By Jane Killick
Cult Times, February 2000
Steerpike is the rogue element that threatens to bring an earldom crumbling in on itself in “Gormenghast”, the BBC’s magnificent fantasy serial for the new millennium. Steerpike has grown up in the drudgery of the castle kitchens, but his ambition is far greater than his lowly position. When he gets the opportunity to escape, he seizes it and begins to manipulate the bizarre and gullible characters he finds in the castle to gain power. He becomes a conspirator to arson and a murderer, but the 22 year-old actor who plays him doesn’t view the character as a bad guy.
“Steerpike’s not an external character to me,” says Jonathan Rhys Meyers. “Steerpike is a character I can bring out of myself, so I understood Steerpike. There was nothing about him which I thought was unnatural or obscene or evil in any way. I thought it was all really logical and practical. To play Steerpike, I had to think of it like that; that ‘this is what I need to do and this would be the best thing for me’, even though the audience would be watching, going, ‘No, no you’re evil, you’re horrible, you’re terrible.’ When I was playing him I felt, yeah, this guy knows what he’s up to.”
Jonathan is lining up to be one of the acting sensations of the new century, even though he has no formal acting training and has only been in the profession for five years. His turbulent background saw him expelled from school for truancy at the age of 15 and he believes he would have ended up in crime or on the dole in his native County Cork if he hadn’t had a lucky break. Things started to change for him when he was offered the chance to audition for a David Puttnam movie, “The War of the Buttons”. He didn’t get that part, but it gave him the determination to be taken on by an agent in Dublin and, at the age of 17, landed his first role, in “The Disappearance of Finbar”. A later film “Velvet Goldmine”, was his breakthrough and he has since had critical success in “Ride with the Devil” and is due to appear in the forthcoming movie “Titus” with Anthony Hopkins. His reputation meant securing a role in “Gormenghast” was relatively easy.
“The audition was just one morning of doing one or two scenes and then they offered it to me, which was really nice. So they obviously had me in mind from the offset. I’d done a couple of films which weren’t, I suppose, commercially successful, but critically people thought they were interesting or thought I was interesting in them so that helped me. It made it easier to go ‘yes’. If I’d just come out of RADA, they’d have gone ‘no’!”
He found himself playing the lead in a major BBC production alongside a very distinguished star cast which includes Christopher Lee, Ian Richardson, John Sessions and Celia Imrie. “I didn’t even think about it,” he says with youthful confidence. “It doesn’t matter that you’re given the lead, just that you’re given a part and you’re really good at it. I didn’t really think about that or the other people doing it, I just met them as Christopher and John and Celia. I make a point of — it’s almost a superstition — that I won’t watch anything that a director does before I work with them, unless they specifically ask me to. It’s the same with the actors, I avoid everything they’ve done until after I’ve worked with them because then I know the person, the human being. It makes it easier for me.”
They play the mad inhabitants of Gormenghast castle. Lord Groan loses his mind when his beloved library is burnt down, his daughter Fuchsia is a woman who acts like a spoilt child, Dr Prunesquallor is deliciously over the top – and all are a prime target for Steerpike’s elaborate scheming. “I wanted to make Steerpike’s whole story like a dance. I wanted him to dance from start to finish so it’s all different steps. Andy [Wilson, the director] knew what he wanted when he cast people and so he basically trusted you. He said, ‘I’ve cast you for a particular reason and I want you to see that reason through, I want you to be able to honour me’. It’s happening so much in films; you don’t get Gary Cooper playing an English RAF pilot and then playing an American baseball player. That’s not much happening much anymore. People are being cast to order. You still have to push yourself to get a good performance, but it makes it easier. Good directors trust, they don’t constantly hound you, they respect your intelligence – which Andy certainly does.”
The BBC’s version of “Gormenghast” has been adapted from the first two novels of Mervyn Peake’s classic fantasy trilogy. Published in 1946, 1950 and 1959 respectively, they have become cult reading and a majority of the cast came to the project with knowledge of the books. But Jonathan Rhys Meyers did not, and made a conscious decision not to read them before taking on the part.
