Man in the mirror
By Shane Watson
Sunday Times, Style section, December 19, 2004
Dark, dazzling, vain and insecure, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is grooming himself for stardom. For this actor, says Shane Watson, image is everything
Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the flesh delivers much the same impression as he does on screen. On the one hand, he is fragile and pretty, with a walk straight out of Zoolander, pointy cowboy boots scissoring one in front of the other, shoulders shimmying in his white vest and khaki jacket. On the other, there is a feral quality about him: he has the pallor of someone who is never long separated from a drink or a Marlboro Light, which it turns out he isn’t. For lunch, he orders a burger, which he snatches at like a wolf, and a Guinness he barely touches. You get the feeling that it’s an appropriate prop for a 27-year-old from Cork, and the first of many.
Image is a crucial ingredient of the Rhys Meyers appeal. He is extraordinary-looking, with cold blue-green eyes, high cheekbones and full, sulky lips that are happiest when in full pout. You may remember his sinister Steerpike in Gormenghast on the BBC, or his Bowie-esque turn in Velvet Goldmine. It isn’t hard to see why the makers of the upcoming big-screen version of Vanity Fair chose to cast him as the spoilt young blade George Osborne. Dazzling, vain and petulant is what Rhys Meyers does standing on his head, and he knows it. When I rave about his and his co-stars’ scarlet uniforms, he says: “I think I looked like the top of a Quality Street tin.” Then he adds: “There’s a point when James Purefoy rolls up his shirtsleeves and he’s standing there with his pool cue. When I saw it, I said, ‘You bastard, that is such a sexy pose. I wish I’d thought of that!”‘
This could well be Rhys Meyers’s moment. Besides Vanity Fair, he is starring in the new Woody Allen, in which he plays the lead opposite Scarlett Johansson, with whom he claims to have flirted unsuccessfully. “Oh, Jesus, more’s the pity. I wasn’t Scarlett’s cup of tea. I don’t think she fancied me at all.” Before that hits the screen, he will appear alongside Colin Farrell in Alexander. The set was, reputedly, fairly wild: “That ‘s what Oliver [Stone] wanted — that wildness, with all the boys. Not like Troy, where everyone had perfect make-up and perfect lighting. And 600 boys on a film set, you know …” He cocks an eyebrow. “It was fun. Maybe a bit too much at one point.”
Rhys Meyers read for the part of Alexander’s best friend, but ended up being cast in the smaller, nastier role of Cassander. This was a disappointment to him, but not a surprise. From his earliest roles — he played the assassin in Michael Collins via the ruthless killer in Ang Lee’s civil-war epic Ride with the Devil — he tends to get cast as the bastard. “It’s because I look like a bit of a bastard and I’ve got a darkness about me. That’s what Oliver said.”
I tell him that he doesn’t seem particularly dark at the moment. Actually, he’s sweet and funny, punctuating his conversation with eerily accurate impressions of Woody Allen, Colin Farrell and Malcolm McDowell — with whom he shares a slightly dangerous, edge-of-madness charm. “No,” he agrees, “but see me in a couple of hours and it might be a completely different story. Actors are the worst quality of person. If I had a daughter who said she was going out with an actor, I’d be, ‘Like f*** you are. Sit down there!’ Actors are naturally insecure. You have to be a little bit in emotional limbo, let’s just say. And I’m your sort of particularly moody actor.”
Discussing what it is that feeds his particular insecurities is a game that Rhys Meyers was happy to play once, but lately he has been burnt, and now his personal life is out of bounds. For the record, it is complex in the extreme. He was expelled from a Christian Brothers school at 14, ran away from home at 15 and was befriended by a man called Christopher Crofts, whose Cork farmhouse he now calls home. Crofts is gay, although he has a family, and has taken him in as a son in the hope, he has said, of allaying Rhys Meyers’s “terrible insecurities”.
“I’ve had lots of therapy,” Rhys Meyers freely admits. “I believe that everyone has to do that at some point, and actors more than most. But, essentially, you have to work on it yourself. Nobody can give you a magic pill that makes you feel better.” The matter of relying on other people seems to be a particular issue for him. “I suppose I have been a bit of a loner, because I didn’t want to get involved with people and then lose them.”
Meanwhile, there are women falling over themselves to look after him — his current girlfriend is Reena Hammer, whose father owns the spa at the top of Harrods — even though he comes across as camper than the Scissor Sisters. There is a large mirror opposite where we are sitting, and every now and then, he surreptitiously narrows his eyes at his own reflection and thrusts out his lips. Once or twice, the light catches some glitter on his cheekbones, which he gleefully reveals is a shimmery face cream. “It does give quite a sheen, but I like that.”
I ask him what exactly he looks for in a woman (previous girlfriends have included Toni Collette, as well as a flirtation — which he denies — with the socialite Victoria Hervey). “I dunno …” he hesitates, lighting another cigarette and looking put upon. “I like beauty.”
The more pressing question is how he will handle stardom if it comes his way in the next year. “I’m 27,” he says, without missing a beat. “I’d like to think that I would be able to handle it as I get older.” Then, displaying disarming self-knowledge, he adds: “I’d like to be nominated for an Oscar, but not get it.” And win it a few years down the line, perhaps? “Oh, God, yes,” he laughs, hysterically. “Jesus, yes!”