Max Irons has longevity on the brain. The 29-year-old is wary of Hollywood’s current template for young actors — wherein a role in a major franchise is designed to generate instant stardom — after witnessing the fate of many of his peers. “Where are they now?” he pointedly asks, singling out Robert Pattinson as a rare exception. Instead, this eloquent, humble prince of the movie biz, who hasn’t an ounce of the entitlement you might expect from the son of Jeremy Irons, has a different model in mind: one followed by men like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert De Niro, who both experimented as they tiptoed toward the A-list.
“Philip Seymour Hoffman was always a genius, but no one gave a shit about him in the beginning,” Irons says. “He laid a foundation of work that went up and up until he could get a movie made. De Niro won’t even have his first two films on his résumé, because he’s ashamed of them. I understand that kind of trajectory, and it takes time. And learning.”
A sci-fi buff enamored of the book and film versions of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Irons had a natural attraction to his role in 2013’s The Host (the Stephenie Meyer adaptation that wasn’t a franchise), yet he seems aware of the generally poor reception of that film and 2011’s Red Riding Hood, in which he also starred. And he’s OK with it. Risks also generate rewards — films such as March’s The Riot Club, in which he plays a reluctant member of a group modeled on Oxford University’s elitist, infamous Bullingdon Club; and April’s Woman in Gold, a drama centered around Gustav Klimt art that casts him as a Jew escaping Nazi-occupied Austria.
“A lot of young actors don’t really care about history or other actors’ histories,” says Woman in Gold director Simon Curtis, who also worked with Eddie Redmayne on My Week With Marilyn. “I found Max to be incredibly intuitive about all that. Both he and Eddie are very emotionally intelligent. Eddie is going all the way, and I think Max will, too — for that same reason.”
Born and raised in London’s Hampstead, Irons is also ardently curious about the histories and trajectories of Britain’s political elite, many of whom — the current prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer included — are Bullingdon Club alums, and who may or may not have been involved in, as Irons describes it, “restaurants being trashed left and right, 50-pound notes being burned in front of homeless people, and Aston Martins being destroyed for the sake of it.”
“I don’t know what these men got up to personally, but if they even associated themselves with these values, I want to know about that,” he says. “I think if The Riot Club does anything, it’ll make people google the Bullingdon Club and ask questions like, ‘Do these men truly, honestly represent the values of the people?’ I’m not so sure. Our film has made certain people angry, and it’s also generated applause. And I think that’s exactly what we wanted and expected.”
Irons describes his privileged Riot Club character, Miles (“the moral center amongst a group of dickheads, basically,” he says) as someone entering a glamorous world, at “the top table,” and the conversation naturally shifts to Irons’s being the son of an acting legend. He says he got into a lot of trouble in school (“smoking the odd joint, drinking, girls”) and that he wasn’t especially academic.
When it came to discipline, it wasn’t his dad who intimidated him but his mom, Irish actress Sinéad Cusack, a woman who shares his grandmother’s belief that “the way to keep your children near you is to let them go.” When Irons was 14, and suspended from school for the second time, it was Cusack’s decision to send him to Zimbabwe to teach English, woodworking, and football to kids barely half his age. Irons freely admits this hardly sounds like a punishment, but the experience, and travel in general, are what he considers the greatest gifts his parents ever gave to him and his brother, Samuel.
“They’ve always taken us to faraway, culturally different places,” Irons says. “And I think, if I have kids, that’s gonna be the thing I’m going to want to do with them from an early age. There’s a huge number of different people with different cultures and values, all across the globe, and there isn’t one way of life. I think that’s a good thing to share with your children, as opposed to giving them an Xbox.”
Irons’s broad view of the world has trickled down to the way he observes inequalities in his life and in his industry, including Hollywood’s lingering homophobia and the conundrum faced by queer actors concerned about — or advised against — coming out. He says you’d be “hard pushed” to find an actor who doesn’t know of another actor going through this, right now, including one guy he counts as a good friend.
Leaning against a windowsill in a stairwell, as he smokes during a break in our photo shoot, he seems to be working through the whole scenario in his head before voicing a handful of opinions. He thinks people should be able to keep things private if they want to or “shout it from the rooftops.” He thinks it would be wonderful if everyone could be honest about themselves, yet he doesn’t think coming out is a moral imperative, and he thinks forced outings are “fucking foolish and dangerous.” He says, “You never know someone’s circumstances.”
He anticipates a question about the controversy his father stirred up in April 2013, when, while discussing gay marriage with host Josh Zepps on HuffPost Live, the Oscar winner mused that legalization of same-sex marriage might open the door for interfamilial unions, and that he could, in theory, marry his son to “pass on my estate without death duties.” Smirking, Irons says he googled this eyebrow-raising story about six months before our interview and found himself with his head in his hands.
“I remember thinking, You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Irons says. “You’re thinking through a problem out loud. I know my father, and his views are similar to mine: As long as you don’t harm anyone else, what you do and who you love are nobody’s business. He has since clarified as far as I understand, and truth be told, if you pushed him to explain what he was talking about, I don’t think he’d actually know.”
What Irons doesn’t quite remember are the precise details of his father’s statements, which put Irons himself in a rather awkward position. When given the full recap, Irons drops his head in his hands again.
“Well, my father hasn’t proposed to me recently,” he eventually quips, before letting out a big, half-amused, half-bewildered laugh.
A more sobering topic for Irons is today’s hurricane of media platforms. For his age, he’s seemingly part of a minority — someone who feels that the advent of social media is less a leap forward that enables people to be themselves than it is a broader buffet of entities telling people who they ought to be. Whether relating to one’s sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, or — often, in his case — body image and profession, outlets like Facebook simply pile on the pressure of how we should all act and look.
“For example, we [actors] are all expected to have six-packs,” says Irons, who swears he definitely doesn’t have rock-hard abs, but admits he once stood in front of a vitamin store and wondered, just for a moment, if they might have a pill to do the trick.
Irons isn’t on Facebook. Or Twitter. Or Instagram. And this urge to unplug goes deeper than bucking the popular demands of beauty and social standing. In his youth, Irons was heavily exposed to glittering parties and events, a circumstance of his parents’ celebrity.
Thinking he had nothing to contribute, he often felt relegated to the sidelines, with a sense of alienation that was compounded by a lengthy early struggle with dyslexia (“I couldn’t read anything, and had to go to a special school,” he says). Although outgoing, Irons began to find solace and happiness by himself, and the inner ease he developed has stuck with him. He’s relaxed on camera, at auditions, and, evidently, in one-on-one interviews, but he doesn’t like networking or big crowds of people. He’s utterly fascinated by submarines — stealth, powerful vessels that operate beneath the surface and under the radar. His dream vacation would be in a warm, remote cabin in the Scottish Highlands, or maybe on a volcanic beach in Iceland, where nature’s tumult rages just outside his door. What amenities would he bring?
“Sausages!” Irons says. “And a small fryer. And some audiobooks. All in my little cocoon.”