At Home in Oliver’s Macedonia and Woody’s London
By Sharon Waxman
New York Times, November 6, 2005
He’s lanky and looks dangerous, with his ice-blue eyes and wax-white complexion. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who plays an Irish tennis pro flirting with the British upper crust in Woody Allen’s dark new drama, “Match Point” (Dec. 28), greets a visitor at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles wearing a layered grunge look: beat-up leather jacket over hooded sweatshirt over T-shirt and ripped bell-bottom jeans. His cowboy boots are hand-tooled and look as if they cost a fortune. Mr. Rhys-Meyers, 28, has already had a diverse career, acting in period films like “Alexander” and “Vanity Fair” and starring in the CBS mini-series “Elvis” as the legendary singer. A resident of the Chateau for three months while he films “Mission: Impossible 3″ with Tom Cruise (he refuses to describe his character), he greets the waitress by name before whipping out a pack of Marlboro Lights and ordering tea. Then he tells Sharon Waxman about working with Hollywood’s top directors, living in hotels for a decade and maintaining long-distance relationships.
SHARON WAXMAN Where do you live?
JONATHAN RHYS-MEYERS Wherever I’m shooting. At the moment, London. I haven’t bought my own house yet. I don’t get to buy my own house doing Woody Allen films, I’ll tell you that now.
Q You’re always shooting?
A The film I’m making now is my 29th film in 10 years. Do the math.
Q Does that mean you don’t have a family or a significant other, since you move around so much?
A I have a girlfriend. She’s in college in London. She doesn’t follow me, to my great consternation. It’s very difficult to have a long-distance relationship; you have to work so much harder. Her name is Reena Hammer. She’s a nice girl, and I wouldn’t date an actress. There’s only room for one actor in my life and I’m it. Too difficult. On the one hand, they understand the job. But on the other hand, it’s very competitive within the relationship. Two actors, say one becomes a mega-star and the other doesn’t. Happens all the time. So one is getting so much attention, and the other person feels jealous.
Q But you must have loads of friends who are actors.
A No, I don’t have many friends that are actors. It’s a very faux environment. I don’t call people up after films. I have one or two actor friends, but not many. My friend Neal Jackson, who I did “Alexander” with. I’ve become friends with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, from “Mission: Impossible.” He’s a very nice guy.
Q Do you like being an actor?
A It’s the closest thing to real work that I could possibly find that they would pay me for.
Q Were you disappointed at the reception that “Alexander” got? A Yes. I think Oliver made a good movie. It wasn’t as good as I thought it was going to be. But I think people expected too much. It’s the greatest adventure story of all time, between Alexander and the “Odyssey.” And you have Oliver Stone, genius volatile director – you expected something spectacular. Because my part was so small, I didn’t really know what they were making. I spent a lot of time waiting around. It was pretty wild, all us boys together. “Alexander” taught me some very, very good lessons. I really grew up an awful lot on that film. I realized how to make and how not to make movies. You cannot give your best work if you party all the time. It’s not possible. You can do it, for a short period of time. But it demands too much of you now, so you have to take care of yourself physically and mentally to give the best to your work.
Q Was there a lot of partying going on with “Alexander”?
A There was a huge amount of partying going on. Oliver created this very volatile, virile, feral environment. We’d shoot 14 hours, and then hit the pub for four or five. Sleep four and a half hours, go back on set and battle the Persians. It was kind of wild, it was adrenaline. Very true to what Alexander’s army could be. You had 20 young male actors, as his main friends, and then 350 soldiers who’d recently pulled out of Basra and Tikrit – they were all actual soldiers. These guys were constantly living their life to the full, because when they were finished, they were being sent back to the Middle East.
Q Let’s talk about “Match Point.”
A Woody sent a message to an English casting director. I went to London and put myself on tape. Two days later I got a phone call: “Woody wants to meet you.”
Q Are you playing the Woody Allen character?
A I’m not. It’s dangerous trying to be Woody Allen. You can’t be Woody Allen. Every other actor wants to play Woody Allen, but I didn’t idolize Woody Allen the way other actors do. I mean, he’s the greatest living director, but I didn’t iconize him in that way.
Q Does he give you a lot of direction?
A No. If you do it wrong he’ll let you know. Woody would never compliment you on anything. The fact you’re still on set after three weeks is enough.
Q Were you afraid you might get fired?
A Yes. Truly, yes.
Q What was the interaction like?
A [He imitates Woody Allen's voice, speaking nasally and quietly.] “Come on, Johnny. We have the camera set up, let’s shoot it.” No rehearsal. “Let’s shoot it.”
Q I can’t figure your accent in the movie. Is it Irish?
A It’s Irish, but not an Irish dialect. I do so many accents, it doesn’t matter. I made a choice not to make it too Irish. The character wasn’t written Irish. Woody just made him Irish because I was. There’s an in-joke for me in the film, which was being an Irish tennis player, because I’ve never heard of an Irish tennis player. So every time I’d have to say that, I secretly had a little belly chortle. A little Woody-ism. Woody-ality.
Q Are you very Irish?
A What’s very Irish?
Q Are you attached to being Irish?
A Am I in touch with my roots? Yes, I am very Irish.
Q What do you think of the universe in the film? Woody Allen sets his films in upper-class society, and this film is very upper class.
A That’s the London Woody sees. Woody goes to London, he stays at the Grosvenor. It’s the kind of London a man of his age would know; going to the Serpentine Gallery, going to the opera. I’ve known both. I’ve known the world of nothing, and I’ve known the world of having a lot. Truly, truly wealthy people don’t dwell on having loads of money. It just is. Fancy restaurants, fancy sports cars. Champagne.
Q What kind of family do you come from?
A A working-class family. My dad was a musician, my mother was a voluntary worker. When I was 16 I moved in with a family in the Irish countryside who were landed gentry. They’d inherited their 650 acres in 1495. I was working on the farm and I just started living there, and became close to the family. I live there when I go home.
Q You were a farmhand?
A I was. I know, you’d never imagine it. And I was a terrible farmer. You have to be born in the soil to really know it, and love it. It was an Anglo-Irish family. My family is Roman Catholic, but I don’t go to church very much. I’m close to my own family, but I moved there because they had a manor. I’d been kicked out of school, so I had nothing else to do. They have two sons and a daughter; I treat them as brothers and sister.
Q It’s a little bit like “Match Point.” Did that inform your performance?
A Of course it did. Because I had a way of knowing what it was like to have no money, and what it was like to have lots of money.
Q You often make a scary impression in movies. Do you like playing bad guys?
A I find actors who play nasty guys in movies are the nicest guys in real life, and the opposite then goes for heroes. No, I like to play good guys. Some actors really want to have the type of career I have. Working with Woody, and Mira Nair and Oliver Stone and Neil Jordan. But some actors who make two to three million to do commercial films that really aren’t very good quality, they want to be the artistic, intense actors. They want to be Pacino in “Serpico.” But they’re not; they’re “Pearl Harbor,” or “Armageddon.”
Q So you wouldn’t do “Armageddon”?
A I would. But I have not. They don’t see me as that. So I have to slightly change that. Because I have to have an equilibrium, between artistic and commercial. What Hollywood is really looking for is a new Gregory Peck, and I’m not a Gregory Peck-looking kind of guy.