The Prettiest Star
By Sarah Bailey
Elle, August 2000

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Dark, edgy and achingly sexy, Jonathan Rhys Myers should come with a warning on him, sighs Sarah Bailey

You never really expect to find yourself in the bedroom of one of your favourite interviewees. But then there’s something about Jonathan Rhys Meyers that makes it a little less surprising.

I first met Jonathan in 1988 when the not-yet 21-year-old Irish actor – all wild stories, big-time sensuality and wide-eyes – hit London to promote Velvet Goldmine. He had no laces in his shoes, smoked too much, did a headstand and, when he left, pressed two hot kisses on my cheeks. His lips felt like pillows.

Two years have passed and now I’m waiting for Jonathan at The Dorchester. Only, there’s a problem. Jonathan was out at a party last night, he made a dawn raid on the The Big Breakfast, where he scared the bejesus out of all present, and is currently sleeping off the not-so-happy experience in his hotel suite. Interview off. Or apparently off. After a flurry of whispered phone calls to Jonathan’s suite, I find myself quietly ushered down a corridor to his bedroom.

And there he is. Jonathan Rhys Meyers. In bed. Naked. I try not to stare at the streak of flesh or the flurry of bedsheets as Jonathan and his girlfriend Chacha leap into action, swooping to scoop up holey socks from the floor. In the twinkling of an eye, Jonathan has wriggled into a pair of crumpled hipsters, shrugged on a girl’s tiny angora cardigan and is sitting before me.

He apologises sweetly for being tired and overwired. He’s been feeling a little scorched by the press lately, which is ironic as he’s a born people pleaser. It just so happens that his brand of people pleasing is so full-on that he ends up scaring everyone, which is driving him nuts – he’s getting quite sick of his darkly intense image. “People are finding it hard casting me as a young preppy boy,” he announces breathlessly. “And God I want that more than ever right now.”

Edited Jonathan Rhys Meyers highlights since our last meeting: rolling around on the hearth rug with Kelly Macdonald in The Loss Of Sexual Innocence, eating an obscene looking pear, not to mention most of the scenery, in the BBC’s Gormenghast, and going really OTT (which, for JRM, is really going some) as a bleached-blond psycho goth in Julie Taymor’s Titus (out in the autumn).

One thing hasn’t changed about Jonathan in the past two years: he’s wearing the same pair of skinny-hipped, sexy, scuzzy trousers he was wearing for our first interview. His agent probably wouldn’t like it, but I do.

We talk a little about Titus – a highly sophisticated adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, which sees Jonathan as the vile Chiron, who, with his equally disgusting brother, roars around Rome committing unspeakable evil against his own daughter before being killed and baked in a pie. Oh, and then his mother (Jessica Lange) unwittingly eats him. (I hope I’m not spoiling the plot.)

“Titus was a difficult film to shoot because it was so visually stylised by Julie,” says Jonathan. “At first I was really pissed off, but the further I got into it, I understood she needed the time to set up the shot, and the film would look extraordinary. But as for making it? It was a pain in the arse because you spend most of the time sitting around in trailers and it drives you insane.

“Titus is very dark, very cruel. Another dark, cruel one,” he sighs. “But I’ve got blond hair, which makes a difference. It makes me seem much sweeter.”

He adored working with Jessica Lange, naturally. “She played my mother. My God, what a mother! I had serious fantasies about her. We’d be lying on the bed and I’d have my head on her breast and I’d be like, ‘Oh, my God! Can’t we throw in a little incest with my mother?’ [Cue unclean JRM laughter.] I guess you can’t muck around with Shakespeare too much.”

Incest, breasts – it’s almost shaming how soon conversation turns to sex. But then for a boy whose looks are so prettily androgynous, whose screen presence is so instantly sexual, I’ve often thought that impressionable ladies such as myself should get some kind of warning before entering the cinema. “Ha! Tell that to my girlfriend,” hoots Jonathan. But as we’re on the subject, he doesn’t mind admitting that he lost his sexual innocence at five years old.

“I started snogging a neighbours daughter. That was my first sexual experience. Sexual experience has nothing to do with sex, but when I was five years old I kissed this girl and it was like, ‘Wow, now I know what sex is!’ Small kids are not dumb,” he grins rakishly.

Dublin born, Jonathan’s boyhood was spent in Cork. He was raised by his mother after his parents split up when he was three. It was a wild childhood, by all accounts. He was thrown out of school by the Christian brothers at 14. “I was an exquisite thief. I mean God Himself could have come down and I would have fucking blatantly lied to him with the most honest face.”

I tell Jonathan I can only imagine he was a sexually precocious teenager. “No, no, no. I think my first time – I was like 15 years old and it was just really fumbly and then I forgot about it. It wasn’t until I was 18 that things started to perk up a bit.” He laughs. “Sex isn’t really that interesting. It’s the idea that’s interesting. Sex is so many things, and, of course, the greatest erogenous zone is the brain anyhow. If you can turn someone’s brain on, there you have it.”

