Keeping Count

Keeping Count

By Michael Pickard
April 8, 2024


Award-winning actor Jeremy Irons and director Bille August reflect on their long-running partnership as they reunite for their third project together, a series adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ classic French novel The Count of Monte Cristo.

Following 1993 feature The House of the Spirits and 2013’s Night Train to Lisbon, British actor Jeremy Irons and Danish director Bille August are now collaborating for a third time on a new adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ iconic novel The Count of Monte Cristo.

August directs all eight episodes of the series, which stars Sam Claflin (pictured above) as Edmond Dantès, a sailor imprisoned without trial after being falsely accused of treason. After many years of captivity, he finally escapes Château d’If, a grim island fortress off Marseille, and under the identity of the Count of Monte Cristo he plans to take revenge on those who wronged him.

Irons (Dead Ringers) co-stars as Abbé Faria, who befriends Edmond in prison and plays a decisive role in his bid for revenge.

“I love to work with Jeremy, and when we sent the script to him, he was the first one I thought about for this part,” August tells DQ. “When we heard back and he wanted to do it, I was just so excited. It’s a relationship that has been going on for some time.”

Billie August

Irons picks up: “It’s very nice because you know the director, he knows you, and what normally takes the first two or three weeks on a shoot is [already] done because you know each other and you trust each other. You know how each other work. It’s very nice – and he always has a good crew, and that makes such a difference.”

Produced by Palomar, in collaboration with DEMD Productions, for broadcasters Rai in Italy and France Télévisions, the series is now in post-production after a six-month shoot in Malta, Paris and Rome that brought together a multinational cast and crew.

“I said to the producer that the crew is everything. They have to be skilful, but it’s also about attitude – there’s no ego, only work,” says August, who also reunited with cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov (Kysset) on the show. “If the crew is right and they have the right attitude, then you create the space and room for where creativity can happen. That is where things can grow and come to life, which is crucial.”

Irons and August’s work together starts long before they arrive on set. “When I’m learning the script, I delve into the script and I often have fairly strong opinions, so before we started shooting, we communicated about that,” says Irons, who won the best actor Academy Award for 1990’s Reversal of Fortune. “It’s not about the structure of the script, but it’s part of me getting into the character, the way things are said, the way things are thought. It’s part of my process, and Bille puts up with that, which is good.”

August adds: “With the actors, for me, a lot of it happens at the table reading before you start, with the script, because actors become ambassadors for their own characters. They have strong opinions, and that’s where you have all the discussions, so when you start shooting, you don’t have to go through all that. You can focus directly on what’s necessary for that scene.”

Had The Count of Monte Cristo been retold for the big screen, August says he wouldn’t have been interested in helming the project. Instead, he was excited about telling Dumas’ classic story over eight hours of television, “which this story deserves,” he says. “We’re able to tell the full story. It’s really amazing.”

And although the series replicates the novel’s 19th century setting, the appeal for both director and actor was that the story’s themes remain as resonant as ever.

Jeremy Irons as Abbé Faria, who befriends Sam Claflin’s Edmond in prison

“People say, ‘This is a contemporary take,’ but great Shakespeare productions are very contemporary and he wrote those 500 years ago,” Irons says. “Why are they contemporary? They’re contemporary because they communicate to a modern audience. They’re not watching some antiquity being reenacted. The great writers travel through the centuries and, with Dumas, the relationships between the characters, the conflicts and the situations might have been written 300 years ago but they actually resound today in the same way. That’s what makes it contemporary – not modern music or speedboats.”

“The greatest thing about the show is the plot is very strong anyway, but all the relationships are also strong and important,” notes August. “That’s where it’s universal. It’s very simple and very deep, and everybody can relate to that. You get into the story immediately because you can identify with it because it’s so universal.”

August doesn’t let his camerawork become besotted with the period backdrop either. “It’s more like each character represents its own texture or fabric, so that’s what I was focusing on,” he says. “Fortunately we had the money so we could afford to make it grand and spectacular, but I was focused very much on the interaction between the characters and the psychology to give it substance.”

