Oh You Pretty Things
By Graham Fuller
Interview, December 1998
Whatever abilities Jonathan Rhys Meyers hasn’t yet acquired as a film actor, he has one quality in his favor: Once he’s onscreen, it’s impossible to take your eyes off him. The boy is electrifying, in the same way Montgomery Clift was in Red River, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, and Natassja Kinski in Paris, Texas–electrifying in a way that some of our most beloved stars have never been. It’s a quality that renders critical judgment about a performance irrelevant–good or bad, it doesn’t matter–and it’s a quality that can seldom be sustained. That Rhys Meyers has it for now will be enough to establish him as a special kind of movie presence. Given his fleeting scene as the assassin in Michael Collins (1996), his lovelorn Victorian suitor in last summer’s The Governess, and now his Bowie-esque pop prima donna Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine, he’s also got the chops to create an extraordinary career (it continues next year in B. Monkey, Ride With the Devil, and The Loss of Sexual Innocence) long after the magnesium glow has begun to fade.
Velvet Goldmine is writer-director Todd Haynes’s giddy yet melancholy requiem for the mythical freedoms of early ’70s British glam rock. It’s a deliberately splintered piece of filmmaking, both in its pop art structure (modeled on Citizen Kane but collaged together like a Roxy Music or Bowie song) and narrative perspective. Christian Bale, doleful as a reporter and former glam fan called Arthur on a grail quest for his past, carries the burden of the story. Toni Collette (who has been romantically involved with Rhys Meyers) gives her most haunted performance yet as Brian Slade’s discarded wife. And Ewan McGregor (who appeared in Interview last month) is a magnificently ravaged Iggy Pop-alike–the treasure at the end of Arthur’s search. But it’s Rhys Meyers’s epicene Brian who, metamorphosing from naive posthippie minstrel to corrupted peacock, is the source of the tragedy Haynes locates at the heart of glam’s narcissism. The right actor in the right place, Rhys Meyers–closer perhaps to Mick Jagger in Performance than Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth—makes an eerily evocative lad insane.
There’s nothing eerie about the twenty-one year old Irishman who met with me in the lobby-bar of Manhattan’s Royalton Hotel. Johnny Rhys Meyers, as he calls himself, has all the sinisterness of a puppy dog. Idealistic, trusting, a stream-of-consciousness spouter given to spontaneous affection–even with his stern interviewer–he’s a maelstrom of nervous energy, although there’s no doubt he can command it at will. To quote an early Bowie line, he’s “chameleon, comedian, Corinthian, and caricature.” Just watch him.
GRAHAM FULLER: Why did you become an actor?
JONATHAN RHYS MEYERS: Poverty. [laughs] It was something I could do. I never actually had any desire to be an actor. When I was younger I was shy and coy and humble. I’m still quite humble because I don’t want to be seen as egotistical. But I’ve started to realize in this last year that my glass is half full rather than half empty.
GF: How did you get started?
JRM: I was kicked out of school when I was fifteen and started hustling pool in this place called The Vic in Cork [Ireland]. I was nervous doing that because I usually wouldn’t have the money I was betting against and then I’d lose and end up owing it, or I’d have to run out the door in case they beat the shit out of me. I was in there playing pool one day when these people from Warner Bros. came in. They were casting a film called War of the Buttons  and asked me if I’d like to audition, so I did and they brought me to see the director. I didn’t get a part because I looked older than the rest of the boys they were casting, and I was crushed–I felt incredibly rejected, like my legs were cut out from underneath me. For about two months, I refused to watch television or videos, and then I thought, Fuck that, it’s beating me, and I’m sick of being beaten. I’m going to go and do it–I’m going to go and make a movie. I auditioned and auditioned for about a year and a half without getting a part. I felt like I was in a boxing match: I’d come into the ring, which was the movie industry, and go up against my opponent–and he’d constantly be hitting me back against the ropes; every rejection was an uppercut. But then I got a part, and I hit him back.
GF: What was the part?
