The Sweet Hell of Success
By Ann McFerran
Sunday Times magazine, August 8, 2004
Dark. Decadent. Difficult. And that was before Jonathan Rhys Meyers became famous. Now as the lead roles and plaudits pile up, can the boy from Cork take the pressure?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers has, he tells me more than one personality. There’s Johnny, the 27 year old Irish actor with a string of glittering credits, who’s highly temperamental but touted by director’s as a stellar talent in the making, the next Johnny Depp. This one lives a slightly unreal life out of a suitcase and on film sets, creating a series of magnetic roles, most recently as George Osborne in Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair, and Cassander in Oliver Stone’s Alexander. Then, in contrast, there’s the self-described “stupid little imp” who’s most at home on a farm in County Cork. This personality goes for long walks in the countryside, talking silage and sick calves with his adoptive family who “don’t give a shit about Hollywood”. In the week we first met he was offered no fewer than six big roles. Then, when we last met, he was with Woody Allen in London, playing the lead in a typically top-secret Woody film with no title, opposite Scarlett Johannson.
The first time we meet he is crouched in a corner of Soho House’s upstairs bar, a wraith-like figure on his mobile to Christopher Crofts, the Cork farmer who has been a father figure to Rhys Meyers since he was 15. He has spent the afternoon being photographed and looks less like a film star than a fashionably wasted art student. When you take in the fine detail of this male beauty in all its androgynous splendour — the full red lips, the wide grey-green eyes, the chiseled features, an insouciant gaze — and when Johnny Rhys Meyers starts talking in his husky Cork brogue, you start to understand what all the fuss is about.
His legs are entwined around each other, drinking alternatively out of a glass of beer and an even larger glass of milk, he pushes two fish cakes around his plate before settling into a pack of Marlboros. At times he seems like a combination of the brilliant, tormented actor Daniel Day-Lewis (who also “becomes” every character he plays) and the super-shallow Graham Norton, camping it up outrageously, shrilly mimicking his fellow actors and directors and being very funny. Actually, Rhys Meyers doesn’t do comedy. “I’ve always played what I know: dark, intense, extreme characters. Besides, I’m not sure if people would get it if I played….” He unwinds is legs and goes into a verbal frenzy: “….a shit, bugger, bugger, shit, fuck, fuck, terribly twee Hugh Grant sort of guy”.
Listening to this colt-like creature embark on a fairly bonkers stream of consciousness, which appears to be fuelled by something other than a desire to emulate Joyce, can make you, if you’re the maternal type, yearn to put your arms around him and say: “Johnny, just relax, you don’t have to try so hard.” It can be a dazzling but confusing performance. His cheeky charm and self-possession also hint at the crippling insecurities “everyone” tells you about. Julian Fellowes, who wrote Vanity Fair’s screenplay says: “Jonathan so evidently enjoys his own beauty, and boy, do I envy him! If only we could all have walked into parties at the age of twenty-something and know we’re doing the room a favour!”
Saying goodbye after our first meeting, Rhys Meyers kisses me elaborately, all the while watching me, watching him, watching me — a mother of children his age — smile. I also faintly want to slap him as he drifts off, heels barely touching the ground like a centaur, to grace another room. His guardian, Crofts, tells me: “Jonathan is entirely comfortable with his sexuality; he can camp it up openly and even kiss a man in a way which doesn’t bother him at all.”
Later that week, in Ireland, Rhys Meyers told me: “Sometimes I speak to girls at a bar or party and the question comes up, “Are you straight or are you gay?’ They can’t really tell, so I tend not to protest my heterosexuality or my bisexuality. I give a bit of a wry smile and a little wink. It’s more fun for them and for me that way.” Has he ever been gay? “No” he says “Never.” You seem hetero but… I begin. “That’s showbiz!” he smirks.
Pretending to be someone else is what he loves to do more than anything else. “Of course he’s a brilliant actor” says Crofts, “because he’s acted all his life; it’s the only way he could cope.”
