The Making of a Movie Star
By Roger Clarke
Sunday Telegraph, June 14, 1998
Thanks to his performance as a decadent glam-rocker in the much-hyped Velvet Goldmine, Jonathan Rhys Meyers was the hottest property at Cannes. Now everyone wants a piece of him – but can he take the pressure? Roger Clarke witnesses…
Jonathan Rhys Meyers will be 21 next month, and soon afterwards he’ll become a big star. He’ll appear in all the magazines and on the chat shows, be seen at all the A-list parties, and his face will be photographed by Bruce Weber for the cover of Interview. The engine of his new fame is Velvet Goldmine, a film set in a druggy Seventies glam-rock London, and Johnny Rhys Meyers plays the lead character, a barely veiled version of the young David Bowie.
Johnny was the hottest property in Cannes last month and everyone knew it. Older and more famous actors like Bruce Willis were laughed at in their own screenings, but Johnny was having his first taste of fame, and after dreaming about it for what seemed like years he was finally getting what he wanted. He has three films coming out this year, and everyone wants a piece of him.
Rhys Meyers, one of four brothers, was born in Dublin in 1977. He grew up in Cork with his mother (his father, a musician, lives in Jersey) and has never worked at anything other than acting. He got into acting through social connections in Ireland, where everyone knows everyone. He can act, sing, dance a bit. “I love music best,” he says, “I always wanted to be a rock star.” With an exceptional angular face, dark hair, brilliant blue eyes and lips that can do a fine Elvis snarl, he was born to be photographed. When David Puttnam observed his startling rapport with the camera at a casting, he said to Johnny, “The camera loves you.” Johnny’s reply was shameless: “And I love the camera.”
The other films he’s appearing in are B. Monkey, with Rupert Everett, and The Governess, with Minnie Driver, and he’s been cast by Ang Lee in Ride With The Devil, an American Civil War epic currently shooting in Kansas. But it’s Velvet Goldmine that seems likely to make him a megastar.
The film tells the story of Brian Slade, a bisexual rocker, and his descent into self-destructive stardom. Slade is not an entirely sympathetic character, and it’s hardly surprising that Bowie blocked the use of his music in the film. With Eddie Izzard a hoot as Slade’s manager, Christian Bale as a journalist, Ewan McGregor as an Iggy Pop figure and Toni Collette (Johnny’s on-and-off girlfriend) as a kind of Angie Bowie, it’s a strong piece of ensemble acting. Michael Stipe, of the band REM, is an executive producer.
To find out how a working-class boy from Cork would cope with all the hype, the wall-to-wall interviews, the paparazzi, I went to Cannes with Johnny. I wanted to see a star being born.
Thursday 21 May: Cannes
Johnny’s flying in from Kansas, having been given a four-day exeat from filming. Every single stage of his Kansas-Chicago-Frankfurt-Nice route has fouled up. The Kansas flight is two hours late, he misses his Chicago connection and is re-routed through Paris. The Nice customs didn’t like the look of him and go through his luggage with a fine-tooth comb. It’s bad enough that he’s carrying a guitar and has a sleeve-pocket stuffed with penny whistles, but there’s another image problem. In the Ang Lee film Johnny plays a hillbilly psychopath; he’s been given hair attachments that extend halfway down his back, and he seems quite convincingly in character. The flight problems mean that Johnny has missed his morning interviews in Cannes, including one with Barry Norman for Film 98.
Christopher Crofts, Rhys Meyers’ unofficial manager, has flown to Cannes before him, and has been receiving anguished calls all night from Johnny in Paris. The helicopter link from Nice airport to Cannes is booked up. Christopher, at whose dairy farm Rhys Meyers stayed when he left home at the age of 17, travelled by the link and found himself sitting next to Robert Duvall. “You look familiar,” ventured the gregarious Crofts, a former president of the Irish Grasslands Association. “Do you farm in Limerick?”
In the late afternoon, Crofts is taken on the long drive to Nice airport. Johnny is already shattered. He arrives at his first-floor room in the Carlton. It’s cramped and dark and he asks for another one. “It’s a perfectly nice room but not as good as Toni’s,” he says. He seems to be getting the hang of this star thing. He takes a shower and then walks with me over to the Martinez hotel, also on the Cannes seafront, cluttered with film hoardings and dried-out palm trees.
In the sultry early evening crowds of people congregate outside the grander hotels waiting to gawp at the stars. Most of them have no idea which stars, but it doesn’t really matter. There’s an especially large throng outside the Martinez, and a big contingent of security guards and police to hold them back. They take one look at Johnny’s hair and refuse to let him in. As we both try to telephone the people expecting us inside, the police start to push us away. “This is disgusting!” fumes Johnny. “They’re judging me by the way I look!” Johhny vows he is going to leave Cannes immediately. A girl dashes out through the guards, throws someone’s security pass around Johnny’s neck, and we’re whisked past the dumbfounded guards.
Taxis are found. We drive to La Napoule, an old-fashioned restaurant down the coast to the south, the seafront road jammed with cars in temporary one-way systems.
