The Wylde Interview: Max Irons
HARDER, FASTER, TOUGHER: MAX IRONS UPS HIS GAME AS THE STAR OF ACTION-PACKED PARANOIA-THRILLER SERIES CONDOR. HOW FAR IS HE PREPARED TO GO FOR A ROLE? DAVID NEWTON INTERROGATES THIS CHARMING ACTOR AND DISCOVERS STEEL UNDER THE AFFABLE SURFACE
PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON LIPMAN
“I’m a severely aggressive person, so to truly unleash my inner psychopath every now and then is cathartic for me!”
Actor Max Irons is – jokingly – recalling the shoot he’s just completed for this issue of Wylde. I’d requested the photographer and stylist “rough him up” a little, to reflect his latest acting endeavour: the breathless psycho-thriller TV series Condor, due to hit UK screens soon. I wanted to know how he came to be lobbing chairs at the camera…
“Well, I walked in the front door and everyone gave me the stink eye and pushed me around a bit. [Simon Lipman, the photographer] is such an easy guy to work with, he asked me to pick up a chair and chuck it at him… so I did!
Fans of Nixon-era paranoia-thrillers will recognise the series title from the 1975 Sydney Pollack/Robert Redford movie Three Days of the Condor, itself based on James Grady’s 1974 book Six Days of the Condor. Irons plays the Redford role, as bookish CIA researcher Joe Turner, who returns from a lunch break to discover all his co-workers assassinated.
Cue a tense, fast-paced game of cat and mouse, updated to 2018’s volatile political scene. We caught up with Irons to discuss his venture into the world of high-stakes espionage, fast cars and flying bullets…
Wylde: Is Condor the first tough-guy/action man role you’ve done?
Max Irons: I’ve done a couple of things that’ve involved action before, but in the case of Condor, my character does a lot of running and an awful lot of hiding. There’s a little bit of action towards the end, but his main priority is to survive. And his particular skill-set is that he’s an MIT-trained analyst; he sits behind a desk. If it’s comparable to anyone we know, it would be Edward Snowden, you know, figuring out what the problems are before they become problems, solving them on the fly, and that enables him to survive on the run. It’s more a sort of cerebral thing.
Oh, so there aren’t any fistfights and blood?
There’s the odd fist, but I get punched a lot, and shot at a lot… all in a day’s work.
Do you shoot other people?
I do, towards the end.
Did you have to learn how to to handle a gun?
They send you to a gun expert – this was in Toronto – and it was an extraordinarily intimidating experience for me, with my predisposition not to like things that kill people. They walked me into a room that was behind a vault door, the equivalent of something you’d find in a bank, and inside are three men with biceps as thick as our necks, carrying guns the size of a tripod. And they remind you very quickly that this is capable of killing everybody in the room… And then they just give it to you, at which point I started sweating profusely. And I was also in the room with one of my co-stars, Leem Lubany, a Palestinian actress, who was cool as a cucumber, in spite of the circumstances, and made me feel all the sillier.
I saw you in the posh-boys-gone-bad movie The Riot Club, which was aggressive in a different way, wasn’t it? Would you prefer to mentally torture someone or shoot at them?
[Laughing] The child in me likes running with guns, but the grown-upactor part of me likes psychological torture; far more entertaining to play!
What drew you to the role in Condor?
Well, first and foremost, I was aware of the film [Three Days of the Condor]. I’d seen it at quite a young age, so the political implications and subtext of the movie weren’t clear in my head, so I watched the film again, and then I read the script. Then I did my audition, and you send these tapes off into the ether, hoping for something to come from it, and forget about them. And, sure enough, a couple of weeks later, I was flown out for a screen test. And it’s funny when you sign on for shows like this, because there are other shows that deal in a similar area – long-running political-espionage action shows – and you’ve got to remember, they do have a political bent to them in one way or another, to the right or left, so you really do want to be sure what you’re signing yourself up to. It’s five or six or seven years in some cases, so you want to make sure that your political beliefs line up with that of the show, otherwise you could find yourself being known for something you don’t stand for, which can be uncomfortable, and that’s happened before with other actors, who’ve had to force their way out of contracts, much to their own personal loss. But the great thing about long-form television is that you have far more hours to tell a story. The original Sydney Pollack movie was rather mysterious, in that you didn’t know what motivated anybody, or who they worked for, for that matter. Our TV show, however, allows us to go into a character’s ideology, principles, ethics, morals etc and also our writers weren’t interested in providing a good or a bad, or simple questions followed by simple answers. I think they were posing quite complex questions – the sort of questions I think that we, as people, need to have posed to us, especially in the world we find ourselves in now. And then they sit back and let us figure out the answers, which was quite appealing.
