness of the Republican candidates.

CraveOnline: You see they’re still charming characters who can spin it.

Jeremy Irons: Of course they are. Of course they are. That’s why they’re so successful. That’s why they’re so rich because they’re charming characters and they can spin it. That’s the same the world over, isn’t it?

CraveOnline: So we need to say no.

Jeremy Irons: We need to say no. We have to.

CraveOnline: When you look you up on IMDB it says “actor, Die Hard with a Vengeance.” Why do you think that’s the one they singled out?

Jeremy Irons: I don't know. When I go to Asia it’s always the one they talk about. I think because it’s played every Christmas weekend.

CraveOnline: But The Lion King is big. Everyone sees The Lion King.

Jeremy Irons: Well, that’s true but maybe people don’t put my face to that, they don’t put my voice to that.

CraveOnline: How does it feel that kids today are still discovering The Lion King?

Jeremy Irons: Delightful. I was really amazed by the taking to that re-release. It did really well. Wasn’t it $150 million or something? It had a really amazing take. But you see, good story. Good story always sells.

CraveOnline: You have such a distinct voice. Was there a point in your career where you realized that was a particularly valuable tool of yours, and was there any specific training you did with your voice? 

Jeremy Irons: You have to be very careful. I remember when I was, I suppose about 29 or 30, I was having a cup of coffee with John Hurt, a great chap that some of you might be aware of, and we were bemoaning the fact that there were an awful lot of good, young actors beginning to appear, sort of 19, 20, 21-year-olds.

We were aware that we were suddenly beginning to develop lines. We were now no longer the young, bright newcomers. He said, "Do you know what I'd do to them? If I meet one, I'd say, 'You know, you have a wonderful voice. Have you ever listened to it?'" And you know from then on they are f***ed. So the answer is I'm not aware of my voice.