By Christa D’Souza
Vogue, January 2000
Ever since Jonathan Rhys Meyers smoldered his way through “Velvet Goldmine”, he’s been the most sought-after new beauty in Tinseltown. But he still thinks he’s ugly, or at least that’s what he tells the girls.
What a disaster. This car has to travel all the way from SE1 to W11 in the middle of Friday afternoon traffic and the driver has just told Jonathan Rhys Meyers he is not allowed to smoke. “You are fucking kidding me,” Rhys Meyers says in a broad Irish accent, his red-rimmed eyes brimming with disbelief. “I can’t smoke at the place where I’m going either…Ah shit! What am I going to do-o-o,” and he slumps back into his seat, staring morosely at the pelting rain outside.
Rhys Meyers has the body of a tiny ballet dancer, hugged today by a pair of brown leather jeans and his girlfriend’s shrunken black sweater with a hole in the armpit. His androgynous features are offset by a weedy film of stubble and a lank, greasy ponytail. His nails are bitten and on his feet he is wearing a pair of ugly, square-toed cowboy boots. And yet he is, quite simply, the most exquisite thing I have ever come across. How much Andy Warhol would have loved this grubby, beauteous boy for The Factory! And how perfectly he was cast as Brian Slade, the pill-popping, bisexual glam rocker in Velvet Goldmine! How embarrassing it is, too, when the driver turns round to ask him whether he has ever done drugs. Will he, like every other tortured young star, be the scrapping type?
“No”, says Johnny, who has recovered sufficiently to bite cheerfully into a mouldy apple. “Everyone thinks I look like a fucking coke-head but I’ve never done drugs in my life. Although I did have a glass of whiskey last night. And one the night before…”
Rhys Meyers and I had met earlier on in the day at a studio where he was rather reluctantly having his picture taken. There had been a slightly uncomfortable feeling in the air, largely due to the fact that he had spent most of the time marching up and down with a mobile phone clamped melodramatically to his ear. He did, however, perk up slightly when lunch was placed on the table, his eyes widening like saucers when pudding – a large banoffee pie – suddenly appeared.
It later transpires, as we inch our way through central London, that Rhys Meyers had been on the phone the whole time with his “guardian” Christopher Crofts, a gentleman farmer from Cork who Johnny befriended as a teenager and who has acted as a sort of chaperone to the young actor ever since. Christopher supposedly advises Johnny on everything. “I knew Christopher before I knew anyone in the film world,” he explains, a little defensively, when I put forward the suggestion that someone in the film business might have been a better choice. “He taught me everything… Besides, he is my best friend in the world.”
The driver is making his way towards The Halcyon Hotel where Crofts and Rhys Meyers’ girlfriend, a student from Dublin, are staying while Johnny makes this pit stop in London. Later tonight he will be on a plane back to Dublin for yet another audition.
Rhys Meyers – whose first foray on to the screen was via a Knorr soup commercial – is not yet a household name, but if the industry buzz is anything to go by, he soon will be. About to appear in Julie Taymor’s long awaited Titus Andronicus alongside Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, as well as in Deborah Warner’s Last September opposite Maggie Smith, Rhys Meyers is set to become very big news indeed. Which is to say nothing of Gormenghast, the BBC’s lavish adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s classic starring Christopher Lee, Zoe Wanamaker and Stephen Fry, with Rhys Meyers in the lead role as the malevolent Steerpike. As the show’s director, Andy Wilson, says, “Johnny is like a young Peter O’Toole. If Lawrence of Arabia were being cast now, he’d definitely have a shot. He is the most glamorous actor I’ve ever come across.”
“Phenomenally talented,” is how Mike Figgis, who directed him in The Loss of Sexual Innocence opposite Kelly Macdonald, describes him. “Although what one always has to remember is that he is a very delicate lad. Once, during shooting, he suddenly ran off the set and disappeared. We eventually found him sitting under a tree by a motorway somewhere outside Newcastle, smoking a cigarette and swearing. He mistakenly thought his performance wasn’t up to scratch and he was beating himself up about it.”
“Oh, I need to be reassured every second of the day how brilliant I am,” he says. “You see, I don’t have that much confidence in myself. I feel uncomfortable in my skin. But then, its not like I’m Matt Damon or anyone, is it? I’m never gonna play the student with a beautiful white smile who always gets everything right, am I? Pain is part of what I do… Oh, alas poor Yorick!”
