By Edward Helmore
Evening Standard, December 2, 2005
Born in poverty in Ireland, lost in drink on the set of ‘Alexander’, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers has turned a corner to work with Woody Allen and Tom Cruise. It’s time to clean up, he tells Edward Helmore.
With a super-sized plate of scrambled eggs and side order of bacon untouched in front of him, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is holding court on what must be every actor’s favourite subject — himself. He is an engaging character, easily charismatic enough to escape the gravitational pull of his own self-importance. Along with Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy, he’s one of the current pack of handsome Irish bad-boy actors. But if he was short and fat and not very good-looking, what would he do? ‘I dunno,’ he says, not missing a beat. ‘Become a politician.’
Later this month, the 28-year-old Dublin-born actor stars in Woody Allen’s Match Point. It’s the director’s first movie to be shot in Britain, and once again takes up his pet themes of morality and guilt. Rhys-Meyers plays Chris Wilton, a young tennis coach who finds himself socially adopted by a family of grandees, first by his student Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) and then — romantically — by Hewett’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chloe is sweet and dull and makes a good wife; Tom’s girlfriend is a struggling American actress, Nola, played by Scarlett Johansson. Between pitchers of Pimm’s and sets of tennis, the two outsiders in this Home Counties situation hook up, and Chris has a choice: a well-appointed life with Chloe or a roller-coaster with the sexy Nola.
For Rhys-Meyers, as for any actor on the way up, working with Woody Allen is an opportunity and a challenge. Allen doesn’t rehearse his actors; they’re chosen because he sees their qualities in the part. ‘That’s how Woody works. He’s not somebody to discuss a scene for three hours. You have to be prepared to shoot anything at any given moment.’ In other words, with Allen directing, you act yourself. Chris Wilson [sic] is a tennis instructor on the make. So? ‘I’m an actor, so of course I’m on the make. What actor isn’t?’ he says reasonably enough. ‘All the qualities that exist in Chris Wilton exist in Jonny Rhys-Meyers. Woody casts you because he sees the characteristics of the role in you. So you already have 80 per cent of the character before you wake up in the morning and you only have to bring the details to work with you.’
He hasn’t always been so in control. Rhys-Meyers — whose real name is Jonathan O’Keefe — was expelled from a religious school at 14. He describes himself as ‘poor’ and says, ‘It was difficult to really concentrate on maths when all I wanted was a sandwich.’ He ran away from home at 15 ‘because I couldn’t have made a life for myself there’. His mum, he admits, was ‘not a very responsible woman’. After hanging out doing odd jobs in pool halls, he was befriended by a man called Christopher Crofts, whose Cork farmhouse he now calls home. Crofts is gay, although he has sons of his own, and took Rhys-Meyers in, in the hope, he has said, of allaying the young man’s ‘terrible insecurities’. Rhys-Meyers admits that he has had a lot of therapy, but is realizing that ‘nobody can give you a magic pill that makes you feel better’. And although many actors — especially the Irish — are strangers to sobriety, Rhys-Meyers has recently become overtly responsible and goal-orientated. ‘I don’t hell-raise any more,’ he claims. ‘I don’t go out. I don’t go to bars. I don’t drink.’
That wasn’t the case on the set of Oliver Stone’s Alexander where, he says, they all went wild in Morocco. ‘It started on the set. I drank for about a year. Then I realized it just didn’t work for me. I got terrible hangovers.’
In this new incarnation he likes to speak in terms of fulfilling his potential. While in New York, the actor is early to bed and early to rise, and any spare time is spent working out in the hotel gym. ‘Over the last year, I’ve become a gym freak. I go for two hours a day,’ he comments. And he has built a striking physique, narrow at the hips and broad at the shoulders, not unlike that of a young Iggy Pop, the singer whose character the actor played in Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ cinematic love letter to glam rock that brought the actor his first real public attention.
But there is a thoroughly rational reason for his attitude to working out. ‘Vanity is very important, because if you want to keep working at 44, you have to take care of your body at 26 or 27,’ he explains, continuing. ‘When you’re 30, things start falling around all over the place cos that’s genetics and biology. You have to deny yourself that third bowl of pasta or the fifth gin and tonic.’ And in addition, he says, ‘Any frustration I might have, I take out In the gym.’ No surprise then that, like Tom Cruise, Rhys-Meyer[s] does his own stunts: ‘I have to be crazier in different ways — snowboarding, riding, doing things that are slightly dangerous.’