JRM: It was for a Knorr’s Soup commercial. It was my first job, and when I got it, it was like, I’ve got one, now let’s get another. I got one night working with Albert Finney and Rufus Sewell on A Man of No Importance  and then the lead role in Disappearance of Finbar . I was so excited. One month before shooting I was in the house where I live with the Crofts family in Buttevant [County Cork]; nobody else from the family was home. And I’ll never forget what happened as long as I live. It was five past eight on a Wednesday evening. Six men came into the house with shotguns. One of them shoved a shotgun in my mouth and a handgun to the back of my neck. They tied me up, dragged me around the house, and started playing Russian roulette at the back of my head. They wanted twenty-five thousand pounds, and they held me for about an hour and a half. There was a farm manager there and they beat him up a bit and brought him into the room and we were both handcuffed. I had the fear of God in me and my stomach was turning, but I appeared completely calm.
GF: Did you think you were going to die?
JRM: It didn’t matter to me. If they had just pointed the gun at my head and shot me that would’ve been fine. I’d die and that would be it. My fear was about them beating the shit out of me or something like that, because that would hurt a hell of a lot more. The only thing I was pissed off about was if I died I wouldn’t get to be in Disappearance of Finbar. That’s what drove me on. I was like, I have a fucking movie to make–I’d better control myself and get out of this situation intact. There was this one young fellow who got freaked out enough to point his gun at me and cock the hammer to shoot me but the leader just kind of gave him a cuff around the head and said, “Don’t be stupid.” So I looked at the leader and that’s when I knew I was going to be all right. From that moment on I started to establish a rapport with him. Basically, I acted my way out of the situation.
GF: Once they left, you were OK? There was no trauma?
JRM: I think I broke down about three months later. Maybe for a month I hated them and wanted to burst into their houses and point a gun at their kids, but two wrongs don’t make a right and I forgave them a long time ago. I also realized they were doing it because they were poor and it was coming up to Christmas and they needed money for their families. I would have given them all the money, you know? I think some of them went to prison for different things afterward. That’s good if it taught them a lesson and stopped them doing it to other people, but I don’t want to hurt them–I don’t want to hurt anyone.
GF: Was it an experience that changed you?
JRM: Yes. From that point on, I knew I could be an actor–that there was nothing I couldn’t do. It gave me a strong head and a strong heart. It also gave me a purpose not only to be an actor, but to be a human. I suppose I realized that I have things to do in this world not just for myself, but for other people, too. And it taught me to have no fear of people. If somebody comes up to me and tries to pick a fight, I’m like “You know how many guns I’ve had pointed at me at one time?”
GF: Doing Disappearance of Finbar must have seemed anticlimactic after that.
JRM: It was actually difficult because I’d only ever had one or two acting lessons and I was so raw, as I realized when I saw the film. It was also hard because I had to be away from home for the first time. But when I got back I heard that Neil Jordan wanted to see me and I ended up getting a part in Michael Collins.
GF: And you made a powerful impression in the last few minutes of the film. Now, why did it become important to you to play Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine?
JRM: It was the challenge–I wanted to see if I could do it. And because I’m a boy from Cork who watched television when I was young and always thought movie stars were superhuman people and I could never be one. When I was a kid I could never imagine magical people like Sylvester Stallone or Michael Jackson going to the toilet, because I go to the toilet. I think Brian Slade thought that, too, but he also knew that he could be a star. And I wanted to put some of that into me because I wasn’t feeling very confident when I started doing Velvet Goldmine.
GF: Why the self-doubt?
JRM: Being in this industry can put a lot of pressure on you. You can either wallow in the pressure or you can rise above it. To rise above it you have to think to yourself, It doesn’t matter if people don’t like this performance or if I don’t get another job. What matters is I did something for me. So I thought, if I make a fool out of myself, so be it, but I’m not going to be afraid and not do it in case I screw up or something. It was a challenge to go off and try to transform myself, but I didn’t transform anything. That was the thing about the early ’70s. People thought they had to transform themselves but they didn’t transform themselves–they just took off their masks: the masks of being uptight, being establishment, and doing what everyone else was doing. And I think that’s what I did somewhat when I played Brian.
