David Bailey vs Jonathan Rhys-Meyers
Blackbook, October/November 2004

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In which a legendary photographer swaps wit and wisdom with Woody Allen’s latest leading man on the absurdity of celebrity, the irrelevance of education, and Michelangelo’s jewelry line.

David Bailey is one of the world’s most famous photographers, almost as well known for his sexual conquests (among them ‘60s model Jean Shrimpton and actress Catherine Deneuve) as for his timeless portraits. The inspiration for Antonioni’s cult movie, Blow Up, Bailey epitomizes a certain kind of brash, working-class Englishman who used his Cockney charm to breach the British class system at a time of radical change.

As a young, 19-year-old actor playing the Bowie-esque Brian Slade in Todd Hayne’s [sic] Velvet Goldmine, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers demonstrated the kind of intuitive flair for the camera that you see in the best of Bailey’s subjects; when the two met some years ago there was an instant rapport that Bailey compares to working with the Stones or Jack Nicholson. With roles this fall in Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair and Oliver Stone’s Alexander, Rhys-Meyers is on a career high that has just been capped with a starring role, alongside Scarlett Johansson, in Woody Allen’s 36th movie. Just off a plane from Ireland, he dropped in to Bailey’s London studio where the two got talking.

JONATHAN RHYS-MEYERS: David, this is the first time I’ve ever interviewed someone, so it’s bound to be fucking shite. So, with all that bollocks, go ahead and tell us about yourself.

DAVID BAILEY: What? [Laughs]

BLACKBOOK: It might be good to start off with how you met.

DB: You were standing on the corner of Dean Street, was it?

JRM: When we first met?

DB: Yeah, and I said, “How much?” [Laughs] I fancied a bit of Irish takeout.

JRM: And I said, “Not on your fucking nelly, fat chance.”

DB: So what was the first question?

BLACKBOOK: Well, maybe we should start with celebrities—

JRM: There are no more great celebrities.

DB: Well, there’s celebrity, and then there’s talent. I’ve tried to avoid so-called celebrities who don’t actually do anything, but it’s all changed. In the ‘60s, celebrities were Stravinsky or Picasso. Now it’s some Big Brother contestant. I mean, Andy [Warhol] got it wrong—it’s not famous for 15 minutes; it’s famous for 15 seconds.

JRM: Yeah, everyone craves attention, everybody wants to be admired. But being admired for just being famous is a slippery slope because you’re going to stop being famous someday and then all your insecurities are going to be back again, without having actually done anything to develop your belief in yourself, or a body of work that will stand beyond three front pages of the tabloids, and a story eight months later to tell everyone how you fucked it up.

DB: They spend six months in the tabloids, and the next six months in the Priory [a famous British treatment center for celebrity addicts].

JRM: Bailey said something very clever that I read on the Internet: If you set out to be famous, you won’t be, but if you go out and don’t give a shit, and do what you want to do, you probably will. And that’s it. People like people who don’t need it. What I’d like, essentially, is just to keep working up until I’m 50 or 60.

DB: How about 70?

JRM: Well, I smoke cigarettes, and that knocks a good decade off [laughs].

DB: Well, think of me—it’s getting close.

JRM: Fame is so transitory now that you can’t keep up. When I was growing up as a kid, I always knew who was at number on in the charts, because it wasn’t so media soaked. We’re not really embracing people anymore. We’re not letting people develop. We always want something new, new, new, straight away.

DB: The English are the worst about new, new, new. Americans love their old heroes. They stick to them for years, but the English don’t want something better, they want something new. Then you get people like Naomi [Campbell], who wants lots of bodyguards, which only make you more vulnerable because they create an atmosphere that’s conducive to violence. It’s like in New York: If you walk down the street thinking you’re going to get mugged, you’re probably going to get mugged. I’ve been hit—people have come up to me and said, “Are you David Bailey?” and I’ve said yes, and they’ve smacked me on the nose.

JRM: Fucking husbands probably [laughs].

DB: But you don’t have to be famous to get laid anymore.

JRM: I fucking can’t. I haven’t had good sex in years. I think it’s an illusion.

DB: I’ll lend you a Viagra—it’ll be better, don’t worry.

JRM: Viagra’s grand. I’ll get a stiffy all night and be running around the room vibrating. But no, women have never thrown themselves at me.

DB: I might sound like an old fart now, but it used to be exciting to chase. Now you don’t have to chase. It’s just there. It’s lost the magic. Except for Jonathan, although if he has a bit of plastic surgery, makes the Woody Allen film, maybe he’ll get laid more. [Laughs] Seriously, though, I don’t meet many people like Jonathan anymore, where I instantly think, There’s something special here. The last one was Johnny Depp, and before that maybe Jack Nicholson. And they don’t have to be good-looking, either. Damien [Hirst] has got it. Julian Schnabel’s got it. You meet the guy and you think, “God, I like this ego,” and you just click. It’s like sex with women. When you’re young, you just walk into a room and think, “I know that woman and we’re going to be together if we want to be together.”

