British charmer Max Irons first caught our eye in this past spring’s The Host, but in the brand new Starz and BBC miniseries, The White Queen, he has our full and undivided attention. We got a chance to sit down with Irons and talk about playing both a warrior and a lover in the miniseries.
In the sexy medieval drama, Irons swaggers into frame as the young King Edward IV and captures the heart of impoverished widow Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson). The 10-part miniseries weaves together Philippa Gregory‘s The Cousins War trilogy (The White Queen, The Red Queen and The Kingmaker’s Daughter). It’s story of the War of the Roses, the 15th century civil war that ripped England apart and loosely inspired Game of Thrones…but told from the women‘s point of view.
Irons told us why he thinks it’s important to retell history from a feminist point of view, what it was like stripping down for premium cable’s notoriously scandalous sex scenes and what it’s like being the son of famous actors.
VH1: How much did you know about the War of the Roses before doing this role?
Max Irons: I knew bits and pieces. I did it when I was at school when I was 14, but when you’re 14, what’s being taught on the blackboard is the least interesting thing going on in the classroom, so a lot of it sort of went over my head. But I did a lot of research. I found a good bookshop and a medieval expert who helped me along.
VH1: So you don’t consider yourself a big history buff then?
MI: There’s one area in history, which is the Cold War, that I sort of know a lot about. I find it so interesting…the sort of mind games, the smoke and mirrors, the politics, the whole thing…I love. The rest of history? Eh, I’m more of a science guy. I love science.
VH1: We were going to ask what’s your favorite battle in British history is, if you had one…
MI: My favorite British battle? I’ve never been asked that. I don’t know! Um, Bosworth’s a good one. Uh, Hastings. Actually, one of Edward’s battles I quite liked. What was it he did? I can’t remember it, but it was really genius. It explains why he never lost a battle.
VH1: Speaking of battles, you have a line in the miniseries, where you say you are as lucky…
MI: “… in battle as I am in love.”
VH1: So, you’re a warrior and a lover. Which was harder for you to play? The warrior or the lover?
MI: I don’t know. I think they were both sort of quite easy because being a warrior, you know, it allows you to return to the period of your life when you were hunting around the bushes with plastic guns—which I did a lot of when I was a kid…building bases and swords and that kind of thing.
You know, the romance in this was so easy because Rebecca [Ferguson]’s such a talented actress. We actually did chemistry tests with 20 different girls for Elizabeth.
VH1: So you were cast first?
MI: I was cast first. They had me in meetings with all these people and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s kind of inexplicable. But Rebecca…it was sort of instant.
VH1: Rebecca Ferguson is kind of unknown to American audiences. What can U.S. audiences expect from her performance?
MI: It’s an incredibly intelligent performance. Elizabeth Woodville was an incredibly intelligent woman. I mean, that’s what’s so interesting about The White Queen. We’ve seen the battle sequences from this period of history. We’ve read about and seen The Tudors. We’ve seen Game of Thrones. What we haven’t seen is the way the women survived in this world.
Now, the women in the court…the court was an extraordinary place. Women were there, but they didn’t have the rights that they have today. Women were there by invitation only and any fall from grace would mean they’d be expelled and they’d never be allowed back. So, to survive and to prosper politically, you’d have to walk like a very delicate line and to manipulate, you’d have to walk a very delicate line. So, Rebecca instinctively knew that. She had that innate intelligence. She also has the innate beauty. Elizabeth was notoriously beautiful. Yeah, she really made the character her own from day one.
VH1: So, to put it delicately, you guys make a lot of babies. You’re not a father, so what was it like playing a father?
MI: I loved it. They say don’t work with kids or animals because they’ll steal the scene and it’s kind of true. You know, you never know what they’re going to throw at you. There are a few takes where you suddenly get a little hand in the face or you know, a bit of vomit, but you know I loved it. I really loved working with the kids and yeah, we were a very fertile couple. Ten children.
VH1:Speaking of the kids, can you name all of Edward and Elizabeth’s children in birth order?
MI: (laughing) Definitely not.
VH1: Do you want to try?
MI: There was Elizabeth. There was Richard. There was George. There was… I suddenly had the cast of Friends in my head. I was going to go Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Phoebe…
VH1: There was a lot. I couldn’t do it. I know the last one’s name was Bridget which threw me.
MI: (joking) I just called them Baby A, Baby B, Baby C, and then Boy A…
VH1: There’s a trend in British cinema and BBC miniseries that you partake in in this film…where a man bathes in a lake.
MI: Is it a trend?
VH1: It is. There’s Mr. Darcy [in Pride & Prejudice] and A Room With a View. Lately, there have been a lot of skinnydipping scenes. Eddie Redmayne had to skinnydip in My Week With Marilyn. It seems that in any period film, they’ve got to throw the guys in a lake.
MI: Well…there were no baths in those days. Well, the very rich did. There were no showers or modern plumbing so where else do you do it? A lake is a very convenient place to have a quick bath. And you Americans love a bit of nudity.
I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that there is a BBC version and there is a Starz version. BBC doesn’t feature the lake scene. The Starz production does.
VH1: Oh, interesting… How did you feel as an actor doing that?
MI: It was very funny. It was the first time I ever had to get completely naked in a film. I remember it was a closed set. And there was this guy—everyone was behind me and it was a cold day because we were in North Europe and it’s cold. I don’t want to get into anatomical details, but we all understand. It was a cold day—and there was this one guy doing smoke machine at my sort of 35 degrees, and I remember them going, “Action!” And I was like, “No, I’m not f#*cking moving until that guy his shit away.” Oh God…
VH1: So it was your Christian Bale moment?
MI: It was a microcosmic version of Christian Bale, but yeah.
VH1: Your next role is going to be in Posh. Could you tell us more about that?
MI: It’s a Lone Sherfig film, who did An Education. It’s about ten guys in a club…hyper-elite, hyper-privileged club where only the richest and brightest were allowed and its sole purpose is to celebrate wealth and elitism and hedonism and random acts of destruction and it’s a fairly unpleasant world. It’s based in truth. Our Prime Minister, our Chancellor of the Exchequer, our Mayor of London were all members of this club and had a fairly shocking set of values. We’ve got a great English cast, we’ve got a great English director and I think it’s going to be a really good film.
VH1: We know that you have very esteemed actors [Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack] for parents. Do you think that’s helpful or hurtful?
MI: If I’m being completely honest, I’d say it’s a bit of both, but it would lean more toward hurtful. I’d be lying if I said at times it wasn’t an advantage. You know, I went to Drama School and in England that’s a rigorous audition process. It wouldn’t help you in that. It wouldn’t help you in getting an agent. Where it might help you would be casting agents being interested in seeing you.
The problem is if you go in to that casting agent and do a bad job, or are underprepared, or are in any way lazy, they’ll never forget you now and they’ll be much quicker to criticize you and cry “nepotism” or you know, “coat tails.” So, you’ve got to do a really good job and also, it sort of follows you around.
Quite often, especially earlier in my career, it was always, “Max-Jeremy Iron’s son,” but I’ve noticed as we keep going, the work is starting to speak for itself, so I think the solution is not to think about it too much. Just concentrate on doing the work and forget it. It’s sort of out of your control. There’s always going to be people that think things and say things, but just get on with doing the work and try and prove them wrong.
The White Queen debuts on Starz this Sunday at 8 PM.