Jonathan Rhys Meyers
By Olaf Tyaransen
Hot Press, December 2000
Hailed as one of the UK’s hottest young talents, and having appeared in such successes as Michael Collins, The Magnificent Abersons, and Velvet Goldmine, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is in fact Dublin-born and raised in Cork. Olaf Tyaransen met the rising star. Thesp behaviour: Peter Matthews.
If fidgeting was an Olympic sport then Jonathan Rhys Meyers could win gold for Ireland. The 23 year old Dublin-born/Cork bred actor just can’t seem to sit still for a moment.
Throughout our interview, he changes his position more often than a Flood Tribunal witness – constantly moving his chair, picking at his chicken sandwich, lighting Marlboros, flicking his hair and fiddling with his mobile phone. He doesn’t look directly at you either, his eyes seeming to flick every which way but at the person he’s talking to. It’s somewhat disconcerting for a while but eventually I realise that he’s not being rude. It’s simply that, like many young actors, he’s restlessness personified – a strikingly handsome five-foot-something frame of typical thespian insecurity.
But then – no wonder he’s constantly moving. Although Rhys Meyers has now appeared in nineteen different movies, he’s far from being in a position to rest on his laurels – and he knows it! His star is definitely on the rise but it is not yet shooting. Until recently, he was best known for his role as the young assassin in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. It was a small part but his looks made an impact with casting agents and gradually his career began to snowball, with him playing a series of increasingly prominent roles in films like The Loss of Sexual Innocence, Velvet Goldmine, Titus Andronicus and the forthcoming Prozac Nation. Irish audiences would have seen him most recently as the sly Steerpike in the television series Gormenghast. Not formally trained as an actor, critics generally agree that he’s far from flawless but is steadily, steadily getting there. He doesn’t particularly disagree with them either but his ambition and passion for his chosen craft are obvious.
Having worked alongside the likes of Ewan McGregor, Anthony Hopkins, Rupert Everett, Minnie Driver and Christina Ricci, Rhys Meyers seems well on the way to making a major impact in the world of movie-making. He’s in town today to screentest for Neil Jordan’s latest project – a role which, if he gets it, may well establish him as a leading actor. For the moment, however, he comes across as someone with a lot to prove…
OLAF TYARANSEN: I understand you had a heart condition when you were a child.
JONATHAN RHYS-MEYERS: Yes. I had a weak heart and very weak kidneys, so I was kept for seven months in St. James’ hospital, Dublin, where I was born. I was in an incubator. Then I was in Dublin for another year and a half and then we went to Cork city. I shouldn’t be smoking, really, you know (lights one cigarette from the butt of another).
Is that something that still occurs?
No. It hasn’t occurred. At the same time you want to watch it.
What kind of upbringing did you have? Was it middle-class Irish?
No, working-class. Definitely working-class Irish. I went to a state school, the whole ball-game. I knew what not-having was, but everybody didn’t have in the situation I was in. What my neighbours didn’t have, I didn’t have. And so I naturally didn’t think of it as too rough a thing. It was only as I got older that I realised how underprivileged it was. When I started to get a little bit more privileged and able to get more things I thought ‘God almighty, how did I live when I was a kid?’.
Actually I had everything I needed, in truth.
Your father left your mother when you were four?
And you’ve got three younger brothers?
What do they do?
They’re rock musicians. They’ve got a rock band. They live in Jersey and they tour around the islands. They’re incredibly fucking brilliant. And the thing is, it’s not even a biased opinion, because I don’t like their music at all, I’m into a completely different kind of thing. But I recognise who’s brilliant and who’s not. And they’re good. They’re incredibly tight for their age.
Did you always talk like that?
When I was a kid I used to talk with a Cork accent (said in strong Cork accent).
Did you refine the accent to do movies?
I started talking like this from about 17, when I started really getting into acting. I also started hanging around with a different type of person. I hung around with people who talked like this all the time so I faked it.
You were a bit of a trouble-maker as a child?
Well, I was a child. I don’t think there’s any children that aren’t troublemakers. Some kids get away with it and some don’t. I was one of those kids that never got away with it. My trouble always shone (laughs). It outshone the others for whatever reason. I got thrown out of school aged 15 – a very bad mistake. It was a monastery school in Cork. I suppose it wasn’t their fault. I wasn’t a terribly interested student. But it’s very difficult to get a 15 year old to sit down and learn something they don’t particularly want to learn about. Why would they? It’s like – I’m learning more from NWA than this geography class!
