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CASANOVA - Q&A with Jeremy Irons

Jeremy Irons is right at home in Venice. The English actor has spent months there filming recently - including playing a 'pompous' Bishop in Lasse Hallstrom's CASANOVA - and he's fallen in love not only with the obvious beauty of the city, but it's hidden charms, too.

The 57 year-old star also played Antonio in Michael Radford's screen version of Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE - opposite Al Pacino as Shylock - and although the work was rich and rewarding, it wasn't until this Englishman abroad returned for Casanova that he found himself really discovering the city in a way that the casual tourist rarely does.

"We filmed THE MERCHANT OF VENICE during the winter and a lot of us had colds and flu," Irons explains. "But when Lasse offered me a role in CASANOVA I was delighted to return. And this time the weather was kinder and it was a fantastic experience.

"The filming was great fun - Lasse is a great joy. He is very gentle, gentlemanly, quiet, friendly and he works in a very calm way. And one of the great bonuses was being back in Venice and I really do now feel that I am beginning to get to know the place really well. I love it."

Irons has appeared in more than 60 films and television shows in a remarkable career which now spans more than 30 years. He is rightly regarded as one of the best actors of a very talented generation.

It's only relatively recently that he has returned to full time work - after taking several years off to renovate Kilcoe Castle in County Cork, Ireland which he shares with his wife, the actress Sinead Cusack, and their two sons. The family also has a home in England.

Irons was born on the Isle of Wight and studied drama at the Bristol Old Vic. He appeared as Charles Ryder in the highly acclaimed British television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's BRIDESHEAD REVISITED and starred with Meryl Streep in THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN.

In 1991 he won an Oscar for his remarkable portrayal of Claus Von Bulow in REVERSAL OF FORTUNE. He also starred in such diverse films as THE MISSION, with Robert De Niro, DEAD RINGERS, WATERLAND, LOLITA, STEALING BEAUTY, DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE and THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK.

More recently, he starred with Liam Neeson and Orlando Bloom in Ridley Scott's KINGDOM OF HEAVEN and with Annette Benning in BEING JULIA.

CASANOVA stars Heath Ledger in the title role, Sienna Miller as the intriguing Francesca - who refuses to conform to the constraints placed on women in Venetian society - and Irons as Bishop Pucci who is sent to the city by a Church concerned by tales of lax morals.

"I thought CASANOVA was very funny when I read it and I thought I would like to be involved in a comedy because I don't do a lot of comedy," explains Irons. "They asked a lot of other people before they asked me. For some reason people don't think of me as a comic actor."

This interview was conducted on set during the filming of CASANOVA in Venice.

What's your character like?

I'm a Bishop and he's the sort of Bishop who thinks he's a Cardinal. Actually he thinks he's God or the Pope (laughs). No, he is part of the Inquisition and is sent to clean up Venice which has become overly licentious and is extremely pleased with himself and has a very high estimation of his qualities when in fact, he is very dumb and his sidekick is a great deal more intelligent than he is. There's a Cleausau-esque kind of quality to him lurking beneath all of this pomposity.

What made you choose the part?

I thought it was very funny when I read it and I thought I would like to be involved in a comedy because I don't do a lot of comedy. They ask a lot of other people before they ask me and they say 'yes'. For some reason people don't think of me as a comic actor.

Is Pucci the villain of the film?

Well, he's certainly not a pantomime villain, not as broad as that. But on the way towards that. Maybe a bit dastardly (laughs).

Fifteen or twenty years ago you might well have been playing Casanova

Well Casanova lived a long while and this is about the young Casanova (laughs). But does it hurt? No. (pause) Slightly (laughs). But one has to learn to live with these things. Age brings many things as well as taking away others.

Do you have a special fondness for playing villains?

No, although they are often interesting. Not a particular fondness but I enjoy playing villains

How is the atmosphere on the set?

Very relaxed. Very easy. Very gentlemanly, very encouraging. Lasse creates a very nice warm atmosphere so that everybody can do their best work. I like working this way.

Did you do a lot of preparation with Lasse?

We worked on the script to try and point up the comedy, the comedic aspects. And any script you refine once you are playing it because it's only then that you realise how a scene is working. On the page it may look fine, but sometimes when you play it you need something else. Also things have been filmed before so you know more about characters and that can affect what you do. I always say that the script keeps changing until the film is finally cut and edited.

And presumably you are playing the character straight?

Oh yeah. Deadpan as you often have to be. He is usually convinced that he is right when everyone else realises he is wrong and covering that with a pomposity even when he is the last one to realise what everyone else has known for a long while.

You seem to have been very busy lately...

I'm only busy because I've got a lot films coming out all at the same time - three films within a month and a half around the world.

But it seems like you had a period where you didn't work quite as much. Why was that?

I took two years out to do the castle and then came back to earn some money to pay for it (laughs). And now it's finished and I'm just back at work really, doing a bit of this and a bit of that.

Is it true that you said you felt you weren't performing as well?

