The Hotsy-Totsy Jonathan Rhys Meyers
By Graham Fuller
Interview, February 2006
He’s always had the smoldering good looks and swells of tempestuous talent to make hearts melt. So how come it took the movie’s kibbitzing king of neuroses to unlock it all?
Here’s an insolent Renaissance prince for cocktail-hour chitchat in English country-house drawing rooms. In Woody Allen’s Match Point, Jonathan Rhys Meyers gives his most gripping performance yet as Chris Wilton, a failed tennis pro who seizes the opportunity to enter a world of privilege by courting sweet but clueless Chloe (Emily Mortimer), the daughter of a wealthy upper-middle-class businessman. Chris’s undoing is his uncontainable lust for Nola (Scarlett Johannson), the frankly carnal American actress girlfriend of his future wife’s brother. Their trysts have a full-lipped symmetry unlike anything else in Allen’s cinema, which has previously favored the cerebral over the sensual. But as sexy Nola turns shrilly demanding, threatening the lifestyle Chris finds he is unwilling to relinquish, Rhys Meyers nails completely his torturous existential dilemma.
The 28-year old Dubliner has essayed a few decent men in his career, most notably the soccer coach in Bend It Like Beckham (2002), but Rhys Meyers has caught the eye more by playing ambiguous rock legends (Velvet Goldmine, 1998; Elvis, 2005), a snake-eyed Civil War mercenary (Ride with the Devil, 1999), a charmingly bratty George Minafer (The Magnificent Ambersons, 2002), and a Napoleonic-era philanderer (Vanity Fair, 2004). He’s turning into one of the great screen villains–though we should trust him at our peril. On the phone from Los Angeles, the lad is brisk, emphatic, and pleasingly unimpressed with the mystique of acting or the politics of Hollywood moviemaking.
GRAHAM FULLER: Do you think Woody Allen cast you as Chris Wilton in Match Point because he’d seen you as George Osborne in Vanity Fair? They’re cut from the same cloth, aren’t they? Both are social climbers trying to sleep with someone else’s wife.
JONATHAN RHYS MEYERS: I don’t know how Woody came up with me. But I think he looked at quite a bit of my work beforehand, and he kind of wanted in Chris a mixture of the sweetness of the character I played in Bend It Like Beckham and the ability to do the terrible things George Osborne does.
Chris isn’t a bad guy. He’s just someone who makes bad choices. A lot of the film focuses on luck. There are two kinds; good and bad. Good luck is basically an opportunity presenting itself, and Chris, who has an ambitious streak, recognizes when he has it. Tom invites him to the opera. He makes a choice: He goes. He meets Chloe. She wants to date him. He makes a choice: He goes. He pushes the suggestion as far as it will go, but he’s got defects in his character. Then he meets Nola, and it’s another bit of luck, but he makes a bad choice.
GF: You say he’s not a bad guy, but there’s something Machiavellian lurking under his plausibility. We see it when he’s interviewing for the coaching job at the tennis club or meeting Tom’s family. He’s too good to be true.
JRM: If you’re going to be in any industry–especially sports, where you’re pawning your talent–you’ve got to be sycophantic to the certain sports legends, the certain trainer, or the certain company that can give you endorsements. So Chris has learned to be sycophantic in his life. I didn’t realize I’d played him that sickly sweet until I saw the film. He is the dream guy. He’s unassuming, smart but not overpowering, sensitive without being a wuss, athletic without being a brawny bodybuilder guy. He just fits the right mark in all these things, and that’s what originally attracts Chloe and makes her family trust him so quickly.
GF: Do you think he loves her?
JRM: Desperately. You know, when girls are growing up, they all want to go out with the bad boy, the hunky dude. Well, that lasts until they’re about 30, and then they want something completely different. They just want to be taken care of an looked after. Chris also has this need, and Chloe’s a wife and a mother figure, somebody who’ll comfort him.
I don’t think he ever loves Nola. She’s almost like a bit of rough–that wild, fantastically beautiful bombshell who can only be fucking spectacular in the sack. It gets vastly more complicated when Nola wants to have their child. Not only does he not want the responsibility, he questions her motives. She’s not the most maternal creature in the world. I think she wants a kid for several reasons. A big one could be revenge on the Hewett family. Remember–she was treated awfully by Tom and Chloe’s mother and then dumped unceremoniously by Tom.
GF: Do you think Nola loves Chris?
