THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
By Luke Crisell
Nylon Guys, Summer 2006
Jonathan Rhys Meyers is not afraid to tell it like it is…Neither is Luke Crisell
Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a lot of things, but shy is not one of them.
He doesn’t so much walk as swagger—around the photo studio, across the street, and along the gangplank of a dilapidated barge moored behind the Chelsea Piers mega-complex on the far west side of Manhattan — and doesn’t so much talk as vociferate, so loudly and with such liberal use of expletives that an elderly couple sitting nearby soon make a point of hastily moving sternward.
In an age when celebrity interviews so often seem to be scripted by studios, networks, publicists — hell, even whichever brand they get paid to pimp the wares of — Rhys Meyers is that most rare of creatures: an actor who really, truly, does not give a fuck.
“This girl walked up to me in a bar the other night and goes, ‘Hi, you’re the weirdo from Match Point, aren’t you? I walked out 10 minutes into the film. So, do you want to buy me a drink?'” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Do I want to buy you a drink? No, I don’t fucking think so, you fucking tart. I want to smack off your fucking ugly jaw.'”
So says the man who once told Oliver Stone, to his face, that his script (for the ill-fated U-Turn) was “shit,” and who, a few years later, threw a piece of armor at the legendary director on the set of one of the most diabolical epics of all time, Alexander. No, he didn’t want to get back on the horse he had fallen off the day before, thank you very much.
Perhaps it’s Rhys Meyers’s frankness — this, after all, is the man who once said, “If I had a thousand dicks I wouldn’t stick one in Britney” — that has earned him a reputation for being slightly sinister, but whatever his cause, his turn opposite Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen’s distinctly un-Woody Allen-like thriller Match Point last year only served to perpetuate rumors.
As Irish tennis coach Chris Wilton, who teaches the British upper class the sport — and, in some cases, the pleasures of massage — Rhys Meyers manages a façade of unimpeachable politeness while conducting his private life with a chilling absence of morality.
“The English hated and slammed that film because they hated to see themselves as these pompous idiots that, you know, some of them really are,” he says, lighting up the fifth of 10 Marlboro Lights he will smoke during the course of the interview. “They like to have this image of themselves as these really loose liberal people, and they’re so the opposite. They’re really uptight and opinionated, self-conscious… some of them are sexually repressed. Do you know what I mean?” I remind him that I am, in fact, English myself. A pause. “Some of them…”
For many people, Match Point — which resonates with the same unsettling ruthlessness as films such as The Talented Mr. Ripley — was their first experience of Rhys Meyers in a leading role. And it scared them. I put it to Rhys Meyers that the preconceptions people often have of him seem to be encapsulated in the Machiavellian, conniving Chris Wilton.
“Yeah, I think people think I’m a scary guy and that I’m an intellectual,” he says, exhaling smoke dramatically. “And I have those elements in me, but I’m not intellectual. God almighty! Honestly, I can be quit scary but only because of my physicality. Your physicality in so many ways determines the roles that you play. And anybody who thinks anything differently about the film industry is defiantly blind to the reality of it.”
I ask if he considers himself to be good-looking, and remind him that we just left a photo shoot in which he comported himself confidently in front of the camera. “I have to work hard at doing photo shoots,” he replies, defensively. “It’s hard to stand out there thinking I’m, you know, the shit.”
Either way, Rhys Meyers certainly seems very comfortable with his appearance. He sprawls as far back as is possible in his plastic chair without actually falling off it, and seems entirely at ease in a grey tank top — the likes of which even Nick Lachey would probably only wear indoors. “I have a hard time keeping weight on,” he says, looking down at his arms and flexing his triceps. “I have a very quick metabolism, almost extraordinary — a hyper-metabolism really. So I have to eat five times as much as anyone else to keep weight on. I use a lot of nervous energy.”
Aptly, throughout the course of our interview he doesn’t stop moving: his knees bounce up and down, he constantly shifts positions, a few times getting up and holding onto the rope railing of the barge with both hands, drawing in deep breaths of the decidedly oily-smelling air through his nose. His eyes closed. His head back.
