With a long-limbed elegance and the voice of a serpent crossed with an angel, Jeremy Irons has long been described as swoon fodder for the thinking woman. Tall, brooding, and impossibly well-spoken, Irons has often been cast as a haunted aristocrat, but has on occasion used his well-heeled attributes to more sinister effect, most notably in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers.
Born September 19, 1948, on the Isle of Wight, Irons was educated at Sherborne. While a student there, he formed a band with four of his friends called the Four Pillars of Wisdom. Irons played drums -- badly, by his own estimation -- and the band attained a limited fame playing at various parties. After failed attempts to enter veterinary school, Irons decided to become an actor and received classical training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. His training there led to a two-year stint with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company, where Irons performed in a large number of plays. On the side, he supported himself by doing odd jobs, including busking (singing on the streets), and it was thanks to his musical inclinations that he got his big break in the 1972 London production of Godspell. Singing for his supper alongside David Bowie, Irons won acclaim for his portrayal of John the Baptist and was soon a respected figure on the London theater scene.
Irons made his screen debut in the 1980 film Nijinsky, but didn't find true fame until the following year, when he starred in the 11-part television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. As part of a glittering cast that included Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, and Claire Bloom, Irons won raves on both sides of the Atlantic for his portrayal of the lovelorn, conflicted Charles Ryder. Following this success, the actor was in demand as a romantic lead and could soon be seen starring opposite Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981). After trying his hand at playing a Polish laborer in Moonlighting (1982) and an adulterous lover in Betrayal (1983), Irons again played a tortured aristocrat in Swann in Love (1984).
Following work in a few minor films and a Tony Award for his 1984 Broadway debut in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, Irons once again struck gold with his role as a conscientious missionary in The Mission (1986), in which he starred opposite Robert De Niro and received a 1987 Golden Globe nomination for his work. He next went completely against type, playing insane twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg's 1988 thriller Dead Ringers, a dual performance that both shocked his longtime fans and won him some new ones. For his portrayals, he garnered a New York Film Critics Circle Award, acclaim that was to be heightened two years later with his Oscar-winning turn as millionaire murder suspect Claus Von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune. Irons also won a Golden Globe for his work and settled into a real-life role as one of the most respected actors on both sides of the Atlantic.
Throughout the 1990s, Irons' career was one of great variety and sometimes varying quality. Less acclaimed work included 1992's Waterland, in which he starred with his wife, Sinéad Cusack; the star-studded 1993 adaptation of The House of the Spirits; and The Man in the Iron Mask, a big-budget 1998 historical action piece in which Irons appeared to be competing with Gabriel Byrne, John Malkovich, and Gérard Depardieu to see who could wear the worst wig. Irons' more acclaimed films included Louis Malle's psychological drama Damage (1992); Disney's animated The Lion King (1994), to which Irons lent his voice as the villainous Scar; the following year's Die Hard With a Vengeance, in which Irons once again explored his sinister side, as a terrorist; Stealing Beauty (1996), which cast the actor as a dying artist; Chinese Box (1997), in which he portrayed yet another dying man; and Adrian Lyne's controversial adaptation of Lolita (also 1997), in which Irons gave a subtle, heartbreaking performance as Humbert Humbert.
In 2000, Irons' relatively small role in the ultimately mediocre adaptation Dungeons & Dragons was once again noted as one of the highlights of an otherwise so-so film. Shortly afterward, Irons played the leading role in The Fourth Angel, which featured the actor as a magazine editor-cum-freedom fighter after his wife and three children were killed when their airplane was hijacked by terrorists. Though his performance was generally viewed as good, few Americans would enjoy it -- the original (and uncanny) plan for a United States theatrical release in fall of 2001 was canceled after the 9/11 attacks. Luckily for Irons and his loyal fan base, the 2002 releases of The Time Machine and the musical drama Callas Forever were not similarly hindered. In the same year, Irons would play the role of F. Scott Fitzgerald in director Henry Bromell's biographical feature Last Call with great success. 2003 was a busy year for Irons' vocal chords, as he provided one of the starring voices in the lavish, multi-episode television documentary Kingdom of David: The Saga of the Israelites.
Irons appeared in two small but well-received 2004 releases, taking a role alongside screen legend Al Pacino in Michael Radford's The Merchant of Venice, and showing up in the comedy drama Being Julia with Annette Bening and Sheila McCarthy. However, the following year, he could be seen in director Ridley Scott's big-budget box-office dud Kingdom of Heaven, an historical film about the Crusades that failed to find an audience in the wake of similar pictures such as Troy and Alexander. Irons once again snared great notices for his work in the period drama Elizabeth I opposite Helen Mirren, winning the Golden Globe for his supporting work in that television production. He next displayed his remarkable versatility by appearing in two very different motion pictures, the fantasy action film Eragon and David Lynch's Inland Empire.
An Englishman to the last, Irons has resisted the temptation to settle in Hollywood and continues to reside in England. He starred with one of his two sons, Samuel, in the 1989 television adaptation of Roald Dahl's Danny, the Champion of the World.
In 2008, Irons took on the role of a cold-hearted rancher in actor/director Ed Harris' western Appaloosa, and joined the supporting cast of The Pink Panther 2 in 2009. Irons was praised for his vocal skills once more in 2011, when he narrated The Last Lions, a sweeping nature documentary. The same year, Irons took on the role of Pope Alexander VI in Showtime's historical drama series The Borgias, and co-star in Margin Call, a paranoid thriller following an investment firm analyst who becomes privy to extremely sensitive information. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi