By David Cox
I-D Magazine, October 1998
He’s not the new Ewan McGregor, although they star together in this month’s Velvet Goldmine. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a man on his own and a man with a troubled mind…
Jonathan Rhys Meyers doesn’t smile once during our conversation about his role in the extravagant new glam rock film Velvet Goldmine. However, despite his straight face, the 21-year-old actor from County Cork is far from sulky and withdrawn; nor does he seem tired after traveling from a movie set in Virginia to the Cannes Film Festival for its premiere. Instead he appears to be alert, responsive and almost grateful for the opportunity to discuss his role as androgynous ’70s rocker Brian Slade.
“I didn’t understand what the film was about. I never did and I never have and I never will. If I could understand it, it would have been boring. The whole thing was such a challenge ‘cos I had no idea what is was like to live in that decade, no idea what it was like to be a pop star and no idea what it was like to embrace bisexuality in such an open way. So it was a completely new role – fresh and liberating like the ’70s were.”
For Rhys Meyers to say that he doesn’t understand Velvet Goldmine is not simply an endearing act of false modesty. American director Todd Haynes hasn’t exactly opted for an easy approach to his chosen subject; what could have been a simple, splashy celebration of glam-rock is instead a multi-layered examination of fame, identity and gender, a continuation of themes explored by the film-maker in his previous works Poison, Safe and Dottie Gets Spanked. Starring alongside Ewan McGregor as Slade, a Bowie-esque star who shines briefly before burning out and disappearing, Rhys Meyers provides a human face for Haynes’ thrilling thesis.
“Jonathan is extraordinary,” says the filmmaker. “He’s very young but so talented. He brings so much more to Brian than there is in the script. He could so easily have been a sort of icy mask in the centre [sic] of all this activity, but he brought a vulnerability and a sensitivity that complicated things to a large degree. I think he brought me closer to what I was trying to do.”
The collaboration proved as stimulating for the actor: “Todd let me do my own thing and I trusted him as the director. He also placed a lot of trust in me because Brian was my role and he knew that was my area. Sometimes you might work on a film where the director might get too involved in the acting, or where the actor might get too involved with the directing. I just left Todd to the directing and he left me to the acting. When he needed something more – or less – he let me know and kept control over me in a very subtle way. It was like he was a corridor and I could bounce off every wall. Whenever I went out of that corridor he’d very carefully lead me back into it.”
In Goldmine, Brian Slade’s meteoric rise to stardom is the catalyst for some intense self-analysis. Rhys Meyers captures the solipsism and insouciance of the star perfectly, subtly colouring it with a tragic hint of awareness that the charade cannot last. It makes the actor appear slightly self-conscious on screen and runs the risk of being read as plain old bad acting (Chloe Sevigny treads a similarly fine line, for different reasons and to different ends, in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco). Instead, Rhys Meyers’ risky performance enables the film to locate its main theme – the narrow gap which separates private identity from public persona.
“When I first started playing Brian Slade, I got sad very quickly and I remained sad for a long time. It was very tragic for me to play him as a human being because I wasn’t trying to play a character. I set out to see if I could play myself. I tried to go outside myself to see in, and as I started to do that I saw things I’d never seen before, parts of myself that weren’t exactly admirable. I saw a selfishness and an arrogance and developed a loathing of myself, a self-loathing that rubbed off on the character.”
“I never thought about the role as a performance. I never actually questioned Brian Slade as a character. I questioned myself as Johnny. When I was in the costumes I wouldn’t say ‘This is Brian’, I’d say this is Johnny. I knew who it was. I let myself be myself as much as possible and made myself be as honest as possible. It was the first film in which I wasn’t conscious of what I looked like because I knew I looked so out there that if I started concentrating on that it would lead me down a very narrow, very deceitful path for myself. So I let myself flow like a river through the whole thing.”
Barely 20 when shooting started on Goldmine – his first significant role, aside from a short appearance in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins – Rhys Meyers has little connection with the period during which a majority of the film’s action is set. However, his fine androgynous features mean that he’s picture-perfect as a product of those times. Through his vicarious, on-screen experience as a pioneer of the glam-rock movement, Rhys Meyers arrived at his own understanding of what the Velvet Goldmine era was all about.
“Lust and liberalism. It was like Spring and people felt a freshness that they’d never felt before and that many of them would never feel again. There was no emotional intelligence and no control. It’s a return to being a child. A return to innocence rather than a return to any sort of glamour. They were indulging in naughty things that they’d never done before. There was no AIDS, there was no worry about sex. They didn’t know what the withdrawal from drugs was going to be like so they thought everything was going to be fresh and rosy and it was like a flower that was just blooming, blooming, blooming. Then the petals started to drop off and there was nothing but an empty, hard stem and that’s all it was in essence. It wasn’t innocent or beautiful or liberal; it was very tragic and very messy.”
Special thanks to Vanessa for transcribing this article.