In director Stephen Hopkins’ Race, Jeremy Irons plays Avery Brundage, the controversial and longtime head of the International Olympic Committee who insisted that the United States send a team to the 1936 Games despite the fact that they were being held in Hitler’s Germany. Brundage’s involvement and position with the Olympics was marred by a conflict of interest (his construction company was also hired to build a massive German embassy in Washington D.C.), although by all accounts he was dedicated to keeping politics and commercialization out of the Olympics as much as possible.
The foreground action of Race is the story of the legendary African-American track and field star Jesse Owens (played here by Stephan James) who won four gold medals at the ’36 Games despite the racial animosity he faced not just from the Nazis but from people in his own country and even on his own team. Race captures the uneasy atmosphere of the times, both in racial and geopolitical terms, while presenting a portrait of a young man who was flawed in his own way but so incredibly talented that he forced people to look past their prejudices.
Den of Geek met with Jeremy Irons recently in Los Angeles, where he spoke about playing Brundage, researching the role and the era, and his approach to real-life characters. He also commented on his next high-profile part, as Alfred Pennyworth in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, as well as working with the acclaimed director Ben Wheatley on his adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian High-Rise.
Den of Geek: I knew about the ’36 Olympics, of course, but I didn’t know who Avery Brundage was. I’m curious what you knew about him…
Jeremy Irons: I knew nothing. Until I talked to a friend of mine. He said, “Oh, yes. Avery Brundage.” He only retired from the Olympic Committee in the ‘90s. And he was not much liked. He was, I think, quite aggressive and self-opinionated. Well, that was later in life. We weren’t playing that period. I read about where he came from and what he did. He was a construction mogul in Chicago.
Obviously, he was a big forceful man who was ideal for the job, had been a sportsman. Loved sport. Wanted to protect sport. Wanted sport to be something which was above politics, purely physical competition between the best athletes in the world. And he didn’t want that to be mired with politics, which is, I think, why he fought so hard both to get America to the Berlin Olympics and to make the Munich Olympics in the ‘70s when he was back at his job, to keep that going, not to stop the Olympics after the terrorist attack in Munich. So I thought he was a pragmatic man. You see his pragmatism at the end when he’s sort of forced into a corner and has to do something he probably wouldn’t much liked to have done.
What are the details that you learned while getting to know who he was that either surprised you or aided your performance?
Well, the fact he had been a sportsman, the fact that this was his real business, what he cared about. That he did what he did, that was enough to tell me about him. I relied a lot on Stephen Hopkins and the script for telling me what…What you do in a movie is you join up the dots, and the dots are sort of, A, what you do through the story and, B, what you say.
And I felt even though he had a pretty unpleasant reputation at the end of this life — he made a lot of enemies — I didn’t feel it was necessary to play someone who was unpleasant and rude. Certainly that wasn’t in the script. So I played what I discovered about him, tried to put that inside him and then play was written, and hoped that the story would work like that.
Even though there are also things about him that were shady, like getting the contract for the German embassy in Washington, it seemed like, ultimately, he had good interests at heart.
Yeah, I believe he did. I believe he cared passionately about sport, about international sport, and about amateur sport. And we see what’s happened with professional sport now. It’s not quite the same. There’s a great thing about amateur sport; it is purer. And the athletes are not open to so much pressure with amateur sport.
Do you think what he was sort of warning against, the over-commercialization of sports, has come to fruition?
I do, actually, yes. I don’t know enough about American sport. I don’t actually know about Olympic sport. I mean everything seems to be taken over by the commercial. You know, even in the music business. The wonderful festivals. Take Glastonbury, for example, how that was when it started and how it is now. It’s this massive thing. And the whole world seems to be going that way. I mean travel now, it’s very hard to find intensely pure places that haven’t been commercialized. Commerce seems to be covering every aspect of our lives now. Which me, because I’m a romantic, is sad for me to say.
You said you leaned on Stephen Hopkins and the script for this role. But for someone like Claus Von Bulow (who Irons won a Best Actor Oscar for portraying in Reversal of Fortune), where there was obviously TV and things like that where you can see the person, hear how they talk, see how they move, will you work with that?
I do. I may not choose to go that way. But I mean I played a character a while ago on British television, and I got a recording of his voice and listened to it. I went in the next day to film and I said to the director, “Do you know this is how he sounded?” And I started speaking and he said, “You can’t sound like that.” I said, “Well, why not?” He said, “Because people just won’t accept it. You sound an absolute prick.” I said, “But that’s how they talked in the late ‘40s and ‘50s.” He said, “Yeah, but things have changed. You can’t do that now because people will read colors which actually aren’t in his character,” which, at the time, they wouldn’t have.