Was music always a thing for you?
Music was always huge for me. I’ve related to music. Of course, everybody does. I probably thought it was a unique thing as a kid. It was like ‘oh my god, I’ve got a song for every situation I’ve been in’. That’s the way it is. But it was always instrumental music that kept up memories for me rather than lyrics.
You sang a couple of tracks on the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack. Is that something you’d do again?
Yeah, of course. Velvet Goldmine was going to be wonderful if I could have had David Bowie’s music because everybody would have recognised it. I never really wanted to try and play Bowie. I just tried to play a rock artist who was an icon. It’s very difficult to play an icon because they’re ethereal and not real. So I had to play the character as if I was not real and try to detract myself from it as if I was a machine; plus I couldn’t use Bowie’s music. So I was using music written by Grant Lee Buffalo and Michael Stipe, and Thom Yorke got involved with it…and it was incredibly brilliant stuff, but at the same time it wasn’t the hits of the 70’s that I should have been singing. That would have been able to make the character more believable to a lot of the people who went to see it if I was standing up there singing ‘Ziggy Stardust’ instead of singing ‘Tumbling Down’. A couple of in-people would have been into Cockney Rebel but the mass audience wouldn’t have.
When you got expelled from school at 15, what was the situation then?
I wasn’t prepared to do anything. I tried to go to other schools but they weren’t prepared to take a kid who couldn’t behave in a good school and had been kicked out of a state school. They were rather dubious and I suppose I didn’t try as hard as I would now. But I’m a different age now and I’ve copped myself on a bit more. I don’t think it was an incredibly good move to get kicked out of school. It sounds cool, but I got very lucky. I went on the hop a lot because I wasn’t happy being there. I wasn’t happy with my life either in school, at home or with my friends. I was always a loner.
So did you just bum around for a while?
I used to hang around the pool hall with my friend Gordon McGregor. These guys came in and asked if I wanted to audition for War Of The Buttons. They came up to me and asked me and I said ‘fuck off’! They said ‘go on, please’. So they brought me down to Skibbereen to meet John Roberts and I liked him a lot. I spent a weekend there and then I went home and then they brought me back and auditioned me again. I nearly fucked it up for myself because I got a ‘phone call on Monday night to come down Tuesday morning. I was so excited that I ‘phoned my friend Gerry and asked him to come over and I stayed up until 8 o’clock in the morning and slept in till 11 o’clock! I fucked up the audition. I was an eejit (idiot) and that’s why I lost the film. Apparently they thought I should have been in The Outsiders rather than War Of The Buttons. So I was a little bit too street-wise and mature for them, at that point anyway. I was very disgusted. I felt like a complete failure. I was completely self-pitying.
Is Cork important to you?
Hugely, yes. I don’t spend much time there now, but I love it. Wonderful people. When I was growing up I never thought it was ‘a shitty town, shitty people, I need to get away from it’. I never thought that. People are shitty wherever you go (laughs). What I wanted was their respect. No matter where they’re from, no matter who it is. It could be a beggar in the street or the king of the world. I still want their respect equally. And I want to be able to do the same. I want to be able to give the same warmth and respect to a beggar as I give to a king. And I suppose I wanted to be rich because I wasn’t.
Are you rich now?
I haven’t got paid that much money for the films that I’ve done. I’m not a millionaire or anything like that. But I bought my mother a house on Glanmyre in Cork last year and I was quite happy about doing that. I got her a little car and stuff and now she’s working for the first time in years and she’s very, very happy and independent and she’s got a new lease of life. Life really does begin at 40.
Is money madly important to you?
As important as it is to someone who is young and who grew up without it. I’d want to take care of myself. I’d like to be able to buy a house for myself and my girlfriend to live in the countryside. But there’s not lots of things that I want. I don’t want a fast fucking car. I don’t want to go to expensive restaurants. I don’t want clothes and to date supermodels. I don’t have to buy Tiffany diamonds for my girlfriend. Money is important because I’d like to get paid for what I do. But also it seems to be a sort of status symbol of how much you’re worth. So, yes, I’d love someone to pay me Ã‚Â£1 million for a film – joyous! Of course I would, who wouldn’t? My agent says they’re running out of reasons to not cast me in these big films. I thought for years that I don’t look the way they want me to look. And I’ve got over that. Then I thought I’m not acting the way they want me to act. And so I’m constantly going to be fighting with that my whole life. So it’s basically me getting in there and seducing them into giving me the part. That’s quite difficult because I’m not American and so before I go in for an audition I have to make myself American.
