By Marianne Macdonald
Daily Mail, Sunday Supplement, October 1999
At 22, Jonathan Rhys Meyers has overcome his poor childhood to become big in Hollywood, so why is he tortured by his success?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers is being touted as Hollywood’s next big star and, even having met him, I can believe it. Apart from anything else, he is just so beautiful. ‘The curves of you lips rewrite history,’ Ewan McGregor tells him in Velvet Goldmine – he is not exaggerating. The day we met, Rhys Meyers had been named the 34th sexiest man in the world by Cosmopolitan readers, well above Christian Slater, Prince William and Pierce Brosnan; teenage girls are nuts about him, and our office secretary still quivers at the memory of meeting him at a party last summer.
At 22, Rhys Meyers has a hell of a CV. He started out making forgettable movies with the likes of Minnie Driver, Calista Flockhart and Anna Friel. Then he landed the lead in Velvet Goldmine last year. He played a bisexual Seventies rock star, a part that was supposed to make him mega and probably would have had the script been any good. But after being wildly hyped at the Cannes Film Festival it went the other way and got totally panned.
Now Rhys Meyers’ career is smoldering again, with a heavyweight batch of films lined up for release. First up is The Loss of Sexual Innocence, a Mike Figgis movie co-starring Saffron Burrows and Kelly Macdonald, in which Rhys Meyers plays a shy teenager intent on getting Macdonald into bed. He has also put in a wonderful performance in Ride with the Devil, Ang Lee’s first film after The Ice Storm. Set in the American Civil War, Rhys Meyers co-stars with Tobey Maguire as a psychotic Southerner.
Also still to be released in Britain are B Monkey with Rupert Everett, and the Shakespearean bloodbath Titus, with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. Rhys Meyers has also recently finished playing the evil kitchen boy, Steerpike, in a BBC adaptation of the fantasy classic Gormenghast, due out in January. The cast includes Stephen Fry, Christopher Lee and Zoe Wanamaker – it is one of the BBC’s most expensive dramas ever.
With this kind of momentum, Rhys Meyers is clearly destined for the kind of stardom which brings adulation, lackeys and bodyguards, and is a far cry from his poverty-stricken childhood in a council flat in Cork.
According to the director Mike Figgis: ‘He is an actor who clearly is going to make his mark sooner rather than later.’ The camera adores him, although his films feature so little speech and so many close-ups of his voluptuous lips and brooding eyes that I began to wonder if he would have anything to say. In fact – hollow laughter – he had a very great deal.
How to put this? Rhys Meyers is in a bit of a state. He is presently living on a farm in Cork, has spent all his money and is bored out of his mind. Far from the icy sex symbol I was expecting, he rushed into the Clarence Hotel in Dublin looking like a student and apologising for being late. His first observation was that he didn’t feel much like a film star (he didn’t look much like one either, with his hippy scarf and satchel). Then he remarked grimly that there were ‘a lot of bad things’ in Hollywood, and from there he plummeted like a kamikaze pilot – it turned out he was convinced, for no apparent reason, that he was a failure.
The reality behind his triumphant image was so unexpected, it took me a while to appreciate, but I could see at once that the young man in front of me was not in a good way. He had a large and painful-looking stye on his left eyelid, chain-smoked cigarettes and refused lunch on the grounds that he had no appetite. He wound his hairband round his finger until it bulged rebelliously with blood, then tried to burn it in half, in between times rubbing jerkily at his muscled bicep and banging his knee up and down.
He was happy to discuss the reason for his stress – in fact, it was impossible to get him off the subject. Recently, he has done a number of auditions and has not got the parts; the most recent rejection was four days earlier. Given the impressive list of his upcoming films, I doubt this is a big deal, but he has turned it into one. As far as I could tell, he has spent the past three months sitting in Cork smoking his head off and fretting about what he has done to mess up his career, which is probably nothing to be worried about in the first place.
