Young actor will bring Elvis back to the small screen — again
San Jose Mercury News, March 11, 2005
NEW ORLEANS – Just 21 days old on the day Elvis Presley died, high-intensity Irishman Jonathan Rhys Meyers is the latest ascender to The King’s throne.
So here he is onstage at the Scottish Rite Temple on Carondelet Street, where Masons usually call the tune. Preparing to replicate Elvis’ first national TV performance, on the Jan. 28, 1956, edition of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show, Rhys Meyers revs himself by furiously wriggling his hands near his hips.
“Well since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell …” Guitar in hand, he slams into “Heartbreak Hotel,” deftly matching his lips and gyrations with a piped-in recording of Elvis’ one-and-only original. A couple of dozen extras whoop and squeal on cue to help prime the kid’s pump during a taxing regimen of start-and-stop musical mimicry.
It’s another day in the life of CBS’ four-hour “Elvis,” which was scheduled to wrap this week after a nearly two-month shoot. Director James Sadwith, with the acclaimed 1992 CBS miniseries “Sinatra” to his credit, then will have just two months to meet a May 8 premiere date. Camryn Manheim and Randy Quaid also star as Presley’s beloved mother, Gladys, and his controversial manager, Col. Tom Parker.
The production covers Elvis from ages 18 to 33, when he made his now-fabled 1968 “comeback” appearance via an NBC special. So there could, of course, be a sequel, particularly if Part 1 of Elvis somehow holds its own against ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”
“They’d have to pay me a helluva lot of money, baby!” Rhys Meyers, 27, laughs during a break from filming. “I’d become Vegas Elvis then! I’d get my own Colonel on it!”
Then he downshifts. “I don’t know. Let’s see how this one works first. I don’t think it’s an option right now. I’d have difficulty putting on that weight, first of all. I’d have difficulty taking it off, too.”
For now he’s a stick-thin, heavy-smoking daredevil best known for the 2002 feature film “Bend It Like Beckham.” His first response to the idea of playing Elvis is unprintable as he tells it. Then he warmed to the idea of putting himself in the crosshairs of The King’s still fanatic fandom.
“I thought, `Hold on a minute. I’ve gotta be brave. I’ve gotta be brave as I can be.’ It’s like that for any actor. I’m sure it was daunting for Jamie Foxx when they said, `We want you to play Ray Charles.’ But I have the guts to do it, the guts to fall down flat on my face if people don’t like it.”
Many others have gone before him, including pacesetter Kurt Russell in ABC’s 1979 version of “Elvis.” Don Johnson then gave it a go in 1981’s “Elvis and the Beauty Queen,” and Dale Midkiff starred in 1988’s “Elvis and Me.”
The CBS treatment is the first to use Presley’s master recordings rather than sound-alike vocals from the likes of veteran Elvis impersonator Ronnie McDowell. It’s also being made with the “full cooperation and participation of the Elvis Presley Estate,” which isn’t necessarily a plus.
ABC’s 1990 weekly series “Elvis,” which also dramatized his early years, likewise had the full blessing of Priscilla Presley. But largely favorable reviews weren’t enough to save it from a quick cancellation. Its star, Michael St. Gerard, hasn’t had a screen credit of any kind since 1994’s “Replikator.”
As a kid in Dublin, Rhys Meyers was “aware of Elvis Presley’s music, but it wasn’t something I was particularly into until I got this role. A lot of people my age, they get duped into thinking Elvis Presley was this guy in a jumpsuit on a Vegas stage who was very overweight and sweating profusely and then died in the bathroom. This is what you hear when you’re a kid. But I now know he once was a young artist whose medium hadn’t really been invented yet.”
Quaid, a Houston native who “grew up with cousins with the ducktails emulating Elvis,” rejected an earlier offer to play Col. Parker. He’s more comfortable with this script and also newly determined to just say no to lunkhead roles such as “Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure” and the Fox sitcom “The Grubbs,” which never aired.
“I love comedy, but I’m just kind of over it right now,” says Quaid, who received an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in 1987’s “LBJ: The Early Years.”
“I really think it’s an open question as to whether Col. Parker led Elvis astray,” he says. “As long as Elvis had pocket money and could whip out the cash and buy what he wanted for his friends, he was happy.
“The way I’m playing Parker, it’s more of a father-son relationship. The colonel is very adept at sizing people up. From his carnival background, he had a philosophy of either you’re being hustled or somebody’s being hustled by you. In a way he hustled Elvis. He’s selfish in the way he operates, but at the same time he did take care of Elvis’ career in such a way that who could argue with the stature of it. If Col. Tom hadn’t of been there, would Elvis have attained that popularity?”
Quaid is game for a sequel but not sure that the Presley estate is.
“There’s another 10 years, and there are a lot of warts there. It’s amazing how they kept the whole show afloat with what was going down. It’s not as romantic as the early years.”
Elvis and the colonel don’t have any scenes together on this particular day of shooting. This enables Quaid to relax in his downtown hotel while Rhys Meyers keeps his motor running. In the morning he shares a scene with young producer Steve Binder (Jack Noseworthy), architect of Presley’s triumphant NBC special in times when the Beatles were in full flower.
“Let’s be frank,” Elvis is told. “I don’t think most kids know who you are anymore.”
A streamlined King in black leather would put him back on top. But first he had to buck both the colonel and the Peacock network.
“There is a problem, Elvis,” Binder says. “The colonel and NBC want you to sing just Christmas songs. Yeah, well, I think that’s too limiting, and exactly the opposite of what you should be doing. What do you think?”
“I think, let’s do it,” Elvis says. “I think it’s gonna be great, Steve.”
In his next scene, Rhys Meyers must rewind 12 years to Elvis’ inaugural appearance on the aforementioned “Stage Show.” First the future King and his combo are backstage, which in this case is a tiny upstairs room in the Scottish Rite Temple.
“Imagine, being on TV at the same time as Perry Como,” says one of Elvis’ men.
“Perry Como’s a square, man,” says another.
To which Elvis retorts, “Whatcha talkin’ about? I like Perry Como.”
The scene ends with a call to arms of sorts.
“Well, this is it, man. This is TV!” Elvis says, popping to his feet and pivoting smartly toward the new world awaiting him.
“Could you imagine havin’ that for real?” Rhys Meyers asks later while we sit on a concrete ledge of an adjacent balcony. “You can’t act that. That’s something you have to feel inside, and I hope I can portray a little bit of it. But it’s very difficult to feel like The King. If this is good and people like it, then I’ll feel like The King. Then I can sit back and go, `Yeah, baby.’
“But until then, it’s work.”