In mentally preparing for the role of G.H. Hardy in The Man Who Knew Infinity, actor Jeremy Irons researched the mathematician’s life, including reading books written by the professor. The film focuses on the life and academic career of Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel), and Hardy’s mentorship of the young genius.
Iron’s collaborations with various crew, helped him to bring the character physically to the screen. Part of the pre-production process included discussing the character with the costume designer, Ann Maskey.
“Costume certainly is an important element. They come up with ideas. And you come up with ideas. I’m going through that process at the moment on a film I start in a couple of weeks,” shared Irons. “Of course, as you find yourself talking about the costume, you are sort of solidifying your ideas about the character and clarifying them to yourself as well as to the costume designer.”
Determining the sort of props a character would have, gives a window into that character. Hardy loved watching cricket at Cambridge, so the cricket bat that Irons chose to handle in one scene provided a subtle insight into the man he was playing.
“He was a cricketer. He would have a cricket bat about,” explained Irons. “Sometimes you have to ask the prop department for stuff while you are shooting. You have an idea and you think, ‘Oh that would be good.’ The good prop man will always get a hold of it. The other ones say, ‘No we haven’t got one’ or ‘We can’t get it.’ So you rely on them.”
As an actor, Irons noted that he depends upon the lighting and cameramen to photograph him in the right way, and not necessarily in a flattering way. The lighting is needed to make sure “the camera sees in the right mood what you are doing.”
As a veteran stage actor, Irons is used to performing before an audience. He attributed his capacity to block out the audience in both theater and film as an ability to concentrate and focus in on his performance. He commented that acting “obviously suited me.” Nevertheless, working on set with the crew closely watching can be disconcerting even to an experienced performer, and more so to a novice.
“Often they cast someone in a small role, who looks absolutely right, possibly not even an actor, and you see this person fall apart,” said Irons. “That’s one of the things that actors are trained to do. If you come up through theater, it’s relatively easy because you’re used to being completely alone on the stage even if there may be a thousand people in the audience.”
When on a film, Irons noted that it is fine being watched by people who are working, like photographers or sound people, because, “they’re invisible to you,” but when he is being watched by people who are just watching, he admitted, “That can be quite off-putting and you sometimes have to ask them to get out of your eyeline. Strangely you immediately see someone who is just sitting there watching the scene, who isn’t a director.”
In developing a part, different things help Irons to get a handle on the character. Those things depend on who the character is, and how far away the character is from his own self. A lot depends on how much research is necessary for a role. Preparation can take a few weeks, and it is a strange process.
“You’re thinking around it. You’re working on the script. You’re subconsciously thinking about the character,” explained Irons. “You can be doing working while you’re sitting in the bath.”
Irons likened his preparation for a new character to taking a new journey. “In the same way that if you are going on a journey that you’ve never been on before, you have to look at the map, and you have to work out the timing. If you’ve done the journey before a few times, you don’t have to do any research. If I am going on a really foreign journey with a character, then I have to learn much more about him than if it’s someone much closer to myself.”