GF: Why do you think glam rock happened?
JRM: I think that after flower people–which didn’t work–people were looking to go to an absolute extreme, and glam rock was that. Bowie wrote in his song about Andy Warhol: “Dress my friends up just for show/See them as they really are,” and I think that is so honest: It’s about seeing people at their most comfortable, which is usually not about wearing a checked shirt and jeans but it might be about a guy wearing a dress and high heels with a big biker jacket over it–or whatever it is that makes him feel comfortable. I came to realize that’s what a lot of people in glam were getting at–that idea of putting everything they were about on the outside and saying, “Well, I’ve been something else for so long, and now this is the real me.”
GF: What happens to you as an actor when you start working on a role?
JRM: As opposed to being romantic and poetic about it, I start walking hand in hand with my own honesty about myself. I would never sit down and study a character. The character is in me and all I have to do is bring it to the surface, so I look really truthfully at myself and what I am. If you’re giving an honest emotion and you’re not trying to fake anything, it’s going to be beautiful because honesty is what people feel, essentially, and it can turn into art. Every character I play is just an aspect of who I am. Everybody has every emotion in the world. Some people aren’t able to surface them and I’m lucky enough that I can.
GF: Do you know why that is?
JRM: I had a lot of time on my own when I was a child and it set my imagination running. I had hunger. I’m still hungry. But I’m not hungry for material success because that doesn’t mean a hell of a lot. I just want to find success in myself and be able to stand and say, “I’m part of this.”
JRM: Yes. I don’t have to be an integral part–I just have to be a part. [pauses] It’s very hard when you are in a situation where people are constantly criticizing and judging you. It feels sometimes like when I was a little boy: I needed a lot of love, and my mother and my father loved me very much, probably more than I could ever fathom. But it was a time when they were young and they didn’t have themselves totally figured out, and I couldn’t always feel their love. I can’t blame them for that. I suppose it’s the best thing that could have happened to me because it’s made me an adult who will actually respect love. I now have people around me: my mother, my father, the Crofts family in Buttevant, Toni [Collette], Todd [Haynes], my agents. I’ve got friends who love me very much; and now I’m learning what love is and what it is to receive it, and I’m giving it so much more. And as it turned out, having an unhappy childhood fueled me to do my job when the time came.
GF: Do you prepare for your roles?
JRM: I could never prepare. If I read a scene more than three times it would become wooden to me. When I was doing Velvet Goldmine I’d look at a scene maybe a minute and half before I shot it. That way, when I’m doing a scene, I’m trying to think of the line and I’m actually playing the situation. And it’s also what you get off the crew–everybody’s emotions–and stuff like that around you that makes you what you are.
GF: Is your screen presence something you have control over?
JRM: No, because I don’t know about it. I played Brian Slade, but I don’t know everything about him. I left him a mystery. I didn’t try to create a past for him; his past was my past. To do what I wanted to do, I just accepted that his journey had been parallel to mine. When I first got into films, I thought about fame, of course, and I was like, oh, wow, imagine if I was famous–it would be wonderful. So I took all that and imagined I was Brian Slade going through it.
GF: Do you worry about celebrity going to your head, which is what happens to Brian?
JRM: It’s like nobody turned around to Brian and said, “You’re an asshole.” Everyone was afraid to. I really hope that people will treat me honestly in life and say, “Listen, you’re not being nice. You’re being a dickhead, so please stop and learn from it.” I don’t mind people telling me I’ve done wrong things because even though it may hurt at the time, I don’t want to get to the point that Brian does where he’s irredeemable, because that will crush you.
GF: It’s during your singing of “Tumbling Down” that we realize he’s become a self-parody.
JRM: Yes. He’s become this green monster covered in jewels and wrapped in a boa who’s ascending to the roof on a chandelier. Everything that was beautiful about Brian is leaving at that point–his spirit is going up into the air where it’s going to stay. When we see him as that bitter character he is later on, he’s become everything he once loathed, although the real Brian Slade lives on through his music in people’s heart–the angel he once was.