How did you ensure that the tone of the show reflected your own beliefs?
I was very lucky with Condor, in that I got 10 episodes on paper fairly quickly, so you can read through them and see the direction. I also sat down with the screenwriters and had an honest conversation with them. But that is not always the case; often you get one or two episodes and you get slowly drip-fed; where you’re character’s going, where the plot’s going, and often things are not always as they seem, in terms of the part you’re playing and what the show is, so I think you have to make a careful decision.
I’ve heard you have a fascination with the Cold War era. Why is that?
Gosh, what’s not to be fascinated by? I could answer that question in so many boring ways! I think the ideology surrounding the Stalinist regime, the Iron Curtain and the secrecy shrouding that country… I mean we have huge technological transparency these days. There’s nothing in the world we don’t have access to, in terms of military technology, but it wasn’t the case back then, so it was all a bit of a mystery. So there were a lot of mind games, subterfuge, double-speak. Just the very fact of two of the most powerful countries on earth staring eyeball-to-eyeball, waiting for each other to blink. And a scale of such a wide tool-kit, from basic spy espionage on one side, to enormous nuclear submarines at the other end. Just an incredible, terrifying situation.
You were talking just now about how your politics need to align with those of your character, but what about playing someone whose stance is the opposite of your own? Would you want to explore that?
Oh, absolutely. What I guess exists on both sides of the political spectrum, when it comes to film and television, are hidden messages, or an underlying colour. For example, there have been shows that have painted certain countries in the world as inherently threatening, and unfortunately, with some people, their interest in that country ends there. So a takeaway from a popular show can be that a certain country in the Middle East, let’s say, or northern Africa, is full of extremists. Whereas situations are far more complicated than that, and the circumstances are often to do with the history of the past 70 years. It is a very complex situation, and when shows simplify the enemy, based on race or a particular country that they came from, I find that hard to stomach. I feel like I’m being slightly manipulated. Whereas in a Le Carré novel, for example, there’s a wealth of research and real-life understanding in there.
What role would you never accept?
Never say never! Maybe a badly written character with no emotional continuity or logical progression. If it just made no sense, or looked stupid on paper.
Have you done comedy?
I did a lot at drama school, but I haven’t had a chance to do it since.I get very nervous in front of people I don’t know, so I don’t know how relaxed I’d be on the set of a comedy. It’s a tricky thing. You’ve really got to hand it to comedians; the science behind it, having to retell a joke 50 times from different angles, and make it “true” each time. You know that’s a real skill.
And I bet being funny on camera is completely different from being funny at home or in a comedy club.…
I’m very funny in front of my girlfriend! I don’t think I’m very funny in front of very many other people…
How funny would she rate you on a scale from 0 to 10?
I think she’d give me a good, healthy 8 or a 9! My only shortcoming is not knowing when it’s good to try and be funny! Like, I try to make her laugh when she’s in the middle of cooking something complicated…
The child in me likes running with guns, but the
grown-up actor part of me likes
psychological torture; far more entertaining to play!
What makes you different to other actors?
That’s a horrible question! I’m going to answer it in a diplomatic way: I think it’s all genetic. I think we’re all a product of our nature and our nurture, which, by its definition, makes us all different.
But you work in a very tough business, so why would a casting director give you a role?
Well, I think demographically, you’re always going to have people who, on paper, are going to be the same as you. But I think we are a product of our experiences, and as a result, the lens through which we see life and ourselves, is different. And thus the quality that you bring to a character or performance is different. When you’re in the room with a director and you start kicking the script around, you either fit that role or you don’t. And that’s what’s hard about being an actor; that the thing that might get you the role is your very nature, the sort of uncontrollable quality a person has, and may not be aware of. But it’s hard to control it, and, when you do get rejected, it’s hard to know exactly why. It’s a tricky business, but not dissimilar to life. Just as a human being, you move through life and you meet people; some people respond to you, some people don’t, and it’s not always easy to know why. It’s best to not care so much, but we do, as human beings… it’s hard-coded into us.
Are you good at handling failure and rejection?
