Irons has also made several notable appearances on TV. He earned his first Golden Globe Award nomination for his break-out role in the ITV series Brideshead Revisited (1981). In 2005, Irons starred opposite Helen Mirren in the historical miniseries Elizabeth I, for which he received a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor. From 2011 to 2013 he starred as Pope Alexander VI in the Showtime historical series The Borgias. He is one of the few actors who won the "Triple Crown of Acting", winning an Academy Award (for film), an Emmy Award (television) and a Tony Award (for theatre). In October 2011, he was nominated Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Irons was born in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, the son of Paul Dugan Irons (1913–1983), an accountant, and Barbara Anne Brereton Brymer (née Sharpe; 1914–1999). His paternal great-great-grandfather was a Metropolitan Policeman who was sacked for drunkenness, and later a Chartist. He has a small amount of Irish ancestry, tracing back to County Cork. Irons has a brother, Christopher (born 1943), and a sister, Felicity Anne (born 1944). He was educated at the independent Sherborne School in Dorset from 1962 to 1966. He was the drummer and harmonica player in a four-man school band called the Four Pillars of Wisdom.
Irons trained as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and later became president of its fundraising appeal. He performed a number of plays, and busked on the streets of Bristol, before appearing on the London stage as John the Baptist and Judas opposite David Essex in Godspell, which opened at the Roundhouse on 17 November 1971 before transferring to Wyndham's Theatre playing a total of 1,128 performances.
He made several appearances on British television, including the children's television series Play Away and as Franz Liszt in the BBC 1974 series Notorious Woman. More significantly he starred in the 13-part adaptation of H.E. Bates' novel Love for Lydia for London Weekend Television (1977), and attracted attention for his key role as the pipe-smoking German student, a romantic pairing with Judi Dench in Harold Pinter's screenplay adaptation of Aidan Higgins' novel Langrishe, Go Down for BBC television (1978).
The role which brought him fame was that of Charles Ryder in the television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1981). First broadcast on ITV, the show ranks among the greatest British television dramas, with Irons receiving a Golden Globe nomination for his performance. Brideshead reunited him with Anthony Andrews, with whom he had appeared in The Pallisers seven years earlier. In the same year he starred in the film The French Lieutenant's Woman opposite Meryl Streep.
After these major successes, in 1982 he played the leading role of an exiled Polish building contractor, working in the Twickenham area of South West London, in Jerzy Skolimowski's independent film Moonlighting, widely seen on television, a performance which extended his acting range. On 23 March 1991, Irons hosted Saturday Night Live on NBC in the US, and appeared as Sherlock Holmes in the Sherlock Holmes' Surprise Party sketch.
In 2005, Irons won both an Emmy award and a Golden Globe award for his supporting role in the TV mini-series, Elizabeth I. A year later Irons was one of the participants in the third series of the BBC documentary series Who Do You Think You Are?. In 2008, he played Lord Vetinari in Terry Pratchett's The Colour of Magic, an adaptation for Sky One.
On 6 November 2008, TV Guide reported he would star as photographer Alfred Stieglitz with Joan Allen as painter Georgia O'Keeffe, in a Lifetime Television biopic, Georgia O'Keeffe (2009). Irons also appeared in the documentary for Irish television channel TG4, Faoi Lan Cheoil in which he learned to play the fiddle.
On 12 January 2011, Irons was a guest-star in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit called "Mask". He played Dr. Cap Jackson, a sex therapist. He reprised the role on an episode titled "Totem" that ran on 30 March 2011.
Irons stars in the 2011 US premium cable network Showtime's series The Borgias, a highly fictionalised account of the Renaissance dynasty of that name.
Irons made his film debut in Nijinsky in 1980. He appeared sporadically in films during the 1980s, including the Cannes Palme d'Or winner The Mission in 1986, and in the dual role of twin gynaecologists in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers in 1988. Other films include Danny the Champion of the World (1989), Reversal of Fortune (1990), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, Kafka (1991), Damage (1993), M. Butterfly (1993), The House of the Spirits (1993) appearing again with Glenn Close and Meryl Streep, the voice of Scar in The Lion King (1994), portraying Simon Gruber in Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), co-starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty (1996), the 1997 remake of Lolita, and as the musketeer Aramis opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in the 1998 film version of The Man in the Iron Mask.
Other roles include the evil wizard Profion in the film Dungeons and Dragons (2000) and Rupert Gould in Longitude (2000). He played the Über-Morlock in the film The Time Machine (2002). In 2004, Irons played Severus Snape in Comic Relief's Harry Potter parody, "Harry Potter and the Secret Chamberpot of Azerbaijan". In 2005, he appeared in the films Casanova opposite Heath Ledger, and Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. He has co-starred with John Malkovich in two films; The Man in the Iron Mask (1998) and Eragon (2006), though they did not have any scenes together in the latter.
In 2008, Irons co-starred with Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen in Appaloosa, directed by Harris. In 2011, Irons appeared alongside Kevin Spacey in the thriller Margin Call. In 2012, he starred and worked as executive producer of the environmental documentary film Trashed. Irons played Alfred Pennyworth in Warner Bros.' Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and will reprise the role in the upcoming 2017 film Justice League and Ben Affleck's The Batman.
He is cast in Francis Lawrence's 2018 film adaptation of Jason Matthews' book Red Sparrow as General Vladimir Korchnoi.
Irons has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company three times in 1976, 1986–87 and 2010. After years of success in the West End in London, Irons made his New York debut in 1984 and won a Tony Award for his Broadway performance opposite Glenn Close in The Real Thing.
After an absence from the London stage for 18 years, in 2006 he co-starred with Patrick Malahide in Christopher Hampton's stage adaptation of Sándor Márai's novel Embers at the Duke of York's Theatre.
He made his National Theatre debut playing former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (1957–1963) in Never So Good, a new play by Howard Brenton which opened at the Lyttelton on 19 March 2008. In 2009, Irons appeared on Broadway opposite Joan Allen in the play Impressionism. The play ran through 10 May 2009 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater.
Irons has had extensive voice work in a range of different fields throughout his career. He read the audiobook recording of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (he had also appeared in the 1997 film version of the novel), and James and the Giant Peach by the children's author Roald Dahl.
In particular, he has received acclaim for his recordings of the poetry of T.S. Eliot for BBC Radio 4. Beginning in 2012 with The Waste Land, he went on to record Four Quartets in 2014, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock on the centenary of its publication in 2015, and Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats in 2016. He finally completed recording the entire canon of T.S. Eliot which was broadcast over New Year's Day 2017.
One of his best known film roles has turned out to be lending his distinctive voice to Scar in The Lion King (1994) serving as the main antagonist of the film. Irons has since provided voiceovers for three Disney World attractions. He narrated the Spaceship Earth ride, housed in the large geodesic globe at Epcot in Florida from October 1994 to July 2007. He was also the English narrator for the Studio Tram Tour: Behind the Magic at the Walt Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Paris. He voiced H. G. Wells in the English language version of the former Disney attraction The Timekeeper. He also reprised his role as Scar in Fantasmic. He is also one of the readers in the 4x CD boxed set of The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, produced by Marc Sinden and sold in aid of the Royal Theatrical Fund.
He serves as the English language version of the audio guide for Westminster Abbey in London. Irons has served as voice-over in two big cat documentary films by National Geographic: Eye of the Leopard, which was released in 2006, and The Last Lions, which was released on 18 February 2011. He also currently narrates the French-produced documentary series about volcanoes, Life on Fire. The series premiered on PBS in the United States on 2 January 2013.
In 2008, two researchers, a linguist and a sound engineer, found "the perfect [male] voice" to be a combination of Irons' and Alan Rickman's voices based on a sample of 50 voices. Coincidentally, the two actors played brothers in the Die Hard series of films. Speaking at 200 words per minute and pausing for 1.2 seconds between sentences, Irons came very close to the ideal voice model, with the linguist Andrew Linn explaining why his "deep gravelly tones" inspired trust in listeners. He recited the spoken sections, most notably 'Late Lament', for The Moody Blues 50th Anniversary Tour of 'Days Of Future Passed', and also appears on the video presentation.
In 1985, Irons directed a music video for Carly Simon and her heavily promoted single, "Tired of Being Blonde", and in 1994, he had a cameo role in the video for Elastica's hit single "Connection".
Irons has contributed to other musical performances, recording William Walton's Façade with Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale conducted by the composer, and in 1987 the songs from Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, released on the Decca label. Irons sang segments of "Be Prepared" in the film The Lion King.
To mark the 100th anniversary of Noël Coward's birth, Irons sang a selection of his songs at the 1999 Last Night of the Proms held at the Royal Albert Hall in London, ending with "London Pride", a patriotic song written in the spring of 1941 during the Blitz. In 2003, Irons played Fredrik Egerman in a New York revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, and two years later appeared as King Arthur in Lerner and Loewe's Camelot at the Hollywood Bowl. He performed the Bob Dylan song "Make You Feel My Love" on the 2006 charity album Unexpected Dreams – Songs From the Stars.
In 2009, Irons appeared on the Touchstone album Wintercoast, recording a narrative introduction to the album. Recording took place in New York City, New York in February 2009 during rehearsals for his Broadway play Impressionism.
At the 1991 Tony Awards, Irons was one of the few celebrities to wear the recently created red ribbon to support the fight against AIDS, and he was the first celebrity to wear it onscreen. He supports a number of other charities, including the Prison Phoenix Trust in England, and the London-based Evidence for Development which seeks to improve the lives of the world’s most needy people by preventing famines and delivering food aid, for both of which he is an active patron.