JRM: It’s interesting what you said about ego, because everyone has got one—it’s about the right type of ego, and if you have one that’s relaxed, you can enjoy somebody else’s.

DB: American actors can be difficult. If I ask Jonathan, he’s always got an opinion. A lot of the Americans look at their PR to see what they think. Who gives a fuck! I hate all that. Publicists control everything now, and the magazines deserve it because they gave in to them. The editors should have said, “Go fuck yourself,’ because those people need the magazines as much as the magazines need them. And the magazines are stupid. You’re sitting around waiting for Naomi—and I love Naomi by the way, but I won’t wait around for her—and they’re screaming, “Where is the bitch, she’s a monster, she’s awful,” and when she comes in they say, “Oh, Naomi, how wonderful to see you—what would you like? Would you like some champagne?” and two minutes earlier she was the biggest bitch in the world. So now Naomi thinks it’s normal to mess up people’s lives. It’s not her fault; it’s because she’s been treated like that since she was 17. It’s a kind of disease—a celebrity disease. To want to be a celebrity is a disease. You need a doctor.

JRM: I’ve seen people getting frustrated and having a bitch and a scream because they just want to get it all out, but I love that. A couple of times filming Alexander, Oliver [Stone] would blow up, and I really enjoyed it. He would be a really hard man, I think, to be good friends with—I don’t think I could go around to his house for dinner—but he commands respect, because he comes in with all guns blazing, and you want to ride him out. I don’t think he’s somebody who suffers fools easily. He likes strength, and strength doesn’t always mean you’re the strongest; it means that you can accept that you’re not always the strongest, and then you can ask for help, and with that help you can go and create something fantastic.

DB: The problem is that we don’t have enough lives. I’d like a life as an artist or filmmaker, but you only really get one chance at one thing. It was different during the Renaissance, when you could do many jobs. You could ask Michelangelo to make you a pair of earrings. That’s why I liked those guys, because they wouldn’t be insulted if somebody asked them to make a pair of earrings. I hate people who take themselves too seriously—we’re not changing the world. As much as I love Jack [Nicholson], As Good As It Gets is not going to solve the war in Iraq; Damien’s butterflies are not going to solve Afghanistan. We’re great because we’re poets, and the world needs poets, but we’re not going to solve anything. Once you acknowledge that, you can get on with what you do best.

JRM: I’m 26 now, and I think I’m just getting that. My mid-20s were quite difficult, but now I’m becoming more relaxed with myself, and it’s not that I really know what I want, but I certainly know what I don’t want. I don’t want to be afraid. I was afraid for such a long time—so much insecurity and so much fear. That’s why I’d go to the pub with my friends, to have a couple of beers and try to forget about myself. I don’t do that now—I’m not interested. I’m about to do a film with Woody Allen, and I’ve decided that I’m just going to enjoy the man. For 11 weeks I’m with a man who is one of the last auteurs. I mean, the moment I saw him, I knew I was comfortable with him. I try to be as comfortable as I can be because I was always very comfortable in my sexuality anyway—I was always rather androgynous. I didn’t give a fuck if people thought I was gay or not.

David said something very interesting that I read online, about liking people who take their creation from what’s around them now, today, instead of trying to copy what was around 50 years ago. That’s why David Bowie is so interesting, because he knows that in five or six years the whole music industry is going to change, and they are not going to be ready for it. But Bowie was always slightly ahead of his time. The future is where art is.

DB: Only bad art gets old-fashioned. There’s nothing old-fashioned about Picasso, there’s nothing old-fashioned about Hitchcock. If someone says something is old-fashioned, it was probably no good to start with. Seven Samurai is just as good now as it was 50 years ago. Citizen Kane is just as good. Richard Avedon’s photographs are just as good. The Beatles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” sounds awful now; it was awful then. They didn’t get good until later on. “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is not Cole Porter. And “Michelle my belle.” I mean, give us a break.

BLACKBOOK: We’ve been living in a time now where we fetishize the past. Are you in awe of the past that you helped immortalize?

DB: No, I hate the past. I think you should learn the past—it would have helped if Bush had known the past a bit before he went to Iraq—but I don’t think you should plagiarize or copy it. The only way you can exist is to do things in your own time, and some people are unfortunate because their time runs out. The average photographer or painter usually has ten years at the top, but then you get others like Irving Penn who go on forever. Or actors like John Gielgud or Jack Nicholson, who are timeless.

JRM: Malcolm McDowell, when he did A Clockwork Orange.

