Jonathan Rhys-Meyers Interview
By Stephen Walsh
Showbiz Ireland, November 7, 2001
He glammed it up in Velvet Goldmine and went Gothic in Gormenghast but, as Stephen Walsh finds out, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is just your average bloke from Cork who once did a Knorr commercial and broke a girl’s heart.
Rhys Meyers was born in Dublin in 1977, moved to Cork when he was three. A wayward youth saw him leave school and enter the pool hall at 16, where he would probably have stayed had it not been for a talent scout spotting him and asking him to audition for War of the Buttons. He didn’t get the part, but he did get a slot in a Knorr commercial.
Since then, he’s shot the Big Fella (Liam Neeson) in Michael Collins, glammed it up with Ewan McGregor in Velvet Goldmine, hung from Gothic rafters as the devious Steerpike in BBC’s Gormenghast, and appeared in a dozen or so other films.
In the next few months, you’ll see him in Tangled, a remake of The Magnificent Ambersons with Madeline Stowe, and Prozac Nation with Christina Ricci.
When I talk to him, he’s walking around London’s salubrious Holland Park area, “watching the beautiful cars and girls. There’s so much money here. I don’t have any of it, though.”
A few years ago, money was something that came up a lot in interviews with Rhys Meyers. Specifically, how much he wanted it. Either he’s got it now, or he’s decided it’s just a little crass to talk about cash all the time. What he wants now is a little harder to pin down. “It’s not about money, fame, people knowing you. It’s not even about enjoying yourself and being happy. It’s about achieving something that’s brilliant, creating something that’s brilliant, for other people. For yourself, you’re always going to be unsatisfied, but if somebody comes up to me and says, that was a brilliant part, and I really, really got it. That’s essentially it.”
It’s not unfair to say that his success to date has more to do with his face than his acting prowess. He’s one of those men who women call beautiful.
Reading past interviews with him it’s not uncommon to find paragraphs describing his pillow-like lips, tender playful wide eyes, etc. Of course, that’s not for me to comment on. I don’t fancy him… But I digress. Does it bother him that people talk about his looks more than they do about his acting?
“They do that when you’re a young man. You can’t avoid it. Look at Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp – all the same. He does brilliant performances, but nobody talks about his performances – he’s gorgeous, that’s the point. With Brad Pitt nobody talks about his performance, it’s all about being Brad Pitt. I did a film with Bruce Greenwood last year (Ride with the Devil). He was a very, very pretty man, but he couldn’t get jobs for years and years, until he did 13 Days, and he played John F Kennedy and he was absolutely brilliant. And now everyone’s giving him jobs – so his time eventually came.”
Rhys Meyers admits that his time hasn’t come yet. “I’ve got it all to prove. I’ve got it all to do. At the position I’m in now, I’m hovering between being ‘you’re well known and on your way’, and ‘you’re there’”.
Not a bad place to hover. But he thinks the hard work is still ahead. “If there’s a good script and a good part, you can be guaranteed that all the best actors in the world are trying to get it. There’s no such thing as once you get to a certain stage, everything becomes easy. Everything becomes harder, you want the best roles, the biggest roles. And so does everyone else”.
But the face that put him where he is could also take him away. Does he fear that as he gets older and his looks fade, the work might disappear? “No it won’t,” he says defiantly. “If the looks went, I’m not so sure. I think if you’re good you’re good, that’s the end of it. If the looks go, you achieve other looks.”
Many actors in the same bracket have given in to the financial temptation of the blockbuster. Has Rhys Meyers any plans to attend the Ben Affleck School of Sellout? “I’d love to do a big blockbuster action film, it’d be great, can you imagine? Pay me, no problem. I’d love to do a huge big ‘Mike and Jerry’ type film. They’re really great but I don’t think Micheal Beam or Jerry Bruckheimer think too fondly of me. Wait until I go off and get an Oscar nomination, then they’ll love me to bits.”
They might, but what if it was a choice between something like Pearl Harbor and an independent arthouse film, which would allow him to grow more as an actor? “All depends on the role, all depends on the director, I’ll tell you. If it was a choice of a Pearl Harbor or Before Night Falls, I’d do Before Night Falls. You get to work with a superior director in a superior part, and you let your muscles grow. Pearl Harbor is something you do to become a superstar. If someone wanted me to do that, then no problem. I’m not going to be one of these actors who says, oh no, I’m only going to do roles of a certain quality. Yeah, I’m looking for quality, it’s the first thing I’ll think about, but at the same time I’m also looking for other things.”