But try telling him that. Every topic of conversation led inexorably back to the questions which obsesses him and can be summed up thus: ‘Why am I not getting work? What have I done wrong? It must be personal.’ Over and over he raked the coals of this unfathomable mystery, while over and over I repeated there probably wasn’t a problem. ‘Yeah,’ he would reply unanswerably each time, ‘but then why aren’t I working?’
It is credit to his monumental charm that, despite this virtuoso display of depression and self-obsession, I liked him a lot, though I certainly didn’t fancy him – Rhys Meyers’ present vulnerability is such that you are far more likely to want to feed him than to take him to bed.
The question of his putative failure is obviously something he has bored everyone in his vicinity stupid with, though he did sometimes manage to laugh about it. ‘Don’t you want to hit me?’ he sniggered at one point. ‘All my friends do! I mean, what friends I have left!’
So while the publicists build him up as a sex god in London and LA, the real Jonny Rhys Meyers is mooching around in misery, heedless of his grandeur. He drank his tea oblivious to the drops raining on his jeans, while the scrappy scarf around his neck gradually uncoiled and fell to the floor. When he went to make a phone call, he left his valuables scattered on his chair – a bent and battered passport, a train ticket, two credit cards and a small heap of cash.
It was hard to know what to make of him. On one hand he seemed very sweet: anxious to please, with a childlike, open manner and this all-consuming misery which proved quite indelible to comfort. But there are other, more chilling, notes to his personality. He remarked matter-of-factly that, ‘I used to lie, I used to rob, I used to steal. From everyone. I’d rob your eyeballs out of your head, then come back for your lips.’ He added, ‘If I became absolutely broke tomorrow and I was living on the street, I’d rob you blind and I wouldn’t care,’ which was certainly open of him.
To his credit, he wasn’t vain about his looks – slightly dimmed, admittedly, by the past three months’ abuse. Although Rhys Meyers talks about the possibility that he has been passed over for parts in favour of ‘more gorgeous boys’, he does not play them up. In fact, one of his beefs is that no one ever recognises him. Rather amusingly, bouncers tried to bar him from the Velvet Goldmine premiere in Cannes last year, which he said made him feel he shouldn’t be there.
Being an actor, he explained gloomily, ‘makes you feel self-conscious about your looks.’ But he must be aware he is good looking? ‘Um, I was happier about my looks before I got into the film industry,’ he replied. ‘I dunno. I loathe them now.’
Yet there is something surreal about the perfection of his face, and the fact that it sprang from such deprivation. In his films, the thing you are knocked over by is his breathtaking beauty, but curiously not in real life. I only felt its impact once or twice, when he stopped jittering around and gazed straight at me.
I asked if he had thought he could be anything he wanted when he was younger because of his looks (he could easily be a model or pop star – he did his own singing in Velvet Goldmine), but he said rather sweetly that he hadn’t. ‘Because I’ve never thought I was good-looking in any film I’ve done. I mean, I was watching Sky telly last night and this film came on and I was in it and I was so hideous! It’s a really nice film, actually, called Telling Lies in America, but I was woeful! I was really, really, very, very bad and very, very hideous!’ He started giggling.
And did girls think he was hideous, or not? He looked at me eagerly. ‘Er, I think they do.’ He said he never pulled girls, which I didn’t believe for a moment. Don’t they chat him up? ‘No, no. It’s definitely a nonentity, a non-issue.’ Not according to Cosmo, I said, producing my article about the poll. He was quite interested in this. ‘Oh really? That’s in today’s paper?’ he asked, putting down his cigarette to study the list. ‘Wow, God…Although when I look at the number one sexiest man, I really…’ This was Robbie Williams. He went back to the article. ‘Wow. There you go. I’m sexier than Liam Neeson. My Lord. but no, I think it’s all bullshit. It had this in Notting Hill Gate – have you seen Notting Hill Gate?’
