Oscar winner Jeremy Irons’ voice, which is famously rich and resonant, is known to every child in America who’s grown up in the past 15 years as the shake-in-your-shoes voice of Scar, in Disney’s "The Lion King"
But Irons, 60, is more famous for his grown up portraits in classic series like "Brideshead Revisited" and his unforgettable Oscar winning turn in "Reversal of Fortune," where he portrayed Claus Von Bulow, the man eventually acquitted of his society heiress wife’s murder. (Sunny von Bulow lived almost 28 years in a persistent vegetative state until her death in a New York nursing home on December 6, 2008).
These days, between the acting stints that he says in recent years had lost a lot of their appeal, Irons has worked on the restoration of Kilcoe Castle, his 15th century castle in Cork, on which he has reportedly spent a million pounds bringing up to shape. If that wasn’t enough he then decided to paint the entire building an eye-catching pale pink, which has made it a must see curiosity on the local tourist trail.
“I’ve never told anybody how it cost to restore but it was a fair amount. That was a great project,” Irons told IrishCentral.com.
“I got to a stage where I was getting a little bored with the work I was doing in movies. I wanted something that scared the pants off me basically and I looked at the castle which I knew to be a ruin. I thought someone should really do it up.”
The castle, which was built in 1450 by the Irish McCarthy clan, was sacked by the British Army in 1603, so there was a certain irony in an Englishman and his Irish wife taking it upon themselves to restore a colonial spoil to its former glory. The Celtic Tiger economy suggested to Irons that someone would probably get there before him, so he decided to start the project before someone else did.
“I restored both the interior and the exterior. The structure itself was still basically sound, but the top had been knocked off and all the carved stone windows had either been knocked out or ground down by the wind,” he says.
“All the woodwork was gone –- the way castles are built means that alternate floors are wood. We had a basic skeleton to go on and we worked from the outside, put a lid on it, plumbed it for water, heating and electricity and made it good. It was a big job,” he says laughing.
As for the irony of doing it in the first place he says, “It seemed right.”
Irons is one half Irish, which he can now say with complete conviction, having taken the trouble to research his ancestors. To his great surprise, it turned out that many of them had lived and died very near the castle itself.
“My ancestors came to the north in the linen industry and then eventually came south to Innishannon in Co. Cork, near to where my castle is situated. One of them married a Cork girl. That was the main connection,” he says.
“It’s fascinating to me because Innishannon is a place I come into on my way through Skibbereen to Cork and my ancestors grew their flax there, which they sent to the mills in Skibbereen. It’s a very close geographical connection to where I feel very instinctively at home now.”
To express his affinity for all things Irish, on St. Patrick’s Day Irons wore a green carnation on stage in his new play Impressionism, currently playing on Broadway. A homage to both St. Patrick and his fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde, it delighted the audience and the actors on stage.
“It amused me and a few other people, and I think it’s nice to mark an occasion when we can. I didn’t parade and I didn’t drink –- well, not more than normal –- so it’s nice to remember that day when you’re away from home.”
Long before he had even visited Ireland Irons found himself attracted to its music and literature. Soon he became aware of formidable Irish women, too.
“Years before I met Sinead I thought to myself, you know with my blood and my background I really need some Celt. I really need an Irish wife. My friend at school had married a red headed Irish girl and I remember thinking that’s a very sensible thing to do.
“I was thrilled when I had the chance to marry Sinead,” he adds. “It also brought me into the fold of her Irish acting dynasty. For me Ireland and the Irish have allowed me to focus on my wildness, on my romanticness, that is what Ireland is, it’s the way I see it. It’s less buttoned down than what I’ve come from. Think of its great literary tradition and its musical tradition.”
In Impressionism, in which he stars alongside actress Joan Allen (best know for her roles in the Bourne Identity movies) Irons gives a generally admired performance in a difficult, underwritten new play. But taking a chance on a new script makes his job interesting, a risk worth taking, he says.
“Basically you’re looking to pay the bills, but you’re also looking to find interesting characters to play. I’ve been gravitating toward new plays that I find interesting to see whether they work,” he says.
“After this I shall be filming in the autumn. I’ll always keep those balls rolling. I started off in the theater, although I spent 20 years in the middle of my career hardly doing anything at all. But new plays always up the stakes for an actor.”
Director Jack O’Brien, who has won three Tony Awards since 2000 for "Hairspray," "Henry IV" and "The Coast of Utopia" (starring Brian F. O’Byrne) first came to prominence in San Diego where he worked as artistic director at the Old Globe Theatre.
“My own family has Kilgannons on one side and O’Brien’s on the other,” says O’Brien. “My father was born in Jackson, Michigan and I grew up there.
“But I recently uncovered my own Cork connections. I’m guided by Edna O’Brien, the Queen of Ireland. God knows I’m Irish, though –- I don’t shut my mouth. I like to have fun and I’m terribly funny in the way that the Irish are funny, and I can’t really stop it or help it or apologize for it.”
Working with Irons on "Impressionism," which the critics roundly slated, shows both the challenges and shortcomings of untested new work. But O’Brien is philosophical and delighted he had the opportunity to work with Irons.
“He’s another crazy Irishman. I knew Sinead first and so he was disposed to like me. But he’s thorny, he’s no pushover,” O’Brien says.
“He’s a very wise and very smart guy who does not suffer fools lightly. The smart thing I did was invite him up to my place for the weekend, and I cooked the food and set up the liquor and we just screamed with laughter.”
Another testament to O’Brien’s Irish pride stems from a discovery he made late in his career.
“I’ve never been able to make Irish plays work in San Diego. I began to wonder, what is it with Southern California and the Irish? And I left immediately thereafter.”
"Impressionism" is now playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, New York, N.Y. For tickets call 212-947-8844.
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