Born Jonathan O’Keefe on July 27, 1977 (he changed his name to Rhys Myers in 1992 — Meyers was his mother’s surname), he grew up in a tiny council flat in a rough area of Cork. When he was three, his father left home with his two younger brothers. Crofts, and Anglo-Irish farmer, now 64, with a family of his own, knew the family. “His mother drank a lot and didn’t seem able to cope with looking after him properly”, he recalls. On this subject, Rhys Meyers tells me: “I had a lot of rejection in my childhood. And when you’re rejected you can’t accept love and certainly can’t give it. Of course I looked for an industry which has that much rejection, where I’d be rejected.”
On playing the lead role of Steerpike in Gormenghast, he says: “The evil in that character comes from his loneliness and rejection. All he wants is love and respect. He thinks, ‘If I’m king of the castle, someone will love me.’ It’s about wanting to be cuddled more than anything else.” But young Johnny got few cuddles at home and has said that his mother’s unhappiness rubbed off on him. At school he felt isolated. “I didn’t get on with the teachers. I felt different to the other kids.”
At 10 he was cast as Buttons in the school pantomime, Cinderella. He remembers shaking in the wings until the teacher pushed him on stage. “I slid on my arse from one side to the other. When I hit the ground I thought, ‘I’ve two options: I can run away and cry, or I can get up and carry on.’ Everyone was laughing and my mother was saying, ‘He’s not mine; he’s not mine.’ I stood up and said, ‘Terrible icy weather, Cinderella.’ Everyone thought it was part of the play, so I got away with it. After, I thought, ‘Jaysus, that’s not bad. I can do this — me and my porky pies.'”
Creatively improvising his porky pies to protect himself is still a strong temptation for him. “We human beings are fantastic creatures, because we’re so very adaptable,” he says. “Acting is so near to the edge and precarious, competitive and vulnerable. But vulnerable to me is very dangerous, because vulnerable is someone who feels an awful lot. You have to be a very powerful person to realize your vulnerability.”
At 14 he was expelled from his Christian Brothers school and began hanging around Cork’s pool halls. While playing the arcade game Quasar, he met Crofts, a devotee of the game. “Quasar involves a lot of hanging round chatting, waiting to play,” Crofts tells me. “Johnny and I were often on the same team. I bought him a cup of tea. I was very struck by him. I’ll never forget the reaction of a deaf-and-dumb man to him. He wasn’t fancying him but he couldn’t take his eyes off him.” Rhys Meyers asked Crofts if he could stay on his farm for a few days. “It wasn’t particularly kind of me to agree,” says Crofts. “Remember, a farm has plenty of space and there’s always food on the table. I’m not a psychiatrist but I could see he had terrible insecurities. Everyone needs to live on a farm because it brings you down to earth.” Was he struck by the boy’s plight? “No” replies Crofts, “I always felt he chose me. I, personally, am gay, but I’ve never fancied him. We’ve always had a father-son relationship. I could see he needed stability and structure in his life — and a phone.”
Rhys Meyers is slightly younger than Crofts’s eldest son, Alex, who has recently taken over the running of the farm. (Crofts also has an older son and younger daughter.) “Johnny is exactly the same age as the son I lost, when he was 5 months old. That son is buried on my land and Johnny often visits his grave.”
Crofts can legally sign documents when Rhys Meyers is away, but he isn’t his legal guardian. “Our relationship has grown into a friendship. Nothing more, nothing less. After the intensity of filming coming home to a farm is very important to him.” Eyebrows were raised in certain film circles about their relationship, but I believe it is as they described: a good friendship and a much needed secure home base. “They really know me well on the farm,” Rhys Meyers says. “They’ve seen me with the worst bed-hair ever, lounging around the house smoking cigarettes.”
