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Jeremy Irons Talks ‘Justice League,’ Oscar Bait Role in ‘Man Who Knew Infinity’

With his dog by his side, his long neck wrapped up in a maroon scarf, Jeremy Irons settles into a drab Midtown Manhattan conference room. He pushes his wiry frame into a plastic chair and turns his steely gaze at his interviewer. It’s raining outside — well, spitting — and he’s had to deal with Big Apple traffic that’s slowed to a crawl. To say nothing of overzealous security guards who are none too pleased about allowing his puppy into the office building. They don’t care if the owner has won the “Triple Crown” of acting, with a Tony, Emmy, and Oscar on his mantel. He’s tired, he says, but despite the nasty weather, he still has a certain drawing room charm, pronouncing himself “delighted” to be here.

In the next few months, he’ll be summoning up those diplomatic skills. Irons is back in the Oscar race this year for his subtle turn in “The Man Who Knew Infinity” as G.H. Hardy, a Cambridge professor who serves as a mentor to Srinivasa Ramanujan, a largely self-taught mathematical genius who grew up poor in India. It’s an inspirational true story of the sort studios don’t make much anymore, and it’s earned Irons his best reviews in years.

Not that he’s hurting for work. At 68, Irons has a full dance card. He’ll appear as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler, in “Justice League” and a standalone Batman film, and has supporting turns in “Assassin’s Creed,” an adaptation of the popular video game, and the action-comedy “Monumental.” Irons spoke with Variety about playing the brainy Hardy, religion, method acting, and those nasty “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” reviews.

Did you have an interest in math?

No I hated math. No interest in math at all.

So what drew you to the project then?

It was a great story and it introduced me to something that I knew nothing about. There was a fascinating relationship about these two geniuses. To see how they interacted through the story and how they grew to be very important to one another.

What kind of research did you do?

I read the book and I read Hardy’s “A Mathematician’s Apology.” That’s a compilation of his lectures, but it’s written in layperson’s language. Once I read that and realized that for him pure mathematics was almost poetry, I could relate to him. He believed all those theories and things and equations were out there waiting to be found. They existed and that to find them one had to fly with a mathematical imagination.

I’ve heard it said that just when math gets interesting is the point when most people’s mathematical education stops. Do you think that’s the case?

I was talking to some smart mathematicians last night and they all feel that math is taught very badly. That it’s taught by rote, with tick box answers. I don’t know how else you can teach math really. I’m not a teacher and I’m not a mathematician, but they are convinced that you could teach mathematics in a way that inspires people.

In the film your character is an avowed atheist. Are you religious?

I’m not religious. I’m spiritual. Religious seems too much like a club.

How would you describe Hardy?

A pretty dry guy. He’d been pretty concentrated on his math and sport a bit, too. He did like his sport, but not a great social animal. He wasn’t fusty, but he was academic. That point of the movie when he begins to open up emotionally to another person through that shared passion for mathematics was very interesting.

This isn’t really an artsy film. It’s an accessible story and it’s the kind of film that a major studio would have made 15 years ago. Does it worry you that projects like this struggle to find backing?

I’m old enough now that I don’t let it worry me. The way the business is going is the way the business is going. But you’re right. They’re spending all their time and money making some great television. My god there’s a lot of it. And making a lot of big budget movies. There’s lots of CGI and explosions and chases and people dressed up in funny clothes because they come from different places and different times, and that’s fine. That’s fine. I think there’s still an appetite among a certain audience to see intelligent movies that have real emotion in them. The problem comes down to when you start distributing the movie, because that’s so expensive. It’s very hard to get a film like this out to everybody. There’s so much competition out there. Just so much to see.

Do you watch a lot of television?

I don’t watch a lot of television. I try to watch all the good movies, but I’ve got about twenty of these television series that I should be watching. I haven’t seen “The Wire.” I haven’t seen “Mad Men.” I haven’t seen Kevin’s thing. What’s that called? “House of Cards.” I hear it’s wonderful. If I was bedridden for a couple of years, maybe I could catch up.