JRM: I don’t think so. She’s looking for stability. She’s failed to find work as an actress. She no longer has a potentially very wealthy fiance. She’s just a blonde girl with a job at a clothes store. She feels she has power over Chris, but it becomes evident to her during their affair that he’s not coming forward with any sense of commitment. So getting pregnant is her opportunity to keep this guy. I can also imagine her putting holes in the condom. Basically, it leaves Chris three choices. One, tell Chloe that he had a silly affair with Nola and got her pregnant, though he knows all about female jealously, so he quickly forgets that. Two, have the kid with Nola and lose his money, his position, and the life he has grown accustomed to. Three, eliminate Nola.
GF: Do you think morality comes into it for him?
JRM: Of course it does. He strikes an almost Faustian bargain. he knows he’s going to give up his soul for financial comforts.
GF: Was it exciting to figure all this out as you played Chris?
JRM: Yes and no. I mean, it’s exciting for me to hear about Sir Edmund Hillary climbing Mount Everest, but it’s not that exciting if you’re Hillary. It’s daunting. I had to go to all these different levels, and I was too focused to be excited. I had to climb that mountain. I never switched off being Chris Wilton at any point during the shoot.
GF: How did that affect you?
JRM: I really don’t know. I think most actors work like that. If they’re doing a film, they’re kind of always in it. Essentially, you can’t take anything from the outside. You have to bring an identification from the inside out. I don’t believe that you go out and you gather information or observations to become a character. I think you see the similarities in yourself. Everything that exist in Chris Wilton exists in Jonny Rhys Meyers to an extent.
GF: So did you draw on emotional experiences of your own?
JRM: I’ve been in relationships where I’ve cheated on my girlfriends. So I knew what that was like. I knew how to lie and feel that guilt and not show it ‘cause I’ve done it in my personal life.
GF: Chris, in fact, is a much better performer than Nola, the aspiring actress, isn’t he?
JRM: Of course he is. You’ll find most people who are in a very bad situation and have to lie become Oscar winners. [laughs]
GF: Do you have a Machiavellian streak in you?
JRM: Certainly. I think if you’re going to spend any time in the movie industry as an actor, producer, agent, director–anything–you have to have that, because there’s so much politics. You have to be sycophantic.
GF: So you use your charm?
JRM: I can turn it on like tap water. Sometimes I find it more difficult when somebody’s frustrating me because I tend to not be able to hide my emotions. I wear my heart on my sleeve, which is why I can portray certain emotions on camera. But, yeah, even if I’m not feeling great, I can pull together some essence of charm. It doesn’t always work, but —
GF: You don’t talk about acting with a sense of vocation. So why do you do it? What do you want?
JRM: Christ, that’s a question now, isn’t it? At any given moment it’s different. I started acting at 18 years old because I got a lead role in a movie. It wasn’t like I was a kid going “When I grow up, I want to be an actor.” So I think what drives me is I found something very young by mistake that I could do. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I love it all the time. Because it’s not lovable. The process of acting itself for me is really simple. It’s not brain surgery. You take the character, and you play it as naturally as you possibly can. That’s it. There’s no greater or higher purpose.
What makes acting difficult is the business end of it. Because no matter how genius an actor is or how many millions of dollars he makes, he can look back in his past and see a sea of rejection–even the people who are at the top of their game. Just because someone is like Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t mean he gets to do anything he wants. He has to fight for those roles the same as anybody else. Now, he is fighting on a different level, but it’s still a fight. What’s difficult about the prospect is trying to reinvent your self-confidence, even though it’s constantly being torn down. And, of course, for every 10 people who like you in a film, there’s 10 people who won’t. I read one critique of me in Velvet Goldmine that said I had all the charisma of chewed bubblegum. I think I kept that one in my scrapbook.
GF: Are you a harsh judge of your own work?
JRM: Oh, I’m impossible. I verge on the stupid a lot of the time. I can’t watch a performance I’ve done under any circumstances. I got Emmy-nominated for Elvis last year, but I’ve never seen it. You can’t guarantee that anything you do is going to be good or not. All you can do is do it.
What do I get out of it at the end of the day? Money. I get to trael around to different places. I get–for 10 to 12 hours a day–to not really be me. It’s great escapism. It can be very fucking therapeutic. But it’s not something that’s immediately satisfying. Sure, it’s satisfying when a film you’re in breaks $300 million at the box office, and the next thing is you get a $5 million offer, and there are awards flying about the place. But more often it’s not. Every so often someone comes up and says, “Hey, I saw you in that movie. It was great!” And I’m like, “Yeah, thanks very much.” And that’s where the satisfaction comes in.
GF: So being recognized as a good actor is important to you?
JRM: Oh, God, yes! Dreadfully important. You know, I had this chat with Colin Farrell while we were doing Alexander , and we agreed the most you can hope for in your life is to be regarded as a fine actor and a good man. Anything else is a bonus.
GF: Do you think you’re a good man?
JRM: I have my moments.
Special thanks to Vanessa for transcribing this article.