Jonny’s Wild Ride
By Cheryl Chang
Flaunt, November 1999
In five short years, after being discovered in a pool hall, Jonathan Rhys Meyers has risen from soup commericals auditions, to glam rock superstardom in Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine. But unlike his fellow Brits du jour, Jonny would rather which his continued ascension in films like Ang Lee’s Ride With The Devil from the “golden evenings” of his home in Cork, Ireland than from the cold fluorescent lighting of a Hollywood office. He returns to the screen in Decemeber in Shakepeare’s Titus, portraying Chiron, the story’s murderous rapist.
Before I speak a word to Jonathan Rhys Meyers there are a few implicit conclusions I already have made about him. At the mention of his name, friends – female and otherwise – swoon over the eyes, the lips, the body, and the whole androgynous perfection of a package; so he’s undeniably gorgeous. His performance last year in Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine won him acclaim and worldwide attention; so he has on-screen presence and certainly can carry a tune. I will be speaking to Rhys Meyers while he’s in his native town of Cork, Ireland, because that’s where he calls home when not working on or promoting a film. He’s a 22-year old Irishman with an obvious aversion to fame and a wholesome, untainted appreciation of the simple things in life, I conclude. This is where I go wrong.
Talking about his upcoming role in Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil, Rhys Meyers is the first to admit he has a taste for fame and all the glamour and success that can come with it. Far from being the wide-eyed farm boy his roots suggest, he has a brutally intuitive sense of what it is to be an actor in Hollywood today. Rhys Meyers is delightfully honest in his perspectives on celebrity, youth, and what he has to offer in all that. So, yes, he might be handsome, mesmerizing, and talented, but he certainly also wants to be a movie star, and he knows how to handle it, even from a little farm in the Irish countryside.
Cheryl Chang: Tell me about your character Pitt Mackeson and what appealed to you about the role in Ride With the Devil.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: I think working with Ang [Lee] appealed more to me than the role because the role is this boy who is really, really horrible. I mean he hasn’t been held, he hasn’t had one nice syllable said to him in maybe so many years. He’s killed so many people. He’s had so many of his friends killed, his while family murdered. You know, it’s a horrible place to go. It’s not a part where you sit down and you go, “Oh that’s really attractive. I’d really like to spend six months in Missouri playing that part.” But you know, it was the way for me [to be in the film].
Well, you were once quoted as saying that you’re not particularly happy with yourself and that’s why you want to keep playing different characters. Does playing different characters make you happy?
I don’t know if that’s the goal, being happy. See, I want to be great as an actor and as a person. And you can’t actually be in things like films, which are mainly about how honest and vulnerable you can be with yourself in front of a camera, and then expect not to be vulnerable in life. You have to learn how to control it, so you can still maintain your madness, maintain your vulnerability, and maintain your insecurity that helps you be an actor. At the same time you can control it and live a happy, normal life. It’s very, very difficult. I think part of the unhappiness is being 22 years old. It’s very difficult to be happy then because you haven’t seen anything. You don’t have the whole chessboard to sort of make your move from.
Most actors your age seem to give up their lives to be in Hollywood or go where their careers will flourish. You’ve stayed in Cork and you always go back home. What is it that compels you to keep going back?
I wouldn’t like to hang around that type of circle. You get too into it. It all becomes about business and networking and trying to be a star. The reason I come home, is – it may sound fucking corny and wanky – I just want to be an artist. I find that I have to actually master my craft before I can feel comfortable in that sort of like, shark pool. I don’t want to enter into that really, really competitive world, spending six hours a day in a gym just so that you look good for dinner at Orso’s. That really wouldn’t appeal to me.
In your career you have played a lot of Americans. How does your approach differ from playing an Irishman or an Englishman?
I don’t think I’ve done it right. I will, but it’ll take time. I haven’t given it enough thought. Americans have a very peculiar intelligence that I haven’t quite clicked into. Especially in Los Angeles, where a lot of the kids there seem really duuuumb, but their not. There’s an acute intelligence there that’s bubbling the whole time. And I haven’t tapped into that yet.
Do you have a sense of what that is? Because that’s very odd, most Europeans find Americans are stupid and judge them by that.
No, I disagree that all Americans are stupid. They’re not. If we’re flying to Los Angeles to audition for them, they’re not stupid. If they’re stupid then what are we? You know they are clever, they must be. They’re the most powerful nation in the world. And you know they’ve got ambition. You know, there’s a certain essence of life that’s withdrawn. But if that essence of life is withdrawn then it must be replaced by something else. And what it is, is ambition. And you can learn from it. I learn from America instead of downing it all the time.
Do you have anything against all those blockbuster films America seems to pump out now more than ever these days?
No, not all. They serve their purpose beautifully. They shouldn’t worry so much about making hundreds of millions of dollars – that puts a sort of a negative on it. But other than that, it is what it is.
Is there a dichotomy between doing good artistic work and making a huge mega-hit blockbuster?
They can go together. Listen, if I really, really truly only wanted to be a great actor, then I would go out there to the lawn in front of me and I’d act. There must be something in me that wants fame and recognition. Yeah, go for your art, but why not go for your art with money? There’s nothing against having money. Everybody’s got it these days. So no, I don’t think those blockbuster films are bad. They still serve their purpose.
Why do you think so many actors your age have a problem recognizing that?
Because they want that fame. It’s cooler to say, “No man, I want to be an artist.” It’s much cooler than to say, “I’m in this industry just to fucking milk it through these big blockbuster films.” You know, screw around for a few years, being the cool dude and then kick back to a ranch in Montana at the end. It’s cooler to say you want to do art films and hang out in your apartment in New York.
Do you love acting?
Acting isn’t something you love. How can you love breaking down after your father rapes you or something like that in a scene? That isn’t something you love. You don’t love it. You fight with it, you struggle with it the whole time. It’s like a marriage.
You love the struggle?
Yeah, it makes me feel alive. I like to feel joy as well as pain. It just seems that at this time in my life, pain is a lot easier to feel. I’m feeling a lot more joy now, a lot more confidence and joy… and faith. Faith in myself and faith in everything around me… and faith in other people.
You seem to know where you stand in Hollywood, what your role is and how to handle your career within that role.
No, I think you’re catching me at this moment. If you rung me tomorrow at lunchtime I’d have a completely different take on it. I’d say, “I’m never gonna work again.” Everyday I say I’m never gonna work again. I’m one of those people that constantly needs to be reassured. And I’ll admit that, it’s the way I am. I think I’m getting more grounded, I’m growing up. I mean, 22 years old, you’re changing, you’re realizing it’s not all about you. You’re starting to lose a little bit of the self-obsession. It’s so easy to become self-obsessed, especially in this job. And when you become self-obsessed, you’re not really learning. If you just forget about yourself for 20 minutes, and learn something, you’ll feel so much better.
Special thanks to AJ for transcribing this article.