The voice is the sound of what one critic called “chocolate on gravel,” and it’s served Jeremy Irons superbly for close to four decades. It won him a 1984 Tony for The Real Thing, a 1991 Oscar for Reversal of Fortune, and a 2006 Emmy for Elizabeth I — plus a couple of auxiliary Emmys for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance (1996’s The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century) and Outstanding Narrator (2012’s Big Cat Week). Yet still he falls one award short of a full EGOT sweep. That could change soon. Last year, Irons cleared his throat and went gunning for that elusive Grammy, applying all his mellifluent might to recording the complete works of T.S. Eliot for the BBC. (A four-CD set of this is currently in release, from Faber & Faber.)
These days, Irons has reached these shores in the flesh in preparation for a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, directed by Richard Eyre and co-starring Phantom Thread’s Lesley Manville. It was started two years ago to mark the 250th anniversary of the Bristol Old Vic theater, where Irons trained as an actor. Earlier this year, it was reassembled for a West End run at London’s Wyndham. Next stops: the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey (May 8–27), and then on to the Wallis Annenberg in Los Angeles.
Giving voice to two of the last century’s greatest writers is something Irons brings off with effortless aplomb and assurance. Prior to taking on O’Neill’s demons at BAM, he had a night at the 92nd Street Y, doing an hour-long recitation of his favorite Eliot. He didn’t just read the poetry — he acted it, in a natural and uninsistent manner that made it movingly accessible to the rapt, sold-out house.
“The Cats poems are lovely, and The Waste Land is fantastic, and some of the others are great — but, for me, Four Quartets is his arpège, where it all comes together,” Irons says somberly. “It’s where I think people try to get when they meditate. It’s what some Indian gurus have. I think Four Quartets is an attempt, over four poems, to describe what that is and how one gets to it. It’s imperfect, but it contains wonderful ideas which only poetry really can get near. You couldn’t do it in prose, and you really couldn’t do it verbally describing it. It’s like Leonard Cohen’s line, ‘Look for the cracks — that’s where the light gets in.’ I’m a great believer in that. I think that there are many cracks in Four Quartets, but it has a great luminosity as a poem.”
Irons owes his introduction to Eliot to the late Josephine Hart, whose novel Damage was the basis of his 1992 Louis Malle film of the same name with Juliette Binoche. “Josephine did poetry readings and got me to read quite a bit of Eliot. His widow, Valerie Eliot, attended a lot of them, and she told me once afterwards, ‘I think you’re today’s voice of Eliot. Every period has its own Eliot voice, and I think you are today’s. I’d love for you to record as much as you can of him.’ So I recorded it all for the BBC. We put it out all in one day on Radio 4 on the first of January  — eight hours of poetry, and all Eliot.”
He approached these poems much the way he approaches a character. “I’m not very intellectual as a person,” says the man who tosses off “arpège” and “luminosity” like bonbons. “I never studied Eliot till I had to record it, and then I really studied it — but not as an intellectual, just as an instinctive actor. ‘What do those lines mean?’ ‘What feeling was he trying to get across?’ I approached it that way, saying, ‘This has to be between me and him, between Jeremy and Eliot. What does it mean to you, Jeremy? And can I pass that on to the listener?’ I think — with Four Quartets — we did that.”
Irons’s entry level into O’Neill’s autobiographical “play of old sorrow” was a much straighter shot: The career path not taken by James Tyrone, the play’s penny-pinching patriarch, notably parallels his own — a comparison Irons himself invites. Both were seduced by Dame Success, opting for the easy, commercial route instead of one that tightened their grasp on their craft. Rather than challenge himself as an actor with Shakespeare and such, Tyrone took the popular path and endlessly toured in his signature hit, The Count of Monte Cristo. Similarly, when Brideshead Revisited brought Irons forth in 1981, stage took an emphatic back seat to screen. He had started in movies the year before, and now has amassed some ninety credits.
