Going for Greatness
by Michael Dwyer
The Irish Times, October 31, 1998
At 21, Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers realises fame is no longer his spur. His mission is to be a great actor, and with 12 films in three years, he’s well on his way. He talks to Michael Dwyer.
When the American writer-director Todd Haynes was casting the young Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers as an enigmatic, bisexual pop star in the glam-rock opus Velvet Goldmine, he commented: “Johnny is just incredible. Being 19 is a full-time job as it is, and here he is, playing this role that demands so many different aspects – vulnerability as an actor, transforming completely from era to era, performance skill and singing ability.”
When Ang Lee, the Taiwanese film-maker behind Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm was casting his recent American Civil War production, To Live On, he chose Rhys Meyers to play the villain of the piece. “Johnny’s fabulous to look at,” he said. “Personally, I feel he has a poetic quality.”
When the New York Times featured Rhys Meyers last month – in an article headlined “Earning an ‘A’ for Androgyny on the Screen” – the writer, Matt Wolf, noted that his androgynous appearance is “one quality, and infectious smile and raw talent are others, that has the 21-year-old Irishman leading the latest AngloIrish thespian wave”.
Last week, when Rhys Meyers featured in three of the six new cinema releases in London (and in yet another one on video), Charlotte O’Sullivan interviewed him in Time Out – headline: “Hallo Spaceboy” – and she drooled: “An exquisite version of Malcolm McDowell, the 21-year-old Irishman looks ripe with truculence, coy lashes fluttering above girlish eyes and fresh-from-the-butcher lips.”
Yet when Rhys Meyers returned home to Cork this month, for the film-festival screening of Velvet Goldmine, he seemed even more insecure and vulnerable than when I met him two years ago in London for what was the first media interview of his career. In that short time, he has become one of the most in-demand young actors in international cinema, moving from set to set all over the world, but he was edgy and ill at ease in Cork. For a number of reasons.
“I’m a big worrier,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “I worry all the time. We actors, every second we need to be re-assured of ourselves.”
He arrived in Cork from Rome, where he is working with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange on the film of Titus Andronicus for Julie Taymor, the Tony-winning director of The Lion King on Broadway. His long hair has been dyed blond for the film.
“It’s more frightening than anything else to come home,” he says. “It’s scary. I feel quite self-conscious. The other thing is I have so little time. I don’t even have 24 hours here. It’s such a rush, and I will have so little time to see my family. But I felt it was something I couldn’t not do.”
His unease was heightened by a number of unflattering references to himself in print. “While I’ve been in Rome I’ve seen a few magazines that frightened the s*** out of me. Because no matter who loves the film (Velvet Goldmine), a lot of people hate it.”
Which magazines? “I can’t remember,” he says. “They were English. For me, for my first time as a human being, it’s the first time ever I’ve been out there and been judged, and some of them judged rather harshly.” It would be entirely unfair for anyone to attribute any of the many problems of Velvet Goldmine to Rhys Meyers, whose glowing star-quality is one of its few assets. He lightens up when I quote the article about his androgynous appearance. “There is an androgyny there,” he says. “If you look at some of the photographs of me at Cannes, I look like a woman.”
The other reason he is upset is the break-up of his relationship with the Australian actress, Toni Collette, who played the title role in Muriel’s Wedding. They met when she played his wife in Velvet Goldmine – as a couple loosely based on David and Angie Bowie. “It’s gone,” he says of their relationship, his voice lowering. “I suppose I don’t really want to talk about it. I suppose what it comes down to is you’ve got to know yourself before you get to know anyone else. And I don’t know myself.”
Jonathan Rhys Meyers was born in Dublin in the summer of 1977 and moved with his family to Cork a year later. The eldest of four brothers, he left school when he was 16 – “I was kicked out of the Mon,” he says – and he was discovered by Hubbard Casting which was talent-spotting for the David Puttnam production, War of the Buttons.
“It started with a phone call from a very good friend of mine, Gordon McGregor, who asked me to come to Cork city for the auditions,” he says. “I turned up in this pool hall with about 50 other lads. Then I was brought down to Skibbereen to meet the director, and then I did another audition, until it was down to Gregg Fitzgerald and me for the lead. He got the part and did a wonderful job of it.
“I was 15 or 16 at the time, and I felt really rejected. I was crushed, so I said, ‘f*** this acting business’ and I went about my merry way of being a juvenile delinquent – and then this woman calls saying there’s an audition and did I want to go to it.” This time he got the role – in a Knorr soup commercial. He made his feature film dÃƒÂ©but soon afterwards, with a minor role in A Man of No Importance, in which he is credited as First Young Man, before landing one of the two leading roles in Sue Clayton’s quirky The Disappearance of Finbar, co-written by Clayton and Dermot Bolger.
The movie was being filmed in Lapland in late winter when a thaw came in, the sets melted and the completion of shoot had to be postponed for six months. Returning home, Rhys Meyers got a call saying Neil Jordan wanted to see him for the role of the young assassin at BÃƒÂ©al na mBlÃƒÂ th in Michael Collins.
