Go, Johnny, Go
By Sarah Phelps
Vogue, June 2000

With a dark star turn in a new phantasmagoric BBC miniseries, actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers gives another spellbinding performance.

Within an artfully shabby room in London’s Groucho Club, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is clutching his interview survival kit- a large glass of milk and cigarettes- and radiating tension. When not gulping milk or smoking (which he does with the enthusiasm of a starved man), he traps his hands between his knees to keep them forcibly still.

Some part of him is always moving, even when he’s sitting down. The feet tap against chair legs, the shoulders hunch; he frowns, frees a hand from the temporary prison of his knees and points, gestures, and pulls at his hair. The phrase that comes to mind is volatile substance. Even his earlobes are tense. “I can’t relax,” he admits up front. “I can’t gain weight. Too much energy, too many ideas.”

So far, this energy has worked. And worked masterfully. All of 22 years old, he’s completed eleven films in the past five years: most famously (in the United States, anyway) playing the reptilian rocker, a la Bowie, in Velvet Goldmine, and the psychotic Confederate soldier run amok in Ride with the Devil. The eldest of four boys, he grew up (and still lives) in County Cork in the Republic of Ireland. Although he’s obviously bright and articulate, he was expelled from school at fifteen and hung around town with nothing to do and no real idea about the future and what it might hold. And then (as the story so often goes), he was in a pool hall in Cork City when he was discovered by a casting director.

“It wouldn’t have entered my head to even think of being an actor,” he says. “Where I was brought up, actors were movie stars; they came from a different seed. Nothing to do with me.” Rhys Meyers tried out for the film and didn’t get that part- but the producer David Puttnam saw his screen test and sent him a note that told him not to worry, he was going to be a star. That was incentive enough for Rhys Meyers to pursue the idea of becoming an actor with, in his words, “absolute vehemence.”

He has looks that get him noticed: cheekbones that enter the room before he does and a blazing blue gaze. His father, he tells me is the real looker: “He’s 40 and gorgeous.” Rhys Meyers is ambivalent about his own looks: “Critics have said, ‘We can’t take our eyes off him, but can he do anything else?'” And while the implication that he has been employed solely because of his looks clearly stings, you can’t help but be aware of the inherent paradox: If he had a face like a dog’s lunch, he wouldn’t have been spotted in the first place.

Though he admits to feeling self-conscious when anyone mentions the fact that he didn’t go to drama school, lack of formal training hasn’t stood in his way much. He’s worked with Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Ewan McGregor, and Liam Neeson. Currently, he heads a formidable cast of British stage and screen actors in the BBC’s flamboyant and luscious adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s trilogy of Gormenghast novels, premiering on BBC America June 10, with a PBS broadcast early next year. In contrast to the average BBC export, the Gormenghast miniseries is no Jane Austen romp amongst the hedgerows. The story hinges on Rhys Meyers’ character, Steerpike- a “kitchen rat” turned ambition-crazed killer- whom Rhys Meyers plays as a feral opportunist with a smile full of razors. Rhys Meyers says he identified strongly with Steerpike’s feelings of worthlessness and rejection (“I know what that feels like.”).

“Steerpike has never been loved. He came from the gutter; I know what it’s like. I also know the higher he rises, the less he’s able to handle it.” When asked what his dreams are, Rhys Meyers considers the question from somewhere inside a cloud of smoke. “I don’t know,” he says, drumming his fingers. “Something great. I’m a greatist. I want to be great. I want to build on what I’ve done, not let it slip away from me. Gotta move now now now now now !” He bangs the table for emphasis. “I don’t want to wait! Take me while I’m young and gorgeous!”

Special thanks to Kate for transcribing this article. 

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