How’s your American accent?
It’s alright now (in superb American accent). I just did Magnificent Ambersons. I played someone from Indianapolis. So I’m going to go over there with that mid-American accent and ah shucks attitude.
Are you watching the American elections at the moment?
I’m not. I have no interest in Al Gore or George Bush Jnr. George Bush is a white supremacist and Al Gore is the best of a bad lot, but he’s still not a clever guy.
Do you have an interest in Irish politics?
I have an interest in Irish politics, but more the politics of the early 1920s. Michael Collins era. Me being the man who shot him! You want to know the man you’re going to kill. Any good samurai is going to check out his opponent, isn’t he?
What do you think of Bertie Ahern?
When I think of him I always think of a Basset’s Allsorts packet, and Bertie is the Big Basset. (Basset’s Allsorts are liquorice candy). I always think of him as an oul eejit (old idiot). But he’s not an oul eejit – look at the fucking country! His term will be seen as like the 100-year Reich! It was so lovely. Everybody had lots of money. He had very few problems except for all the other politicians getting done.
Is your Irishness important to you?
It’s incredibly important. It’s a wonderful country to be from. I say that when I go to Los Angeles and I try to do auditions, that I’ve got to become American. I don’t mind that. I liked growing up in Ireland. I don’t think I would have liked to have grown up in the US. Plus it’s given an antiquity to my soul. I come from a place that’s got an awful lot of soul, history, culture and a lot of magic about it. I like being Irish.
Do you find that there’s much begrudgery in Ireland?
No. The Magnificent Ambersons was the 19th film I made. And I thought ‘oh God, I’ve made 19 films, shouldn’t I be getting paid a lot of money?’. Then I thought to myself ‘well I’ve never made a film that’s made an awful lot of money. I’ve never been in a successful box-office hit’. It would be marvellous. I said to my friend John Paul when I forts got into acting ‘do you think I’ll make it’. He said ‘No. I think you’ll be a good actor, but I don’t think you’ll make it like Tom Cruise or anything like that’. And I was ‘you’re meant to be my mate – you’re meant to say ‘take on the world man’. But that’s Ireland (laughs).
Who’s your role model as an actor?
Nijinsky gives me more inspiration as an actor than anyone else. But I do think Peter O’Toole is extraordinary.
Will you ever act on stage?
When I’m comfortable enough. Nothing to do with performance, just financially. I’m going to have to do it at some point and I’m sure I will do it. I like to be able to do it on my own terms, rather than looking for work.
Are you quite a distracted person?
Yes, hyperactive I suppose.
You don’t make very much eye contact. You look around a lot.
I do (looking away). Sometimes then I’ll just be in your face all the time. People do find me a bit too intense. I’ve had this problem when I’ve gone for auditions in the US. I’m far too intense.
Are you quite a dramatic person?
Yes, I’m a very dramatic person. I’ve got an awful lot of energy. I’m very hyperactive. And that comes out as being very dramatic. Even in the roles I play, people think I’m a very dramatic actor, almost operatic. Like driving a car is an opera, especially in Dublin. I can be scandalously dramatic.
Do you have many friends?
Not many. I have some and the ones I have are incredibly good friends. I’ve got one friend I’ve had about 10 years. I’ve got another friend, Gordon McGregor, who I haven’t seen for ages, but he’s one of my closest friends and always will be, regardless. Two of my brothers are very close friends, but I don’t see them very often. But it’s a blood-love and so they’ll always be there. My girlfriend’s my friend. Her sister’s my friend.
Are you enjoying life at the moment?
Sometimes I enjoy it, sometimes I don’t. But I’m into self-discovery and I don’t think anyone who’s into self-discovery is happy. It’s not going to be what you expect it to be. There’s that element of it. But at the same time you get what you can out of it. I’m trying to be a great artist and by trying to be a great artist you have to look at all the beautiful things and you have to look at all the horrible things and then find the beauty in them. It’s very difficult to do. To become comfortable with horrible things means you’re finding the natural beauty in them.