Rakish, romantic, and, from certain angles, androgynous, with long lashes, ice-blue eyes set deep into a preposterously angular face, accented with severely arched, coal dark eyebrows, and perpetually pouting pillow lips, Rhys Meyers is strikingly, almost jarringly handsome. He looks as if he might have been just chiseled from marble by Michelangelo.
His are genetics are ill-suited to supporting roles. But for a while there, supporting roles were Rhys Meyers’s bread and butter. He is succinctly — and surprisingly — self-deprecating about some of the more notable aspects of his resume.
“I thought I wasn’t very good in Vanity Fair [he played a sly British officer in a Victorian England as imagined by Mira Nair], I was appalling in Velvet Goldmine [in which he was Brian Slade, a leotard sporting pop star loosely based on David Bowie], and I thought I was miscast in Bend It Like Beckham [as a soccer coach to Keira Knightley],” he says, as if he’s repeating facts I already know.
Then, unprompted: “And I could have done better in Match Point. I had a hard time making that. I would shoot all week and then go out all weekend and drink myself to oblivion [Rhys Meyers is now a teetotaler]. I don’t feel I was as good an actor as Woody wanted me to be.”
And Alexander? The prescience Rhys Meyers showed when he dismissed the U-Turn script seemed to go sorely awry when he signed on for that monstrosity.
“When I read the script for Alexander, I thought it was going to be one of the greatest films of all time. And it wasn’t, quite simply,” Meyers says, staring through his Ray-Bans down the Hudson at the Statue of Liberty, which glimmers vaguely through the hot halcyon haze of the city. “I didn’t get on with Oliver, and I felt quite bitter at the whole experience. I wasn’t strong enough at the time to be in a film where I wasn’t going to get the attention I so craved.”
He thinks for a moment. “Now that I’ve grown up a bit, I’d like to work with Oliver again. I’d like to have another try at doing something good, where I actually had something to do.” Another pause. “But I don’t think that he would ever work with me again.”
When Rhys Meyers talks about his films, and about acting in general, he does so with a kind of detached disinterest you might expect from an accountant or a banker relating the minutiae of their occupation after work over a pint. But then he never wanted to be an actor.
Raised in County Cork Ireland, Rhys Meyers might have been geographically removed from the terrorist activities that plagued Northern Ireland during the 80’s, but nevertheless, he had a hard time of it — his family was far from affluent. “Growing up in Ireland in the 80’s was fucking hard,” he says. “I never actually used a phone till I was 14 years old.” He looks me straight in the eye. “Do you get it? I never actually picked one up.”
By the time he was 16, Rhys Meyers had been permanently expelled from school. “After a while they were just like ‘Fuck off,'” he says. “I wasn’t doing anything. I was just wasting time, disrupting everything.” Then one evening, while he was hanging out in a smoke-filled local pool hall, he was asked to audition for a film. He didn’t get the part, but the experience made something immediately clear to the young man: Maybe he could get into this acting lark, and get paid for it.
“It had almost nothing to do with interest,” he says. “They were willing to pay me to do this stupid thing, and it was dumb. It was the dumbest fucking thing I had ever heard of. It’s like ‘We want you to play act and we’ll pay you.’ And I was like ‘Fuck yeah. I’ve been doing it all my life.'”
Now, after being in the business for more than 10 years, Rhys Meyers’s time seems finally to have come. Last year, he picked up a Golden Globe for his role in the four hour TV series Elvis, in which he played the all-singing, all-dancing lead. He will be showing off his vocal talents again in this fall’s August Rush, which is currently filming in New York. In the film, Rhys Meyers’s younger brother, Jamie, plays the drummer in his band, which is fitting considering that in real life Jamie has a band with which the older Rhys Meyers has, he says, recorded something.
He will soon start filming the TV series Henry VIII, for which he presumes he’ll have to gain a few pounds (he plays the bearded tyrant). Rhys Meyers will also appear — as transportation expert Declan — in one of the summer’s guaranteed blockbusters, Mission: Impossible III, the franchise which belongs to the irrepressible Tom Cruise.