I think you have to be, as an actor; it’s so much part and parcel of the job. My approach to these things is to try and stay as emotionally distant as possible, until it becomes impossible for it not to be. Every now and then, you instantly fall in love with a script, with the part, and you feel yourself uncontrollably, emotionally, all-in. And when that happens, you know if you don’t get it, it’s going to sting, and it does, but again, that’s part of life. But this is something where actors vary, and I think it is a choice. And I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong answer. But I think it does matter to what extent you value yourself, based on your work as an actor, or as a celebrity, or whatever. If you’re in the public eye, that’s a difficult one; I think you’re setting yourself up for pain. My own personal position is try to build a life full of things that you love and people that you love, and put those things at the centre of your life.
What else have you got in your life that you love?
Well, my girlfriend, first and foremost. I’ve got my friends. I’ve got cycling.
What do you like about cycling?
I’ve just been in Majorca, mountain cycling in 30-degree heat.
How can you do that?!
You know, I ask myself that every time I do it!
You’re torturing yourself!
It’s weird… it’s not torture! It’s something else. It often feels like a metaphor for life; especially the climbing. It’s the thing I enjoy most, as a lot of cyclists do, because it’s constant, sustained effort. There’s no way out of the fact that it hurts, and it’s constant.
Don’t you prefer the whizzing down the other side, not having to pedal?
But that’s one side of the coin. What’s interesting is, when you’re climbing – and cycling generally – there’s no room for self-flagellation, there’s no room for yelling at yourself: “Go faster!” There has to be grace involved, and that’s when you become efficient. That’s when it becomes enjoyable. It reminds me of how to be, as a human being. And then of course you get to go really, really fast down the other side!
What other cultural things do you like?
The normal things: theatre and film. I’m not much of a reader, as I’m really dyslexic.
What films are you drawn to?
Talking of John Le Carré; I watched Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy last night (the Gary Oldman film). I also love Mesrine with Vincent Cassel.
All-time favourite movie?
2001: A Space Odyssey.
Easy: Joy Division. I got into them when I was about 13. But you know how it is, being obsessed with bands: two months of pure obsession and then you fall off for a couple of years, and then you come back to it.
What is it you like about them?
The darkness and the relentlessness of them; it’s fantastic. That’s a film I might watch tonight: Control.
I can imagine you playing that role… Ian Curtis.
Really? I take that as a huge compliment, but I’m afraid Sam Riley, to me, is now basically what Ian Curtis looks like. I was watching something on YouTube about the formation of the United Kingdom and it had a picture of [Scots warrior- knight] William Wallace, who Mel Gibson played [in Braveheart]… and now William Wallace will forever be Mel Gibson! And whenever I see Alastair Campbell on TV I always get slightly taken aback, because I think he’s [Labour spin doctor] Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It [played by Peter Capldi]!
This is the point where we usually ask some fun, quick questions. Have you ever been arrested?
No, I haven’t.
What’s the worst trouble you’ve ever been in?
I can’t tell you!
Does it involve the law?
Yes it does! Also stuff I’ve managed to get away with…
I think that’s it…
[Laughing] Have you ever been arrested?! That’s it?! I thought we were entering into the quick-fire round… and there was one question! That’s really funny!
OK… Do you believe in ghosts?
What about UFOs?
I believe in aliens, but not UFOs. I believe there’s life in our solar system. Maybe on Mars, on some very, very basic level.
I can see you doing sci-fi; something in space with loads of CGI…
I’m not going to lie: that would be a dream.
Talking of dreams, have you had any weird ones recently?
I don’t dream very much. I think I do, but I never remember them. My girlfriend tells me her dreams, constantly, and they never make any sense. I do have a typical actor’s dream every now and then, which is someone walking up to me and saying: “Good luck tonight.”, and then realising I’m doing a play, and I’ve missed all the rehearsals and I don’t know my lines and the whole crew and the cast are depending on me. It never gets to the point that I’m on the stage; it’s just the panicking beforehand. It ruins the whole of the next day.… the whole day. It leaves a reverberation in your mind, body and soul. I guess adrenaline kicks in during your sleep, or something, and you’re all off-kilter. That’s a very typical actor’s dream.
Is there a question no one ever asks you?
[Laughing] I think: “Have you ever been arrested?” And I’m very glad you did!
I’m not sure if Max Irons realises his affable, eloquent exterior only barely hides the darker, badder reaches of his personality, but if I were a casting director, it’s exactly that dual quality I would be eager to sign him up for…
Photography: Simon Lipman
Styling: Mark McMahon
Grooming: Emma White Turle @ The Wall Group
Stylist’s assistant: Cherelle Natalie Thompson