Boy on Fire
By Dave Calhoun
Mixte, September 2005
He’s charmed Hollywood with his sultry pout, playing rockstars and tearaways. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers talks about working with Woody Allen and donning Elvis’ quiff.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers has a lot of balls. I know this because I’m standing next to the 28-year-old actor in photographer David Bailey’s central London studio and I can see his testicles protruding from within a very tight pair of stylish white briefs. I know this for another reason too: only someone with balls of absolute steel would dare to walk around a photo studio wearing just briefs, a pair of leather cowboy boots and nothing else. “Shall we go and do the interview in the cafe next door?” suggests Rhys-Meyers, trying to keep a straight face despite his crazy costume. “I’ll go in there dressed up like this and say ‘Yeah, can I have a cup of tea please, mate?’”
Twenty minutes later, the actor is lying on the floor of Bailey’s studio, wearing only a pair of jeans and squirming as one of the 67-year-old photographer’s assistants pours cold water all over Rhys-Meyer’s well-toned body for the benefit of the camera. Luckily, Rhys-Meyers gets on very well with Bailey. The two of them have done shoots together several times now over the past few years. “Yeah, I’d like to fuck him”, Bailey jokes cheeily when asked about their friendship, “but he won’t do anal”.
“I’m very free when I shoot with Bailey, and Bailey’s very free when he shoots with me”, Rhys-Meyers later says. “It’s very different when I shoot with some fucking arsehole who I don’t know or like”.
You may have guessed: like his photographer friend, Rhys-Meyers oozes confidence and isn’t afraid to speak his mind; both of which have served this Dublin lad very well. At 28, he’s been acting in films for over a decade, first in his native Ireland and more recently all over the world for directors including Oliver Stone (Alexander), Mike Hodges (I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead) and Ang Lee (Ride With the Devil). His breakthrough role was in Todd Haynes’s 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, the US indie director’s wry take on the 1970s London glam rock scene, in which Rhys-Meyers played the fey, whippet-hipped rocker Brian Slade (a character assumed by most to be a loose take on the early career of glam hero David Bowie).
The spotlight’s back on Rhys-Meyers again now. Earlier this year, he pitched up at Cannes for the world premiere of Woody Allen’s Match Point, the London-set thriller in which he plays the lead character, Chris Wilton, a role not entirely dissimilar to the part played by Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley. Like Ripley, Wilton is an enigma: a pretty Irish tennis coach who works his way into British high society by sagely employing charm, politeness and flattery. Also like Ripley, Wilton secretly harbours an unpleasant dark side fuelled by ambition and insecurity. Despite appearing in all but a few scenes, he remains something of a mystery throughout Match Point, and Rhys-Meyers plays well on the superficiality of his character by pouting and preening his way through the movie.
“He’s slightly Ripley-esque in that he takes on a persona to suit the people he’s involved with. What I like is that he gets away with it and you never know his background. You have no idea of his background; he could have murdered people all over the world. You never know.”
Rhys-Meyers recalls his first meeting with Allen and how he won this coveted role. After just one brief meeting, he was starring opposite Scarlett Johansson in a film that many critics have hailed as a long-awaited return to form for the New York-based director. “I got a phone call from my agent on a Wednesday night saying that Woody wanted to meet me the next day. I was out with friends, having some beers. It was exciting, but I didn’t think much of it. Then the next day I go to this apartment and in walks Woody and says ‘Hey, Jonny, I’m Woody Allen, I’m making a movie, I’m going to present you with a script and if you respect the material, let’s work together’. That was it; that was my audition. Amazing.”
Earlier this year, Rhys-Meyers won a high-profile gig for American television. He played Elvis in a two-part mini-series that drew an impressive 25 million viewers for each episode (“as big as Desperate Housewives”, the actor laughs). “There’s no researching that type of role”, he says when asked how you approach such an icon as Elvis. “It’s Elvis from 18 to 33, so not the fat Elvis, who I wouldn’t have wanted to play anyway”, he explains. “I just approached him as a young musician from the South who’s becoming a phenomenon — and that’s all I thought of. I got the accent and the movements down and let it go from there”.
He is so busy, moving from one job to another, that he doesn’t really have a permanent base anywhere at the moment. Two years ago, he spent five months hanging around and waiting in the desert of north Africa to play a small role in Oliver Stone’s unsuccessful Alexander. It was the sort of soulless experience that he’s not keen to repeat too often, “unless I’ve got a really big part, unless I’m the co-star or the star of it”.
At the moment, he lives with his girlfriend in Camden, north London, but in ten days he will move on again, this time to Hollywood for a few months for another job. “I’m doing Mission Impossible: III”, he says. “It’s an action thing, so I’ve got to go to the gym, work out, and I’ve never done anything like that before. I’ve done a lot of dark, edgy films in my life, but then I also did Vanity Fair, then Alexander, then a Woody Allen film. I like to constantly change, to duck and dive”.
Special thanks to Vanessa for transcribing this article.