Johnny had intended not to stay for dinner, but when he is seated next to Colm Meaney, best known as Chief O’Brien in Star Trek, he settles into easy banter with the Dublin-born actor. “That’s the Irish for you,” ventures Crofts. “That’s why I moved to LA,” says Meaney jokingly.
Friday 22 May: the day of the premiere
10am: Johnny is sitting in the Carlton’s sweltering baroque ballroom, heavy golden drapes are swagged around the terrace windows. A well-thumbed volume of Rimbaud is visible in a leather bag. The television interviews are junket-style, with a fixed crew. On the far left corner sits Toni Collette. At the top right is Todd Haynes, Velvet Goldmine’s director, and opposite is Christian Bale. Each star has their own video crew. Bale is ultra-experienced and cool. Some lighting technicians move a potted tree between Toni and Johnny, since she seems to be distracted by him. Johnny concentrates on the job in hand. He has not yet learned to autopilot in interviews and treats every six-minute interview with an earnest grace which will exhaust him before long. Each journalist is handed a tape after their interview. A Swiss woman asks what it’s like to kiss Ewan McGregor.
We wait for Johnny at the beach, where the PR company McDonald & Rutter has reserved two tables. Crofts has brought along a Gucci suit for Johnny to try on for the premiere; Johnny has an aversion to black tie. Five freeloaders seat themselves at the next table and consume a huge lobster meal before vanishing. No one has the slightest idea who they are.
When Johnny arrives the pressure is beginning to tell. He has had a frightening press conference and was spooked by the banks of paparazzi. He tries on the Gucci suit in the restaurant’s lavatory. It doesn’t fit. Johnny insists he’s going to wear his own glam-rock costume: bottle-green velvet jacket and yellow velvet pantaloons. There’s a strong chance he won’t be let into the premiere if he does. Hysteria looms.
Johnny is wined and dined again by the usual crowd of financiers, agents and the Velvet Goldmine cast. The premiere’s at 10:30pm. Johnny gets in without any trouble, especially since Haynes is also wearing an unorthodox silver jacket made by costume designer Sandy Powell. Tickets could not be had for love or money yet there are empty seats inside.
At one o’clock in the morning, as the whole cast emerges triumphantly, the gawpers start heckling. They want to see established stars. “Who’s that ugly slut?” they shout at a blameless (and perfectly attractive) actress. A convoy of cars whisks the stars off to the Villa Federica, a floodlit mansion of some opulence. The Velvet Goldmine party is the hottest ticket in town. Michael Stipe, Brian Eno, Winona Ryder, Bono and Sigourney Weaver are there. Gordon, an Irish friend of Crofts’, is disconcerted to catch one of the waiters in the act of picking his pockets. Glam-rock music blares out into the early light. Some of it is the soundtrack of the movie, on which Johnny sings. Johnny leaves at six with Toni Collette on his arm. It seems their friendship is on again.
Saturday 23 May
Mary-Jo Slater, a casting director, arrives unexpectedly at midday and takes her actor son Ryan up to Johnny’s new seafront room to meet him. Johnny stayed with her last year in Los Angeles while filming a television movie called The Maker. From one o’clock to seven that evening Johnny receives 60 print journalists at L’Evasion beach restaurant. He’s nearly falling over with exhaustion and is upset when an aggressive paparazzo jams his camera in his face as he walks back to the hotel.
Crofts returns the unused Gucci suit and takes a redirected phone call from his farm in Cork: it’s one of his neighbours, asking him if he has any silage to sell. Early to bed at one, after a stuffy dinner with Cannes dignitaries and financiers.
Sunday 24 May
Japanese and French print interviews from 10:30am, though Johnny surfaces half an hour late. At one o’clock his PR schedule officially ends, and there’s a small lunch with the Velvet Goldmine crew, very low-key. Christopher Crofts is trying to work out when Clare Kilner, a director who’s flown in from England to pique Johnny’s interest in her film, can have a few seconds of Johnny’s attention. She’s given five minutes, then she flies home.
At six Johnny is expected at the Cap hotel for drinks with his English agent. He cancels. Sandy Powell arrives with the costume her boyfriend wore at last night’s party, and speedily adapts it for Johnny to wear at the awards ceremony. Christopher and most of the cast retire to a small restaurant, where they watch the ceremony on television. Todd wins a rarely given award for technical excellence. When Todd and Johnny arrive back at the restaurant there’s dancing on the tables. A Miramax party on a boat in the harbour is considered a damp squib and no one goes.
To bed at one, then up again for his Kansas flight at five, with four more changes ahead. Johnny will arrive at midnight, and he has a wake-up call at 5:30am, to be on set and acting. Ang Lee has been implacable about the schedule.
Before he leaves the film festival, Johnny tells me: “I wish Cannes had remained just fantasy. I grew up seeing it on TV and wanting to be here and now I wish I’d never come.” The voice of tiredness? A disillusionment with the mechanics of incipient fame? The mix of luxurious living and punishing schedules has taken its toll, but he’s learning now, after jumping in the deep end. “He has to learn,” says Crofts when I see him in London on his way home to Cork, “how to say no.” It’s not an easy lesson.
Special thanks to Hansi for transcribing this article.