What are you doing at the moment?
I’ve just finished a film recently but today I’ve been screentesting for Neil Jordan’s film. It’s magnificent. Neil is one of my favourite directors. I haven’t got the part yet. I’m waiting for him to give me the part. If he does, I’ll do it and put everything into it, and if he doesn’t I’ll still love him as much as I do now.
He gave you you’re first role, didn’t he?
My first role was in The Disappearance of Finbar. He gave me my second role which was in Michael Collins. That was brilliant. The part was quite small but in the eventual film it showed out a lot more. It was very good for me. There’s something about him that’s very artistic. He’s someone I can look up to. I want his approval. There’s a couple of directors whose approval I really want. It’s not like I want millions of dollars and everyone screaming my name all the time. What I want is the support of people to help me achieve wonderful things in film.
Would you describe yourself as ambitious?
Very. I was always hungry. I knew I was going to be unique in some way. How unique I don’t know. I knew I was never going to have a normal job, never have a normal life. Some people never get roses thrown at them, but they never get sand kicked in their face either. I’ve had roses, and I’ve had sand kicked in my face.
What was the sand kicked in your face?
What – War Of The Buttons?
Everything. Everything I’ve been rejected for I’ve been really, really hurt by.
How about women?
I’ve had a very hard time with women. But I’ve made that hard time myself. I’m trying to understand women. But I can never truly understand them. The only thing I can do is accept. They’re completely different creatures and they’ve got a different way of thinking. I think if you accept them rather than try to understand them and you’ll have a better time. A lizard can’t understand what a bird feels like and bird can’t understand what a lizard feels like.
Are you in a serious relationship at the moment?
I’m in love with this girl called Chacha. She’s the most beautiful woman in Ireland, one of the most beautiful women in the world. I’m very much in love with her and very lucky to have her.
Is that a long-term thing?
I hope so. We’ve been going out for fifteen months now.
Are you looking for stability?
No, I’m looking for a partner. I’m looking for a Don Quixote to my, what was his name? I call myself the Don Quixote because I know if I call her the other character she’d fucking brain me!
You were with someone else before her..what was her name?
Toni Collette. She did Sixth Sense, Muriel’s Wedding. I met her on the set of Velvet Goldmine and we were playing man and wife – and then became such.
Do you find those situations happen often?
No. You have to pretend that you’re in love with the person if you need to be. And so immediately you feel something for them, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s love. You’re just much more affectionate to them because in your mind you’re more affectionate to them.
Would you sacrifice your relationship for a good role?
I’d sacrifice myself for a great role! I’d rather have ten minutes of an extraordinary unique life than 100 years of a happy, boring one. For me happiness all the time would be boring. I like a bit of failure. I’ve gone for a lot of auditions and been rejected and I’ve been really hurt at the time, but then an actor called James Conwell – who was in General’s Daughter and LA Confidential – turned to me and said there’s only lessons in failure, so the more you fail the more you learn. Failure isn’t being knocked down.
Does your job constantly put you in odd situations?
I’m constantly in odd situations, One week I was in six different countries in one week! I woke up and had to ask ‘what language do you speak?’. That’s strange, but at the same time you choose it. I feel as though I’ve been in guerilla warfare for about the last four years. It’s very tiring. You’re fighting a war, basically. And you’re the only army you have that you can control and you can’t control what the enemy is going to do. And your enemies constantly change.
What’s been your best role to date?
I don’t know.
What’s been your worst?
They’ve all had difficult things and they’ve all had great things – every part I’ve played.
Do you get emotionally involved as an actor?
Of course I do.
So when you did Gormenghast, did you become a sly little fucker?
No, I became more of a little fucker doing The Magnificent Ambersons. Because in Gormenghast he was made rotten by something that was done to him as a child. And so as he grows up he doesn’t grow up. Because you can’t grow up in a place that never changes. That was the whole point of Gormenghast – to try not to grow up, just to try to become more cynical as the film went on. In The Magnificent Ambersons I played a character who was born with absolutely everything and was a spoilt bastard. I became a little bit of a shit sometimes.
Do you behave yourself generally?