Jonathan Rhys Meyers has been in love twice, with his current girlfriend Chacha, a student who he met in Ireland last year, and the Australian actress Toni Collette. They met when she played his wife in Velvet Goldmine. The story goes that after filming a sex scene, passions were so aflame that they had to go home and, well, carry on.

“I fell very much in love with Toni,” he says. “We were two different people at two different ages, at a difficult time. I went out with her for a year and seven months of that time was spent apart, working. That’s not a relationship. And you know, Toni was five years older than me. She was 24, I was 19. She’d already gone through her difficult early 20s and she was very much a mature woman. I wasn’t a mature boy. Maybe it didn’t work in that sense, but God I loved her.”

But enough about sex. Jonathan wants to talk careers. His dizzyingly successful acting started as a fluke. Johnny boy was whiling his days away at the local pool hall, trying to make a bit of ‘easy money’, when a casting agent dropped by. He was asked to audition for the The War Of The Buttons and, although he didn’t get the part, it sparked an insatiable hunger in him. “I refused to be rejected,” he whoops. He began travelling to Dublin to audition. “I was whipped,” says Jonathan. “Rejection, rejection, rejection. I felt like I was fighting Mike Tyson. Then one day I landed a punch back.” He was cast in the title role in The Disappearance Of Finbar, followed by Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, where he played the beautiful, deadly assassin. Then there was The Tribe with Anna Freil, The Governess with Minnie Driver and the role of the Bowie-like Brian Slade in the glam-fest Velvet Goldmine, which shot him into the stratosphere.

I remind him that when we last met he’d just got back from shooting Ang Lee’s Ride With The Devil in Missouri. Jonathan didn’t get America the first time around. What irks him even more, America didn’t get him. “I seem to be too intense, dark and edgy for Middle America. They want American pie,” he sighs. “I find the problem is the humour. American humour is so different, and it’s very difficult for me because Irish people have such a weird sense of humour. Very twisted. And I want those roles playing American boys.”

There will now be an interruption in normal transmission while Jonathan tells me a joke that apparently really offends American people. It involves two tramps, a fast train, a girl tied to the train track and a sexual act. One tramp asks the other if he received fellatio and (cover your eyes and ears, all persons of a sensitive disposition) the tramp admits he never found the girl’s head. “Hee! Hee! Hee!” whoops Jonathan. “One person slapped me for that one. But I like it. It’s a joke! But they couldn’t quite cope with that. They thought it was disgusting.”

If you only look at Jonathan’s rudest jokes and most outlandish stories, it would be easy to imagine he was coarse or arrogant. I don’t think he’s either. He’s just sick at heart and no one in America wants to cast him as a wholesome preppy. “I really wanted to do this film The Smiling Suicide Club, but it was never explained to me why I didn’t get it,” he says. He clearly loathes rejection.

“I don’t think I’ve been terribly happy for the last one or two years. It’s hard to have happy thoughts when you have a lot of desire, because you feel so unsatisfied. I’m in one of the most insecure jobs there is and I’m someone who needs to be endlessly reassured that I’m fantastically brilliant.” He smiles ruefully, because he’s only half joking. “But if I was a normally balanced person, I wouldn’t act. There’s no way I’d be able to manipulate my emotions to do it.”

It’s not long after my morning in the Rhys Meyer’s boudoir that news comes that Jonathan has landed roles in two hip American movies, Conspiracy Of Weeds with Katie Holmes and Prozac Nation with Anne Heche. And since this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the industry has been abuzz with news that Jonathan may play Christopher Marlowe in Natural Nylon’s latest, Marlowe.

Everything that Jonathan has wanted is about to happen and I think back to something he said about fame: “I’m not hugely famous in the sense of Ewan or Leo. I’m on my way up the hill, and it seems like this is the way things are going to go and that’s great. But when it happens, I want to be strong enough to see fame how it is – an illusion – and not make it the focus of my whole life.”

He went on to talk about cynicism, his fear of losing a sense of beauty in the world, and a weekend he’s spent with a friend in Ireland. “We rode into the mountains on horses. It was so beautiful to feel the horse beneath me, to see the sunshine on his mane. There are lots of beautiful things out there. I mean, kissing – it’s so simple, but what it makes you feel in your body is quite extraordinary.”

He looks very serious for a moment. “When I was a kid I’d watch people kissing and think ‘Phwoar!’ and check out the girl. But now I don’t do that. I just enjoy the love. Even if somebody is in love with someone for just a day, two days, even an hour, it could be the greatest love they’ve ever known.”

Quite a lot has changes in two years. There’s no headstand this time. But there are more hot kisses. Like I said, there’s something about Jonathan.

Special thanks to Rhiannon for transcribing this article.

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