Yes, I said – he meant the film Notting Hill. ‘Well I didn’t think Hugh Grant was very good, but parts of it were very funny, very light. And he says that tomorrow the news will be fish and chip paper, and that’s very true.’
All he wanted to do, Rhys Meyers went on, was to work. ‘But after the last film rejection – which was only Monday – I can’t say I feel very confident,’ he lamented. ‘I just think I messed it up. And so, you know, it wasn’t even a case of somebody doing a better performance or somebody being more gorgeous. It’s just the fact of the matter that I wasn’t what they wanted. And it doesn’t help that none of the films I’ve been in has been particularly successful. Because therefore you think: “It’s down to me.”‘
Oh, no one thinks that.
‘Erm. Yeah,’ he said. ‘But I’m not getting any big films, so they must do.’
Rhys Meyers is so upset about these rejections he has even seen a therapist. Did it help? Did it hell. He made a cut-throat gesture. ‘No, I’ve actually only been to see this guy twice, because I was feeling so unhappy I had to go and try to sort it out. But it doesn’t make it feel very good. I met a friend on the street the other day’ – he started giggling -’and he looked really together. And I said: “What are you up to?” And he goes: “Therapy! I’ve got two therapists!” I dunno…It’s very difficult.’
So what would make him happy? ‘Erm. Dunno. Win five Oscars, something like that. And then flog them in the street. Hundred pound apiece! Huh!’ He started giggling again.
‘No. I think it’s going to take a long time before happiness is achieved. How can happiness be achieved when you’re 22 years old? I mean, I haven’t seen the whole chessboard yet. It’s like people said to me when I started in acting: “Man, you want to be successful and famous, but you’ll hate it, man!” And I was like: “Yeah! But I’d like to be there before I hate it!”‘
Part of the problem seems to be that Rhys Meyers isn’t interested in doing anything apart from working – he doesn’t like cars or going out for meals (he has no appetite because he smokes so much) or clubbing or going on holiday. In fact, he did go to Mexico and Nicaragua after Gormenghast, but he didn’t enjoy it because he hadn’t lined anything up for when he got back. Things are not helped by the fact he has no money left – I had to give him Ã‚Â£62 for his train ticket home – because he bought his mum a house.
I asked if she like it, and he snorted. ‘I bloody hope so! It’s made me poor. I hope she loves it! Adores it! Never leaves it!’ Well, that was nice of him. ‘Terribly nice of me!’ he cried, giggling rather wildly. ‘Too bloody nice! I think to myself: “I bloody gave away all that money, what was I thinking of?” Whereas I still have the money, but it’s just in mortar and brick. Unfortunately, mortar and brick don’t get you your little CDs!’
His mother, Mary-Geraldine, brought him up in a council flat in Cork; his parents had separated when he was about three. His mother then had three boys by another man – he took two of them when the relationship ended. At 14, Rhys Meyers was kicked out of school by the Christian Brothers and got no more education – which is partly why he is so worried about his future.
I asked why he was expelled, and he looked straight at me and said: ‘It was difficult to really concentrate on maths when all I wanted was a sandwich.’ This made me feel rather small. He added that he left home at 15m ‘because I couldn’t have made a life for myself there. I was in a rut that I suppose a lot of people know. It’s called poverty.’ How poor was he? ‘Erm. Quite poor. I mean, how poor is poor? Sometimes I didn’t have food to eat. Is that poor?’ Yes, I said. ‘Well then.’
After leaving school he spent his time hanging round a pool hall, where he swept floors and ran errands, until he was befriended by a farmer named Christopher Crofts.He had sons of his own and gave him a home on his farm in Cork. Rhys Meyers is incredibly grateful to him. ‘Christopher puts up with so much shit from me, poor man. I love him to bits.’
