By Nicholas Barber
Wonderland, December/January 2006
Heralded as one of Britain’s brightest young actors, Jonathan Rhys Meyers already has an impressive CV that should have seen him make the big time long ago. Somehow it has eluded him. Until now, reckons Nicholas Barber
The summer before last, Jonathan Rhys Meyers was slaving away on Woody Allen’s latest film, Match Point, a job that required him to spend a fair amount of time rubbing baby oil into Scarlett Johanssen’s back. “It’s all in a day’s work, really,” says the actor who put his all into the scene. “Just like changing a light bulb. I hurt my hand the day before, so I had to make sure I hid my swollen hand — a little bit of insider info for you. It does look really sexy, though. I remember seeing the film at Cannes, sitting next to Scarlett, and my girlfriend was sitting in the row behind. When it got to that scene, she was kicking the back of my chair. I turned round and she said, “I’ll fucking kill you!”
This is not the kind of juicy story I was expecting from Rhys Meyers. I hadn’t quite grasphed the concept of acting — the whole pretending-to-be-someone-you’re-not idea — but I assumed he’d be a little more like the character he plays in Match Point. The film is an operatic update of The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Age of Innocence and Allens’ own Crimes and Misdemeanors, and it stars Rhys Meyers as an Irish tennis pro (“Which would never happen, by the way,” he notes. “I have never heard of an Irish tennis player.” who tiptoes up the social ladder to the heights of the English aristocracy, but risks it all by having an affair with his brother-in-law’s American girlfriend — the aforementioned Ms Johanssen. Throughout the film he radiates a forbidding frostiness. With his upper lip curled into a permanent sneer and his icy eyes veiled by feminine lashes, he could be an alien being who’s here to study an inferior race. And it stands to reason that someone who looks as if he’s just wandered off Michelangelo’s sketchpad must be similarly cold-blooded in real life.
He’s not like that at all. Even though he’s on the phone from the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, Rhys Meyers chinwags as freely as if we were face to face in a bar. He’s as unguardedly mouthy as his mate Colin Farrell, with a dash of Graham Norton’s primly camp bitchiness thrown in, volunteering a sensational anecdote about a famous acquaintance at the drop of a hat, usually employing several accents and several more swear words, and rounding it off by crooning an Elvis number or doing an impression of some Irish country folk having a knees up. It doesn’t take long to be reminded that this Dublin-born 28-year-old was expelled from school at 15 for truancy and did his first audition in a pool hall in Cork without ever having been to drama school.
“God no!” he splutters, at the mention of formal training. “Spend fucking two years trying to be a tiger? ‘Be the tiger! Rarrr!’ Fuck that! I know some great actors out there who will never be movie stars, even though they’re very handsome and very talented. On film, it’s something you are or you’re not. It’s not something you can acquire or learn at drama school.”
Flashback to 1998, and you’d guess that a movie star was something Rhys Meyers definitely was. He was a 19-year-old unknown when he glittered alongside Ewan McGregor as a Bowie clone in Velvet Goldmine. And soon afterwards he was cast as Steerpike in the BBC’s prestigious Mervyn Peake adaptation, Gormenghast. A bucketful of leading roles were his for the taking.
It didn’t quite pan out like that. Rhys Meyers has worked with big-name directors ever since, appearing in Ang Lee’s Ride With The Devil in 1999, Mike Hodges I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead in 2003 and Oliver Stone’s Alexander last year. His celebrated cheekbones have also popped up in several frothy mainstream hits, notably Bend It Like Beckham and Vanity Fair. But he’s always lurked somewhere in the supporting cast, with nothing like the profile he had when Velvet Goldmine came out. Now, at last, his name is being penciled onto the A-list, and this time he feels like he’s earnt [sic] it.
