There's a famous tale about Ernest Hemingway -- and the time his wife packed up all his early writings in a suitcase . . . and accidentally lost it on a train. The original manuscripts, all the carbons -- years of work -- gone.
This tale from the days before backup hard drives inspired "The Words," a haunting new drama about writers, romance and plagiarism that opens Sept. 7. It stars Bradley Cooper as a frustrated young writer being trailed by an old man, played by . . . wait . . . is that? Yes, it's Jeremy Irons.
The British icon aged nearly a quarter century to play the mysterious figure. Romantics, of course, still love him from the hit 1980s PBS series "Brideshead Revisited." Kids fear his bloodcurdling voice as the evil lion Scar in Disney's "The Lion King." And villainy fans enjoy "Die Hard: With a Vengeance" (he plays a terrorist), Showtime's "The Borgias" (a scheming pope) or "Reversal of Fortune" (murder suspect Claus von Bulow).
He's won a best actor Academy Award (for "Reversal") and a Tony (for Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing"), among others. Married with two grown children, Irons currently is shooting season 3 of "The Borgias" in Budapest. He spoke by phone with Newsday.
"The Words" is a rather literary film -- quiet, romantic. What encouraged you to make it?
Well, I thought the old man is an enigma, and it's always nice to play enigmas.
Why is that?
It's nice playing with the audience, letting them in slowly. And I thought it would be a bit of a challenge to play a man of that age. It would give me a chance to . . . do what I do, y'know?
I heard you were very particular about your costume.
I didn't want anything new. This is a man who had no interest in his clothing. I said, go to old thrift shops. Find clothes that have life in them. I still have one of the shirts. I wear it and people say, "That's a wonderful old shirt."
The tale of Hemingway's lost manuscripts -- it's always haunted me.
Oh, terrible. Like losing a child. Terrible.
But it can be forgotten. I remember when my eldest son . . . was young and having a birthday party, and the weather was terrible. So I said, "Why don't you watch a movie? Why not 'Some Like It Hot' -- it's a fantastic film. Marilyn Monroe." And he said, "Who's that?" And I thought . . . how soon they forget.
Much has been written about your voice -- when did you realize it was distinctive?
I honestly don't know. It's something I try to forget. Because there's nothing worse than actors who are conscious of their voice. Or of anything, really. There was a lot of voice-over in "Brideshead," but I don't remember it being particularly interesting. It's odd. People say "distinctive" voice. I think, not really. It's a bit gravelly, I suppose. And English. I just forget about it.
So how are "The Borgias" doing?
It goes well. We struggle on with scripts. The bugbear of doing these series is getting the scripts written in time. It's always a bit of a nightmare, and I've never understood why movies start when they haven't got the script together. You wouldn't believe how often that happens.
You've got a documentary coming out -- "Trashed" -- about waste and pollution. You narrate and executive-produce. That's new for you, isn't it?
A neighbor of mine -- a documentary maker -- said we should do something. She gave me all the information. It's a serious problem -- but a curable one. I shall never forget going around the hospital in Saigon and seeing the children who were the results of Agent Orange, which is very concentrated dioxin. We let dioxin out into the atmosphere when we burn rubbish in incinerators. It falls back to the ground. . . . Then there's all this plastic packaging. I tell people -- unwrap everything in the supermarket you don't need wrapped. Leave it there.
Will supermarkets get the message?
I think they will. They'll tell suppliers, "Listen, it's tough for us -- find a different way."
Is there hope?
San Francisco has 75 percent recycling. Extraordinary. They recycle 75 percent of all their food, packaging and waste. So one has to get lawmakers to understand and get that into the national consciousness.
Well, you've got the voice for it.