“It’s probably good to work with the text you have, rather than read the book and want things in the book in the script and then get confused,” he explains. “I’d like to read it now in my own time. I’d enjoy it more, rather than thinking, ‘It’s work, how am I going to play this really intricate scene that Mervyn Peake has written?’ You can’t, because although it would be great to put the whole trilogy on film, you’d need about 15 hours.”
So his take on Steerpike comes entirely from the script adaptations, and he finds the character, and some of the vicious things he does, entirely logical. “With somebody who’s never been given too much power, to then be given a certain amount of power, they can only abuse it. Because they don’t know what it’s like to have it. It’s like somebody who has no money and then gets loads of money and goes out and spends it on everybody and finds themselves broke again.”
He even finds himself identifying with the charming, manipulative young man. “Of course. I’m young – ambition’s very important. The top is a very nice place to be, but it’s dangerous. It’s just as dangerous as being low and he has no middle ground because he has no foundations. So he’s extreme. That makes it very interesting to watch.”
The story of “Gormenghast”, the birth of a new heir to the earldom and the moves of Steerpike to take way Titus’ inheritance is predominately character driven. But the other star of the drama is undoubtedly the scenery. The elaborate vastness of the castle and the landscape depicted in the novels have, for many years, led to filmmakers believing the trilogy was unfilmable. But, in the modern era, with the help of computer graphics it has become possible and meant the actors occasionally had to work with blue screens. “It’s really hard work,” says Jonathan. “You’re looking out on the beautiful landscape of Gormenghast and all you’re seeing is a blue sheet at Shepperton Studios! It’s very hard to give the emotion and not just laugh at the stupidity!”
It’s also a drama of many large set pieces. But Jonathan is reluctant to pick out any particular moments from filming. “A lot of it is memorable, but it’s a little blurry,” he says. “The most difficult part of doing a performance, for me, is walking through a door and closing a door and sitting down in a seat. Because these are the threads that bind the whole thing together, the small intricate things. The big scenes you always worry about, but they’re the least difficult of all. The really difficult ones are continuing the character when you’re walking down the corridor because you have to give the emotion that you actually want to travel with him and be interested to see him.”
However, he did occasionally have to share the stage with animals, which is always good for an anecdote or two. “I had a huge fear of animals until I did “Ride with the Devil” and worked with horses. It took away my fear of dogs, cats – I used to be afraid of all of them. I’ve never been a brave boy, I have always been a coward. So it was good to get over that before I did this. I was able to open myself up more, because not only did I have to work with cats, I had to work with a monkey and rats! I used to think, ‘Oh my God, if I ever had to do a scene with some rats I couldn’t do the film’, but actually I did it really well. They were crawling all over my leg and I didn’t really mind too much.
“I’d really like to do a fight scene with a lion or something like that – that would be fantastic,” he adds. “Films give you a great opportunity to go into different worlds that you can’t do in life. I’ve killed people, I’ve been thrown out of windows, I’ve drowned, I’ve died, I’ve ridden horses, I’ve been good, I’ve been bad and all of these things without people judging me as the human being I am, and that makes it really good.”
The young actor is currently looking around for his next project. He’s been offered a role in a film with Sharon Stone, “Shallow End”, and a part in a movie about Christopher Marlowe, but he’s looking to do something slightly different to the things he has done in the past. In the meantime, he aims to set his feet firmly back on the ground by returning to his home in Cork where he lives with his adoptive family, the Crofts. “They have a farm so it’s really beautiful to go home to Ireland after coming to London. I came to London to do press for “Ride With the Devil” and it’s very good to go from this world to that world where people are just wondering about cattle prices. Nobody knows I act – and they couldn’t care less even if they did know. It’s very hard for me to talk to people in Ireland about what I do because they think I’m dropping names, so I avoid talking about it – which is really good because I can just forget about it.”
Special thanks to Lin for transcribing this article.