He was lucky to be found by Crofts, who first gave him a job on the farm and then supported his acting. His mum, Rhys Meyers explained, ‘ was not a very responsible woman to be able to look after her kids. She had us in four years in a row, so her early twenties were spent just having kids. And I’m sure a woman doesn’t feel very good after having one kid, let alone having four. Can you imagine how you’d feel! It would be like, your body’s falling apart, man!’
His mum didn’t seem to provide much food for Rhys Meyers, which is partly why he stole. ‘It wasn’t material things I coveted. It was comfort. Food. Even if you have Ã‚Â£5 in your pocket it makes you worth more than if you have nothing in your pocket.’ He hated stealing, he said, because he didn’t want it to be necessary. ‘But the fact of the matter is that sometimes it was necessary.’
What did his mum do with her dole money? Drink it? ‘Erm, yeah, a lot of the time. Waste it…The reason she had no money was that she was going out with a lot of other women who had no money, and you start buying drinks all round and it’s gone. So you have lots of friends on Thursday when you have money, and it’s all happy. And Friday morning you wake up and you have nothing. Hideous. I woke up in Mexico after drinking three quarters of a bottle of mescal, and I had this poison lump in my throat, and I thought; “people wake up like this every day in poverty, and it’s hideous.”
‘So,’ Rhys Meyers concluded, ‘my mother hasn’t been a happy woman and I think it’s rubbed off on me a little bit. You know, she wanted to be so many things and didn’t have the will or the courage to do them. And basically didn’t have a very nice life because of that. And I left to try to make my life better, and I find myself floating into that unhappiness as well.’
Oh dear. The only bright spot at the moment seems to be his girlfriend. For a year, Rhys Meyers dated Toni Colette, but they split up because they were living in different countries and ‘bickering a lot’. And she was six years older, which he felt was a problem. Now he is two months into a relationship with an Irish student called Chacha, though I’m curious how he managed it – he claims if he sees a girl he fancies in a bar he walks out.
So what did he look for in girlfriends? ‘I don’t.’ Not a certain quality? ‘Not a certain quality at all. I wasn’t looking for a girlfriend. I fell in love with somebody, but I wasn’t looking for that in particular. I just wanted to be a great actor.’
Before he could get back on to that, I quickly brought up the question of his sexuality – he does such a good line in androgyny in his movies, I had wondered whether he was gay. ‘How did you get that impression/’ he asked curiously – he wasn’t at all offended. ‘What’s your impression now?’
My impression was that he wasn’t, though god knows what he got up to in the pool hall era.
‘Yeah,’ said Rhys Meyers. ‘I don’t think I really look gay. I think I look a bit butch and scarred to be gay! Velvet Goldmine didn’t help because everybody thought I was really androgynous.’
So he’d never been gay? ‘No, I haven’t. At the same time, although I’ve never been gay, I didn’t find it that hard to do Velvet Goldmine. It just felt really natural to the part.’
This led into a discussion about why he thought actresses shouldn’t be given nudity clauses in their contracts (‘That really pisses me off. Why is your body something that I can’t bloody look at?’) and from there the conversation circled by inexorable stages back to his career.
‘It’s very hard to…The fact that the rejections aren’t about acting makes me feel: “What is it? What do I not have that they want me to have? What is it that I don’t possess?”‘ he wanted know, banging his leg up and down.
But it’s not like that, I told him. ‘Then, you know, what is it?’ Bad luck. And maybe tomorrow you’ll get a great job! ‘Yeah,’ he mused. ‘I agree, you create your own luck.’ And he could get a job tomorrow. ‘Mmmm,’ he said. ‘I suppose I could get a job tomorrow – in McDonald’s!’ Well, I said, losing patience, at least he’d get some money!
At this he sloped off to make his phone call, and the photographer arrived. ‘Those his?’ he inquired, giving an is-he-a-loony-then? glance at Rhys Meyers’ passport and credit cards on the chair. They were, I said. I then found myself instructing him earnestly to order food so at least Rhys Meyers would have some thing to eat and – he really was very sweet – giving him a spontaneous hug as I left.