There is, these days, no shortage of figures in the public eye who have leveraged a famous last name, and little more, into a modicum of renown or notoriety. Max Irons is not one of them. Yes, his parents are the Oscar winner Jeremy Irons and the Tony-nominated actress Sinéad Cusack, but it is clear when speaking to the young British actor that he has rightfully earned the success that is now coming his way.
Irons, who has a number of roles on stage and screen—both big and small—already under his belt, will be seen this spring in The Riot Club, a forceful and provocative examination of English upper-class privilege and debauchery from Lone Scherfig (who directed Carey Mulligan to an Oscar nomination in An Education), and with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds in Woman in Gold, about a Holocaust survivor’s fight to regain possession of an iconic Klimt painting. For the 29-year-old actor, both films offer a dramatic change of pace from some of his previous work, such as a lead role in The Host, a science fiction thriller from the author of the Twilight series, that led to his being dubbed “the next Robert Pattinson.” “The first couple of things I did were more fantastical and were aimed at a particular audience, the young-adult audience, which I’m not anymore,” he says. “So to be doing stuff that isn’t really geared for them, it feels more natural. It’s slightly more enjoyable.”
Irons’ path to where he stands today has been a gradual one, which is just the way he likes it. After fighting dyslexia through grade school, which he credits for many auditions that ended in failure, he first took a real interest in theater when he was able to direct and perform in Neil LaBute’s a gaggle of saints. “I got the chance to direct it myself, so it was more on my terms,” he recalls. “Once I did that, I thought, ‘This is the most fun, most engaging thing I’ve done since I’ve been at school.’”
He took a gap year after finishing high school, traveling to Nepal to offer a form of drama therapy at a rehabilitation clinic for girls who had been trafficked and boys who were living on the streets. “It was a shock, because I hadn’t really been told what I was doing, except working with children, and I expected them to be eight to twelve years old,” he says. “It turned out that they were eighteen to twenty- one, and I was eighteen, so the first couple of months were terrifying.”
Initial concerns aside, Irons credits the experience with offering him a new perspective on the career he was then just starting to commit to. “I don’t think I’ll ever want to be a director, because my brain doesn’t work that way, but it was nice to see it from the other side,” he says. “It was nice to see the power of—I’m reluctant to call it theater, but I guess it is—theater to convey a message.”
After returning to London, Irons, who casually tosses off references to Pinter and Lars von Trier in conversation, studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and then worked as a bartender as he began his acting career. His parents, experienced as they were, offered him blunt advice on his decision. “Their response was, ‘It’s a difficult career, and it’s an unpredictable life,’ which it is in every way—geographically, financially, in your heart, in your head, in every way,” he says. “They said, ‘Don’t look at us and think it’ll be the same for you. We had good fortune and luck, and we were in the right place at the right time.’ Yes, they’ve got talent, but it’s a combination of these things. There are lots of talented, unemployed actors out there.”
Irons picked up momentum, appearing onstage and opposite Amanda Seyfried in Red Riding Hood and as King Edward IV in the BBC series The White Queen. He says that variety of exposure has helped him develop into the actor he is today. “In those early days, it’s beggars can’t be choosers, if you know what I mean, and you are a beggar and you’re looking for experience,” he explains. “I took a bit of TV, I did a film, I did theater, I did everything really. It’s only now that I’m starting to get to know what I really like.”
What Irons likes, it turns out, is meaty scripts, like that for The Riot Club. “If the script is snappy and punchy and emotionally sophisticated, that gets your brain going a bit more,” he says. To that end, last fall he also returned to the stage in Farragut North, by House of Cards writer Beau Willimon, playing the role filled by Ryan Gosling in the film adaptation The Ides of March. For Woman in Gold, he learned to speak German. Spots in Blood Over Water, about the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, and the Christopher Nolan–penned The Keys to the Street will follow later this year.
In his new film, Irons plays Miles, the latest recruit to the Riot Club, an extremely exclusive dining society at Oxford based on the well-known Bullingdon Club, which has a reputation in England for exorbitance and elitism. Miles, unlike his fellow members, is a conscientious liberal and, thus, an insider who never feels like he fully belongs. “To play Miles, I had to remind myself what it was like to be nineteen, twenty, and not quite know who I was yet, not quite know what quality of life I wanted, what direction I wanted to go in, and what my values were and how ambitious I was,” Irons recalls. “I think Miles’ downfall is a combination of youthful ambition, naïveté, and weakness, which is common when you’re that age.”
The film is based on Laura Wade’s play Posh, which first premiered in London in 2010 before moving to the West End in 2012 and which, as Irons puts it, “made quite a stir, especially in certain parts of London,” for its scathing portrayal of the upper class. “In England, class is a big thing that comes up time and time again in cinema, and so many films have been made about the working classes and what they get up to, and there’s rarely such a response to class as there is with this film,” he explains. “I think we had an understanding that the upper classes were soft and warm and cuddly and slightly befuddled, and I actually think that’s a pretty dangerous understanding to have.”
In the five years since the play’s original première, the tale has gained even more relevance, as England struggles with a sluggish economy in which areas of London have nonetheless become essentially gated communities for wealthy foreigners. The Bullingdon Club boasts amongst its alumni current prime minister David Cameron, London mayor Boris Johnson, and chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, a coincidence that Irons says gives the film an extra twist of pertinence. “It’s a club famed for hedonism, excess, wealth, chauvinism, whatever,” he explains, “so the fact that these people are now running the country, at a point when our country has never been more divided by wealth—I think it’s come at a timely time.”
For Irons, whose many coming projects this year mark a major step forward for him, each new opportunity is an incremental advance in a career that he hopes will be full of many more, no matter how small. “Confidence as an actor is very important, and experience is very important, and I think you gain those by working with different people, good people on good scripts, good directors, good actors, and you learn as you go,” he says. “When I look at the great actors that I respect, that’s the path their careers have taken. Philip Seymour Hoffman, you see him pop up here and there in all sorts of roles, and I think that’s the way that would work best for me. God knows, if I’d gotten the biggest opportunity of my career when I was straight out of drama school, I wouldn’t have been ready for it. I think the trick is to keep working and keep learning.”