So one has to be careful. I was very concerned about this film with Stephen, I said, “We must make this film truly with the attitudes of 1936. And those attitudes are very different than now, because now we’ve got the Holocaust.” But if you look back historically, you will find both Sweden and America, all through Europe there was talk about purifying the race, about keeping races strong. In every country that’s what the philosophers and the scientists were concentrating on.
And it was only when one country took that and flew with it and we all saw what the outcome was of trying to wipe out the Gypsies, trying to wipe out the Jews, trying to wipe out the infirm and those with terrible deformities and whatever. We thought, “Well, we can’t do that.” But at that time in the late ‘20s and the ‘30s, everybody was talking about that, about purifying everybody’s race. Suddenly, people say, “Oh, no. we never discussed that. That’s terrible. It was just the Germans.” But, actually it was in the air. So I said to Stephen, “We mustn’t make this film knowing what’s going to happen. We must try and make it with the naiveté those people had at that time.”
Can you talk about working with William Hurt? I read that this is the first time you two have worked together.
First time I worked with Bill, yeah. He’s a complete and absolute pleasure. I’d admired him all my life. I’d known him for about the last 30 or 40 years, but not well. I mean I basically sort of met him at dinner a few times. I’ve always loved his work. It was an absolute joy to be able to spend the three or four days that we did working. I was able to watch him and really admire how he works. It was great.
How are the two of you different, would you say, in working methods?
Bill is very intellectual. He’s a bit more neurotic, maybe, than me. He needs to talk around things a lot. I tend to be a little bit more instinctive. But he’s always questioning, always looking for the truth of a situation and the truth of a feeling, always questioning. And I love that. It’s too easy just to do it on your bottom. Do you know what I mean? And he’s always a very fine actor.
We’re going to see you in this and then we’re going to see you in Batman v Superman a few weeks later. What was your approach to that character, who has got this 75-year history and who has got some other great actors who have played him?
Well, I put myself in the hands of Zack Snyder, who had helped write the script. He wanted a very different sort of Alfred. And I was happy to go along with that.
Michael Caine is wonderful, but he’s Michael Caine. I am a different sort of actor. I was glad with the choice he made. I was conscious, of course, that I was following the footsteps of some great people — Michael, Michael Gough before that. Once again, very different. And I was pleased to take it in a slightly different direction.
What do you see as Alfred’s role in this? To me it seems like he’s sort of the grounded one with all these super beings whizzing around him.
Alfred is the earth, so to speak, to Batman’s positive and negative energies, because he’s been his protector for most of his life, since his parents died. And he has many skills, Alfred. But you’ll wait and see the film.
Did you enjoy working with Ben?
I loved it. Yeah, I loved it. With Zack Snyder, too. We had fun.
You played the brother of the late Alan Rickman’s Die Hard character in Die Hard with a Vengeance. You even played Severus Snape in a parody of Harry Potter. But did you know Alan?
I did. Not well. I never worked with him. But I was a great admirer of his work, both as an actor and a director. I saw a wonderful production he did at the Brooklyn Academy. I can’t remember the name of the play now. But he was a very fine man and an interesting actor with a great individual quality about him. It’s awful when people your own age suddenly start falling off the perch. It’s a shame.
It was on the BBC in 2010 that two researchers, a linguist and a sound engineer, found that the perfect male voice was a combination of yours and Alan Rickman’s. Were you ever aware of that study?
I did hear something about it, yeah. I don’t know what that is, the perfect male voice. But it’s nice to hear.
You are also in High-Rise this year. How was working with director Ben Wheatley?
Extraordinary director. And the film is extraordinary. I think that’s the only way to describe it. It was a pleasure. I mean Ballard is not to everyone’s taste. But I think the film is very true to the spirit of the book. And I think probably it’s better than the book, actually. So I hope we get distribution here, which I’m not sure they have yet. But it was great to work with him. I wanted the chance to work on an English independent film, which I hadn’t done for a long time. And Jeremy Thomas, who is a friend of mine, produced this. So I was very pleased to do it.
Also, there is The Man Who Knew Infinity, which is about Ramanujan, the Indian mathematician, which is opening in late April, which I also did. That’s coming.
How busy do you like to stay?
Not that busy. I got a bit busy last year. I’ve just finished Assassin’s Creed. And now I’m going off to do a play. I’m going off to do O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night in Bristol at the Old Vic. Richard Eyre, who used to run the National Theatre and who also started in Bristol as I did, is going to direct it, so I’m looking forward to that. And then I go back to do the next Batman. I hope I’ll have a bit of time off. The older I get, the less busy I like to be.
Race is out in theaters this Friday (February 19).