Max Irons walks into a West London café dressed in a slim black overcoat, smelling slightly of tobacco. You can tell he's a bit of a rebel as he is brazenly drinking from a carton of Ribena. For some reason - his regally handsome looks? family connections? - the waitresses don't seem to mind.
I had been warned that Irons - 25-year-old model, actor and son of Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack - would be rather shy, but, on the contrary, he's wholly self-assured. He talks about his dyslexia, which was so bad he couldn't write his name at eight; his expulsion from boarding school for getting caught in flagrante with his girlfriend just before his A levels; what it was like watching his dad have sex with a minor on screen in Lolita ('weird', but it's one of Max's favourite films); and the family's controversial holiday castle in Kilcoe, Ireland, the colour of which has become an obsession of the tabloid press. 'Listen: pink was the undercoat, it's now a nice rusty orange,'he says.
And if his CV is still looking a little sparse given the hype that surrounds him, Max ought to put that right with his latest projects. After training at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and appearing in a couple of plays on the London fringe, he is about to appear as a drug-addicted pornographer in the Sky mini-series The Runaway and, before that, in a big-budget reimagining of Red Riding Hood by Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke. 'You've got to forget about what you know about Little Red Riding Hood and inject a bit of sexuality,'he explains. I thought Little Red Riding Hood was all about sexuality? 'Well, yes, it's about rape. But it's very subconscious...'
At any rate, this version has a sexuality that's precision-tooled to set young female audiences'hormones raging, with Amanda Seyfried as the hooded heroine and Irons as her rich suitor. Clearly, there's an invitation to follow the Robert Pattinson route to teen idol (Hardwicke describes Max by saying, 'He's 6ft 3in, drop-dead gorgeous, and has this crazy magnetism'), but Max is wary of being typecast as a heart-throb. He recently 'found' himself talking to Disney about Snow and the Seven, a similarly racy reboot of the Snow White tale. 'I was thinking, if I get this, they would probably pay a bit, there would be a lot of exposure - but I could pretty much bank on not having the kind of career I want.'He talks admiringly of Andrew Garfield and Tom Hardy, two young British actors who have made interesting career choices, and speaks of his love for Pinter and Stoppard: 'I want to have a career that lasts 60 years, not six.'
He has a wariness of Hollywood and laughs at the ridiculous diets and the punishing vanity. 'At the end of a really, really, really horrible workout, the only thing I want to do is… have a smoke,'he laughs. (He started smoking at 13, liquorice roll-ups, same as his father.) He remains a Londoner, commuting back and forth to LA, where he met his girlfriend, the Australian actress Emily Browning, 22, who has just starred in a sexy Australian take on the Sleeping Beauty story and is shortly to hit our screens in the big-budget teen flick Sucker Punch (no relation to the recent Royal Court play). For the moment Max continues to live with his parents in a cottage on a cobbled mews in West London, to which we retire halfway through the interview, when the din at the café becomes overwhelming. The Irons residence is cosy and bohemian, with an overflowing ashtray, a warm red colour scheme and battered leather sofas. A note pinned to the front door, on Sinead Cusack-headed notepaper, addresses itself to the family cyclists with the word 'HELMET!'.
Max is touching when talking about his parents, whose marriage is the subject of endless tabloid speculation, though it has lasted more than three decades. The gossip doesn't bother him, he says. 'I remember there was a story - I must have been about ten - and it was about him reportedly kissing a co-star. And they said to me, ''Look, there's going to be a story in the papers tomorrow. It's not true." And that was fine. You learn very quickly not to Google yourself.'
He grew up between the family's Oxfordshire estate, where the novelist Ian McEwan was a neighbour, and London. He was sent to a state boarding school, where, funny to think now, he was mercilessly bullied for his pudding-bowl haircut and the 'fucking medieval'inverted yellow glasses he wore to correct his reading. Otherwise, he describes his childhood as happy and stable. One parent, usually Cusack, would try to stay at home while the other was away filming.
He lights up when I mention how much I loved the 1989 film of Roald Dahl's Danny, the Champion of the World, which starred Jeremy Irons as an unconventional widower trying to raise his son (played by Max's older brother Samuel, now a photographer). 'I was two when the film came out, but I watched it so much as a kid, and it made me cry terribly.'Is there a parallel with his own father-son relationship? 'I would like to say yes,'he says mysteriously, before deciding, 'Actually I would say there is. My dad's not lawless but he's got his own set of morals and ethics which don't always agree with other people's - like in the movie. It's not unjust what they do, or unfair, but it's unconventional. I kind of respect that, especially these days.'
That unconventional streak emerged in Max when he was sent to Bryanston, a mixed boarding school in Dorset. He was always getting suspended. 'Nothing serious, only girls, booze, cigarettes. My parents always said,"You're really bad at getting caught." I replied,"No, I was just doing it a lot." That way, statistically, you're more likely to get caught.'His parents once sent him to observe a school in Zimbabwe, just after Robert Mugabe had come to power, to remind him of his privilege - with mixed results. He was kicked out of Bryanston prior to his A levels, after a teacher caught him having sex.
His parents also exercised caution when he announced that he, too, wanted a career in acting, pointing out that they were in the 'zero point one'per cent who were successful. They are not overly involved now, though 'every now and then, there's a bit of fatherly advice but it's mainly to do with what to expect from Los Angeles, not how to actually do the acting'.
In fact, he tells me, the dyslexia was the bigger factor in his career choice. 'The teacher would come along and say, ''Are you finding it all right?" and I would say, ''Yeah, it's brilliant, I'm loving it, easy," and that was a bit of acting in itself. You have to rely on charm a lot.'
At first, scripts terrified him, as he was unable to read them, but now he studies his lines beforehand. 'When I applied to drama school, they had this sheet you had to fill in saying whether you had any disabilities and I called up and asked,"Does dyslexia count?" and they said,"It's practically a qualification." '
I ask him if he's scared of not being taken seriously. 'No. I know I have to combat the fact that my parents are actors at least for the next ten years. It's tied up with dyslexia. You want to give the impression you're successful. That you're well, often when you're not.'He pauses. 'When you've got parents who've done what you want to do, as much as they're proud of you, they can't be as amazed by it, because they've done it themselves. The only person I can amaze is me. I've got to do it for me. So… fuck the world, to an extent.'It's an attitude that has served other members of his family rather well.
Guess that's why she was at the "Red Riding Hood" premiere. I like them together.