The Rise and Rise of Rhys
By John Daly
Irish Independent Weekend, February 21, 2004
Jonathan Rhys Meyers, home for a break in his North Cork home, talks to John Daly about good looks and good luck in the movie business…and competing for roles with a Dub called Farrell.
It’s pushing on for midday in the quiet north Cork farmhouse as the man who would be Bond stifles a yawn from the previous night’s exertions. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the Irish actor increasingly rumoured by the Hollywood media as the next 007, sips the first of many coffees as he muses on the delights of home.
“When you’ve been making films back to back for a good few months, it’s not that easy to slip into the Irish welcome” he says ruefully after a night on the tiles in his native Cork. “With on set calls at 5am during my normal working week, you tend to forget that most Irish parties only get going at that hour. I guess I’m getting a little old for all nighters” he laughs through a cloud of cigarette smoke.
As the unruly and renegade schoolboy who rose from total obscurity to international attention as the man who shot Michael Collins in the 1996 Neil Jordan epic, Rhys Meyers has already amassed a lengthy body of work in his seven-year arc in the movie business. With 20 films to his credit including Velvet Goldmine, Titus, Gormenghast and Ride With the Devil, the 27-year old continues to hit the ground running with three new films – Octane, released at the end of 2003 and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead and The Lion in Winter – due later this year.
REMARKABLE SUCCESS OF ‘BEND IT’
Having divided his roles between television and feature films thus far, Rhys Meyers has parlayed good looks and smouldering talent into a CV that continues as diverse as it is arresting. However, while the high plateau of Hollywood image and paycheques have so far eluded him despite mainly critical acclaim, his role in the sleeper low budget football film, Bend it Like Beckham, seems destined to change all that. The film continues to take in tens of millions of dollars at the box office ($30 million in the U.S. and $70 million worldwide) and threatens to usurp Four Weddings and a Funeral as the most successful British export of recent years. On the back of this success, the influential industry website, www.imdb.com, has placed Rhys Meyers at the top of its Star Meter ratings –ahead of competition like Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom, Edward Norton and a certain Colin Farrell.
Having worked with Farrell in the 1997 Irish produced film, The Disappearance of Finbar, Rhys Meyers smiles at the different paths this pair of former debutants have taken in the last few years. “Colin was always a party man, even back in the making of Finbar. And yeah, he did have a certain look about him — there was a heavy masculine edge that brought him a huge amount of female attention even in those early days.” He credits much of the Dubliner’s present success to the experience gained over his long stint on the Ballykissangel television series. “I grew up in front of the camera, getting the break in Michael Collins was as much a blessing as it was a curse in terms of my preparation for acting. I knew nothing. I made all my mistakes publicly. Colin had all those years in Ballykissangel to learn his craft — when he did make his mistakes they were not as glaring as they might have been in a feature film.”
SHIFTING SANDS OF DISCOVERY
“I’m grateful, for getting the early break I did and pretty much working full time since I started — but I do regret not having come through the ranks of amateur drama and stage that so many other actors have. There’s an element of seasoning there that stands to you when you get to the bigger stage.”
Proving that the pool of talent in the movie big leagues whittles down to a constant handful, Rhys Meyers admits to having competed with Farrell for the breakthrough role in Tigerland. “I was in the States when Joel Schumacher was casting for it, I knew it was a powerhouse role. When Colin got the part, I was livid with my agent for not getting me in the room — she said ‘relax, it’s just another job,’ and I’m saying, ‘you don’t understand, this is the job.”
As is often the case in the shifting sands of discovery, the patronage of industry veterans provided the essential leg-up to Farrell’s route to $8 million paycheques. “It helped that Kevin Spacey spotted him on stage at the Donmar Warehouse in London, it helped that Schumacher immediately cast him in Phone Booth right after Tigerland, it helped that Spielberg noted the attention and auditioned him for Minority Report. He hit a slipstream. That old Irish phrase, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know — same thing in Hollywood, believe me.”