GF: As you went through the movie, did your emotions reflect Brian’s?
JRM: Very much. I had a strange time on the film. When I wasn’t working, I locked myself in my apartment with a guitar and a microphone and tried to write my own music. I tried to imagine that I was this person who was going out to change the world. And I went through times where I’d actually look at the script and go, God almighty, that was me this afternoon. That gave me the confidence to go on. I don’t mind what emotions I have to go through. If I’m feeling an emotion that makes me feel horrible, if I feel like bawling my eyes out, if I’m depressed, then I want that because it’s something real, and it’s making me feel like a human. Even if it’s very bad for me, it wakes me up because it’s like I’m hitting myself with a sledgehammer, and I’ll feel, “Well, now I’ve got to actually improve myself and make myself more understanding of other people.” The problem with Brian was he never realized that.
GF: Did you perceive Brian Slade as David Bowie, or did you try to detach yourself from Bowie?
JRM: I didn’t try to play Bowie because, as David Jones, he has done that himself so many times. Also it wouldn’t have been interesting for me to imitate anyone. I tried to make something that was very much my own, and I hope someday Bowie sees the film and realizes I’m not playing him. He was definitely a big inspiration, but then he’s an inspiration to a lot of people. Todd was just as inspired by Roxy Music.
GF: It was smart of him to include Oscar Wilde in Velvet Goldmine–because Wilde would have approved of the sensibility of Eno-era Roxy and Steve Harley’s Cockney Rebel as well as that of Bowie. Songs like Harley’s “Sebastian,” which you sing in the movie, are in direct line of descent from The Picture of Dorian Grey.
JRM: Yes. You know, there are a lot of things about England that I don’t particularly like. But one thing I do like is that fabulous sense of camp English people have and the dry sense of humor that goes with it. It’s about being haughty in the most fun way. Wilde appreciated the campiness of England, and so does Todd.
GF: Do you think glam rock was specifically about sexuality?
JRM: I think sexuality drove a lot of it. At the time, it was trendy to be gay and it was trendy to be anti-establishment. What a lot of people didn’t realize was that the establishment was more warped sexually and hiding behind a bigger mask than anything that came along to challenge it. I think what glam rock actually said to people was, “You don’t have to be a follower of glam rock, you just have to not judge it or damn it.”
GF: It was all over by the time you were born, so how do you relate to it?
JRM: I was born in ’77. But my father was a musician, so I knew exactly who people like Bowie were at a very young age. But I appreciated them as musicians, not as part of pop culture. One of the earliest memories I have is of being at home when I was two or three years old and my father coming in late one night, getting me out of bed, and bumping me into the back of a van. There were all these men there and they were smoking and talking and sweating. And the van rattled along until it came to this country house. My father took me in and sat me down by the fireplace and I watched them play the most intense traditional music. I can feel to this day how the music pumped through my body. It’s one of the most amazing memories I’ve got.
GF: Do you think you have to be happy to create good work?
JRM: I can only speak for myself, but it seems to me if somebody was happy with himself, he wouldn’t actually want to be somebody else all the time. I am not particularly happy with myself and that’s why I want to keep playing different characters. I think that can be useful to other people. As an actor, I’ve got an important responsibility to teach people. I’m not saying I’m a guru or anything, but I want people to go and see films I’m in and come out feeling something real, no matter what it is. Maybe someone might see Velvet Goldmine and then pass somebody on the street who’s dressed in a ballerina suit with a big punk hairdo, and instead of saying, “Fucking faggot,” as they would’ve done the day before, they’ll go: “Individualism.”
GF: Are you happy right now?
JRM: I’m happy at this moment but it changes. I flick in and out. I’ve gone through some hard times in the past year, but I’m not going to do that anymore because being unhappy makes me weary. There will always be ups and downs, but it’s important to remember you’re on your own beautiful journey and once you’re on it you have to see it through to its conclusion and try to never be afraid to do anything, because what’s the worse that can happen?
Special thanks to Vanessa for transcribing this article.