Playing for Keeps
By Paul Byrne
Irish Examiner, April 13, 2002

Having Made His Name Playing Scary Monsters And Super Creeps, Jonathan Rhys Meyers Welcomed The Challenge of Portraying “A Regular Kind of Guy” in The British Comedy Bend it Like Beckham. He Talks to Paul Byrne About Stereotyping, Working For The Yankee Dollar, And Seducing Britney Spears.

When I first met Jonathan Rhys Meyers for his debut leading role in the feature film The Disappearance of Finbar back in 1996, to say he was wide-eyed and innocent would be, well, telling it like it was. Back then, the young actor was ready to change the world, stating that he saw no reason why he shouldn’t run for office in the European Parliament, righting the world’s wrongs as he discovered a cure for cancer in his spare time. Or some such nonsense.

Don’t get me wrong, Meyers’ enthusiasm was highly endearing, but one couldn’t help but feel that such idealistic babble could only lead to tears. And I told him so, mentioning the words ‘Sinead,’ ‘O,’ and ‘Connor’ as a warning. He promptly changed the subject. Now 24, Meyers has managed to squeeze out no less than 18 feature films in the last six years, taking the lead role in such critical faves as 1998’s Velvet Goldmine and the BBC’s award-winning series Gormenghast (2000).

That Meyers isn’t exactly a household name and despite the fact that he wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of Just 17 – is largely due to the fact that the characters he’s chosen to play have all been invariably mad, bad and psychotically twisted. Which may explain why in his 19th feature film, this week’s Bend It Like Beckham, Meyers is playing a regular Joe. Literally.

Directed (and co-written) by Gurinder Chadha (Bhaji On The Beach), 18-year-old Jess (newcomer Parinda Nagra) eats, drinks and sleeps football, busy fantasizing about her idol, David Beckham, when she’s invited by a fellow female footie nut, Jules (Keira Knightley), to join the Hounslow Harriers. There, team coach, Joe (Meyers) offers firm words of advice and comfort, and is there to provide Jess with a shoulder to cry on when her parents refuse to let her indulge in such a decidedly non-Indian, and unladylike, past time.

“The hardest thing to play on screen is humility,” offers Meyers, “and that’s what I kind of achieved with this character, I hope. I didn’t want him to be the screaming maniac football coach, just being nasty to people. I wanted all the girls on the team to really like Joe because of his humility. I did a lot of work with a football coach, and I tried to take on his persona. I found him very mellow, very calming, with that wonderful Up North salt-of-the-earth attitude. That’s what I was aiming for.”

Which is the sort of character Meyers has never aimed for before. Having no emotional crutch, no manic state, to lean on must have been quite a challenge.

“I found it quite hard to do, yeah,” Meyers states, “because I’ve got a lot of energy, and I find it very, very hard to rein it in all the time. The director really got on my case about that, pretty much immediately. I’ve made eighteen films before this, and I wanted to try something different from those films that I’ve already done. So Gurinder pushed me to hold back as much as possible. To do less.”

Originally a Northerner in the script, Meyers inadvertently helped Joe change nationality during his audition. “He was originally English, but I had to read with Parminder – who plays Jess – and during the screen test we did the scene where she complains that someone called her a Paki, and I just shouted back, ‘Listen, I’m fucking Irish and what’s your problem?’ It made sense that the Irish being a minority in England as well, Joe would have an empathy with Jess on that level. And the director just loved that, so Irish he remained.”

That Meyers is a strikingly handsome young man has not gone unnoticed in the media before, but roles such as the bisexual glam rock star Brian Slade (a thinly-veiled David Bowie) in Velvet Goldmine, or the drug-addled double-crosser Pitt Mackeson in Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil are hardly the stuff of schoolgirl fantasies. Bend It Like Beckham offers Meyers his first pin-up role, the first time he’s put his hunky good looks to the fore. Which, he admits, has given him an unexpected thrill.

“I didn’t really give that aspect of it much thought,” he muses, “but it seems in some ways, you’re right. Yes, I did Bend It Like Beckham particularly for that reason, and that reason alone. I did it because nobody had seen me play that sort of person, and that it would open me up to a whole new audience. The audience I have at the moment like their heavy films. They’re usually in their late 20s, early 30s, but now I’ll hopefully grab some of Britney Spears’ fans. Or maybe even Britney Spears herself, which would be nice. This hunk thing could have some wonderful perks, and getting closer to Ms. Spears would definitely be one of them.”

Taking the commercial route can often kill an otherwise credible career though, as Leonardo Di Caprio learnt after Titanic blew all of his good work in such movies as The Basketball Diaries and This Boy’s Life clean out of the water. Isn’t Meyers wary of falling foul of a similar fate if his fiendish plot to become a pin-up actually succeeds?

“Well, I’ve already done The Tesseract, another distinctly dark film,” he answers. “It’s based on the Alex Garland book, and we shot it in Thailand. So I’ve gone from playing the really sweet guy to a guy who’s chasing a 15-year old kid around Bangkok, looking for mind-bending drugs. That should keep the older crowd happy, and frighten the crap out of the Britney fans.”

