Rafe Spall once told me that he knew that he’d made it as an actor only when interviews ceased referring to him as “the son of Timothy Spall”. Max Irons (here we go), son of Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack, has a way to go yet – despite already having been dubbed “the new Robert Pattinson” for his role in the Stephenie Meyer vampire movie The Host, and winning the lead male role in BBC1’s new history epic The White Queen.
“Interviews all end up mentioning my dad,” he says. “And I always feel slightly sorry for the journalists because inevitably they’re going to get the same answer, which is that: it has its advantages … it might get you a meeting … but the disadvantage is that if you don’t do a good job, people will be quick … especially in this country … to say ‘Oh, nepotism’. It’s slightly dispiriting.”
We’re talking in his trailer in the car park of a disused factory near Bruges in Belgium, which is now full of interior sets for BBC1’s lavish (the budget is estimated at £20m) adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s Wars of the Roses saga The White Queen. Irons has the main male part in a femme-centric retelling of the 15th-century dynastic struggles, playing Edward IV, the Yorkist king who shocked his court when he wed the Lancastrian “commoner”, Elizabeth Woodville. The role calling for him to periodically pull off his costume, revealing the ripped physique of a former model. (While working in a restaurant to pay his way through drama school, Irons was spotted by no less than Mario Testino, subsequently winning a contract with Burberry.)
Today he looks dashing in a doublet (“It’s like wearing a duvet”), the part requiring him to age 20 years. “Now it’s [Edward IV’s] decline,” he says. “The power is slipping. I’ve just had to kill my brother … so it’s nice to play that.”
Irons, 27, is part of a coming generation of ex-public school thespians including Old Etonians Tom Hiddleston, Harry Lloyd and Eddie Red- mayne, as well as Irons’s former Bryanston contemporary (and best mate) Freddie Fox. As if to underscore the point, Irons has just been cast in the film of the Royal Court play Posh, about a fictional version of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club. “My mum wanted me to go through state education,” he says. “She was very keen on that, but the class size wasn’t good for my dyslexia and I was falling behind.” This difficulty in being able to read fluently also nearly stymied his acting ambitions. “I’d always be Tree Number 3 or Dopey from the Seven Dwarfs … the one that didn’t say much,” he says. “When you’d audition they’d give you a script and say ‘Up you get … read that’, which is my worst nightmare.” That all changed when he memorised a 30-page Neil LaBute script for a drama festival. “I was free and not bound by a book,” he says. “It was as much fun as I had ever had at school.”
Or not quite, as Irons was expelled from Bryanston, after a teacher caught him having sex (with a girl – it was a mixed public school), and after a gap year teaching drama to street children in Nepal, Irons decided to study the family trade, enrolling at Guildhall in London. His highest-profile role to date has been in The Host, a Stephenie Meyer adaptation aimed squarely at the Twilight crowd and which brought with it inevitable comparisons to R-Patz.
“I’ve seen countless younger actors of my age who’ve been asked ‘Are you the next R-Patz’?” he says. “Twilight was a phenomenon unto itself.” Irons is reluctant to go down the franchise route. “Since X-Men our perceptions of what success is have changed,” he says. “You hear of people my age earning $10m on their second movie, and that’s what we perceive as success. But when I look at people like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, the really great ones, you see they did lots of little parts in great material – they built a foundation. There was a franchise that came in my direction and I said ‘I can’t do it’ and my agent said ‘No, you need to do this, it will add another zero to your pay, and I said, ‘no, I can’t … if I do it I might want to give up’. I think they got the message now.”
This despite his parents’ warnings. “I remember Dad saying ‘me and your mother were very lucky, but statistically you know the numbers’. I’m starting to realise this now, how vulnerable you feel as an actor.”
And then there’s the limelight and the gossip, which the now single Irons experienced first-hand when dating the Australian actress Emily Browning, and vicariously as a boy, the state of his parents’ marriage having been the subject of endless tabloid speculation. “I grew up in the countryside,” he says of his upbringing in Oxfordshire, where author Ian McEwan was a neighbour. “My parents kept me away from all of it. I had no real memories of going on set, or paparazzi or parties or anything like that.”
He currently inhabits his parents’ mews flat in Notting Hill, west London, and avoids the company of other thespians. “I went to the Groucho Club the other day for about the third time and it reminded me why I should never go back there,” he says. “Everyone was an actor, it was so exhausting. It was a competition.”
On which subject, would he ever work with his father? “That’s my nightmare,” he says. “My mum maybe, but my dad … that would be really difficult. Have you ever met him?” I haven’t. “He’s a force of nature, I’ll put it that way; he likes to make his voice heard on set, and I wouldn’t be able to disentangle father and actor. No, keep well away from that.”
The White Queen begins tonight on BBC1 at 9pm