In 2010, Irons starred in a promotional video for "The 1billionhungry project" – a worldwide drive to attract at least one million signatures to a petition calling on international leaders to move hunger to the top of the political agenda. He was named Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2011.
Irons provided the narration of the 2013 documentary "Sahaya Going Beyond" about the work of the charity Sahaya International. Irons is patron of London-based drama school, The Associated Studios.
In November 2015, Irons supported the No Cold Homes campaign by the UK charity Turn2us. Irons was one of nearly thirty celebrities, which include Helen Mirren, Hugh Laurie and Ed Sheeran, to donate items of winter clothing to the campaign, with the proceeds used to help people in the UK struggling to keep their home warm in winter.
In 1998, Irons and his wife were named in the list of the biggest private financial donors to the Labour Party, a year after its return to government with Tony Blair's victory in the 1997 United Kingdom general election, after 18 years in opposition. In 2004, he publicly declared his support for the Countryside Alliance, referring to the 2004 Hunting Act as an "outrageous assault on civil liberties" and "one of the two most devastating parliamentary votes in the last century".
Irons is an outspoken critic of the death penalty and has supported the campaign by the human rights organisation Amnesty International UK to abolish capital punishment worldwide. Among his arguments in 2007, Irons states the death penalty infringes on two fundamental human rights, the right to life, and no-one shall be subject to torture, adding that while the person accused of a crime may have abused those rights, to advocate the same be done to them is to join them.
In April 2013, Irons was asked by Huffpost Live host Josh Zepps his opinion on the fight for same-sex marriage in the United States. Irons responded, "Could a father not marry his son?" Zepps responded with an argument that laws against incest prevent such a union. Irons argued that "it's not incest between men. Incest is there to protect us from inbreeding, but men don't breed," and wondered whether same-sex marriage might allow fathers to bequeath their estates to their sons to avoid taxation. On the issue of advocates calling for same-sex marriage as opposed to civil unions, he said, "It seems to me that now they're fighting for the name," and, "I worry that it means somehow we debase, or we change, what marriage is. I just worry about that." He later clarified his comments, saying he was providing an example of a situation that could cause a "legal quagmire" under the laws that allow same-sex marriage, and that he had been misinterpreted. He added that some gay relationships are "healthier" than their straight counterparts.
He was also one of several celebrities who endorsed the parliamentary candidacy of the Green Party's Caroline Lucas at the 2015 UK general election.
Irons, who supports the legal availability of abortion, having said that he believes that "women should be allowed to make the decision", nonetheless agreed with a pro-life advocate, being quoted as saying that "the church is right to say it's a sin".
He has been criticised in the British Medical Journal for his fundraising activities in support of The College of Medicine, an alternative medicine lobby group in the UK linked to Prince Charles.
Irons is a patron of the Chiltern Shakespeare Company which produces Shakespearean plays annually in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. Irons was bestowed an Honorary-Life Membership by the University College Dublin Law Society in September 2008, in honour of his contribution to television, film, audio, music, and theatre. Also in 2008, Irons was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Southampton Solent University. On 20 July 2016, Irons was announced as the first Chancellor of Bath Spa University.
Jeremy Irons has written a three-page article on screen acting as the foreword to A Screen Acting Workshop by Mel Churcher published by Nick Hern Books (2011)
Irons is fluent in French.
Irons married Julie Hallam in 1969, but they divorced later that year. He married Irish actress Sinéad Cusack on 28 March 1978. They have two sons, Samuel "Sam" Irons (born 1978), who works as a photographer, and Maximilian "Max" Irons (born 1985), also an actor. Both of Irons' sons have appeared in films with their father. Irons' wife and children are Catholic; Irons has also been described as a practising Catholic, but he has stated:
Irons owns Kilcoe Castle near Ballydehob, County Cork, and had the castle painted pink. He also has another Irish residence in The Liberties of Dublin, as well as a home in his birth town of Cowes and a house and barn in Watlington, Oxfordshire.
Irons is known for his outspoken opinions.
In 2004, he claimed that the fox hunting ban passed by British Parliament was an outrageous assault on civil liberties.
In 2013, he claimed that he loves 'touching' people, and he expected that if any "self-respecting woman" minded she would simply tell him to "fuck off." He courted further controversy by suggesting underage girls who have sex with older men should not be ‘encouraged’ to think they are victims of sexual abuse.
In the same year, he also opposed same-sex marriage on the grounds that it could "debase" marital law, suggesting it could be manipulated to allow fathers to pass on their estates to their sons without being taxed, because he supposed incest laws would not apply to men. He later explained that "I will forever be playing Devil’s Advocate, just because I like a good discussion ... I was just wondering how things would change. You change one thing and there’s a knock-on effect", but "I don’t have prejudices ... anything that makes people happy should be encouraged."