Gormenghast: Behind the Scenes
Radio Times, January 2000
After a gruelling five-month shoot at Cinecitta in Rome playing Chiron the “hideous little rapist” in the new film adaptation of Titus Andronicus, Jonathan Rhys Meyers “was exactly in the right mood to play Steerpike, another of the great hideousnesses of English literature”. And so began four more gruelling months at Shepperton Studios.
“I’d never heard of the novels,” says 22-year-old Irishman Rhys Meyers, “but as soon as I read the scripts I understood the character. I didn’t even have to think about it. I understood exactly where he was coming from: the jealousy, the wanting to have everything and then not knowing what to do with it when you’ve got it. I said yes immediately.”
For almost the entire duration of the shoot, Rhys Meyers was starting work at 5.30am and getting home at 9.00pm. “I hated Shepperton. Not the studio itself, but just spending 20 weeks in a hanger with no daylight, getting in and out of freezing cold water. It broke my heart. I was going home every night and finding it hard to relax. I had a friend staying with me for a while, and he came to wake me up with a cup of tea one morning and I went to hit him. I’ve never done anything like that before. I suppose I was so wound up about the job.”
Rhys Meyers isn’t obvious casting for Steerpike, whose bulbous forehead and ugly, weaselly looks Peake emphasises in his descriptions and illustrations. “I was trying very hard not to be pretty at all. I made a point of tensing myself inside, as if I was dancing all the time, my body was never really loose. I started to feel pinched and ugly, and to be honest that was a bit of a blow to my vanity. I’m a young actor, and these things are important to me! I became very self-conscious, and I suppose that’s why I was feeling so lousy at the end of the day. The make-up [for Steerpike's scarring] didn’t help, but I think it was the ugliness of the character that affected me most. It made me feel very bitter, which may have improved my performance.”
If Steerpike was a blow for Rhys Meyers’ vanity, it at least proved his versatility. “So many actors get typecast nowadays, and I’m reluctant to fall into that trap. You know: Stallone does action flicks, Tom Cruise does hero flicks, Brad Pitt is gorgeous in all his films. Mind you, I don’t know what you’d typecast me as: androgyne freak, maybe? Perhaps I should go after a role as a jock from North Carolina: I’ll cut my hair and get my teeth whitened. That should show them.” It’s a reasonable concern: Rhys Meyers is at a crucial stage in his career, with a lot of hopes pinned on him. The biggest hit so far has been Velvet Goldmine, in which he played a flamboyant Bowie-like rock star opposite Ewan McGregor; recent and forthcoming appearances include roles in Mike Figgis’ The Loss of Sexual Innocence, Ang Lee’s Civil War film Ride With The Devil, and Titus Andronicus with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. “The thing is, none of my films to date have been big commercial successes, so I’m a bit of an unknown quantity as far as the studios are concerned. At the moment I’m seeing the same 15 actors at every audition I go to, but give me a film that makes millions and I know a lot of very different offers would come up. There’s only a couple of projects I’m interested in.
“Acting’s a hard job because you question your worth every single day. It’s your heart and your soul. You can’t just do the day job, go out on the beer at night then roll in with a hangover in the morning. You have to be on form every single time.
“My body and my mind are what I’m working with, and I’m prepared to stretch them as far as they’ll go. It’s hard to be balanced when you’re doing that all the time. I’m well aware that if I pursue this profession I’ll only ever know momentary peace.”
Special thanks to Lin for transcribing this article.