Jeremy Irons plays the great mathematician G.H. Hardy in “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” now in theaters. But he was never much of a math person himself.
“No, not at all,” he said.
But the British actor did enjoy the role. The title character refers to Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel), who grew up poor in India but found his way to Cambridge University to work with Hardy.
Irons, 67, talked about the movie and why it’s enlightening to delve into things you don’t know much about.
Q. Was playing someone who’s good at something you’re not part of the appeal of the role?
A. Sure, discovering and getting inside people who are unlike you is indeed half the fun. Hardy wrote a book called “The Mathematician’s Apology,” which is sort of written in layman’s terms, although it was a collection of some of his lectures. It’s the most extraordinary insight into a pure mathematician’s mind, and makes you realize that it is . . . a journey. It’s a language of searching for discovery you’re searching for. And I thought, “Ah ha, I see what’s going on in his head.” That I can relate to, even though up until now mathematics has been sort of a dry subject for me.
Q. I think it is for a lot of people.
A. For our movie, you don’t have to understand it. Math is the passion that they share. . . . But mostly, it is the backdrop to their journey, these two very disparate people.
Q. Did you know the story?
A: I didn’t. I’d never heard of Ramanujan. I’d never heard of Hardy. It’s always interesting when you come across brilliant people who have sort of dropped out of history, apart from obviously those who are mathematicians. . . . For the normal cinemagoer, this is new territory. I think it’s interesting.
Q. It is, when a movie shines a light on people most of us don’t know.
A. Well yeah, that’s our education system, I suppose. We don’t look at history. When you do math, you don’t sit and talk about great mathematicians. It’s a bid odd. I think when you come across those sorts of people, it’s wonderful to have a movie made about them. I suppose that’s what movies can do, is to educate people and broaden our understanding of such people.
Q. The idea of people being good at something and figuring it out is fascinating.
A: Well, I know, I know. I was fortunate enough to have parents who didn’t push me in any particular way. I finished my schooling without any great prowess. I was a moderate student. But I had an instinct toward what makes me happy. . . . What would fit that?
Q. Was it always acting?
A. I remember leaving school, and at school they thought I was going to go into the military, because I had done well in the army section of the school. But of course, I only did that because it gave me a chance to get away from the school, crawling on our bellies over mountains and driving jeeps through bogs and that sort of thing, which I loved doing. They misinterpreted what I got out of it. I wasn’t interested in telling people what to do or being told what to do. I wanted the very opposite of that. I wanted to be a gypsy.
Q. How did that play out?
A.When I left school, I looked at three things: I looked at the theater, I looked at the circus and I looked at the carnival. Would any of those traveling shows give me a chance to work very closely with my colleagues in different places? I suppose because I’m middle class, I opted toward the theater, which I thought would give me a better standard of life. Then I tried it and found I liked the people, and thought, “I have to train for this,” so I went to theater school. I didn’t do particularly well, I have to say, but eventually, three or four years later . . . I remember sitting on the stage thinking, “I’m really happy in this life. I like the routine, I like the people, I like the life.” I was able to take the time to decide what I wanted to do, what suited me. I think a lot of people don’t have that opportunity.
Q. But what if you’d chosen wrong?
A. Well, maybe I’d be in the carnival and I’d be touring through Europe and I’d be equally happy, I don’t know. I’ve always believed that it actually doesn’t matter too much what you do, as long as you put your heart and soul in it and do it as well as you can. You get great satisfaction out of that. And if you do it as well as you can, you’ll do the best you can, and you’ll get the most out of it.
Q. Are you satisfied with your work? Do you look back on it?
A.I do. I don’t look back a lot, but now and again. I remember I was sorting some old videotapes, and I went to see whether one was destroyed or whether it was still there. It was a movie called, oh, Bille August directed it. … “The House of the Spirits,” which we made about 15 years ago (actually, 22). It came on and I was looking to see the quality of the tape and I got sucked into it and I watched it. And I thought, “This is a great movie. It’s wonderful.” So now and again, I do look at stuff and think, “Yeah, that’s all right.”