Brideshead's Jeremy Irons Visits Broadway and Proves He's the Real Thing

updated 01/23/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

One memorable week in London a beloved Evelyn Waugh melodrama began unfolding on the telly, and a long-awaited John Fowles romance finally opened at the cinema. For the intense, bearded young Englishman who played Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited and Meryl Streep's lover in The French Lieutenant's Woman, there were suddenly too many irons in the fire. "I found the instant celebrity rather distasteful," recalls Jeremy Irons. "I became paranoid. If only two people in a room knew me, I thought everyone did." But two years later Irons, at 35, has struck a cautious equilibrium. When his friend Liv Ullmann rings up to rave over his success in the new Tom Stoppard drama, he quickly chides her, "But darling! It's only a play!"

To hear the critics tell it, Stoppard's The Real Thing, starring Irons and Glenn Close, is only a play like Gone With the Wind was only a movie. The epigrammatic tale of a brilliant and arrogant playwright's quest for love is the talk of Broadway. "The Real Thing is not only Mr. Stoppard's most moving play, but also the most bracing play that anyone has written about love and marriage in years," proclaimed the New York Times.

The subtly erotic love scenes between Irons and Close create an unusual chemistry that has fueled rumors about an offstage affair. "Total rubbish," says Irons, a married man whose actress wife, Sinéad Cusack, is currently performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. Still, Irons doesn't deny his frequent togetherness with the unattached Close, a camaraderie he claims is essential to understanding their stage roles as husband and wife. Besides, he admits to a general preference for female companionship. "I like women very much," he says. "I'm fascinated by them. I certainly don't understand women, but I love being with them."

As for Close, a stage actress who recently made a formidable film impact in The World According to Garp and The Big Chill, she does nothing to hide her admiration for her co-star. "There's a wonderful sensuality about him," says Glenn, 36. "And he has incredible eyes. They seem to have light coming out of them. He's one of the few people I know who can carry off style and passion at the same time." Certainly Irons' spirited portrayal in The Real Thing has revealed a new side: He even dances to an old Monkees record. "I'm showing I can smile," he explains, "that I have dazzle."

The image pleases Jeremy, who feared Brideshead may have typed him. "Charles Ryder was the man I was educated to be: a good chap with a stiff upper lip and repressed emotions. There's a slight smell about me since Brideshead—too much integrity. I want to scotch that. I don't want to be put in that David Niven area as the standard Hollywood Englishman." One way he proved that passion stirs beneath his proper British breast was to play a zesty Polish laborer in the well-received 1982 film Moonlighting. Irons also took a crash course at Berlitz to star in a forthcoming French film of Proust's Swann in Love.

His approach to his craft wasn't always so noble. At 18, during his days as a London "busker" (a street entertainer), Jeremy discovered that strumming a guitar at movie queues was an excellent way to pick up girls. It also gave him a taste of show business, a life-style little known to Irons, an accountant's son who grew up on the Isle of Wight. "Having been educated since the age of 7 in hierarchical boarding schools, I liked the romantic quality of a life in the theater," says Irons. Jeremy eventually enrolled at Bristol's Old Vic School, and progressed from playing butlers to leading roles.

It was during his days as John the Baptist in Godspell in 1973 that Irons noticed a pretty young actress performing in a play at the theater next door. Jeremy and Sinéad (pronounced shin-AY-ad), daughter of the distinguished Irish actor Cyril Cusack, married in 1978 and later double-billed as the parents of Samuel, now 5. "I never cared for children until Sam," reflects Irons. "But I found the most extraordinary bond. It takes one's breath away."

When in London, he is a dutiful father as well as resident handyman, delighting in plumbing and rewiring the family's part-Victorian, part-Georgian house in Hampstead. A sailor and a gentleman as well, Irons likes to take Sinéad, Sam, and their mutt, Speed, out for tea on board his vintage 1903 flat-bottomed boat. "I love not working," reports Irons, who savors the life of a not-so-proper Englishman. "I love good boats, good dogs, good conversation and good women."

Such pleasurable diversions don't always fit the rhythm of Broadway, where Irons will settle in for at least the next six months. Whenever possible Sinéad and Sam will come to visit Jeremy in his rented apartment overlooking the Hudson River. "The separations get pretty horrendous," says Sinéad. "We don't communicate well on the phone. I get weepy and cross, so we write. And when we get together, we have to get to know each other all over again."

The family hopes to reunite in June, when Sinéad plans to come to the United States with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Jeremy, meanwhile, is busy pondering his next career move and says he yearns to follow in the Olivier tradition of alternating theater and films. He finds his growing reputation as the new Olivier daunting, but adds that "Olivier was terrible in the films before Wuthering Heights. That gives me faith. We can all improve." Right now, Irons is "dying to play an American," though he is wary of Hollywood. "It's like underwater diving for me," he explains. "I can hold my breath for only a bit there." He also aspires to directing and perhaps forming his own theater company.

His many talents aside, the theater's new hope claims that he has a few flaws. "I'm lazy, selfish and too self-obsessed," he says. To his fans, nevertheless, Irons is the closest Broadway has come in years to a matinee idol.

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