If you look over Academy Award-winning actor Jeremy Irons’ immense body of work, it shouldn’t take long to realize that no genre is beneath the legendary screen veteran. He’s done it all, from biographical films like the recent Jesse Owens biopic “Race” and of course, “Reversal of Fortune” (which earned him his Best Actor Oscar); to voicing the menacing Scar in the animated Disney film classic “The Lion King” and a role in the upcoming big-screen adaptation of the hit video game “Assassin’s Creed.”
Yet for all Irons has accomplished in his four-plus decades in the entertainment business, he’s never done any work in the superhero genre — that is, until he took on the iconic role as Bruce Wayne’s lifelong caretaker, Alfred, in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” The interesting thing, Irons said in a recent phone conversation from London, is that he’s never gone out of his way to see superhero films.
“I haven’t watched a lot of them — maybe only if I ran across them on television. I saw ‘Man of Steel’ and enjoyed that, and saw ‘Batman’ with Jack Nicholson as the Joker,” Irons said. “But having a chance to play in one is quite different, especially since this was multi-layered. The characters (in ‘Batman v Superman’) really have three-dimensional qualities.”
Opening in theaters and on IMAX screens Thursday night, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” finds two of DC Comics superheroes, Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck) at odds when the Dark Knight fears the Man of Steel man be more of a threat to humanity than a hero as his actions appear to go unchecked. Alfred stands to be the only voice of reason for the tormented Bruce, who is so blinded with rage over Superman that he doesn’t realize another threat is emerging with maniacal industrialist Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg).
Directed by Zack Snyder, and written by Chris Terrio and David Goyer, “Batman v Superman” also stars Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Diane Lane as Martha Kent and Laurence Fishburne as Perry White.
“Batman v Superman” paints a portrait of Alfred who is decidedly different that anything we’ve seen before in live-action form. Much more than a butler and longtime caretaker of the orphaned Bruce, Alfred, as we discover, is an experienced tactician with military skills — which becomes vital in the preparation of Batman’s armory and the operation of his vehicles and weaponry when the Dark Knight faces a formidable threat.
Irons said his take on Alfred was partly informed by an experience he had with a former neighbor of his who happened to be one of the richest men in the world: John Paul Getty. The people working for him may have seemed like they were doing mundane jobs for the billionaire, but looks, as Irons found out, were quite deceiving.
“I remember arriving at his estate with my wife and the gates were opened by two gentlemen, and then I drove and parked by the house, where there was another gentleman who took my car,” Irons recalled. “Then once we went into the foyer, another gentleman took our coats and then there was another, standing with a tray of champagne.”
Later that evening, Irons said he learned that all the employees he encountered were once members of the British SAS: “They were Special Forces, so everybody, from his valet to his gardener, were all people who could turn into a very defensive force if they had to.”
“John Paul Getty, of course, had a bad experience from his children being kidnapped, so I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t Mr. and Mrs. Wayne do the same thing for Bruce?'” Irons said. “They may call Alfred ‘the butler’ or they may call him ‘the guardian,’ ‘the mechanic’ or whatever. He’s a man who can do all those things, but behind the scenes he has a myriad of talents he could use, depending on the situation. That was very interesting to me. It was a really fascinating quality of the character that I could run with.”
Irons also noted that Alfred is different in this Batman tale because Bruce is in different state of mind than we’ve ever seen him before on the big screen because he’s targeting Superman. Being Bruce’s only voice of reason, Alfred may be the only person who can stop him from making a terrible mistake in facing off against the Man of Steel.
“I think one of the strengths of this movie is that Chris Terrio has written some scenes for Bruce and Alfred where you see Bruce tussling with his conscience and tussling with his morality,” Irons said. “I hope that you can see that these two people have spent a lot of time together over many years and that they’re interdependent in a strange way. Even though Bruce is Batman and the employer, he still needs Alfred’s support.”
Irons said he emerged from “Batman v Superman” a huge fan of Snyder, who was completely graceful under the pressure of his enormous responsibility as the architect of the film.
“I was in awe watching him and just knew how much was in his head. There’s a lot in every director’s head, but when you’re doing a movie of this scale, a director like Zack is carrying a massive weight,” Irons said. “Yet, when he was working with us on set, none of that showed. He was just there for us in that scene we were doing. He would just throw out ideas and jokes, and made me feel very much at ease. That’s important when a movie that’s been rolling four or five months and you come in and do your little bit. It’s a great talent for a director can pull you in and make you feel like you’re the most important person there.”
This week I had the wonderful opportunity to see filmmaker Christopher Nolan in Dialogue with Variety’s Scott Foundas at the Walker Art Center’s film retrospective “Christopher Nolan: Moving Through Time” in Minneapolis.
In conjunction with the event, where all nine of Nolan’s films are playing through May 24, I had the opportunity to write for the Walker a retrospective piece on the director based on the interviews I’ve done with him over the years. Here’s an excerpt:
It’s only appropriate that Christopher Nolan’s May 5 visit to the Walker Art Center came on the heels of the dizzying release of the latest teaser trailer for “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.” Fresh off his own trek to the outer reaches of space with the spectacular sci-fi adventure drama “Interstellar,” Nolan 38 years ago was, like countless moviegoers worldwide, forever impacted by the George Lucas’ 1977 space opera. But unlike most starry-eyed fans, Nolan was inspired to expand the “Star Wars” universe in his own cinematic way, and in doing so, he was inadvertently laying the foundation for a legendary, Lucas-like career of his own as a writer, producer and director.
