The right-hand man to The White Queen, Max Irons, is still leading from the front.
For an actor telling a story about how he’d been told he wasn’t young or pretty enough for a major movie role, Max Irons is remarkably chipper.
‘Actually, I was delighted,’ grins Irons, 27, with such gusto I actually believe him. Stretching his 6ft 2in athletic frame over the couch he’s more inhabiting than sitting on, he fills in the background.
‘I’d done a couple of Hollywood franchise films [Red Riding Hood and The Host] and I didn’t really want to do a third. But I went for the audition anyway. And that was the feedback: “Not young and pretty.” I thought: “Great – now the really interesting roles will come my way.”’
Taking a positive from a negative seems to sum Irons up, he’s definitely a glass half-full kind of guy. The son of actors Jeremy Irons and Sinéad Cusack (he somehow manages to look like both of them at the same time), his profile is set to rise swiftly as he stars in BBC1’s new Sunday night historical blockbuster, The White Queen.
The adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s bestseller is being hyped heavily for telling history from the female perspective. So it’s a little ironic that Irons steals episode one with a raunchily, rascally turn as Edward IV, a bed-hopping bounder (or is he?) who steams up the screen as he locks horns with Elizabeth Woodville (played by Rebecca Ferguson), a coy widow who catches his roaming eye.
Irons, give him his due, dutifully toes the party line in backing the intent behind The White Queen.
‘It’s unique because it isn’t just a history about men, which I found fascinating,’ he says. ‘The first episode is very much the romance, the honeymoon period. After that come the consequences…’
Romance is a sweet word – The White Queen is a touch hotter than that. But given that it’s a co-production between the BBC and Starz – the US outfit of full-frontal Spartacus fame – I remark to Irons that the sex scenes are remarkably tasteful, which provokes a broad grin.
‘Yes, but there’s the BBC cut and the Starz cut,’ he confides cheekily. The difference being? ‘You get a lot more arse in the Starz version – the cameras kept rolling after the BBC stopped the scene.’ More bang for your buck? ‘Yep,’ he mock groans. ‘I’m comfortable with that, it’s part of the job. I just have to go to the gym to make sure I keep the weight on, otherwise I go skinny.
‘The other funny thing with Starz was that you had to do extra lines. For the BBC, I’d say to my brother: “Come here, George.” But for Starz it would be: “Come here George, Duke of Clarence,’ so they’d know what I was on about.’
All this is recounted with infectious enthusiasm and Irons is easy company. Not that he’s without his share of grumps. He’s been baited by the US showbiz press on his comparative lack of fame.
‘Everybody has to be an overnight success these days,’ he says. ‘I’ve far more time for actors who’ve paid their dues.’ And a question about whether he’d act with his father gets shot down pretty quickly.
‘I can’t see any appeal in that,’ he says. ‘And I’m pretty sure my dad would feel the same way.’
Then comes the understatement: ‘He’s quite a character.’ In cold print that sounds hard but Irons says it warmly, clearly getting used to Irons senior bagging headlines with his views on everything from gay marriage to the celebrity sex abuse scandal. What’s clear is that Irons junior wants to be seen to be making it on his own merit.
Irons dabbled with modelling in his early days. ‘That got me through drama school,’ he says. ‘My parents didn’t support me financially, it was “stand on your own feet, young man” and that was exactly right – it was a test of whether I really wanted to do it.’
His ambition truly burns in his desire for challenging roles, away from the pretty-boy template, and he rattles off the names Pinter, Mamet, LaBute and Hare when asked which writers he admires. He’s got a brace of promising movies coming up – the title role in a biopic of Vivaldi and the lead in Lone Scherfig’s adaptation of Posh, Laura Wade’s hit stage play.
For now, though, there’s The White Queen, which gives Irons the chance to show his sensitive side with a dash of the action hero thrown in: he’s called upon to gallop about quite a bit and pulls it off convincingly.
‘I loved the riding part,’ he says, suddenly turning sentimental. ‘They wanted me to keep my stunt horse, he was called Fuego, because he was retiring. We had a real bond, he’d walk over to me when I came on set. We’d do hair and make-up together,’ – I think he was joking there – ‘and we really fell for each other. But there’s no way I could keep a horse in London.’
Anxious that we don’t end the interview in floods of manly tears, I ask him what other skills he brings to the table. And bang: Irons the joker is back.
‘I can balance absolutely anything on my nose,’ he announces proudly. ‘I was balancing a big stick with Brad Pitt’s head on it for a late-night MTV show the other week. Absolutely no idea why. And I can hold my breath for three lengths of an Olympic-size swimming pool.
I must have been a submarine in another life.’ Quite a character, that Max Irons.
The White Queen starts on BBC1 on Sunday at 9pm.