Interview | Jeremy Irons on ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ and Complex Math

In The Man Who Knew Infinity – now available on Blu-ray – acclaimed actor Jeremy Irons plays real-life mathematician G.H. Hardy, a legitimate mathematical genius, who, in the 1920s, discovered an even more brilliant mind in the form of Srinivasa Ramanujan (played by Dev Patel), an impoverished Indian man who could intuit complex math better than most professors could reason. The film details their relationship, but doesn’t give short shrift to the details and importance of the the math itself, making a dry subject into something perhaps relatable.

Irons – once chosen by linguists as the man with the best possible of all voices – recently talked with Crave about playing a man who is ineffably brilliant, and revealed his way into such a complex mind, as well as how much math research goes into playing a mathematician. Irons also briefly talked with us about the politics of the audiobook version of Lolita, and his experience in recording it.

IFC Films

IFC Films

Jeremy Irons: It’s an extraordinary subject. It’s an extraordinary story, isn’t it?

Crave: What I took from the movie was a passion for mathematics. In films, math is typically depicted as something very oblique.

Well this is what surprised me. When I read the script, I thought “Gosh…! Okay.” And I read the book upon which the script is based. Then I read a collection of lectures which Hardy had given called – this is published – called A Mathematician’s Apology, and I realized that these men – and even for me, math’s a very dry subject, and a subject I’m not strong at – but these men have an enormous passion for this. Believing that these equations are just out there in the ether, just waiting to be discovered. And I thought “Ah, I can connect with that.” I could connect with that passion.

And I was really interested in the way Hardy’s journey with this very introverted genius – and [Hardy] was in his own way a genius, just not on the scale of Ramanujan, but nevertheless pretty clever – he’d been like that through school, through adolescence, through university. That was his life. He had no social skills at all. He couldn’t look people in the eye. He would cover mirrors in a hotel with a towel so he wouldn’t see his own reflection. I mean completely inward looking. And then looking toward mathematics. That was the only thing he cared about. And meeting the genius of Ramanujan, and discovering that this was a shared passion… as indeed it was with Littlewood, and I thought Toby Jones was fantastic.

Looking back at that period of his life, he describes it as the only romantic period of his life. And I don’t think that’s “romance” in the way we maybe think of it now, I think it was romantic because it was brighter… You know how it is when you’re in love with someone – not that he was in love with Ramanujan – but when you’re in love, everything’s brighter, everything’s more clear, everything’s more exciting. And I think his relationship with this Indian was like that. And it was through mathematics, through that shared love of the subject.

The journey with Hardy is that he begins to come out of himself. That he begins to see another person. And it’s an interesting journey to play.

IFC Films

IFC Films

How intimately familiar did you have to make yourself with Hardy’s work? It seems like it would take a lot of cognitive energy to delve that deeply.

Yeah. I couldn’t do that. I mean we had an amazing mathematician, one of the greatest of genius – and now that I’m talking about him I can’t remember his name – but he did all the research. He was making sure everything we were saying and everything we were writing up was correct. [Ed. The mathematicians hired for the film were named Ken Ono and Manjul Bhargava.] I, as an actor, just had to act that. Because my mind just couldn’t comprehend it. That was pretense.

I would never impugn your own brilliance, sir, but what is the process like when playing someone so much more intelligent than the average person?

Well, you just say what he says. It’s what he said, I suppose, that shows his brilliance. There’s a lot he doesn’t say that could possibly be more brilliant, but one hopes that the audience will believe it. But it’s like playing a murderer when you’re not a murderer? How does one fake that? That’s acting. I don’t think I can take credit for all [Hardy’s brilliance]. That was the script, really. I’m glad you believed it, though. If you hadn’t, I would have been in trouble.

Hardy won multiple awards, and was a bit of a celebrity. You, too, in addition to being a great actor are also an award-winning celebrity. Is this something to could tap into, or do you think of celebrity at all?

I don’t know. I mean, yes, Hardy was renowned in his circle. But renown doesn’t really have anything to do with how you feel or how you are. When I start a new role, for instance, I feel like a beginner every time. I feel like a plumber. What do I do? Then I slowly get inside the character and become them, and hopefully it works. But you don’t feel “award-winning.” You can’t feel an award-winner. That doesn’t change you. It doesn’t make it easier.

IFC Films

IFC Films

One of my favorite performances of yours was in Adrian Lyne’s Lolita. I even have the audiobook that you read.

Oh yeah! That’s quite good, isn’t it? I think we had won an Emmy for that one or something. That book, when I was asked to do it, they always say [with audiobooks] they abridge them. They make them shorter, because they think an audience would… I don’t know maybe it’s the length of the tape or something. And I said to Nabokov’s son, who owned the copyright to the work, “If they’re going to do it, you must make them do the whole book.” So I did turn up to start recording, and they said we booked you for two days, but we’re going to need you for three if we’re going to do the whole book. I said “No, no. I’ve only got two days, I can’t give you a third one.” So I said “I’ll read it very quickly.” And, as a result, it has a great energy, that recording. I’m proud of it.

What was the first record you bought with your own money?

Ooh. That’s a difficult one. I suspect it was something like Russ Conway playing “Roulette.” Do you remember Russ Conway? He was a pianist. It might have been Lonnie Donegan. “My Old Man’s a Dustman.”

Top Image: IFC Films

Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.