Shortly after Rhys Meyers moved into Croft’s farm, David Puttnam’s casting agents came into Cork looking for extras for War of the Buttons. They saw Rhys Meyers and gave him a screen test. “The camera loves you,” Puttnam told him. “And I love the camera” came his reply. Briefly he was considered for the leading role in the film, but was later dismissed for being “too knowing” for the part of a 13 year old. He was terribly disappointed. “I thought I never wanted to put myself through the process of being rejected again. Then I thought, ‘If I got that far, I might as well chance my arm again.’ I spent months traveling to Dublin for auditions. Soon after, Neil Jordan took a chance on him in the film Michael Collins, casting him as the assassin who killed Collins. Just before filming started, Rhys Meyers went with friends on holiday to Thailand. The trip turned into a series of mishaps and misadventures, climaxing with our would-be star passing out at Bangkok’s departure gate after smoking too many cigarettes and eating too many chocolates. But somehow he made it to his first day’s filming, alongside Alan Rickman. “Michael Collins was a doddle,” he says now. Roles began to pour in. “When I started making films I grew up very quickly,” he says, “but in certain ways I didn’t grow up at all. Film-making is Peter Pan time. As actors we’re slightly immature and very looked after, so lots of big stars end up not being able to take care of themselves. I can’t stand the thought of being like Dirk Bogarde, who couldn’t even write a cheque.”
For the boy who once stole to survive, the world of film location was the family life he’d never had. Even as we talk at Soho House, the tab for the fish cakes and Marlboros is invisibly paid for. He tells me that he’ll make his own way to his hotel, but as he’s staying at the Groucho Club, 100 yards up the street, it’s hardly the ultimate challenge.
The daily life of an in-demand actor can be a series of surreal impossibilities, he tells me. “One night, when I was making I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, I was drinking with [the director] Mike Hodges and Malcolm McDowell. The next morning I was in Brixton having a cup of tea, then I’m dragged off by two men in tuxedos and Malcolm is raping me over a tyre iron. How can you share that with family and friends? How can you tell them, ‘I was raped at 8.30am, then I had chips and peas for lunch, then I killed someone’?” With no formal acting training, he “becomes” every part he plays. This, he says, means “I take and give away parts of my own character that I’ve never shaken off.” To Brian Slade, the ruthless 1970’s bisexual rock star he played in 1998’s Velvet Goldmine, he says he gave vulnerability. He was 19 when he took this role — the youngest on the film’s set by six years. He also had an affair with the leading lady, Toni “Muriel’s Wedding” Collette, which lasted a year. “She’s a good woman but I wasn’t mature enough,” he says. For the Cannes premiere of Velvet Goldmine, he flew in from the Missouri set of Ang Lee’s Ride With The Devil, where he was playing the “cold, unforgiving killer” Pitt Mackeson. “I was being paid shite, so when I had to go to Cannes I thought, ‘Bollocks!’ I turned up in a civil-war suit, weighing eight stone [normally he weighs 10Ã‚Â½] and talking with a Missouri accent. I was so unrecognizable they wouldn’t let me into the premiere. At the after-party I sat in front of a poster of myself, talking to two girls who didn’t even know I was in the film.”
Velvet Goldmine — primed to be a huge hit — bombed. Ride With The Devil, and Titus, followed suit. In 2001, Rhys Meyers auditioned for The Loss Of Sexual Innocence. Its director, Mike Figgis recalls: “He marched in and talked nonstop about his hair. After three minutes I offered him the part. He’s extraordinarily talented, but his terrible insecurity means you’ve got to consider the effect on the other actors. He’s like Robert Downey Jr with his ability to extract sympathy and protectiveness from everyone around him.”
After Figgis’s film, he appeared in Gormenghast. “He’s one of those fabulous creatures,” says its director, Andy Wilson. “He acts like a rock star, because if he’s not satisfied with what he’s done, he goes and beats up the dressing room.”
Directors may speak fondly of Rhys Meyers, but his fellow actors often find him difficult. “Mad and maddening,” say some, “but don’t quote me.” “Very talented,” they all add.
In Bend It Like Beckham, he played the hunky football coach, Joe, opposite Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra. Rhys Meyers says: “Joe is the most normal and challenging character I’ve played. I wanted to make him a regular guy who goes to the cinema once a week, then has a bag of chips.” Knightley remains very fond of her co-star. “He’s a completely beautiful, vulnerable human being,” she enthuses. “And his vulnerability makes him absolutely mesmerizing to watch on screen.” Last year when Knightley was in LA doing publicity for Pirates of the Caribbean with her mother, Sharman MacDonald, whom she travels with (Knightley has no PA or PR), she had tea with Rhys Meyers at LA’s Four Seasons hotel. When MacDonald joined the couple, Rhys Meyers suggested they go for a cigarette. “We sat shivering and smoking and talked for ages,” recalls MacDonald. “I thought he was a sweetheart, but I worry about him in this business.”