“I started making Super 8 films when I was 7 years old,” Nolan told me in 2006, in the first of four conversations we would have about his films over the next eight years. “My first few films were little action-figure extravaganzas, and soon, as ‘Star Wars’ came out and changed everything, my movies were ‘Star Wars’ ripoffs for years, with spaceships and action figures. They were little, mini-epics. It was great fun.”
If you found yourself desperate to watch “Interstellar” again after you caught the sci-fi epic on the big screen, Jonathan Nolan is thrilled to reopen up the rocket hatch for another ride on home video.
In fact, the heralded screenwriter, who co-wrote the critically acclaimed blockbuster with his director brother, Christopher Nolan, told me that the two crafted the screenplay as such so movie fans would want to see the film again, hoping they would absorb even more details the second time around.
“That’s the way my brother and I grew up watching movies. If we found one we liked, we watched it obsessively,” Jonathan Nolan, who goes by Jonah, said in a phone interview Monday. “If we found more detail in the second and third viewings, that really became the hallmark of a great film to us.
“With ‘Interstellar,’ there were extra challenges there involving mind-bending physics and the science that we grounded the film in, and that took us years and years to figure out on our end,” Nolan added. “It’s a film that has a density to it on that level, and hopefully it will be enjoyed more and more on that level as you begin to understand the rule-set and some of the concepts that are quite alien the first time through them. Space-time curvature and time warps are a lot to wrap your head around.”
New on Blu-ray and DVD (Paramount Home Media Distribution), “Interstellar” stars Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, a former pilot and engineer-turned-farmer in an unspecified time in Earth’s future. Climate conditions reminiscent of the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s have eliminated much of the world’s food supply, and blight has eradicated wheat and farmers can only grow corn.
Following an odd ghost-like occurrence involving his youngest daughter, Murph (MacKenzie Foy), Cooper finds his way to the now secretly-funded NASA, which tells him that his children’s generation will be the last to survive on the dying planet. Prompted by his old colleague, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), Cooper is asked to pilot an interstellar mission to another galaxy in hopes of finding a world where the human race can survive. The catch is, the widower will have to leave Murph and her older brother behind, perhaps never to see them again.
“Interstellar” also stars Anne Hathaway as Brand’s daughter, Amelia — a doctor on the spacecraft whose emotional vulnerabilities cloud the mission — and Jessica Chastain as the adult version of Murph, who has grown up resenting her father because she felt abandoned.
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With a narrative that ties together such elaborate concepts as wormholes, black holes and the idea of love transcending the boundaries of space and time, Nolan no doubt tackled with his brother their most ambitious project to date with “Interstellar”; and we’re talking the same brothers who brilliantly penned mind-bending complexities into such films the last two chapters of the “The Dark Knight” trilogy, “The Prestige” and “Memento” (Jonah penned the original short story, while Christopher wrote the screenplay).
“For me, and I can’t speak for Chris, the ambition was to try to tell a story that certainly wouldn’t encompass, but pointed to the full scope of the human experience,” Jonah Nolan explained. “Most of the films you watch, with a handful of exceptions — ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ being one of them — concentrate on one protagonist and one storyline. But really, the human story for me — especially when I looked at the achievements of NASA and the scientists involved, and the scientists from Newton onward, building the work of the work of ones that came before them for thousands of years — was really a generational story.”
So, Nolan said, while McConaughey’s Cooper is “one protagonist in the piece,” there’s ultimately something going on that’s much bigger than him.
“The real protagonist is humanity, and the work that we do that we hand from one generation to the next in the hopes that we might survive and maybe even prosper,” Nolan said.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of “Interstellar’s” history is that the film did not originate as a project for the Nolan brothers. In fact, one of the film’s producers, Lynda Obst and world-renown theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (who was a consultant on the script and was an executive producer), first hired Jonah Nolan to write the script with Steven Spielberg attached to direct.
Once the opportunity came for Christopher Nolan to direct the film, Jonah Nolan said his brother didn’t scrap what he started to build things from scratch, but continued to add layers to the foundation of his younger sibling’s narrative.
“When I worked with Kip, Lynda and Steven, I brought some ideas to the table and they brought some, and when Chris came to the project, he brought some of his own,” Nolan said. “Often what happens with my collaborations with Chris is, he gets in there and takes one of my ideas and puts his own inimitable spin on it, or adds a beautiful idea of his own.”
One of the biggest changes Christopher Nolan made to the script, Jonah Nolan said, came with a recalibration of the ending of the screenplay, giving it a much more powerful emotional punch.
“The ending to my script was quite pedestrian in comparison to his, and what Chris added to it had the scope and scale of the emotion in the film. It was so beautiful,” Nolan observed. “We have a really fun relationship because he gets to take my ideas and twist them around, and I get to take his ideas and twist them around. We surely think alike in a lot of ways, but he has his own unique perspective.”
And in the case of “Interstellar,” that perspective of being a parent drove Christopher Nolan and eventually, Jonah.
“Most of the work I did on ‘Interstellar’ happened before I was a parent or even married. But when he started working on the script, he had lots of kids and brought that perspective to it,” Jonah Nolan said. “He was bringing the perspective of a father to the storyline, where I was kind of guessing the emotions you would feel with a real acuity. The script clearly benefited from that. It’s always a great experience collaborating on a project with him for that very reason.”
While Christopher Nolan has yet to announce his next project, Jonah Nolan is well into his. The filmmaker wrote and directed the pilot episode of his new HBO series “Westworld,” starring the likes of Anthony Hopkins, James Marsden, Ed Harris and Thandie Newton. Created by Nolan and his wife, Lisa Joy, the re-imagining of the 1973 sci-fi favorite starring Yul Brynner film will debut sometime this year.
Original Interviews, Reviews & More By Tim Lammers