Well, I said that I felt I was getting a bit boring which is why I stopped, but that's seven years ago. And I wanted to do something else and I went off to do a building project but now I've come back I've got a bit more appetite. I think the roles are part of it. As you get older there are less interesting roles for all of us - they are about but there are less of them. One has always heard that about actresses, about women, but it's actually the same for men and the same for directors, too. It's a business that loves new faces, loves new talents. And there's no doubt that it gets harder as you get older.

Talking of new faces, everyone is getting very excited about Sienna Miller...

Well I've only done a few scenes with her up until this point but I think she is a charming girl, very pretty, she photographs like a dream and I think she is rather good, too, from what I've seen.

Has she asked you for any advice about that kind of thing?

She asked me for a bit of advice but we all give our opinions to each other about the work and how you handle the celebrity side of it. But she has other people to ask.

You said you wanted to do a comedy. How are you enjoying it?

Comedy is hard work, comedy is difficult. I just thought it would be good for an audience to see me in a comedy, it's no more fun to do than anything else, it's just a job of work, just a slightly different mental attitude when you are playing. But this has been a very happy shoot because it's a great crew and a great cast of actors who have got along very well. Everybody seems to be enjoying Venice.

How does actually being in Venice, as opposed to being in a studio, affect your work?

Well it's nice to be working here. It's the same with THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, which we made here too. It's great to have the real backdrop. And it's quite a calm place because you don't have any traffic - it's wonderful for that. It's difficult for the production because everything has to be moved by boat and that's difficult. And today we had a big high tide and that's doubly difficult. I think most of the extras got made up in two foot of water. But there is a calmness about Venice and I think that's because we all walk or take a boat. I've always enjoyed working around water so I'm very happy to be here. And the great privilege for me, because I've been here a lot, is that I really get to know the pace. Even during THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, when it was cold and we all had flu, I didn't explore in the way that I have this time.

Is there any trick to keeping the comedy fresh? When you have to do a take again and again, isn't it hard to keep a comedy line funny?

Lasse is great in that he doesn't make us do it too many times. And you know when you are in the theatre you have to say lines over and over again and you have to come up with ways of keeping it fresh - maybe changing it a little bit, come at it from a slightly different point of view, just keep free with it. I shouldn't really be describing it as a comedy because until we see how it is put together you can whether it makes people laugh. That is the problem with comedy in film, in theatre you (the performer) can play with it and make people laugh but in theatre it's Lasse who is going to do doing that and the editor. I have no way of judging how this film will because an enormous amount of work has been done and I haven't seen it. The director will say 'maybe we need a bit more on a scene or a bit less in order to fit in to the overall picture' and I have to be guided by his judgement on that. But I think anybody who is pompous - the way my character is - is easy to make fun of or make amusing. Anybody who has a great sense of his own esteem is a balloon waiting to be pricked. And all I do is keep pumping up his nauseating pomposity (laughs).

What do you think of these young actors you are working with who are making a big name for themselves? Like Orlando Bloom in KINGDOM and Heath Ledger in CASANOVA?

Well they work very hard. Orlando worked incredibly hard in difficult conditions for KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. And Heath (Ledger) seems to be great. So we'll see. So much is what connects with an audience. So they may be lovely on the set, but will it work in the movie? They are nice people. They remember their lines and they seem to be real.

Is this generation any different to your generation of actors?

No, I don't think so. I think they are trying to do exactly what I was trying to do at their age.

Do you think they have more media attention?

Yeah, a bit. I remember when we made French Lieutenant's Woman which was my first starring role we banned all photography from the set which was quite difficult because a lot of it was in public. I remember we were dressing and lunching in the Lake District and we were dressing and lunching in a particular pub. And the landlord said to Meryl (Streep) and myself 'could I have picture of you two together to put over the bar?' And because he had been very hospitable we said 'yes.' And the following day it was on the front of the Daily Mail. So it hasn't really changed. The Daily Mail is still there.

Sienna is getting a lot of tabloid attention at the moment. What advice would you give her?

I'm the last person to give advice but I suppose 'don't let it get to you and don't believe what is written - good or bad.' And if possible, don't read it.

What have you learnt about Venice?

I've just begun to get into the life of the people who live here - meeting people who live here all year round. It's very much a place of its own and it's lovely to see a place not as a tourist.

Do you enjoy going away to different locations? You've been in Morocco recently for KINGDOM OF HEAVEN and now you're here in Venice, that's quite a contrast.

I relish it. I've always loved contrast. It takes me longer to get used to a place. I find as I get older it takes me four or five days to begin to enjoy a place. But I think it's one of the great privileges we have as an actor, to travel to different places and spend time there. I find it invigorating.

How is it working with Lasse?

A great joy. He is very gentle, gentlemanly, quiet, friendly. He works in a very calm way. He is a man with good taste. I was very impressed with My Life As A Dog. He seems to get very natural performances out of his actors and we need that with this because it's a fairly un real time and situation.

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