As Abbé Faria, Irons plays a character who has spent almost a decade in solitary confinement in prison. Then when he meet Edmond, Faria becomes a mentor to him while the pair plot their escape.

“He’s lived an extraordinary life for an Abbé, and then he’s been stuck in there for seven or 10 years before Edmond Dantès turns up,” Irons explains. “He’s been keeping himself amused in a very practical way, doing things including tunnelling. When he discovers Edmond Dantès, when he digs in the wrong direction and gets into his cell, of course it’s wonderful. He’s been alone for that length of time and he finds someone who becomes a proxy son. He becomes someone he can pass his advice to and someone he can enjoy being with.

Irons’ previous television roles include period drama The Borgias

“In that terrible situation being imprisoned, he almost becomes gay and jolly, happy, because he has a purpose now. He has this young man in a very sorry state, who he can give hope to and give advice to and share company with. It’s an interesting little period in the story. Of course, his advice reverberates through the story and we flash back now and again to him with his advice, which Edmond doesn’t really take.”

“Because Edmond says he wants revenge against those people who did this to him, the Abbé says that if you seek revenge, you have to dig your own grave first, which is the premise of the story,” August says. “A long time ago, I made a film that had to do with Nelson Mandela [2007’s Goodbye Bafana] and I was thinking so much about his point of view of life – he spent 27 years in prison and it was important for him to keep his dignity as a human being and also forgive. Don’t ever go into bitterness, it’s suicide. That’s what Abbé believes too.”

To play the Abbé, Irons underwent a physical transformation that befitted the fact his character has spent most of his time in a squalid environment without a haircut or a razor. “He’s quite hairy,” jokes the actor, whose credits also include Brideshead Revisited and Die Hard with a Vengeance. “You find yourself eating a lot of it, but it’s difficult. You [the audience] still need to be able to see his face and yet you know they’ve been away from a razor for some time. The important thing is, however you look, it doesn’t get in the way for the viewer of what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling.”

Irons also brought a lot of himself to the role. Having previously worked in manual construction and destruction in the past, he had ideas about how the Abbé might approach the task of digging through the prison walls.

“I knew tunnelling in that building was going to be incredibly dusty and filthy. And the way they’re built in the main, you have your two large stone walls and the centre is dust and bits of gravel,” he says. “So to tunnel through them is not necessarily about chipping away at rock but pulling mush out. And having done a lot of that, I thought I have to try to protect myself. I don’t have a bath in the cell, so I want to try to keep the dust off my hair. I don’t want to bump my head on the roof, so what do we do? We put something on his head, and we designed his costume so he wouldn’t scratch his hands or his feet.

“Although he’s had quite a colourful life before he gets put in prison, he’s a practical man and a man who knows how to do things, which is a lot like me.”

Irons and Claflin are part of a cast that also includes Ana Girardot, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Blake Ritson, Karla-Simone Spence, Michele Riondino, Lino Guanciale, Gabriella Pession, Harry Taurasi, Poppy Corby Tuech and Nicolas Maupas. Mediawan Rights is distributing the series, which also boasts production design from Tom Conroy (Vikings: Valhalla) and costume design by Ursula Patzak (The King of Laughter).

“For me it was about getting the best people,” August says. “You could feel every day in pre-production and during the shoot that you were working with the best people, professional people who knew what they were doing. That’s why it was flowing so well and I could give them space for what we did. That’s so important, and they had the right attitude. There was no ego.”

“That’s the biggest gift for a film,” adds Irons. “If you get that crew, those producers, that unit flowing, it makes it all easier. It’s hard enough anyway and when you have people who can’t do their job, it’s just mind-blowingly annoying.”

With the finishing touches still being added to The Count of Monte Cristo ahead of its release, might the pair now be looking for their next collaboration?

“We have to find something. It has to be great,” August says.

“But nobody gets the pick [of the projects],” Irons adds. “There are too many of us; too many directors, too many actors. But now and again, something comes along…”

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