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Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia and Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia Borgia in an episode of "The Borgias."

HO/Reuters

Jeremy Irons looked up from the latest tiny cigarette he'd rolled and raised an eyebrow. It's amazing how much meaning some people can convey with one bit of facial hair. We'd been talking about the licentiousness of Rodrigo Borgia, the character Irons plays in the new nine-part series The Borgias, who schemed his way into the Vatican as Pope Alexander VI in 1492. Rodrigo caroused, slept around, left his by-blows all over Spain and Italy. It really was a different time, wasn't it? Right?

"He did have a mistress," said Irons in that famous, just-rolled-out-of-the-wrong-bed voice - the voice of Scar, the bad lion, and Claus von Bulow, the bad husband, and now Borgia, the bad pope. "But I have a Cardinal friend at the moment who's had a mistress for 12 years. He's a Cardinal today, and a great man!"

He let out a very filthy laugh and returned to his cigarette. Sadly, there was no further clue to the identity of the energetic cleric, though it seemed that if we'd been at a dinner table and not a louche Budapest hotel where half the patrons wore sunglasses indoors, he'd be more forthcoming. Still long and lean at 62, Irons was dressed in various bark-coloured layers of cotton and corduroy, like Burberry's idea of what a peasant farmer should look like.

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When we spoke last October, the Oscar winner (for Reversal of Fortune in 1990) had been living for several weeks in Hungary, which, thanks to generous tax breaks and hard-working extras, was doubling as Renaissance Italy in the $45-million Showtime production The Borgias. (CTV is a co-producer, and the series will air on the network's Bravo! channel beginning Sunday).

Irons returned to the topic at hand: How, in order to take the main role in the nine-part miniseries, created and written by Irish director Neil Jordan, he had to find something redeeming in the man who stood on the balcony after the rigged papal election and screamed, "I am Pope!"

"Rodrigo was a man who really tried to strengthen and reorganize the Vatican and the Church, to strengthen the military base that protected it," Irons said. "He was a great talker, wonderful company, a lover of life, of food, women, everything."

Hmmm. He was also, according to the historian Francesco Guicciardini, a man whose virtues "were far outweighed by his vices: the most obscene manners, hypocrisy, immodesty, mendacity, infidelity, profanity, insatiable greed, unrestrained ambition, a predilection for violence that was worse than barbaric …"

"Well," said Irons with a shrug, "the Borgias did have a lot of enemies." His cream-eating smile suggests that you'd have to be a complete idiot not to want to play a part this juicy, rolling around with actresses as lovely as Joanne Whalley and Lotte Verbeek (playing his love interests) and trading barbs with Canadian Colm Feore (playing the Pope's nemesis, Giuliano Della Rovere). To add to the intrigue, Rodrigo uses his amoral children as pawns in a game to see who controls Europe - Lucrezia, of the poisonous history; Juan, the favourite; and bloodthirsty Cesare, played by another Canadian, François Arnaud.

In the hours when he wasn't playing the patriarch of the Renaissance's most scandalous clan, Irons roared around Budapest on his BMW bike and probably sent the producers running for their worry beads. "Insurance-wise, I'm not allowed to race, and I don't drive to work on the bike, but …" he sighed. "I'd go mad otherwise."

The common assumption is that, after an early career playing doe-eyed Englishmen like Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, Irons has excelled at playing villains - from the Teutonic psycho in Die Hard With a Vengeance to the last gynecologists you'd want performing an internal exam in Dead Ringers. Really, though, he excels at playing dualities - men who live one life on the surface and another, much truer one, hidden beneath. (The famous exchange from Reversal of Fortune: "You're a very strange man, Claus." "You have no idea.")

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The previous evening, far from the London home he shares with his wife of 33 years (and mother of his sons), actress Sinead Cusack, he'd been idly flipping around the channels on Hungarian TV and came across something that seemed vaguely familiar. "I thought, 'Who's that actor? And that one? It looks a bit like me … It is me!' Of course, it was Dead Ringers, but I didn't remember the shot at all. Extraordinary, really."

He drew the word "extraordinary" out until it had about eight syllables, and then mentioned how much he'd like to work with Canadian director David Cronenberg again. (They've already made Dead Ringers and M. Butterfly together.) His eclectic work schedule hints at someone both whimsical and fortunate enough to be allowed whimsy. He provided the hilariously pompous narration for the satirical short film The Majestic Plastic Bag and will soon be seen on the big screen as the compromised CEO of a bank in the financial-crisis thriller Margin Call.

His most recent roles - the corrupt Pope and the self-serving executive - are 500 years apart, but for Irons, there's a direct line between the two. Rolling another cigarette, and perhaps wishing the rest of the world were as tobacco-positive as Hungary, he said, "We think we live in an innocent world, but we don't, and we never have. We're in cloud-cuckoo-land if we look back at the Borgias and think, 'God, they were terrible!' Look what's happening today. It's exactly the same."

The TV series The Borgias begins with a two-hour episode Sunday on Bravo! at 10 p.m.

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