There’s no way to put this without sounding creepy: But we’ve been eyeing Max Irons, 29, playing peekaboo with the son of Academy Award-winning actor Jeremy Irons and actress Sinéad Cusack over the years; catching him smiling shyly above the collar of a Burberry trench. It was hard to ignore the handsome son one of the few actors who can turn a New York Magazine profile into a Fifty Shades compendium in a single look. “At 62, he still possesses a liquid-eyed hotness,” wrote Jada Yuan in 2011, with what one imagines as a serious flush in her cheeks. “Jeremy Irons is just so Jeremy Irons—that is to say, the man of flesh is very much the man of your fantasies.”
That’s a hard standard to live up to, but the younger Mr. Irons is no slouch. Despite not speaking a word of German, he’ll be playing Austrian Holocaust survivor Fredrick “Fritz” Altmann in The Woman in Gold (starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds and currently in theaters), before co-starring in The Riot Club, a hotly anticipated thriller about a fictional, hedonistic Oxford club. (This besides his turn on Starz’ White Queen last year.) We sat down at The Smith—the Lower East Side one—because, though Mr. Irons has lived here for several years now, he still couldn’t remember the name of his first choice, a West Side diner that was kitschy cool.
We didn’t mind. With a wide fedora and long winter coat, before asking if we could do something “cheeky” and smoke a cigarette, he was most certainly his father’s son.
What were your early memories of New York?
It was all about FAO Schwartz. It was like every year, I’d need to go. We lived on the wrong side of the Hudson. (Shakes head, in gloomy voice:)
“The wrong side of the Hudson….”
Well we were there for about nine months when I was really young, and I’ve been coming to New York City as long as I can remember. I Iived uptown, then downtown, then in the West Village. Now I’ve been in Union Square for just about two years.
Above a Whole Foods?
Actually, above a nightclub. The kind where they serve Jägerbombs.
The best of American customs.
You hear fights all night long. Last week, a guy in a suit comes in and fights with the bouncer—“I work for Morgan Stanley! I make more in a week than you do in a…”
Well, the bouncer just picked him up and threw him in a big pile of trash.
Unfortunately, I think it’s being made clear that for professional reasons, I need to move back to London. Which is upsetting, because every time I cross the bridge here, I’m filled with joy. But it turns out there are much, much fewer opportunities to be an actor [in theater] here than back in London.
What are you most excited about right now?
Professionally: The Riot Club. It’s based on this real club, The Billingtons Club. It’s based on this real club, The Billingtons Club. It’s basically a club that stands for hedonism, elitism, success, wealth, sexism, chauvinism, and the occasional homophobia and racism. It wasn’t really nice things to be associated with. And it was attended by three of the most powerful people in British politics. There was this misunderstanding in Britain that the Upper Classes were all sort of fluffy and harmless. And that’s dangerous. These guys aren’t Downton Abbey. These guys were Masters of the Universes. The people who held the keys, who were handed all this wealth because of feudalism and basically organized slavery.
Trigger warning: The Riot Club might make you want to scream and rip your hair out. In a good way. The new movie, directed by Lone Scherfig and based on Laura Wade’s play Posh, stars Max Irons, Douglas Booth and Sam Claflin, among others, as Oxford students who belong to the film’s eponymous social club, said to be based on the university’s real-life Bullingdon Club. It’s a study of privilege, ego and what happens when spoiled brats with too much money and too little compassion decide, in the name of tradition, that they’re entitled to have some fun (which, in this case, means wreaking havoc on a country pub, vandalizing the establishment and terrorizing the owner, among other offenses). In its excess and cringe-inducing scenes of violence and vulgarity, the movie offers a sharp critique of the entrenched systems and classism in some of the world’s most esteemed institutions. While it’s set in the UK, there’s obviously much that’s applicable in the States and elsewhere.
As new member Miles Richards, Irons (son of renowned actor Jeremy Irons) plays the one character with any sort of conscience — even though it doesn’t always override his desire to be accepted into the group. His evident unease with his fellow club members’ antics mirrors the discomfort the audience feels and, while he’s not exactly blameless, he’s the one guy you’re left rooting for. We had the chance to speak with Irons, who’s also appearing in Woman In Gold, and hear his thoughts on shooting some of the film’s most difficult scenes and how the movie opens our eyes to the messed up justice systems in the West.
After I finished watching The Riot Club, the only thing I could think of was “whoa…”
That’s why I’m attracted to it. The first time I actually read the script I didn’t want to do it, I thought it’s too unpleasant and it gets your blood boiling too much. But then, I sort of realized the importance of it, and the idea of a double standard in justice that’s sort of inherent both here in America and England. And to think that the club that we were heavily influenced by was attended by three of the most powerful political figures in English politics. [Ed. note: That’d be Prime Minister David Cameron, London Mayor Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.]
I mean, it’s nuts, isn’t it?
How familiar were you with the Bullingdon Club before getting the script?
