The man who would be King
By Gerry McCarthy
Sunday Times, January 9, 2005
His role in Alexander was fleeting but stardom beckons for Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Elvis Presley, says Gerry McCarth
Oliver Stone was being magnanimous. He had agreed to see an unknown young actor from Ireland. The American director was accustomed to deference, respect for his power and submission to his ego. With Jonathan Rhys Meyers, however, he got precisely the opposite.
“When I was 18 years old,” says Rhys Meyers, “I did an audition for U-Turn, and I went in and I told Oliver Stone that his script was shit and it would never make a hit movie. He told me to ‘F*** off’, and the producer rang me and said, ‘Jonathan Rhys Meyers will never appear in an Oliver Stone film’.” He laughs, adding: “And from what I hear of Alexander, I don’t.”
Stone had long forgotten the U-Turn audition when he pleaded with Rhys Meyers to take a supporting role in his latest movie, Alexander, based on the life of Alexander the Great. Rhys Meyers had not forgotten, though — it was one of the reasons he accepted the part. By the time he showed up for promo interviews, Rhys Meyers had yet to get around to seeing Stone’s controversial Greek epic. Moreover, the actor was in no rush to see it.
In the film he plays Cassander, a jealous rival of Colin Farrell’s Alexander. In one sense the part came naturally to Rhys Meyers: he only had to see Farrell hogging the limelight to experience Cassander’s envious emotions. But the 27-year-old actor thinks the movie was a waste of his time.
“I did it just basically to work with Oliver Stone, but there wasn’t enough work in it for me. I shouldn’t have done it. I actually made a point of cutting myself out of two major scenes because I didn’t want to be backroom dressing. I don’t think Oliver really knew what he was taking on.”
Rhys Meyers sprang out of nowhere in the mid-1990s, a fully formed exotic who seemed bound for stardom. Films such as Velvet Goldmine, in which he played an androgynous glam-rock star, proved that he had talent and charisma to burn. But something — or someone — interrupted his trajectory. It was Farrell, who had a small role in one of Rhys Meyers’s earliest films, The Disappearance of Finbar, who became a mainstream Hollywood star while Rhys Meyers was diverted into a succession of eccentric characters.
He played loners, losers and doomed romantics, scheming anti-heroes such as Steerpike in Gormenghast. His characters tended to be sinuously camp, vaguely decadent and slightly unwholesome. His attitude didn’t help, either. When he wasn’t berating directors, he was being voluble in his contempt for fellow actors and the movie business.
“You see some people making $10m on one film and then $100m the next. Orlando Bloom — give us a break. If the guy could string two words together . . . And still he’s earning $12m a movie. It’s a business: it has nothing to do with art. If you think it’s art then get out of it. Go join the Guggenheim. Not that art gives a shite anyway if you exist or not.”
Despite his misgivings about the film world, Rhys Meyers has hauled himself back onto the stardom express. After Alexander he played the lead in Woody Allen’s forthcoming, as yet untitled movie, and this month starts work on an Elvis Presley biopic in which he is cast as the iconic singer. With such high-profile roles 2005 could be the year when Rhys Meyers finally goes global.
The actor has been watching and learning. Surprisingly, given that he spent six months looking daggers at Farrell, he is full of praise for him. “I auditioned for Tigerland (Joel Schumacher’s film about recruits training for combat in Vietnam), and I was furious when I found out that Colin was doing it. But then when I saw the movie, there was nobody else that could make it like Colin made it.
“He was like this beautiful, beautiful cocktail of Marlon Brando in The Men and Montgomery Clift in Red River. He was sensitive and attitude-ish — lawyer-ish — but at the same time so boyish, so sexual, so misled. He played it beautifully. I could never have done that. After I saw the movie I said, ‘Okay, I see what I need to learn’.”
With no formal training, Rhys Meyers has learnt acting the hard way, picking up tips from each successive film, watching other actors and mimicking their stagecraft. At the same time he has gone out of his way to work with certain directors: partly because of the kind of films they make and partly because of their influence.
“If people only knew what I went through. For every one film I’ve got I’ve been turned down for at least 1,500. I’ve been told, ‘F*** off’, ‘Piss off’, ‘You’ll never make it’, from every director in the world — except for the ones that matter. Oliver, he’s difficult. He’s as mad as a hatter. After I finished with him I went on to Woody Allen, and Woody Allen is a master. Stone is a novice in comparison.”
If Allen is the master, then Rhys Meyers plays the uncharacteristically obedient disciple. He refuses to divulge any details about the film, still officially called the Woody Allen Summer Project (unofficially, it is called Match Point). Set somewhere between upper-class English society and the world of competitive tennis, it stars Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson.
He lowers his voice to a dramatic, husky whisper, glancing around conspiratorially as if Allen himself were about to walk in and accuse him of breaking rank. “It’s not a comedy, it has nothing to do with comedy — and Woody Allen does not appear in it.”
He adds: “Woody is a master of working within himself. Woody knows what he is. Woody Allen really comes on set and if it doesn’t work that day, well it’s either his fault, the camera’s fault — whoever’s fault it is, it’s not working that day. With Oliver Stone it’s all on Oliver. He takes everything on. And that’s the difference, I suppose. Woody’s learnt to let things go, Oliver hasn’t. Oliver’s just like a tempestuous boy.”
Part of Rhys Meyers’s fascination is the way he never stops acting. He is always on, always performing and can shuttle through several personae in the course of a sentence. If acting is the expression of some primal need to please, it is easy to see why he is an actor, and easy to understand why he is so dismissive of celebrity.
“I do the work that I can do, but I don’t really care what people like,” he says. “I’m not keeping my pulse on what people are going to the cinema to see because the audience, they’re fickle.”
Earlier in his career Rhys Meyers used to complain that the movie world was, in his parlance, doing his head in. He had endured a difficult upbringing in Dublin and Cork, and the film business only seemed to offer more instability. Now he insists he is more grounded and makes an effort to sound more cynical.
“It’s not strange, it’s not new. If you want to work, if you want to be successful, you have to struggle, you have to travel,” he says. “You have to forgo relationships because they don’t work, which I’ve learnt to my detriment. You have to forgo friends.”
Rhys Meyers’s relationship with his homeland remains problematic. “Ireland’s too difficult, there’s just too many issues,” he says enigmatically, without further elucidation, though he identifies the moribund state of the film industry as a particular problem for someone in his occupation.
“I’m meant to do a film here with Gerry Stembridge, called Alarm, but I don’t think Ireland has a film industry any more. Irish people have not only priced themselves out of the film market, they’ve priced themselves out of the market completely. Now we’re hiring plumbers, carpenters, electricians, welders, farmers, feeders, cattle herders — everything from Poland. We get them cheaper and they work harder. And they haven’t taken to the drink like we have.”
As Rhys Meyers talks, his accent shifts register, beginning with a Dublin rumble then sliding into Corkonian. It’s tempting to think this is the actor’s original voice, but quite possibly he doesn’t have one. He has been a chameleon all his life and only now is he learning to focus his talent.
His next challenge promises to be among his most interesting: giving it some Deep South bubba to play Presley. “I can’t ask Elvis how he did Elvis, I can only perceive how Elvis became Elvis. I’m trying to do my interpretation of how Elvis is. The more raw I can make it the better it’ll be.”
He lets the idea wash over him, as though for the first time. “I’m playing Elvis — from Cork. Can you imagine? They’re paying me a fortune. Jaysus Christ, imagine if I turned them down.”
Not that he’s about to. Rhys Meyers knows that his time has come: time to leave behind the quirky roles and androgynous weirdos, time to show what a chameleon can really do. Time to play the King.