TABLE MANNERS IN MANHATTAN
While the physical Rhys Meyers has noticeably matured in a softening of the youthful angles and an ease in conversation that contrasts starkly with the arresting candour often displayed five years ago, he still retains that excitable gush of exuberance likely to pop up at will on anything from backpacking in Nicaragua to table manners in Manhattan restaurants. Simple questions can still tentacle off in myriad directions — witty monologues on life, love and the whole damn thing as seen through the eyes of the man who remembers only too well his former days as a student expelled from the Christian Brothers’ North Mon school aged 14. What may have been missed in the standard academic cycle of his teenage years has become a celluloid school of life he grasps firmly with both hands determined to wring from it all the wisdom available. “The press has often remarked on the fact that my appearance might have been the passport to my success, but, really, as I see it, looks can be something of a double-edged sword. They can restrict you.”
“At the age I am now, I’d expect to find myself in contention for a wider variety of more mature roles, but a boyish look can come against you. The female audience out there don’t really go for young pretty boys, they tend to respond more to that hardness and experience that maturity brings. You’re not that early-20s flake anymore, you’ve gone through that and made your mistakes — you are now the character that your career and experiences have made you. I mean, if it’s a choice between Bilbo and Aragorn, who do you think is gonna get the girl?”
If the challenged artist in Jonathan Rhys Meyers might point toward performances in cerebral fare like Prozac Nation, Gormenghast and B Monkey as pinnacles in a race barely begun, the realist in him understands well William Goldman’s famous dictum on Hollywood that “nobody really knows anything.” Take the massive success of Bend it Like Beckham, for instance. “Timing” he says emphatically, “All about timing. Gurinda Chada set out to make a feelgood movie and delivered exactly that. The fact that it hit so big in the States was probably down to a few factors — not the least of which was coming at a time when the Iraq war and threats of homeland terrorism hung over the country. A happy movie was exactly what people were looking for. Also, of course, you had Posh ‘n’ Becks on a whole lot of talk shows in the US around the same time the film opened so the whole profile was raised even further by that. Timing and luck.”
As a metaphor for his own rise from obscurity to star, Rhys Meyers understands well how important good fortune has been to him ever since the talent scout for Michael Collins spotted him skiving school in a Cork snooker club. “I can’t imagine what I’d be good at if it wasn’t acting,” he says smiling. “I’d be the world’s worst waiter, a crap bricklayer, a dreadful banker. No, the only place they’ll have a total f**k up like me is acting.”
As his 20s recede in the rearview mirror, however, he’s aware all things come at a price. “The stairmaster — that’s what’s in my future. Can you imagine? The guy who has to be dragged out of bed to make his 5am set calls will now have to add an hour of walking to stand still on his daily schedule. Not an easy lark this acting, you know.”
SOMETHING TO GET YOUR TEETH INTO
Having worked almost constantly for the last five years, Jonathan Rhys Meyers displays few visible signs of an affluent lifestyle. Apart from occasional reference to backpacking in the Southern Hemisphere, there are few suitcase stickers from the Maldives, Mustique or other haunts of the high-income bracket apparent. “I bought a place in Morocco a few years back, but I’ve only had a chance to get there once or twice” he says with a shake of the head. “My friends get there more than I do. But it’s a bolthole, a warm place well out of the centre. When the work stops, at least I’ll have somewhere to cry about it all and bore people to death about what it was like to get plastered with Reese Witherspoon” – a roar of laughter. But that’s a P45 for another day, in the meantime, there’s Bond and the chance to join the world’s most exclusive acting club.
Or is there? “Nobody’s approached me about playing James Bond — despite what the papers say.” With Pierce Brosnan contracted for another final outing as 007 this year and Rhys Meyers heading for the respectable 30 mark at the same time, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the hype and fiction of another Irish actor inhabiting this quintessential British creation might yet collide. “Would I be interested? Are you kidding?” With that typical Rhys Meyers outside-the-box take on such matters, however, he’d prefer the arch villain role if the chance arrived. “Haven’t we had enough of those Asian or Slavic megalomaniacs as the villain? What about a bastard son of Bond come back to haunt him. A son intent on killing his father. Now that’s something I could really sink my teeth into.”
Special thanks to Vanessa for transcribing this article.