Nice Work If You Can Get It
By Will Doig
Blackbook, May 2006
From a glam ambisexual rocker and a Napoleonic-era boy toy to a scheming Irish tennis coach, Jonathan Rhys Meyers has all the right moves.
“True luck is the ultimate coup d’ÃƒÂ©tat,” says Jonathan Rhys Meyers, referring to his character in Woody Allen’s Match Point, though he could just as easily be describing his own career. Kicked out of school at age 15, he was discovered by a casting agent while loitering in a pool hall in Cork, Ireland. Five years later, he would don metallic-blue lycra as the androgynous Bowie-esque glam-rocker Brian Slade in Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine. Since then, he’s gone on to develop an extensive repertoire of characters that are equal parts beguiling and deviant—from Keira Knightley’s soccer coach in Bend it Like Beckham to the Napoleonic-era male slut in Vanity Fair. In Match Point, he plays a duplicitous philanderer turned second-rate murderer. When he told Allen he was nervous about the role, the auteur replied, “Hey, Jonny, you’re like 80 percent the character when you wake up in the morning.” Now 28, Meyers is temporarily residing in a Manhattan two-bedroom that he rents from Christian Slater, just a few blocks downtown from Central Park, where he’s filming Kirsten Sheridan’s musical fantasy August Rush. Arriving at our interview a little disheveled, a crescent of missed stubble under his chin, he seems quite the opposite of the stony, slant-eyed reprobates he inhabits on film. When he quotes Woody Allen, he does so in Woody Allen’s voice. He enhances his descriptions of things with sound effects and laughs inappropriately and loudly. “I’m not going to lie about it,” he says. “It takes a lot of work to be the me that I feel people want.”
BlackBook: In your most recent film, Match Point, you play a rising British aristocrat, which couldn’t be further from your working-class roots. Growing up, were you resentful of people with money?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: When I saw wealthy people, I just thought they were born genetically different from me. As I grew older, I saw through it and thought, They’re not particularly brighter or more beautiful. They just have more money to hide their flaws.
BB: Why’d you get kicked out of school?
JRM: I was just an appalling student. School was fucking gladiator academy: 1,500 Christian brothers, all boys, state-run. I spent most of my time in pool halls. By the time I was 15 years old, they were like, “Just fuck off.” And then I fell into this acting thing. People always think I just fell into film. But what about the 1,500 auditions I did before I got my first job? What about all the times I get told by a great director, “Orlando Bloom is doing it, because teenage girls want to see him more than they want to see you.”
BB: But you’re not just some anonymous, struggling actor anymore. I always wonder, When two celebrities who have never met pass on the street, do they acknowledge each other? If you see Jude Law in a bodega, do you make eye contact and nod?
JRM: Oh, no. I’d be just like every other fucking person who’s in there saying [whispers], “Hey, Jude Law’s over there! Did you see Jude Law over there?” I’d run over and get his autograph.
BB: Do you feel famous?
JRM: I suppose I’m famous for doing a job, and that’s all I want. I don’t want to date an actress or have my life in People magazine. If I’m on a film set, and there’s paparazzi there, I don’t give a shit. Let them take the photograph. If you can get 250 fucking bucks for taking a photograph of my ass, go for it, man. If you can make a little dough off me, I’m all for that shite.
BB: You’ve worked in both fairly fringe and highly commercial films. I think some actors say, “I’ll only do blockbusters,” while others say, “I’ll only do art-house films; I’d never work with Jerry Bruckheimer.”
JRM: Bollocks. I love Jerry Bruckheimer. I think he’s a genius. My movie taste is trashy as fuck, and there’s one or two jobs on my rÃƒÂ©sumÃƒÂ© where I just wanted to spend two months in Canada with Rachael Leigh Cook.
BB: Would you like to play the wholesome good guy someday?
JRM: It would be fun, but I don’t think anyone would believe me. A lot of it has to do with my physicality. Why does Matthew McConaughey play the roles he plays? Because he’s Mr. Fuckable. He’s that guy. He’s the smart jock. I look like a guy who could be quite cruel. I could be slightly arrogant; I could be nasty. My girlfriend back in London, she said, “You’re lucky you weren’t born rich—you’d be a prick.”
BB: I think some people assume when an actor gets to your level, he has his pick of any role he wants.
JRM: Oh, for fuck’s sake. I take out the trumpets every time a good script comes in the door. I roll out the red carpet and get my army of jesters somersaulting and throwing rose petals at it.
BB: If you hadn’t been in that pool hall the day you were discovered, what would you be doing today?
JRM: I’d probably have ended up playing music with my brothers.
BB: Is this one of the brothers you were just hanging out with in your apartment?
JRM: Yeah. He’s playing the drummer in August Rush. He and my other brothers have a rock band, Skydiver. They’re fucking talented. Jesus talented. Stupid talented. I’m going to record some music with them.
BB: What do you play?
JRM: Guitar. I play in August Rush—it’s all for real.
BB: And that’s going well?
JRM: I’m having a blast. This is the first film where I feel a huge amount of responsibility, because the director’s the same age as me. It’s not like I’m looking up to an elder and going, “Please pour your wisdom on me.” It’s my first film shooting in New York, and it’s been an education. New York crews are fast, tough, clever.
BB: I saw Breakfast on Pluto recently, made by Neil Jordan, another director you’ve worked with. Have you seen it?
JRM: No, but I know Cillian [Murphy, star of Breakfast on Pluto], and I know the script because I screen-tested for Neil a few years ago, and I did the worst audition of my life. I wasn’t in the right headspace, because I didn’t really want to do it after Velvet Goldmine. After you’ve played that androgynous character and then you play a transsexual, it’s very difficult for them to cast you in something like Jarhead.
BB: Was it hard to advance your career after beginning with the unusual role as Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine?
JRM: It made it a bit difficult, but I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. I wish we would have had Bowie’s music. I was absolutely woeful on the soundtrack. I think one critic said my voice had all the charisma of chewed bubblegum. I keep that one right there on the fridge for every morning when I get my milk for my tea: “You have all the charisma of chewed bubblegum.” It’s good to remember.
BB: It’s funny, but you and Cillian Murphy are the first two actors who spring to mind when I think of famous androgynous Hollywood roles, and neither of you are American.
JRM: Yeah, but I’m fascinated by the United States. I’m fascinated by Montana, Nebraska, the fucking heartland. I lived in Missouri while doing a film with Ang Lee [Ride With the Devil, about the Civil War]. People think that war was about the emancipation of slavery. Well, it wasn’t. All Lincoln wanted to do was preserve the union. Now, when you look at the cause of the South, what they should have done in hindsight is emancipated the slaves and then opened on Fort Sumter. Then other countries would have gotten involved. You see, the South was hoping the English would get involved, but the English were never going to back a country that had the institution of slavery.
BB: I don’t interview a lot of actors who develop retrospective strategies for the Confederate army.
JRM: I know. People are going to read this and think, He’s off his fucking head altogether.