“It was great fun,” he says. “it’s a very cool film: it’s all about ‘cool.’ It was tedious, a lot of waiting, five-and-a-half weeks of sitting around, but it was interesting to work with someone like Tom Cruise because he is Tom Cruise, and that’s what made it fascinating in so many ways. Now that is fame.”
I ask Rhys Meyers if he considers himself to be famous. “I didn’t before, but I suppose I am,” he says, mulling the concept over for a while. “I’m starting to feel a bit more famous, but when you work with someone at the level of Tom, you realize that everyone else is comparatively unknown. Not only as an actor, but just to have the fucking temperament to deal with the hundred million dickheads that he has to deal with all the time. It’s exhausting just looking at it. But Tom does it.”
Rhys Meyers, on the other hand, most certainly does not. While Cruise smiles a familiar smile and talks a familiar talk (apart from, presumably, when he’s talking about warlord Xenu vanquishing beings from a Galactic Confederation), Meyers scowls and says things like, “Oh my God, Kate Moss did drugs! WOW! A model did cocaine, hold the fucking presses! The fucking fashion industry is run on coke. How do you think all those girls stay up all night and stay so thin?”
And, perturbed by the lack of public places in which he can smoke: “There should be at least one fucking smoking flight per day. Is it the customers? No, it’s the fucking staff going, ‘Oh, we don’t feel we have to inhale your second-hand smoke.’ But we have to inhale your cheap perfume, and see your bad makeup! Why?”
He’s shouting now, and two teenage girls playing ping-pong have stopped mid-rally to see what the commotion is about. “Why do air hostesses always look so fucking gaudy? They all look like tired Roman prostitutes! Their hair has been dyed one too many times and their faces have so much makeup on they look like the surface of Jupiter.”
And on Orlando Bloom getting such a hard rap: “Nobody earns 10 million bucks a movie without being special. It’s just other people’s bitterness. If that kid isn’t good, then why the fuck are you? You’re breaking your balls on like, 50 grand a year and he spends that on fucking flowers for his girlfriend. In a week!”
There’s no laughing. No joking. Rhys Meyers is entirely staid, not so much as breaking a smile. So earnestly does he take himself, in fact, that I suspect were I to so much as snicker he would reach across the table and punch me in the jaw.
Rhys Meyers is nobody’s fool. He is candid, not naïve. “It’s my sense of [adopts French accent] libertine,” he says. “Even though I’m trying to be the me people want, I have to be the me that’s authentic as well. And there is no point in bullshitting people because you’re going to hear so much bullshit in your life. I’m not going to try and over-complicate anything, or over-intellectualize anything because I think it’s pointless and I wouldn’t be any good for it. What other people think of me is really none of my fucking business. Now, if it starts affecting me getting a role, then of course I’m going fucking bullshit. I can sit there and smile and shake hands and say ‘Thank you’ with the best of them.”
It’s this ability to seamlessly blend saccharine civility with an inherent, hard-earned understanding of the entertainment industry that sets Rhys Meyers apart from the shop-talking, publicity blathering actors that use forums such as this much as they might an Oscar acceptance speech: namely kiss the asses of as many people as they possibly can before their time runs out. But it wasn’t always this way.
“At first I was all fucking intellectual and ‘I want to be an artist!’ and all of this sort of shit,” Rhys Meyers says — raising his voice at ‘artist’ so loudly that some seagulls perched on the boat moored 20 feet away from us quickly take their leave. “But really, at the end of the day, this is my job, and I love and hate it with equal passion. You have to remember your selling a product. So you’ve got to dehumanize yourself. You have to be slightly sycophantic in this business. But at the end of the day, whose opinion really matters?’
“Films don’t really matter; they’re just a piece of entertainment for two hours.”
And this pretty much sums up the man who says that, were I to ask his ex-girlfriends of their opinion of him, they would call him, quite simply, “a prick.”
He’s not — but, sometimes, it’s difficult to tell otherwise.
Thanks to Meaghan for transcribing this article.