Well a lot of people knew about the Bullingdon Club, but members are quite secretive about what they got up to, so when people who were in it are asked about it they tend to just say “oh it was a time in my life, I was very young”, and that’s all you get. There was this famous photograph of George Osborne, Boris Johnson, and David Cameron all on the steps, dressed up in their Bullingdon Club outfits but that’s all we sort of knew. But we managed to do some research, interview some people, and we were shocked to find out that our film wasn’t exaggerating at all! It’s frightening to think that the people who set our moral standards in our country associated themselves with those values.
Did you know or had you worked with any of your fellow castmates before?
I knew quite a few of them like Sam Claflin, Doug Booth and Freddie Fox. The English acting community today [is small] and, remember, we’re all male and of a similar age so we’re all competing for the same parts. You’re aware of each other. But they’re a lovely group. I was always nervous about the potential for competition or showboating or ‘alpha males’ but there was none of that. We all knew the film we were trying to make and the importance of working together to achieve it. So, yeah, it was a really, really nice experience.
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.”
Born to famous parents, Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack, blessed with model good looks, and educated in the finest schools, it would have been very easy for Max Irons to turn out to be just another entitled rich kid. Instead, he’s been forging a quiet but effective career in a variety of movies, as Amanda Seyfried’s suitor in Red Riding Hood, and yang to Saoirse Ronan’s yin in The Host.
Based on the hit play, Posh, Irons’ latest film The Riot Club provides him with his first leading role as a freshman at a prestigious Cambridge University. There, he becomes the envy of his friends when he is selected to join an elite group known as The Riot Club composed of members of Britain’s most powerful families. What appears to be an honor turns into a nightmare as he learns the savage nature of privilege.
This is your first real lead role in a movie that really defies expectations.
On first reading I really didn’t like it because I was worried that it glamorized these people unintentionally. I worried that it made that world look too fun and inconsequential. Also instinctively I found the very characters and their nature so repulsive that I didn’t want to be around those ideas. But then I read it again and I realized that it wasn’t in fact glamorizing, that these characters had purpose and were written in detail, and it was making a point which you rarely see made in a movie about the fate of the upper classes, that they’re not these soft woolly largely harmless people. They’re actually the gatekeepers, people that control the upper echelons of government and big corporations.
But you’re well aware of the double standard between classes when it comes to social standards.
The film shows that they’re two types of justice, which I do believe does apply both in America and in England. If you’re wealthy, privileged, highly educated, you tend not to wait often, get a different understanding and a different treatment by the judicial system than lower class backgrounds.
You see it in England too?
We famously had the riots in London when young kids with call for complaint, from difficult backgrounds, few resources at hand when they’re growing up, express their dissatisfaction with the situation and they were very quickly and mercilessly branded thugs and hooligans by our politicians, the people who should be representing these people.
Here is Max’s interview for New York Live last week!
Here is Max’s interview for The Today Show last week on March 26th.
TORONTO – When Max Irons first read the script for “The Riot Club,” he was repulsed by the explosive drama about an elite but depraved Oxford society.
“I hated it. I thought it was such an unpleasant reality,” the 29-year-old admitted in an interview at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival.
But at his agent’s insistence, he read it again — more slowly the second time — and realized the film would offer a rare, unflinching look at the top tier of the British class system.
“I think that is pretty important. We’ve spent a lot of time looking at areas of English society and the class system, and yet this particular area has sort of been off limits,” he said.
“The Riot Club” opens Friday in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Directed by Lone Scherfig (“An Education”), the film follows two first-year students at Oxford University who join an exclusive society called the Riot Club.
Laura Wade wrote the script based on her play “Posh” and has insisted the club is fictional. But that hasn’t stopped critics from noticing similarities to Oxford’s notorious Bullingdon Club, which once counted U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson among its members.
Irons, the son of actor Jeremy Irons, plays Miles, who is at first seduced by the club’s perks. But he’s later horrified by its power. Sam Claflin plays Alistair, whose entitlement has festered into seething resentment of the poor.
These tensions reach a violent breaking point at a drunken pub dinner, during which the boys lash out at Miles’s girlfriend (Holliday Grainger) and an outspoken sex worker (Natalie Dormer).
Several of the young actors met with real “Bullingdon boys” in preparation for the film. Irons recalled one club member saying, “The minute you walk into these rooms … the rules that apply outside no longer apply in here.”
“I think the thing you got from a lot of them was this is a unique three years out of their lives,” Irons said. “They could sort of surrender themselves to hedonism and just go nuts.”
The film attracted controversy when it received British Film Institute funding in 2013. The Guardian reported that some Conservative MPs felt the movie was biased and meant to remind voters of Cameron and Johnson’s privileged backgrounds ahead of the 2015 general election.
In a separate interview at the Toronto film festival, Scherfig chuckled when asked about the outcry.
“That kind of attention is also a form of enthusiasm,” said the Danish director. “I like that England is so politicized. I think it’s a big virtue in their country. When they don’t talk about football, they do talk about politics. You have ongoing debate and this film plays a role in that debate.”
Scherfig also explored class in “An Education,” a 2009 coming-of-age tale that helped launch Carey Mulligan’s career. But the director called her previous film “more innocent.”
“(‘The Riot Club’) says that privilege is something you have to handle with great responsibility and these boys don’t,” she said. “They behave really badly because they can and they will get away with it.”
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.”