The Riot Club’s Max Irons tells Louise Donovan about his famous family and the “f*cking horrific” world of elite drinking clubs
I am going to get a Ribena out of my bag, do you mind?” asks 28-year-old Max Irons, as we sit in the sun-drenched corner of a Mayfair private members club. It’s his favourite drink, apparently. It’s also an endearing show of politeness (and fruit juice preference) totally at odds with the hell-raising, privileged world he helps bring to life in new film The Riot Club. Based on Posh – a play by Laura Wade loosely inspired by Oxford University’s elite society the Bullingdon Club – it features a gang of poshos bonding over 10-bird roasts and their own unchecked wealth. Admittedly, Irons himself comes from acting royalty (he’s the son of Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack), but, as we soon find out, this on-the-brink-of-stardom actor certainly isn’t afraid to hit out at the upper crust.
How much research did you do into the real Bullingdon Club?
We met with a couple of Bullingdon boys who were forthcoming about the things they got up to – sort of. They were, frankly, a little bit ashamed. The thing about this film is that it’s not specifically based on the Bullingdon Club, it’s a fictional amalgamation of a load of different clubs. So even though I did that research, I trusted Laura Wade to do her thing.
What was the craziest thing you found out?
I found the whole thing surprising and terrifying. I’ve never been invited into anything like that, or had any knowledge of clubs that celebrate things like hedonism, elitism or chauvinism. Members are tough with their secrecy, but there are documented cases of £50 notes being burned in front of homeless people, Aston Martins being trashed, restaurants being trashed – that happens. When I first read the script I didn’t want to do it, I thought it was too unpleasant and making a film might inadvertently glamorise the whole thing.
What made you change your mind?
I read the script on a plane the first time and rushed through it. It left a nasty taste in my mouth. But then I read it again and I realised it wasn’t clichéd. The characters aren’t two-dimensional. Each character has a drawn-out flaw. I thought the message was non-judgmental, sort of. It was just looking into a world that exists and shining a spotlight on it.
The final scene in the restaurant [the Club rip the place apart] was pretty unpleasant to watch.
It’s f*cking horrific. That last scene took two weeks to film, and the bit where Sam Claflin stands on the table and does his little monologue, ending with “I f*cking hate poor people” – that took a day. So we had to sit there and listen to this speech for a day. By the end of it, you could have gone out and knocked someone out.
Did the obvious display of elitism make you feel uncomfortable?
Oh, massively. Was it hard to act? No, it was sort of weirdly easy. There’s a part of everybody, I think, that deep down wants to be invited into the top tier. Eighty per cent of your consciousness knows that, in many cases, it’s not the right thing to do, but there’s always 20 per cent that revels in it. In the way it feels nice to be let into a nightclub first. You think, “This is embarrassing,” but there’s a tiny bit of you that goes, “Yes!” So you just have to revel in that.
Where do you stand on the fact that plenty of the people in charge of our country were members of a club like the one in The Riot Club?
Do you remember the London riots? I’m not endorsing what the boys in the riots did, but the Tory government branded them mindless hooligans. They were sent to prison to make examples of them for stealing a pair of trainers. Now, they were 16 and mostly from underprivileged backgrounds. Frankly, in terms of collective consciousness, I think they had a reason to be a bit p*ssed off. Boris Johnson, David Cameron and George Osborne may apparently have been doing similar things at a far more discerning age after being afforded every educational privilege, and every privilege known to man – except they got away with it because they had money to pay for it. Then when they’re asked, they say, “Oh, it was a time in my life, we were young.” But they weren’t that young. They weren’t as young as those boys who have been branded for the rest of their lives and had a reason to be p*ssed off. So put it this way: I would much rather open the Daily Mail and read some revealing truth about the value of our politicians as opposed to naked pictures of Jennifer Lawrence.
What was the closest you got to Bullingdon-esque antics?
What, putting someone in a coma? [Laughs] No, nothing at all. I got in trouble at school, but for good – well – normal things. I was never involved in anything like that.
In the film, there are 10 of you in the club. Was it hectic on set?
I was terrified because I’m not good at groups of men, I’m really sh*t at that – I hate banter. So I was quite scared what it would be like having 10 male actors of the same age. I thought it was going to be quite laddy, but it really wasn’t. We were all on the same page about what we needed to get done and no one was trying to outdo each other – it was really nice.
You come from an acting family. Did your parents give you good advice?
They did – they said to me, firstly, don’t look at us and think it will necessarily be like this for you. It’s a very unpredictable business, you might be in work one day and out of work the next; enough money one day and not the next. You’ll be away from your loved ones for months at a time. But that said, when it works, it’s also the greatest job in the world.
You’re in upcoming film Woman In Gold with Helen Mirren. What was it like working with her?
I didn’t work with her directly because the film takes place in 2010, then in 1945, and I was in 1945. But I spoke German for the entire film – so that was difficult, because I don’t speak it, but I had to learn my lines in German. I also had to sing Don Giovanni [the two-part opera with music written by Mozart] in Italian.
You have clearly been auditioning for big roles. Have you had any surreal Hollywood moments?
I bumped into Al Pacino coming out of a toilet in the Beverly Hills Hilton. The whole film of Heat just flashed in front of me, and I thought, “If I say anything, he’ll yell at me.” Inexplicably yell at me, or speak quietly and then yell.
What’s the poshest thing you’ve ever done?
I went on a gap year – that’s quite posh, apparently.
To be fair, your full name, Maximilian, is quite posh. Does anyone ever call you it?
Nobody ever does, which is a real shame. My parents call me Maxie. When I turn 50, I might become Maximilian. I’ll grow a moustache – possibly a whole beard – adopt a stern expression and a Russian accent. I mean, I can speak German and Italian now.
The Riot Club is at cinemas nationwide from 19 September
(Images: Universal Pictures/Rex)