Infinity and beyond

Jeremy Irons on genius, theatre and The Man Who Knew Infinity.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Jeremy Irons on his director: "Matt was very passionate to make it "
Jeremy Irons on his director: "Matt was very passionate to make it " Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Gabriel Byrne (Jérôme Bonnell's Just A Sigh), JC Chandor (A Most Violent Year), Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), Emily Mortimer (Doll & Em), Joanna Coles, Hendrik Hertzberg, Steve Kroft, Lawrence O’Donnell and Beau Willimon (House of Cards creator) hosted an invited screening of Matt Brown's The Man Who Knew Infinity with Jeremy Irons, Dev Patel, Devika Bhise and producer Edward R. Pressman.

The Man Who Knew Infinity director Matt Brown with Dev Patel
The Man Who Knew Infinity director Matt Brown with Dev Patel Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Gabriel Byrne with Jessica Lange, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher Jr. opened on Broadway the same night in the Roundabout Theater Company production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Jeremy Irons just finished a run of the play in Bristol at the Old Vic.

Based on the biography by Robert Kanigel of mathematician S. Ramanujan's extraordinary life, Matt Brown's The Man Who Knew Infinity, takes us back to 1914, first to Madras, India, and then to Trinity College, Cambridge, where professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) receives a letter from the young Hindu clerk - a letter that will eventually change the world of mathematics.

The largely self-taught genius, in the film portrayed sensitively by Dev Patel, is brought over to England, leaving his wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) and mother behind in India. Janaki, we find out, is illiterate and when he explains to her what he does - "It's like a painting, only with colours you cannot see" - it is without a hint of patronising superiority.

In Cambridge, Hardy's colleagues, "Berti", Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam) that is, and Littlewood (Toby Jones) understand some of the greatness in this unusual mind, whereas other members of the faculty, as well as students, see nothing but the color of his skin and their own prejudices, calling him Gunga Din.

Devika Bhise with her mother Swati Bhise and Jeremy Irons
Devika Bhise with her mother Swati Bhise and Jeremy Irons Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Irons shows Hardy as a man who chooses to be oblivious to many things surrounding him. Proof is to him what intuition is to Ramanujan - which makes the collaboration fruitful. The existence of God does not make sense to Hardy and he usually doesn't pay much attention to the expression on the faces he is talking to. When the two men meet for the first time, he doesn't seem to be able to make eye contact, an affliction that painfully returns when the two say goodbye. Do both men "love numbers more than people"?

At the Elyx House after party, I showed Jeremy Irons a postcard of himself from the Barbican production of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Richard II.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Last week, I was doing some spring cleaning and I found this.

Jeremy Irons [eyes opening wide]: Aah!

AKT: This was the very first Shakespeare play I saw on stage! What do you think now, looking back at your performance as Richard II?

JI: I think I got some of it right.

AKT: Did you ever revisit it?

Postcard of Jeremy Irons as Richard II
Postcard of Jeremy Irons as Richard II

JI: I sometimes do the final speech when he is in prison. That's a great speech. I haven't done it since then. He was 33. He was the same age as Jesus Christ when he died. So I can't play him anymore.

AKT: I brought the card, knowing I would see you tonight for The Man Who Knew Infinity [Ramanujan died the year he would have turned 33].

JI: What did you think of the film?

AKT: I very much liked the first and last encounter you have with Ramanujan. Both times you wouldn't look him in the eye. Was that something you discussed?

JI: No, I read a biography of Hardy and that was one of his characteristics.

AKT: He would not look people in the eye?

JI: He would cover up the mirrors. He didn't like seeing a reflection of himself. Very introverted man. I think probably a bit Aspergic. As probably Ramanujan was also. Geniuses often are.

Devika Bhise at Elyx House after party
Devika Bhise at Elyx House after party Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Which makes sense. The two scenes in the film express very well what they couldn't express. Math was also replacing what they lacked as human beings?

JI: You are right.

AKT: How were you at math?

JI: Terrible, I was terrible.

AKT: So was your director. He told me when I asked him earlier. What attracted you to this?

JI: I thought it was a very original story. I knew nothing about it. Matt was very passionate to make it and whenever I find a director who is - even if they are not that experienced - if they're very passionate to tell a story, I am attracted to work with them.

AKT: I like the clothes you are wearing in this film.

JI: Oh good.

AKT: I am almost expecting you to wear white pants in every part since Brideshead Revisited. Is that something of your trademark?

Lauren Hutton and Martha Stewart comparing equations on The Man Who Knew Infinity red carpet
Lauren Hutton and Martha Stewart comparing equations on The Man Who Knew Infinity red carpet Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

JI: He was a cricketer and a tennis player so i thought he'd have white pants.

AKT: Hardy's smoking is very prominent in the film. He does it although Ramanujan coughs.

JI: I knew he smoked and Ramanujan had consumption. I tried not to blow it in his face.

AKT: You just finished Long Day's Journey Into Night in the UK?

JI: In Bristol, not London.

AKT: Would you like to do it here? [Dueling Long Day's Jouneys!]

JI: We might bring it to BAM next year. I'm going to see the production at the Roundabout tomorrow.

AKT: When I was speaking to Christopher Walken, he said what he liked about doing theater is that you know when it begins and when it ends. Making movies, you don't know that. It is endless waiting, for the rain to stop. Do you like the routine of the theatre?

JI: I do. I like both routines. I like contrast. There's a great contrast between film acting and theatre acting.

AKT: Thank you so much.

JI: A pleasure!

Coming up - Director/screenwriter Matt Brown on The Man Who Knew Infinity and more.

The Man Who Knew Infinity opens in the US on April 29.

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