Still, occasional dramas involving Rhys-Meyers make it into the press. Earlier this year, on the eve of the Alexander premiere, he was in a London police station, accused by his student girlfriend, Reena Hammer, 18, whose father owns the spa at the top of Harrods and whose mother is Ruby of Ruby & Millie make-up fame, of hitting her. Rhys-Meyers, in turn, accused Hammer of bodily harm, and the pair were both cautioned for common assault. The actor says the reports are rubbish. ‘We just had a loud argument and one of the neighbors called the police. So we had to go down to the police station and apologize to the neighbors for the shouting and screaming.’ Things are obviously back to normal as the pair live together in a flat in Camden.
Nowadays, he says, he takes pleasure from strict self-control. He likes to see himself as a kind of Spartan. ‘Self-denial is an important thing. There’s a great high in it.’ And anyway, the alternatives are sobering. ‘It’s fun to go wild, but it’s not much fun to end up overweight, unhealthy and dead before your time…like Elvis Presley (whom the actor recently played in a US biopic and for which he was nominated for an Emmy).
‘Call me boring. Call me an old granny. But that’s the way it is for the time being. I’ve got too much to do to jeopardise it by partying and misbehaving and not concentrating on my job. Come back in three years and maybe I’ll be hanging out the window of the Chateau Marmont with two bottles of champagne…’
And he’s off actresses. Like his friend Colin Farrell, he’s slain many, among them Asia Argento, Toni Collette, Rachael Leigh Cook, Estella Warren. But no more, thank you. ‘There’s only room for one actress in my life and I’m it.’ Get two together and the situation soon becomes attention-competitive. ‘You have to have a pretty big ego to get up in front of a camera at 8:30 in the morning and pawn yourself as somebody interesting,’ he points out reasonably enough. ‘Nobody is interesting at 8:30 in the morning.’
This turn toward discipline can be attributed in part to time spent on Mission: Impossible: 3, the film he has been shooting with Tom Cruise. Rhys-Meyers hasn’t become a Scientologist, he hasn’t been asked to take Scientology lessons and there isn’t a proselytizing tent on set. ‘In the whole four months we’ve been shooting, I haven’t heard Tom utter the word Scientology once,’ he says. Beyond that, he’s sworn — in fact, signed — to secrecy. But he adds that he has met Katie Holmes, Cruise’s fiancee. ‘She’s a great girl. Nice. Smart.’
It wouldn’t be surprising if he weren’t taking a few pages from Cruise’s book. Over the course of his career he’s played loners, romantics, anti-heroes, such as Steerpike in Gormenghast, or the spoilt young blade George Osborne in Vanity Fair, all in the same slightly decadent fashion. But now he’s looking for the main hit — a movie that will establish him as a Hollywood start to balance his artier, minor-key movies.
The actor says he’s ‘motivated to reach his potential’, and since he’s a master of transformation, as quick as a whip, and with disconcerting ability to change accents and character as he goes, there’s every chance he’ll make it.
‘But I’m not into money. Money gets you into a lot of trouble,’ he adds. ‘People who make a success of their talent in the entertainment industry are usually working class, and unfortunately they don’t know how to handle it. That’s why you see footballers with their flash cars and their cheap girlfriends because they don’t know how to deal with it. All they know how to do Is buy ten grand’s worth of Gucci, drive a $250,000 Bentley and live in Beckingham Palace.’ Given those views, it’s not surprising to find that he’s somewhat smarter with his own money — buying his mother a house near Cork, a flat for himself in Morocco and investing in a supermarket in Warsaw. With other actors, I wonder? ‘God , no. Are you kidding? I’d never do that,’ he reacts quickly, adding, ‘With a foundation of Irish farmers who invest abroad.’
The actor has already come a long way from the pool bar in which he was discovered just over ten years ago. It hasn’t all come easily. ‘For every role I’ve got, I’ve lost 200. When young actors ask me how I got into it, I can’t tell them cos I was just lucky and ran with the opportunity.’
Sooner or later, he may turn from acting to ‘the other side of the camera to see somebody else cringe’. It could be funny, too, of course. And it’s doubtful he’ll take much in the way of disobedience from actors and actresses. ‘If an actress said to me she wasn’t going to take off her bra, I’d fire her. The part says naked, so get naked, or I’ll find an actress who will.’
There’s a scene in Match Point in which Rhys-Meyers covers Scarlett Johansson in baby oil. It’s diverting if only because it looks gratuitous. So whose idea was that? ‘It was Woody’s idea,’ says the actor. So will he ask his actors to play with baby oil? Well, maybe, but he cautions, ‘You’d have to have a couple of gold statues on your mantelpiece before you can start demanding that…’
Special thanks to Vanessa for transcribing this article.