Yes, I do behave. But sometimes I misbehave. I don’t go to clubs and insult people, I don’t go to press conferences and say ‘blah, blah, blah’. I haven’t got a big head in that sense. I’ve never walked into a place and said ‘do you know who I am?’. I’ve never actually used my name to get into a club or anything. I’d never do that because it would seem to me that I’m a little bit more than I am. Well I’m not more than I am. That’s only other people’s perspectives. If I become famous they think I’m famous, but for me it’s always a struggle.
What’s your stance on the drug issue?
Basically there’s no good in them. There can’t be. It’s like drink is a drug and smoking is a drug. It gives you an immediate hit and it feels fine, but then it starves you. So it only makes you worse. I know some people who take drugs and they’re so clever that they’ll take it and get what they want out of it and then they’ll put it away. But most people can’t do that. They’ll take it and then life seems dull without it and then they’ll take it more and more and then life becomes dull and the drug becomes dull. I’ve never been into drugs. I’ve never been offered them.
Oh come on – never?
Alright, I took a line in Mexico. I thought that’s it, I’m on holiday backpacking in Mexico and nobody knows. But wasn’t very good. I don’t think it totally affected me. I think it was probably 25% sugarcane, 15% soda powder and maybe 3% coca. I’ve just never got into drugs in a big way. The temptation is always there. I smoke so many cigarettes, but I don’t drink.
Where do you see yourself in five year’s time?
That’s a difficult question to answer. I know where I’d like to see myself, but where I see myself I’m not sure. On top of the world, of course…Let’s put it this way, I’d like to give a great performance at least once for every one of the next five years. I’d love to give an outstanding performance in one film every year.
Do you accept that sometimes you don’t?
I try my best all the time.
Do you find that acting has encouraged you to explore as an artist?
Every creative thing encourages another creative thing. It’s a cog. Are you as “on” when you wake up in the morning as you seem to be now? Yes. I can’t take my mind off anything. My mind is always full of ideas. I still wan t to take on the world, today! And it won’t stop. But at the same time I’m lazy. I’m 23 now so I’ve got to start growing up. Mozart was writing symphonies by the time he was 10 years old.
Still, you’re pretty young.
I don’t know. I worked with a director and I was due to go to this press conference and I woke up at 8 o’clock in the morning and had to be there for 20 past 8. So I put on my clothes and I brushed my long hair through with my fingers and walked out. And he said to me ‘you’ll get away with this for just two more years, you know’. And I said ‘what';. And he said ‘just coming to a press conference in the clothes you’re wearing and not combing your hair. You won’t get way with it forever. From about 24-25, watch yourself, because you’ll have to start behaving then, wearing good suits…’.
What do you want to come across in this interview?
That I’m not constantly depressed and negative.
You don’t strike me as being either of those things.
I have done in other articles..I’d say ‘I’ve done all this _ I’ve done the troubled youth, the manic depression youth puts you through’. There are parts of me that people haven’t seen.
Do you feel lucky?
Yes, hugely lucky and in another way hugely unlucky. That’s because you want more. I expect so much of myself. People keep saying ‘you’re not doing badly’. But if you say that to yourself you rest on your laurels. Getting to the top is the sparring round. Once you’re at the top you start fighting like a dog to stay there.
Do you feel you’re at the top now?
Are you jealous?
Of whoever gets the part. No particular actor. I wanted All The Pretty Horses. I was on the set in Missouri playing a bushwhacker and all these wranglers came up to me and said ‘I heard you were up for All The Pretty Horses. You’re fucking perfect’. And I met Billy Bob and he said I was a good actor. Matt Damon got it and I was a bit jealous. I really like Matt Damon, but I don’t like him as John Grady Cole, it’s too fucking obvious.
Why do you act?
Because I can do nothing else that pays me as much, that makes me feel as important in the world and that I can somehow achieve the greatness in life that I want. It’s like sex, it’s the closest thing to the divine you can be. You can say ‘why do you act when you never wanted to become an actor anyway?’. Well I act because I’m told I’m good at it. Plus I’ve never actually trained so I’m sure…when I was doing Velvet Goldmine and that sort of stuff, I was probably one of the only Irish actors who was doing that at my age, who had started doing that. And now there’s myself, Stuart Townsend, Colin Farrell. There’s three of us. But I still haven’t given a really great performance yet. I feel it has to come”.
Special thanks to Lorraine for transcribing this article.