Where better for Spectator Life to meet Max Irons, star of The Riot Club, Lone Scherfig’s film loosely based on the antics of a drinking society of whose exploits you’ve probably already heard, than the garden of The Spectator? The subject of the Bullingdon club has rarely been far from the news agenda ever since David Cameron’s name began circulating as a possible leader.
And lest anyone hasn’t had enough of the class-obsessed narrative that has defined Dave’s years in power, both George Osborne and Boris Johnson, his likeliest successors to lead the Conservative party, were also members of this much-mythologised drinking society.
Max Irons plays Miles Richards, a Westminster boy who is invited to join the Riot Club, with all its privileges of drinking yourself sick while wearing white tie. He’s more interested in his girlfriend, played by Holliday Grainger, but is also flattered by the invitation to join, as Max puts it, ‘the top table’. The girlfriend is, shock horror, from the north of England and the OE Riot Club members refer to the relationship as ‘field research’ into the working classes.
In Osborne’s day, he was nicknamed ‘Oik’ because he went to St Paul’s. In The Riot Club, you can tell by the Macbook Airs and the iPhones that the film is set in contemporary Oxford. Are these horrendous types really still around, and do they still, as the film suggests, prosper irrespective of the carnage they have left in their wake?
By my time at Oxford, around 2000, far more prevalent was the culture of E’on, the Etonians who did everything to act as if they hadn’t gone there. I can’t imagine ‘field research’ into northern girls (or boys) being spoken of in college quads today. And if it was, wouldn’t it be precisely by the kind of twerps who couldn’t get laid full stop?
Research conducted by the cast of The Riot Club involved interviewing old Bullingdon boys and former members of similar societies — people in their twenties, thirties and forties. So as a piece of social history, it’s confused, but it has a thrillerish, appalling momentum and offers Irons, 28, his best role to date.
Calling everyone on our shoot ‘love’, Max sounds much more drama school (Guildhall) than public school, but since he’s the son of Sinéad Cusack and Jeremy Irons, the casting has provoked in-evitable questions about his own background. ‘I was asked recently in an interview if I was posh. What a funny question,’ he says, sounding mildly aggrieved. It’s just a touch of annoyance (this is his style) but there’s some iron in the velvet too, and he sounds a little like his dad, who occasionally has spirited exchanges with journalists.
He went to the Dragon School in Oxford and Bryanston. ‘I think my parents were very good at making me appreciate how lucky I was,’ he says. After school, he paid his own way through drama school (modelling to cover the bills), which was his parents’ way of seeing if he was serious about it.
Max has his father’s ridiculously long legs and tendency to light up at every opportunity, but looks very like his mother, especially across the eyes and the cheekbones. He’s talked before about his delight at being told he was ‘not young and pretty’ when he went up for a third Hollywood franchise film after outings in Red Riding Hood and The Host. ‘I thought, “Great — now the really interesting roles will come my way”.’ Personally, I’m not sure that’s the last word on his visual appeal, but he maintains, ‘I feel in the things I’m going up for that I’ve left the younger parts behind… It is dangerous for young actors now because you are told the true definition of success is to be involved in a whacking great franchise and go storming out of the gates, potentially before you are ready for that kind of exposure… 20, ten years ago, 15 years ago, it wasn’t like that. The actors who were at the top of their game didn’t get there overnight, they worked their way up.’ As well as The Riot Club he has also just finished filming Simon Curtis’s film about Klimt, Woman in Gold, with Helen Mirren and Katie Holmes.
As someone who grew up in the public eye, does he have sympathy for politicians who now endure comparable scrutiny? ‘I do, of course. I have sympathy with anyone who has that sort of life, but it comes with the territory.’
But is it fair for a politician to be treated like a celebrity? ‘These people are running the country, so if they have skeletons in their closet, I’d be more interested to know about that than about Katie Price. For example, the Bullingdon Club — George Osborne, David Cameron, Boris Johnson, they all attended. Now I am not going to speak for what they got up to at the Bullingdon Club or what they did personally, but if they were involved at one point or another in a club that stood for certain values, I think that’s in the public interest because these guys are passing judgment on teen-agers involved in the riots, these guys are deciding the trajectory of their lives — whereas Katie Price or whoever, it’s inconsequential.’
Doubtless the film, in which various characters spend a lot of time stuffing assorted substances up their noses, will revive the subject of Cameron’s youthful hedonism; questions about his alleged drug use are said to be raised in the forthcoming biography by Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott. Max’s character Miles is a kind of moral compass in The Riot Club, and out of character he makes some heartfelt observations which serve as a reminder that the Bullingdon isn’t just some stupid 20-year-old Westminster village story that won’t go away, but a real problem for any politician trying to connect with ordinary people.
When he first read the script, Max tells me, he was so appalled he didn’t know if he wanted to be involved. The values are almost worse than the bad behaviour: ‘If the Prime Minister took cocaine, it doesn’t matter to me but it probably matters to some people, it matters to some publications and that’s why they print it and why they read it. I’d say the same goes for the Bullingdon Club and that’s fair enough,’ says Irons. ‘We give these people so much responsibility that I want to know where they come from and what they stand for.’ There’s much more to Max Irons than that ‘not pretty’, but in fact rather beautiful face.
Portrait by Harry Borden, stylist Joanne Black and grooming by Mira H. at facepro.co.uk using Tom Ford Beauty