“If I’d been offered million dollar roles and become a superstar at the age of 22, I probably wouldn’t have a career by now, ” he says. “But I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years. I’ve done my streetwalking, cap in hand for auditions. I’ve done that. Overnight success takes longer than one night, and a lot of it has been drudgery. I’ve had great times, too. Incredible experiences. But I wish I’d taken a photograph of every fucking car park I’ve ever lived in, because I’ve lived in car parks all over the world, from Swansea to Singapore. That’s all you see as an actor: car parks and trailers. I’ve got more affinity with an itinerant tinker than a big star, you know what I mean?”
All his car park time paid off three times over in 2005, in Match Point the has a role so central that, while most actors in Allen films are only allowed to read the scenes they’re in, Rhys Meyers’ ubiquity meant that he was one of the few to have the whole script. “People would come up to me on the set and whisper, ‘What’s the film about?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m not telling you. Just play your fucking part. And go home.'”
No male actor, bar Woody himself, has ever had such a major part in one of his films, but despite spending “the first two weeks concentrating on not getting fired”, Rhys Meyers found his experience of an Allen set to be a relaxing one. “I think he’s one of the most exceptional film directors,” he says, “but I wasn’t a Woody Allen freak, so that made it easier to work with him. I wasn’t idolizing him, even though there was this iconic figure on the set every day. He was just the old guy eating a muffin and telling me what to do.”
Also in 2005, Rhys Meyers received an Emmy nomination for his starring role in a mini-series about Elvis Presley — the reward for a schedule of 16-plus-hour days during a Louisiana winter.
“Hard fucking work, that,” he says. “I remember one scene that we started shooting at two o’clock in the afternoon and I didn’t walk off that set till twenty past seven in the morning. That’s a long fucking day. And the last shot I did was a close-up. They always do that. [American showbiz drawl] ‘Yes! It’s 6:15 in the morning! Let’s get Jonny’s close-up!’ I was like, ‘Fuck off! Close-ups are eight in the evening, just before dinner!”
If an Emmy nomination and a Woody Allen film on the festival circuit weren’t enough, this has also been the year of his first absolutely certain, copper-bottomed blockbuster smash. As we speak, he’s shooting Mission: Impossible 3. And while he’ll be executed on sight, probably, if he reveals anything about his role, he doesn’t mind sharing his wide-eyed appreciation of ‘the Tom Cruise machine’.
“You’re talking about arguably the most successful, most famous and probably the richest actor of all time,” he gushes. “So it’s quiet extraordinary to see the Tom Cruise machine pushing forward. It’s a finely, finely tuned machine. People see the image of Tom in the newspapers — the millions of dollars, the beautiful girlfriend. But what’s extraordinary is actually seeing Tom at work, seeing how much he loves life. He doesn’t drink or smoke cigarettes — nothing will interfere with his ability to live life.”
When Neil Jordan cast Rhys Meyers in Michael Collins in 1996, he wrote that he’d found an actor “who looks like a young Tom Cruise”, so it’s perhaps inevitable that Rhys Meyers sees his co-star as something of a role model. What in particular has he learnt from his lookalike?
“It’s his production saavy,” he says. “He’s been on so many film sets, and been in so many big movies. And maybe I’ve learnt about courage from Tom, as well. He does all of his own stunts, so I’m learning how to block out any fear — because, essentially, the more stunts you can do, the more screen time you have. I’m considering taking a stunt course after this. I tried one stunt in Mission: Impossible 3 where I’m supposed to be climbing up these rafters, 50 feet up, and I just couldn’t do it. Because not only did I have to climb up the rafters, I had to do it looking as if I was walking down the street with an ice cream in my hand. You’ve got to make it look comfortable. I can’t be up there looking as if I’m about to vomit.”
Tom Cruise aside, he has another role model in mind. “Eventually I’d love the Daniel Day-Lewis scenario,” he says. “Get to the point where you’re getting four or five million a film, then just do one film every five years, and make sure it’s brilliant and you get nominated for an Oscar. And then go away to the Irish countryside in between times and make shoes. That’s the plan for me.”
Special thanks to Vanessa for transcribing this article.