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Interview with Jeremy Irons

Robert Dudley in cap red drape behind

HBO

Tell us about your character, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester.

Jeremy Irons

Well, he was a lifelong friend to Elizabeth. Historians say he was her favorite. She had many favorites, but because we only have four hours to tell this story, one has to simplify. And so Leicester represents all the favorites, really, apart from Essex, who in the second part becomes her favorite.

And it's interesting to play, because she was a virgin, and yet they had a pretty close, physical relationship. And that's very interesting within this structured court where everybody has their position and is very polite to her, to play the guy who she values for the fact that he speaks the truth to her, he just talks to her like a friend.

And that's doesn't mean that sometimes she doesn't take offense against him. At one point she bars him from court for about seven years because she discovers that he's married. And has a child. That upsets her, and so she kicks him out. But eventually she wants him back because she wants somebody who will speak to her without any bullshit.

He adores her. Unabashedly. But he knows he can't marry her, because she uses the fact that she is unmarried for political ends.

HBO

And how do you think he feels about her?

Jeremy Irons

He adores her. He knows that she is changeable, moody, but that at base she is incredibly strong and incredibly clever politically. He adores her. Unabashedly. But he knows he can't marry her because she uses the fact that she is unmarried for political ends, for keeping friends with the French, because there's a French prince who maybe will marry her, or there is a Spanish king who maybe will marry her.

And so she uses her unmarried state to keep the peace in England. And although I think she probably would quite like to marry Leicester, she feels that she needs to marry a prince. And Leicester may be an earl, but he's not a prince.

HBO

How does their relationship develop?

Jeremy Irons

We come to it at a time when their great passion is sort of over, and they're more like a married couple in a strange way. I think Leicester still harbors a desire to marry her but sort of knows that she'll never marry him. And so he goes off and marries somebody else. And as they get older they become like a sort of married couple, old friends.

HBO

What in particular appeals to you about Leicester?

Robert Dudley soldiers behind

Jeremy Irons

Well, I think he was a doer. He wasn't very political. He would say what he thought. I mean, he was political in that they were all political; they relied upon their queen for their financial position, and their position in court. So there was an element of the sycophant about all courtiers. But Leicester I think less so. He was someone who spoke his mind, who was pretty informal.

He was the master of her horse, so he was a great rider. He would breed her horses and take her hunting, and they would go out riding every morning. And that's very much to my taste, because all those things I do. He loved the country, but enjoyed being at the heart of things in court: enjoyed the scandal, enjoyed the gossip, the intrigue. He's a man with a great appetite for life, and I like playing that. I suppose I have quite an appetite for life.

HBO

How was it working with Helen Mirren?

Jeremy Irons

Well, one of the reasons I wanted to do this was to get a chance to work with Helen. I've known her for a long time, as actors know other actors, but never had the chance to work with her. And I'm really enjoying it. She's a wonderful actress. And it's the best working with good actors.

HBO

What was it about the script that appealed to you?

He loved the country, but enjoyed being at the heart of things in court; enjoyed the scandal, enjoyed the gossip, enjoyed the intrigue. He's a man with a great appetite for life, and I like playing that.

Jeremy Irons

Well it's very sparely written in that...each line really has reverberations, quite difficult to play quickly because each line refers to what you could write five pages about. But because of the medium, one is condensing necessarily. But he's done a lot of research, he's written with a great rhythm a language which is sort of contemporary and yet is not contemporary. It has a period flavor mostly in his rhythms, but sometimes in his construction, sometimes in the words he uses. Because of course this was the period when Shakespeare was writing. Now we can't use Shakespearean language, which is probably more like what they would, and yet there is a ghost of that in the dialogue.

I think a lot of writers make the mistake when writing in period to say we must allow the modern audience to understand, therefore we have to write as we speak nowadays. But it's hard to play these people speaking as we speak nowadays, because the way we speak reflects the way we live. And in those days they lived differently. And I think Nigel (Williams, the writer) really found a way of dealing with that.

HBO

Does that make it difficult for you as an actor having to weave the two together?

I don't believe that even though they may have spoken differently and lived in different ways that they were any different to us. Their hearts and their minds and their instincts and their brains and their souls were exactly the same as ours.

Jeremy Irons

No. No, because what you do as an actor is actually very easy. You just learn about the period, so you create for yourself a life in the period. You have the dialogue, which hopefully you lay on top of that, and then you have your own emotional thoughts which you put through all that to give it life.

And I don't believe that even though they may have spoken differently and lived in different ways that they were any different than us. Their hearts and their minds and their instincts and their brains and their souls were exactly the same as ours. I don't think that changes with people. You only have to look at period writing-fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth century- to realize that human emotions haven't changed, we have not evolved in that way. I think inventions allow us to do different things, and live in different ways. Tastes change, architecture changes. But I don't believe the way people feel has changed.

Elizabeth I

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