“I went up to Dublin and met Neil at the Davenport hotel,” he recalls. “I was sitting in the lobby waiting for the audition and I’ll always remember the carpet, this beautiful, royal-blue carpet I was looking down at while I was waiting. There were two other guys waiting and talking away, and one of them had met Neil before. I just sat there saying nothing. “They went in to meet Neil and when they came out talking and laughing, I thought ‘that’s it’. Auditions always make me nervous, anyway, and that made me feel even worse. But I went in and it was great. Neil didn’t ask me to do anything for the role. He just sat down and talked to me. The next day he rang my agent and cast me.”
He had managed to conceal his nervousness from Jordan, who recounts the story of that audition in the diary that precedes his published screenplay of Michael Collins. His diary entry for Good Friday, 1995, concludes: “In the meantime, I have found someone to play Collins’s killer. Jonathan Rees-Myers (sic), from Co Cork apparently, who looks like a young Tom Cruise. Comes into the casting session with alarming certainty. Obviously gifted.”
Getting involved in the film business at such a young age, Rhys Meyers asked his friend, Christopher Crofts, a Cork farmer in his 50s, to become his guardian. “Christopher takes care of a lot of things at home for me,” he says. “Being away all the time, I need that link. I started working on Christopher’s farm when I finished school. I asked him for the job, but it took about two weeks to figure out I was no farmer. Then the whole acting thing came up and I asked him to help me out with it. It struck up as a business deal and then we became really good friends.”
Meanwhile, the roles rolled in – 12 films in three years. He spent a lonely two months in Madrid, playing a young American toyboy in the lurid Spanish horror movie, Killer Tongue. Then, to Morocco to play the young Samson in Nicolas Roeg’s Samson and Delilah. Next stop was London for Stephen Poliakoff’s The Tribe and a mÃƒÂ©nage ÃƒÂ trois with Anna Friel and Jeremy Northam which raised eyebrows when it was shown recently on Channel 4. From there he went to California for Tim Hunter’s The Maker, newly released on video here. “That was tough for me, because I’m a European boy and I had a week and a half to get an American accent for the part,” says Rhys Meyers, who plays a young man whose older brother (played by Matthew Modine) tries to draw him into crime. Another American film followed directly afterwards – Guy Freland’s Telling Lies in America, with Brad Renfro, Kevin Bacon, Maximilian Schell and a pre-Ally McBeal Calista Flockhart.
Then it was back to London to work for Il Postino director Mike Radford on B Monkey, with Asia Argento, Rupert Everett and Jared Harris. “It’s a love story,” says Rhys Meyers “and I play the tragedy in the love story.” B Monkey will be launched at the London Film Festival next month, two years after it was made.
“It had a lot of problems,” he says. “I don’t know what it’s like. I didn’t even see the rushes. I died and lived five times in the editing. I think I live now. Which is quite nice, although to die would have been good, too. It was a good death.”
Next up was Velvet Goldmine, followed by The Governess in which Jonathan Rhys Meyers is stripped and sensually stroked by Minnie Driver. Like his Velvet Goldmine co-star, Ewan McGregor, he is uninhibited about screen sex scenes. “It really is incredibly boring,” he says. “You just lie there like a piece of meat. I don’t have a problem with nakedness, but a sex scene, there’s no such thing. When you do a sex scene for a film, it’s more embarrassing for the people who are shooting it than for the people who are doing it.”
As it happened, he went from The Governess to The Loss of Sexual Innocence, the yet-to-be-seen new film from Leaving Las Vegas director Mike Figgis. “It was filmed in Newcastle and it’s really low-budget,” he says. “It’s seven short stories and I’m in two of them, The Heart Attack and The Funeral. I was going through such difficult times with myself when I was working on it that I didn’t have that much of a good time. Then, I suppose, if you’re in a funeral scene and a heart attack scene, you’re not meant to.”
A happier experience was being back in the US for Ang Lee’s To Live On with Tobey Maguire and the singer, Jewel. “I had a hard time filming it, but I miss everyone I worked with on it so much,” he says. “I’ve actually thought about that film a lot. It was a wonderful film to work on. Plus it got me into horses, which I’m huge into now. And I enjoyed playing the bad guy, this bushwhacker. He’s a slimy son of a bitch.”
Twelve films in three years, and yet he feels oddly unfulfilled. “It’s strange, you know. People say to me, ‘What’s it like being in movies?’ and ‘Are you famous?’ I’m not, and if I am, there’s a not a hell of a lot of joy in it. Maybe it seems like I am famous to my family and friends, but I haven’t got any of the good out of it yet. All I’ve got is worry and stuff like that.”
He returns to his baptism by fire in the media. “That drained all the confidence out of me,” he says. “I found it difficult reading some of those things. One even said that for a British actor I had an OK Irish accent! I’ve decided now never to bother reading them again.
“When it comes down to it, I have 100 per cent belief. I have this friend, Shekhar Kapur (who directed Elizabeth), and he told me he has never shot a scene that he thinks is any good. I feel the same sometimes in that the more I do, the more I want to get better at it.
“I’m going to become a great actor. After getting this glimpse of what fame is, I don’t want it. Screw it! I want to be a great actor more than anything else.
“When I spoke to you two years ago, I thought I could become famous and I thought fame was something where you would be in this ecstatic sense of pleasure with yourself the whole time, feeling so good about yourself.
“Now I realise it’s not like that, and that it’s something I don’t want. Now I suppose it’s a happy thing that I feel like that, because it pushes me to do my job better and not really want the fame.”