`I SUPPOSE it is important, overall in your career, that audiences like you,'' says Jeremy Irons, ``but I would hate to base my career on being charming.'' Mr. Irons hasn't been running much risk of that lately. Audiences are still reeling from ``Dead Ringers,'' where he played a pair of dangerously demented twins. In his latest film, ``Reversal of Fortune,'' he plays the real-life figure of Claus von Bulow, the enigmatic European aristocrat charged with trying to murder his wife, Sunny, in one of the most widely discussed criminal trials of recent years. Based on the actual events, the movie shows Mr. von Bulow's attempt to have his murder conviction overturned with the help of Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz.
The film portrays von Bulow as cold and eccentric, Mr. Dershowitz as wired-up and overeager, Mrs. von Bulow as alternately doped-up and comatose.
There's little chance of anyone seeming too ``charming'' in these circumstances, even though such solid performers as Ron Silver (as Dershowitz) and Glenn Close (as Sunny) join Irons in the cast. Yet notwithstanding the sordid overtones of its story, ``Reversal of Fortune'' has been hailed - most recently at the Toronto Festival of Festivals last month - as an achievement of high drama and intelligence.
In my view it's one of the most ingeniously made American films in years, and the first truly controlled picture to come from director Barbet Schroeder, whose uneven career ranges from the documentary ``General Idi Amin Dada'' to the melodrama ``Barfly.''
Irons visited New York shortly before ``Reversal of Fortune'' showed in the Toronto filmfest, and I took the opportunity to discuss the picture with him. One of my first questions was whether he met von Bulow before playing him in the film.
``No,'' he answered. ``I didn't want to meet him, because I didn't think I'd learn anything from that. I met a lot of people who knew him, some very well and some slightly, and I talked with them about him.... I watched him on video.... I read all his police statements and all the [courtroom] transcripts.''
Irons added that doing this sort of research ``is like being a detective. You get a hunch and follow it. I think I found him, but I'm probably very arrogant to say that. I found a Claus, anyway ..., and I thought about him a lot. I came to conclusions about him. He had a sort of slow, rather pompous, somewhat snobbish, center-of-the-stage European quality.''
When the cameras finally rolled, did Irons aim to re-create the real von Bulow, or to present a fictionalized version of him? ``My goal wasn't to do an impersonation,'' the actor replied, ``but I wanted to have an essence of him in the look, in the manner, and in his motivation. I felt it shouldn't be fiction, because we were dealing with concrete facts. ... So I was as accurate to the spirit as I could be. There is a great responsibility to any character you play - especially if the character is living - not to sell him short, not to lie about him, not to make life harder for him....''
Irons feels the character of Claus lends ``Reversal of Fortune'' much of its tone and recalls he approached the role seriously yet with a certain lack of reverence - an attitude also felt by the movie's director. ``My sense of humor and Barbet's are the same,'' Irons says. ``So we were on the same sort of wavelength.
How would Irons describe the sense of humor that he and Mr. Schroeder share? ``It's black and ironic,'' he says, with a light and straightforward smile. ``It's not very American, and it's a bit like Claus's, actually ... sort of European.''
An ironic tone runs through many scenes in ``Reversal of Fortune,'' especially when Irons is on the screen. Yet the film is a thoughtful study of a serious event that raises serious issues of guilt, innocence, and justice in the American legal system. It also offers Irons the challenge of playing a man whose behavior often seems anything but pleasant - a challenge he enjoyed tackling here, as in ``Dead Ringers'' before it.
Behavior, he notes, is an artist's stock in trade. ``And unpleasant behavior is just a particular sort of behavior. If you know why that behavior happens ... it's logical. It is true I've done two [unpleasant characters] in a row. I've also turned down two others, because I don't like my career pushing towards any particular color for too long.
``In any case, I found no difference between playing Claus von Bulow here and playing Gabriel [a Jesuit priest] in `The Mission.' I just had to get inside the skin of both, and see what motivated them.... I don't really think about, `Are the audience going to like me?' I think, `What is the function of this character within the film?' And then I try to carry out that function.''
``There's enough in the film to show [more than one side of] his personality, but you have to look for it,'' says the star. ``It's not a manipulative film. The acting is not obvious acting. Some people may wish [the film showed] positively, was he innocent or was he guilty? But we don't learn this from the film, necessarily, although you can make decisions or value judgments. ... I wasn't going to play either a man who hadn't done it or a man who had done it. Almost as Claus waited for the law to [reach a conclusion], I tried to do the same.''. For a seasoned professional, ``an awful lot of what one does is - it's wrong to say unconscious, but it is sort of unconscious,'' says irons. ``I don't think any actor can be completely in control of what he's doing. It's like a violinist - if you're playing well, something happens. But it's very difficult to describe or explain. So I'm out of my depth. You'll have to ask another question!''