Oscar winner Jeremy Irons usually doesn't go for bit parts. But for The Merchant of Venice — a new adaptation of Shakespeare's play — he made an exception. In fact, the 56-year-old Brit really didn't mind that his role as Antonio is considerably smaller than those of Al Pacino, who plays infamous lender Shylock, and Joseph Fiennes, who stars as handsome ladies' man Bassanio.

"[It was] the chance to play Shakespeare on film, which comes rarely," says Irons. "Antonio's not a character I would play in the theater — because he is not there enough, basically — but on film, it doesn't matter. You don't have to bang it out to a great, big audience, you can play it fairly subtly. It is a great freedom. And the chance to work with Al, who is a friend."

In Merchant, Antonio takes responsibility for Bassanio's actions and almost loses his life in the process. But this film's version of events really brings to the forefront the homoerotic undertones in their close friendship. "Joe [Fiennes] surprised us all," Irons says. "We talked about the nature of the relationship, and the difficulty of putting [it] across to today's audience, who only think of straight or gay. [Today,] there are only two [kinds of] male relationships. But in Shakespeare's time, the greatest relationship and passion that they could have is for another man.

"Those platonic relationships and very deep emotional relationships [were] valued above the relationship between a man and a woman," the Brideshead Revisited star continues. "[Now] we don't know about that, we don't do that. When I was at school, I remember it. If you were at the top of the class, one of the privileges was that you could walk arm in arm with another boy. That was sort of left over from that period."