Born in Ireland in 1977, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and his three younger brothers were brought up by their mother, Geraldine, in a cramped council flat in County Cork. According to Rhys Meyers, it was not a happy childhood. Early on, his father, a “wonderful, irresponsible” musician, went to Jersey, and often there was not enough money for proper food. Forever playing truant from his strict Irish school, he spent most of his time hustling pool, until one day, when he was 14, he was ‘discovered’ by a Warner Bros casting agent who put him up for a film called War of the Buttons. To his intense disappointment it never got made, but the impetus to act was still there and he spent the next year blagging his way into any audition he could find. By this time he’d left home and gone to live with Christopher and his family. “It was a period of blissful self discovery,” he says. “For the first time in my life I had a warm house to go home to and regular food.” His first break was half a day’s work on A Man of No Importance starring Rufus Sewell and Albert Finney, followed by an audition with Neil Jordan for the part of the young sniper in Michael Collins. (Jordan recalls how much the 16-year-old looked like a young Tom Cruise.) Twelve films ensued in the space of three years, including The Governess, in which he played Minnie Driver’s febrile young lover, and Michael Radford’s B.Monkey. (He also auditioned for a role in Elizabeth. It went to Joseph Fiennes but the director Shekkhar Kapur is still one of Rhys Meyers’ biggest admirers.)
It was Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, however, which propelled him into the big time.
At the time, Rhys Meyers was going out with Toni Collette, who played his girlfriend in the film. He vividly remembers the entrance they made at the premiere in Cannes. “I felt lower then than I did when I was 13 years old,” he says gravely. “I remember getting out of the limo with Toni and Christian Bale and walking towards all these photographers, and they were going, ‘Hey! Toni! Look over here! Hey, Christian, here!’ And I just walked on because nobody had an idea who I was. It was a horrible experience.”
Since then, he and Collette have split up. “But she’s a very beautiful person and we’re still friends,” Rhys Meyers states solemnly. “I suppose I just wasn’t ready to have a relationship.” And the girl he is going out with now? “Oh, I love her with my heart and soul – she is an angel!” he exclaims. “She’s 22 and she’s beautiful; we’ve been together for one and a half months and I want to marry her – but then there is this shadow, this cold chill up my back. I have a hard time accepting love. I don’t trust people who give it.”
Who knows whether to believe him or not? Who knows whether he really did try sticking pins in himself on the set of Gormenghast because he so loathed his performance; whether he really does see an ugly person when he looks in the mirror? Is it all poetic license, part of the process involved in creating the Johnny Rhys Meyers legend? Is he, like so many who have the gift of the gab, just a teensy bit profligate with the truth? Or will he really, as he says, pop himself off before he gets too old? What, too, of the casual revelations that a) he does not like fellatio much (“I’ve always felt it’s so demeaning – the power isn’t in your hands at all”) and b) that he was the victim of an attempted rape at the age of 14? “Yeah, I was putting some barrels outside the nightclub,” he shrugs, “and some guy came up to me and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I can just picture him now, he was 27 and really, really beautiful.”
Which rather begs the question: could he ever have sex with a man?
“Ermm, could I?” Rhys Meyers considers this thought carefully. “Well, I couldn’t say because I haven’t made the decision yet. I’ve never fancied a man, but that’s not saying I won’t. You should ask me the same question in three or four years’ time.”
So the male sex scenes in Velvet Goldmine didn’t bother him at all then? “Oh, no!” he says saucily, picking an invisible piece of banoffee pie off my leg. “In fact, it was really funny because there was this one guy, a big black guy – totally straight in real life – who was supposed to be having sex with me and he wasn’t into it at all. Well, I forced him to take his underwear off and the poor guy just lay there too embarrassed to touch me. Of course, I touched him a lot! It’s like, I’ll always insist on nudity if it’s necessary for my character. If my character has to carry a suitcase of rocks then I’ll carry a suitcase of rocks, you know? Ah, but that was fun,” he says, looking rather wistful at the memory, “soooo much fun…”
On a domestic level, Rhys Meyers’ life is very much the same as it was when he was a nobody (he would argue, of course, that he’s still a nobody). He still lives with Christopher on that remote farm in Cork and takes the train to Dublin to see his girlfriend. In the manner of someone who doesn’t need to rely on clothes to make an impact, he claims to hate fashion. He received offers from Prada and Versace to appear in advertising campaigns but turned them down on the basis that “it wasn’t enough money, darling, not enough money!” Money, he admits, is a “hugely important” issue for him these days.
“It’s like a web I got drawn into,” he explains. “When I first started, I couldn’t give a shit. But slowly, slowly I got dragged into the web and now I want it more than I’ve ever wanted it in my life. Of course, that’s hard because I know it’s better not to want it.”
Transfixed by this long narrative, the driver suddenly decides to let him have a cigarette after all, as long as he blows the smoke outside. Johnny’s spirits are lifted and he sticks his head out of the window, cheerily yelling hello to an unsuspecting cyclist. It’s been an enjoyable way to pass two hours listening to The World According To Johnny Rhys Meyers. Not just for us but for him, as well. And when it’s time for us to get out of the car, he hugs me and the driver goodbye as if we are close friends.
As we pull away, the driver catches my eye in his mirror and shakes his head knowingly. “He’s a lovely boy, isn’t he? But he’s young. He’ll change.”
Special thanks to Lin for transcribing this article.