With such an incredibly high turnover of films – averaging over three a year – Meyers is either a good old-fashioned workaholic, or he’s running away from something. Looking over his early interviews, it would be easy to assume the latter, with Meyers giving conflicting accounts of his family’s background, including his parents’ separation and how he came to live with his surrogate family, the Crofts, in West Cork. Ask him about his family now, and he’ll just say that his mum is living in her native Cork also (“making American quilts”), his musician father is residing in Jersey, and his three younger brothers are currently touring their rock band around Scotland.

Further than that, he’d rather not say. So it’s no surprise that when I ask him whether he’s a workaholic or if he is indeed running away from something, he quickly opts for the former. “Basically it’s about actors taking the work whenever they can get it,” he offers. “That has something to do with it. The hardest part of being an actor is not acting. What do you do in-between these jobs? Unless you can find a hobby that you’re really interested in, and others around you are interested in, you tend to turn in on yourself. That’s why there are a lot of actors who become drinkers and drug users. It’s such an emotional experience, a real roller coaster ride, so much so that when it stops, you don’t recognize the station most of the time. And so you just go to the nearest bar and try and figure it all out.”

Exactly what Jonathan Rhys Meyers got up to in that bar has been the subject of some speculation over the years, but he’s happy to admit now that he did indeed go off the rails somewhat – if you’ll excuse the pun and in order to “stay sane”. “I tell you what, there was a little while there where I was beginning to question my own sanity. But then I grew older, and I moved on. From the time I was 18, I’ve been on film sets. So I lost those years in many ways, not having enough time to concentrate on my life because I was so worried about how I was performing on each film. So I’ve had a little bit of time to be a young fella now, and the truth is, I don’t care about what people think about my performances anymore. If some people can get something out of what I’m doing, that’s great, but I’m more concerned about pleasing myself now. About what feels right. Once I can get an emotional reaction from an audience, that’s all that matters really. I don’t mind whether it’s loving or loathing, once it’s an emotional reaction.”

Spending most of the last six years on movie sets has meant that Meyers knows a thing or two about living out of suitcases (“My address has long been Samsonite 614″), but he’s not about to complain. “I just don’t argue about such things, or about any of the bad sides of making films,” he offers, “because there are a lot of good sides too. It allows you to be creative, it can be enormous fun, and I know they pay me far more than a 24-year old boy should be getting, for any job. Even if he was a nuclear physicist. People say to me too, ‘Oh, it must be terrible when people come up to you on the street and asking you about your films’, and I just see that as part of the job. I’d never argue with that element of it.”

Not that Meyers is one to play the celebrity game. Even when he spent a year dating his Velvet Goldmine co-star Toni Collette (the Australian actress from Muriel’s Wedding and The Sixth Sense, and who now resides in Wicklow), he managed to avoid the celebrity circuit. The only premieres you’re likely to see this young actor at are his own films, and even then, he’d be happiest sneaking in the back door. And don’t expect to see him lolling around his Cork home in the pages of VIP any time soon.

“I think I’m just too removed from the world,” he states. “I’ve never gone into publicity for publicity’s sake. Okay, if some journalist decides to write up a piece about you, fine, but if you go to a party with a girlfriend just to get into the papers, then you’re a celebrity. And that’s different to being an actor. There are so many celebrities around these days, it’s like some kind of plague. The celebrity media has become bigger than oil.

“When you look at something like Popstars too, that tells us a lot about how the media works these days. On one level, it’s wonderful that these kids are getting the break that they’ve always dreamed of, but at the same time, there are many extremely talented singers out there who don’t fit the 3-minute, lip gloss and blow-dried Popstars package. And they’re the ones who need to be nurtured, because they’ll invariably come up with the songs that people will actually want to listen to in ten years time.”

So even as Meyers begins chasing the Yankee dollar, he’s not worried about the onslaught of fame infringing upon his private life. “I don’t think I’ll ever get that sort of attention. If someone ever wanted to come and hound me, come and let them hound me.” Stalkers, take note.

“The great thing about living down here in Cork is that, compared to say, living in Los Angeles, people don’t see you grow. If I lived in Los Angeles, or Dublin, or London, or New York, then every young man mistake that I made would be taken down in evidence against me, whereas in Cork, I can go out, I can fuck around, go drinking, all the silly things that people my age do. Down here, you don’t have someone following you with a camera.

“I think if you’re going to be almost famous, or famous, Ireland is the place to live. Everyone knows Tom Cruise, but if he was to walk into my local Spar, no one would look at him twice. They’d acknowledge that it was him, but they wouldn’t run screaming after him. And that’s very grounding, if you’re going through any kind of public recognition.”

Having survived the ‘Next Big Thing’ tag that greeted his early flourish in the late 90s, Meyers has seen that particular rosette being passed on to fellow Irishman Colin Farrell of late. He is a similarly busy young man, after his career was launched with the lead role in Joel Schumacher’s Dogma-style army camp drama Tigerland.

“I know Colin from his having played a small part in The Disappearance of Finbar, and he’s one of the sweetest guys. And extremely confident, so I don’t think this kind of attention will bother him in any way. To his advantage, Colin has that stocky American build, and of course, Tigerland is a real star-making part. I remember going down to audition for Joel Schumacher for it, and I knew that this was the part, and the film to do. And I also knew that I was totally wrong for it, and I was really pissed off about that. When I met Joel I knew I was wrong for it, and I knew that whoever got that part, was going to make a splash. I’m just glad it went to an Irish guy, and an Irish guy I know too, and I like.”

Special thanks to Sandy for transcribing this article.

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