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Irons Collars Challenge In 'Mission'

November 22, 1986|RODERICK MANN

Jeremy Irons was standing in the middle of his hotel suite swinging a machete around, looking piratical and menacing.

What on earth was he doing? Getting ready to meet some critic, one who didn't like his performance in the new movie "The Mission"?

No. The machete, just delivered, was a gift from his friend Michael Burton, a descendant of explorer Sir Richard Burton. And Irons was jubilant. In South America, where he filmed "The Mission," he couldn't find a machete that didn't have a plastic handle. This was the real thing.

Irons, who stars with Robert De Niro in the movie--a story about an 18th-Century Jesuit priest and a former slave trader who joined forces to save a South American tribe--had just taken two weeks off from his season at Stratford, England, to fly over to discuss the film.

And, somewhat surprisingly, what a lot of people wanted to know was--after his matinee idol success in Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" last year on Broadway and the prospect of international exposure in "The Mission"--why lock himself away in Stratford where the pay is poor and which ranks in high visibility somewhere between outer Mongolia and Albania?

"Yes, they said it was a crazy thing to do," said Irons, laying aside the machete and draping himself along a sofa. "They said I'd get lost there, and to a certain extent I have. But I knew it would be good for my development as an actor.

Clearly, Irons, despite all that "new Olivier" nonsense, despite critical hurrahs for his work in TV's "Brideshead Revisited," despite classy performances in "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and "Betrayal," is that rare creature: an actor with no great need to be thought of as a star.

"That's true," he said. "After I'd had some early successes, my agent began calling it the crest of the wave and urged me to concentrate on the star thing.

"I said, don't give me that rubbish about waves--as I see it, a career is like the sea and waves will come and go. That's why I switched to Sam Cohn (a New York agent) during 'The Real Thing.' He's very selective and I knew he wouldn't push anything my way unless he thought it good. The truth is I don't enjoy filming enough to do something I don't value. I find the process extremely hard--and often very boring."

He liked the role of Father Gabriel, the Jesuit priest, as soon as he read "The Mission."

"But the role was written for a 60-year-old man. And as De Niro was already set for Mendoza (the slave hunter), there seemed nothing for me in the film. At first (director) Roland Joffe wanted to go with a non-actor and re-create the same chemistry he got in "The Killing Fields," where he had a non-actor (Haing S. Ngor) with a professional (Sam Waterston). So he interviewed a lot of 60-year-old non-actors.

"But David Puttnam (who co-produced with Fernando Ghia) was nervous about having a non-actor take so much responsibility. So eventually the role came to me.

"It's always hard to play a priest," he said. "It's so easy to make it a cliche. That's why I did my own climbing (up the treacherous Iguac falls on the border of Paraguay and Brazil). I told Roland, we have to show him doing this. He may be a pacifist, but he's not a wimp."

Remember, his wife actress Sinead Cusack urged him, play the man behind the priest.

"I tried to do that," said Irons. "And I'm trying to do that as Richard II at Stratford. 'When you watch Prince Charles on TV,' Sinead said, 'what are you looking for? To see how princely he is, or to see the real man behind all that?' Of course she's right. You look to find the real man. So I don't play the king--I am the king."

Now what?

"Oh, please, a good romantic role," said Irons. "That's what I want. But I can't find one. Neither can my agent. I don't want just to be associated with prestige productions all the time. I want to do something stylish and funny and commercial. But where do I find it? You tell me."

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