Crofts shares her concern, “He has his agents and PR people, but he needs someone to keep an eye on things for him. Jonathan has a huge hunger to succeed but he also has these huge insecurities. I went to see him in Rome when he was making Titus, with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. We went to dinner with Anthony Hopkins. Halfway through, Anthony broke down crying, saying he’d never work again. Most actors are screwed up, and there’s no use telling them how wonderful they are because they don’t believe it, but they need to hear it every minute.”
Might a steady relationship help? “Johnny loves beautiful girls,” says Crofts, “and beautiful girls throw themselves at him all the time. But he breaks their hearts, because how can he have a relationship when he’s not happy with himself?”
Rhys Meyers says he’s been in therapy, and then adds: “But life is therapy.” He says he’s fallen in love only once, with a Dublin girl called Chacha. He describes in mock Shakespeare how they met: “In St Stephen’s Green, where we set our scene. She was beautiful, with eyes like a kitten and a gap between her teeth. Gorgeous. I was so absolutely besottedly in love with her that I couldn’t speak to her.” Eventually, Chacha took the initiative and turned up at Crofts’s farm. Rhys Meyers sums up his first love story in Mills and Boone mode: “Together we were dynamite, but I was away a lot. We needed different things in our lives, but she’ll always be my first true love.” He sounds much more himself describing his portrayal of George Osborne in Vanity Fair, due for a September release. “I looked like something out of Quality Street” he cackles. “George is the ultimate bastard. It was daunting how naturally it came!”
Far more demanding was his most recent role in Oliver Stone’s Alexander, in which he plays Cassander, the rival to Colin Farrell’s Alexander. Crofts says: “The set of that film was a heavy scene — pretty decadent. Johnny’s part had a lot to do with jealousy, which wasn’t great for him because he does go into his part — so he was angry, jealous and upset for most of the six months shoot.”
Stone was determined to instill his actors with mistrust and competitiveness. “So I focused on that,” says Rhys Meyers. “‘Why aren’t I Colin Farrell? Why aren’t I king?’ As bad as Cassander feels in the film, Johnny has to feel just as bad. I upset myself quite a bit and gave my ego a battering, which made me sad; Oliver knew that.”
To help his actors become brutal warriors, Stone had them attend, in character, a boot camp in the Moroccan desert with 200 Moroccan and American soldiers. Rhys Meyers tells me: “On the first day of battle, Stone said, ‘I’m sick of seeing people being heroes in this war. I need a coward.’ So everyone else is being a he-man, going, ‘Hey, look at me, wanna shag?’ And I have to ride into battle, cut my own arm and let myself down.” As he rode away, Rhys Meyers fell off his horse, which reared and kicked him in the face. “There was blood all over my face. Colin rode over and said, ‘Jaysus! Your lip’s a bit swollen, but don’t worry, you’ll be grand’ People thought I’d be off home, and it caused me a loss of confidence, but it was part of who Cassander was.” What do you have in common with Cassander? “Cassander had to fight every inch to get what he wanted, sometimes using methods that weren’t kosher. Like Cassander, my success is totally down to me.”
Later in Ireland, Crofts reveals that Rhys Meyers — after my first interview with him — went to a party hosted by Val Kilmer, who also starred in Alexander, at London’s Dorchester Hotel. “I wouldn’t have been happy at him going, because those parties can be wild. But he knows he must keep himself together, because it’s leaving scars.”
Recently Rhys Meyers brought his mother a house in “a nice bit of Cork. Her great delight is decorating it. She’s got her life and she’s happy. I’ve got mine and I’m struggling to be content”.
Rhys Meyers was on Crofts’s Cork farm the last time we spoke. That morning, he claimed he’d got up with the milking and cooked lunch. “Its such a relief to be back,” he said. With a voice an octave lower, he sounded much calmer.
And in the immediate future? He groans. “I’m going to tidy my bloody room. I might do a bit of hovering! Very sexy! I might even hoover wearing a pair of gold-lamÃƒÂ© Calvin Kleins!”
Special thanks to Gadhelic for sending this article.