DB: It’s also about presence; some people don’t have to be great actors, they just have presence. Kate Moss is not the most beautiful girl in the world, but she’s like Jean Shrimpton. There’s a democratic beauty there that you can’t resist. Everybody loves her. Gays, straights, dogs, cats. And some people can be too good at what they do. Look at Meryl Streep—you long for her to make a mistake. She’s perfect, like Ella Fitzgerald. You think, “Ella Fitzgerald, just sing off-key once in your life, just make a mistake, just let me know you’re a human, don’t be perfect.” And I think you must not be scared of being bad—that was the great thing that Picasso had over Matisse; Matisse was never bad. Picasso was.

BLACKBOOK: What were you afraid of in your mid-20s, Jonathan?

DB: Being 30 [laughs].

JRM: Same thing that I’ve been afraid of all my life. Coming from a small city in Ireland, coming from a working-class background, I was taught in school to be afraid, I was taught to be less. When your peers and adults put you down like that, it can go either of two ways. It can turn you into a fucking caterpillar, it can grind you into the ground, or you can become a butterfly and fly away from it. What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of letting myself be myself. You always worry about what this person thinks, or whether you have to conform to somebody else’s idea. Now, and only now, am I starting to understand that… Jesus, being myself is probably the nicest thing I could possibly be, and it’s definitely going to be the most interesting.

DB: It’s the thing you know how to be best.

JRM: Also, I used to think that in making films I had to put something of myself into it, but I’ve realized that I can do whatever I like with a role. In the last year I was the king of France in the 11th century, I was in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and I was a member of Alexander the Great’s army. Even though I never even lived that, I sort of fucking did live it. I know what it’s like to ride at the head of 50 men with a shield and a sword in my hand and have the battery and cavalry charging down on top of me. Also, it was Oliver Stone directing, so he just put eight cameras around me and said, “Kill, kill!” and people just went for it. And that’s why Alexander’s going to be much more interesting than Troy, because he did it in such a way that he let people be people, and he let emotions come out.

It takes a long time to discover yourself. Of course, I’m going to be a different person at 30 than I am now—hopefully I will have developed, but sometimes you go forward, sometimes you go back, that’s life. Your parents and your teachers try to put you on a straight road, but Jesus—they didn’t tell you about all the fucking intersections along the way.

DB: The excitement lies in never getting it right. If you’re doing something perfectly you should stop doing it, and do something else. I quite like the idea of always being second best, because then you have something to strive for.

JRM: It’s great being the underdog. It’s great walking around the corner and not knowing if it’s going to hit you there and then, instead of waking up in the morning and there are 80 scripts worth $10 million apiece on the doorstep. After meeting Woody, I came out of that room and I was hard! I was walking up the street with a cigarette and nobody could touch me, I was invincible. But Christ, if I can feel that way, and I can create that in myself, why can’t I just turn it on? You can’t, because you need other people’s emotions—other people are very, very important. The more it’s a team effort, the more you can create something fantastic. Like the Rolling Stones; they listened to all the good players, the players that the famous people were learning from. I think Keith Richards is the man of the Stones because he just loved playing his music, and he loved being a rock star, but he didn’t dwell on it too much, you know. Keith was always just cool.

DB: The coolest guy in rock, but you don’t do it because you want to be the best, you do it because you like doing it. It’s the media that has told us that you’ve got to be a pop star, or a fashion designer, or a famous hairdresser, but why not be one of the best plumbers in the world, or the best carpenter, because that’s art.

JRM: That’s the one thing I never got about film, the really big letdown, because your performance is usually in the director’s hands, and you have to trust him very, very much.

DB: Well, trust is everything, that’s the trouble. People don’t trust artists enough; that’s why you have corporate decisions all the time, and they fucking ruin everything, because they don’t trust you. And you can’t explain your process; it doesn’t work that way. If you’re building a brick wall, there’s a rule to making it, but with photography or acting or art, there are no rules. You can’t teach someone to be an artist. When I first saw Picasso it changed my life: He didn’t teach me anything about painting or art, he just taught me there are no rules. George Bernard Shaw said he wasted ten years of his education in school.

JRM: I think that being kicked out of school at 14 was the biggest advantage for me in becoming an actor, but also in being somebody who could walk into any room with someone of any educational breeding. I used to hang around the streets an awful lot. That’s how I learned to act. I used to steel off people, and you can’t steel off people, or become a pool hustler, as I was, without playing a part. They don’t prepare you for the real world at school; they prepare you for an exam at the end of it.

DB: That’s what’s wrong with education—they want people to be educated; they don’t want to teach them imagination. The schools want dull children who are going to become lawyers and accountants. All those schools have never had a Michelangelo or a Damien Hirst, because they upset the apple cart too much. Education is stupid; it’s just 20 people in a room learning exactly the same thing, but when you get a rebel who says, “I think this is a load of bollocks,” they chuck him out. The only advantage to youth is being naive and stupid, and it’s because you’re naive and stupid that you break the rules. I mean, who wants to grow up being Tony Blair?

Moderated by Aaron Hicklin

Special thanks to Vanessa for transcribing this article.

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