Refreshingly, he’s not one of those actors looking for a chance to direct his own script. “If I was going to write, it’d be books, not scripts. I think I’d be awful at writing a script, and worse at directing one. I think any actor who thinks he can direct a movie just because he’s hung around a film set 30 times is full of shite. It’s a skill, either you’re born to do it or you’re not. Some actors can do it, like Matthew Modine, he’s a wonderful actor, but he’s a born director. I’ve seen a few of his five-minute films and they’re extraordinary. Sean Penn is very smart, Tim Robbins is a very smart director, too. But I just think it’d be rather vain of me”.
Rhys Meyers does write short stories (“sometimes they get a bit too long”), and thinks “books are beautiful. I love Dostoyevky, Pushkin. I love Russian writers. Samuel Beckett is the business, too, and James Joyce and Banana Yoshimoto.”
He’s currently reading Ross Leckie’s gruesome account of Hannibal’s drive across the Alps. He’d like to play the ruthless, ambitious young general “in a f##king instant. That’s exactly the role I’d like to play.”
And it’s exactly the type of role you expect him to land. There’s also talk of him playing a young Salvador Dali in the near future: “I always tend to get cast in an extraordinary role for whatever reason. It’s usually because of the way I look, I suppose. But that’s why I’m doing the role in this film (a currently unnamed project in London), because in this one I’m playing a normal bloke, a no-strings-attached Irish kid, who’s become a young football coach because he busted his knee on the way to becoming professional. That’s it.”
Is that more challenging than playing an extreme character? “That’s exactly why I’m doing it, because it is harder. Nobody expects this of me, everyone expects ‘extraordinary deep drama’ with me, But I’m going to try and do as little as possible in this film and get the biggest effect I can from it. I’m going to try to be less.”
One of the other reasons he may not be in Return to Pearl Harbor is his refusal to go and live in LA, preferring to stay in Cork. “I’ve got a farm I live on in Cork, it’s really beautiful. I love horses. I’ve no love for cows. They don’t take a saddle well.”
He thinks that life in Hollywood is the undoing of a lot of actors: “A lot of movie stars go and make movies, and then after a while, their performances suddenly aren’t as good. That’s because they’re constantly hanging around with movie stars, constantly in that world. They get stale, they’re going to lunch with this agent, this producer. I don’t have any friends who are movie stars. I go to the local pub in Cork, I get refused from it, I’ve never had that huge fame thing to be bothered about.”
There’s still a touch of youthful insecurity about him. “Anybody’s praise or approval is important to me. Anybody’s at all. And anybody’s criticism. If the guy selling The Big Issue turns around to me and says, ‘hey man, in that performance, in that scene, I don’t think you quite got it’, I’ll listen to him. I take advice from everybody. The less people have an investment in you, the more honest the advice is going to be. But the best thing that was ever said to me was from my brother. He saw me in Michael Collins and rang me up and said ‘You were shite. You’d want to cop yourself on.’”
Does he ever worry it’s all been a big mistake? “Every time someone shouts my name, I think it’s someone going to say ‘Johnny, actually you’re crap. You’re finished, and you should never have been here in the first place’.Anyway, one moment you’re nothing, the next moment you’re everything. It’s just a grand illusion.”
Assuming the illusion sustains for another six years, where does he hope to be when he’s 30? “Sitting at the right hand of God.” Failing that? “I’d hope to have grown, and become quite (long pause) I hope to have understood what I’m doing more.”
At 23, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a curious mix of charming self-deprecation and hard, clear ambition. He’s wise beyond his years about the business he finds himself in. “I’m not preventing nuclear war or anything like that. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘All art is useless.’”
Who on Jonathan Rhys Meyers? Jonathan Rhys Meyers was born in Dublin on 27 July 1977, and moved to Cork with his family when he was almost one year old. When he was three his father moved out of home and with that followed a rather turbulent childhood. He spent some time in an orphanage and was expelled from school when he was 16. Hubbard Casting discovered him in a pool hall and he subsequently got the lead for the David Puttnam production of The War of the Buttons. After doing the infamous Knorr commercial, he got his first film roll in A Man of No Importance. The credentials Since then, Rhys Meyers has filmed The Governess, Velvet Goldmine, The Loss of Sexual Innocence, Titus and Gormenghast.
Useless bits of information: He likes listening to Bob Marley; he sings traditional Irish music and he’s apparently rather embarrassed about the Knorr affair!
Quote: He told Rolling Stone magazine in 1998: “You get on a set and immediately people are wiping your ass for you, and nobody tells you when you’re being an asshole. I’m sure nobody working for Tom Cruise would turn around and say, ‘Tom, don’t do that anymore because you’re a dickhead to do that.’ Actually, he might quite like it.”