The closest Irons has come to a comparable Count of Monte Cristo cash-cow concession has been butlering for Batman as Alfred Pennyworth. “That role only needs me for a month or two every year, but I do see that compromise, and I can easily understand it — even though the business is not now like it was when Tyrone was an actor. Back then, there were potboilers, and there was Shakespeare. Now, there’s film and TV — not so much Shakespeare — but I do look at actors like Sir Ian McKellen and think, ‘Well, if I’d really worked my socks off, I could have gone for that sort of career and done movies later.’ But I distinctly remember when I was making movies and he wasn’t, he deeply wanted to be.”
Save for a filmed Merchant of Venice in 2004, when he played Antonio to Al Pacino’s Shylock, Irons has all but abandoned the Bard for movies. But, before cinema called, he got off a good lick playing Petruchio (to Zoë Wanamaker’s Kate), and another later, in 1986, playing Richard II. The Melancholy Dane got away, “but I don’t regret it. I would have liked to have done it. There was a time in my career when I was trying to get Harold Pinter to direct it. I think everyone’s got a Hamlet in them, but it’d be lovely to have a really interesting, transcendental viewpoint on the play. And I would have liked to have done Benedict, also. There are a lot of Shakespearean roles that would have been fun, but I would have liked to have done more. You can’t do everything, you know.
“It’s different now. I don’t think — had I not made movies — I could have had the sort of career Olivier had, for instance, because we don’t do that many plays. I remember reading his autobiography — and I think at the end of chapter two there was a list that took a whole page of the plays he’d done. They listed them all, and they said at the end, ‘And he had done this by the time he was 27.’ You couldn’t do that now.”
Laurence Olivier was the first James Tyrone that Irons ever saw, and it’s with him still. “I saw him do it with Constance Cummings when I was in my twenties. He was such a brilliant actor. It was the last production they did at his National Theater, and it was sorta iconic. It remains iconic, certainly, in memory. At the time, it was great.” He continues, “I saw the film with Katie Hepburn and Ralph Richardson — with moderate rapture.” Spencer Tracy turned down Tyrone because he couldn’t see himself as an aging matinee idol. “Maybe he’s right, but I think he would have been absolutely perfect,” Irons counters.
Irons also recalls a speedy, sharply edited edition that Jonathan Miller directed with Jack Lemmon and Bethel Leslie in the mid Eighties, as well as the most recent Broadway revival with Gabriel Byrne and a Tony-winning Jessica Lange. “I think it’s always Mary’s play. Hers is the journey, and the three men are coping with that journey. I think if it’s not her journey, if it’s not her play, then there is something missing.”
These are the performances that filed through Irons’s mind as he was preparing his own James Tyrone. “When I watched the play before I knew I would do it, I always gave into the play. But, once I knew I was going to do it, I thought, ‘I want to see what other people have come up with and see whether I can learn anything from them.’
“I think, in a way, Tyrone is like Lear. You bring to it what you have as a person, as an actor. You look at all the disparate people who have played it, and you think, ‘Well, they’re not similar at all, but they bring what they have.’ Olivier is interesting. He said, ‘Don’t play it. If you try to play it as an actor, you’re completely fucked because it’s not really about the fact that the guy is an actor.’ Actors are no different in their homes than other people — well, they are sometimes — but they don’t behave like actors, just like painters don’t normally behave like painters. It’s what they do and where their minds are, but they have the same domestic difficulties and domestic behavior as people in other professions. Certainly, there’s nothing in the text — apart from a few theatrical quotes — which shows that he behaves in an actorly way. Yes, he’s quite bombastic, but I think he’s certainly a class A individual.”
Now “next door to seventy,” Irons could himself step into the septuagenarian roles played in his Brideshead breakout by a pair of legends — John Gielgud and Olivier. The latter, in particular, was acutely instructive on that project. “It was a great eye-opener for me because I saw [Olivier as a] tiger,” he remembers, “this tiger who was watching while other people rehearse — what they were doing, how he could shine. I thought, ‘Ah, so it never leaves you. You never become secure as an actor. You’re always watching, watching, watching…’ ”