How do you decide what projects to do?

It’s a gut feeling. Is it a film that interests me or a story, character, or director I like. On the business side, it helps you get budgets for smaller films to do films of a certain scale.

Do you find bigger films like “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” as fulfilling as the smaller projects?

Less so, because they’re so slow. There’s a lot of waiting around and then a huge amount of publicity. One spends 70% of the time doing publicity, 10% of the time filming, and 20% of the time waiting.

I love working with Ben [Affleck] and Zack Snyder. They’ve been fun.

What was your approach to Alfred? He seems more a man of action than previous takes on the character?

I remember an evening with Paul Getty, who was a neighbor of mine, now sadly dead. We drove up to his lovely house. A very nice gentleman opened up the car door. Then another very nice gentleman took the car and parked it somewhere. Another nice gentleman took my coat. And then another nice gentleman gave me a glass of champagne. And all those nice gentleman were SAS. I thought, that’s Alfred. He’s a man who will take care of his boss, whether he’s making coffee or pouring champagne or flying his airplane.

Will he have more to do in “Justice League” than he did in “Batman v Superman”?

Similar, but then, of course, Ben’s going to make a Batman film next summer. He promises me there’s going to be a bit more of Alfred in that. In the “Justice League” we have seven major lead characters and I’m the butler to one of them. It’s clear I will not be dominating that film.

Were you upset by the harsh reviews for “Batman v Superman”?

Not at all. I was very pleased by the numbers. Zack seems to get a hard time from the press, which is strange. I don’t know if it has to do with the sort of secrecy that surrounds the making of it all. But the audience liked it, which in the end is all that matters.

What interested you about “Assassin’s Creed”? Do you play video games?

I didn’t know anything about “Assassin’s Creed.” It’s a completely new world to me.

You were just in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and you appear frequently on stage. Is theater an itch you need to scratch?

It’s nice to keep in touch with it. [“Long Day’s Journey Into Night”] was a mountain, but I think it’s good if you have the energy to climb the old mountain. I’d seen Laurence Olivier do it when I was in my twenties and it was always a role that was a bit like Lear, where you think, that’s a big one. I was happy to have the opportunity to work my muscles. They can get a bit flabby sometimes.

Anthony Hopkins gave up the stage because he said he was tired of repeating the same performance every night. Do you ever feel that way?

No. I would say to Anthony, does he surf? When he comes in on one wave does he say, “Oh god, now I’ve got to do another wave. Why am I doing all these waves?” Each one is different. You can do better. That’s how I feel about playing in the theater. Each audience is different. Your energy is different each night. Everything changes a bit.

I don’t want to do it too long. I hope that we’re going to be able to bring “Long Day’s Journey” to New York in 2018 and then to Los Angeles with the same cast. But not for a Broadway run. I couldn’t do that. We’re going to be at the BAM and then the Wallis Theater, I think it’s called. We’ll do it for a few weeks in London before we come.

Your son, Max Irons, is an actor. Did you want him to get into the profession?

I tried to persuade him not to, but I want him to be happy, and his passion is to do it. He seems to be doing well. He’s employed. He’s making a couple of pictures in England with Glenn Close. But he’s not very good with his down time yet. If he was like his father, he’d enjoy not working more than he’d enjoy working. He tends to get nervous he’s never going to work again.

Are you a method actor? Can you turn it off the second filming stops?

I don’t turn it off. I don’t need people to call me by my character’s name. I wouldn’t call myself a method actor, but I have my own method. I do my own research. I come up with a background for the character. I’m not a club man. I don’t like isms. I’ve never really studied Stanislavski.  Acting’s very easy. You have to ignore all the distractions around you. You have to be able to play and to think and to listen and to concentrate and to learn lines and to have a musical ear. It’s not rocket science.

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