Fire and ice
By Clara Chow
Singapore Straits Times, August 22, 2007
Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers holds court in a new series as the oversexed King Henry VIII, as he cruises into Hollywood leading-man territory.
There is something elemental about Jonathan Rhys Meyers. One moment, he is smouldering like embers, and the next, he is cool as ice.
It is a quality that comes through in the Irish actor’s most memorable film performances. In Velvet Goldmine (1998), he channelled David Bowie to portray an androgynous glam-rocker with equal parts fiery flamboyance and cold ambition; in Woody Alien’s Match Point (2006), his Irish tennis instructor burns with desire for a woman (Scarlett Johansson), and then dispatches her with chilling calculation.
Already, there is Emmy buzz for his portrayal of a young, lithe and sexed-up King Henry VIII in The Tudors on US network Showtime.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers (left) as the much-married King Henry VIII in The Tudors. Natalie Dormer plays Anne Boleyn, who goes on to become wife No.2.
With a second season being shot, the critically-acclaimed series eschews fuddy-duddy history lessons to show the bedroom romps of the much-married English monarch.
The actor admits: “There’s something about the way I look that lends the fact that I could be a little cruel. There’s definitely a darkness in my physicality.”
Over the phone in London, while doing interviews to plug Hugo Boss fragrances, Meyers is as polite and obliging as celebrity spokesmodels come.
He greets you by name with a warm “Good morning”. Then, he chats breezily about the brand’s new scents, and about shooting advertisements in Paris.
In his voice, there is only the faintest Irish lilt; the rest is a blandly-neutral British accent. He is polite, pleasant, attentive yet detached.
As he recently turned 30 on July 27, he reckons he’s finally moving from Indie Poster Boy into Hollywood Leading Man territory. “I think I probably am. Yes,” he says.
In the upcoming family drama August Rush, he plays a musician-father and sings on its soundtrack. He is preparing to play Branwell Brontë, the sole brother in the 19th-century Yorkshire literary family, in the British drama, Brontë.
A role in the historical action epic, Toussaint, based on the life of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, is also in the works.
He also stars opposite Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh as a British journalist who helps save orphans during the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, in The Children Of Huang Shi.
He is all praise for his co-stars, describing Chow as “deeply cool” (“I like him, very much, very much”) and Yeoh as “such a lady”.
On his career, he says: “When you’re a young actor, about 21 and 22, you’re not really a boy and not quite yet a man. It’s quite difficult to find roles that are interesting yet expansive enough. You can’t play a man, until you are a man.”
He adds: “I’m looking forward to being 30. Things become more balanced. It’s not like you know what you want, but you know what you don’t want. You become an easier person to be around. You pay more attention to people you love.”
Dropout at Cruise’s heels
Born Jonathan Michael Francis O’Keeffe in Dublin in 1977, he grew up in County Cork, the eldest of four brothers. When he was three, his father left and he and his siblings were divided up between their parents.
Expelled from school at 16, he hung out at pool halls, where he was spotted and encouraged to audition for acting roles.
He landed a slot in a Knorr commercial and went on to coin his stage name, drawing from his mother’s maiden name Meyers.
He had small parts in films like A Man Of No Importance (1994) and Michael Collins (1996). In 2002, he melted hearts as the girls’ football coach in Bend It Like Beckham.
In 2005, he scored an Emmy nomination and won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a mini-series as Elvis Presley in CBS’ Elvis. Last year, he played one of Tom Cruise’s sidekicks in Mission: Impossible III.
Tipped as the Next Big Thing for a while now, Meyers has not quite made it as ubiquitous Superstar Ãƒ la Cruise, despite his delicate good looks — killer cheekbones, clear eyes of indeterminate blue-green colour, and sulky lips — and fierce acting talent.
He’s acted in forgettable films like Prozac Nation (2002). And a supporting role in Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) which ended up mostly on the cutting room floor.
In press interviews earlier this month, Meyers admitted he wants Cruise’s level of fame and success.
Asked if, over the years, he has learnt to play the Hollywood game better. He considers this a little frostily.
“I suppose, a lee-tie bit,” he replies. “At the same time, what people think of me is really none of my business. What people think of my work is much more important.”
What he’ll have, you think, is an artistic, ascetic side to him. “I’m kind of spartan how I live. I don’t have fancy sports cars and fancy toys. I’m very simple.”
He happily reels off the art he loves: works by British graffiti artist Banksy, American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tibetan thang-ka paintings, the writing of American Beat author William S. Burroughs.
Home for him in Los Angeles is a “kind of glass house”, surrounded by trees. His dream home, however, is one that is “in the mountains above the oceans”.
Meyers, whose guilty TV pleasure is Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, says: “When you are living in something that immense, there is a kind of humility.”
As he waxes on about the simple life, you gingerly broach his return to rehab for treatment for alcohol abuse in April.
All questions had to be vetted beforehand by his “people”, and this one had not been pre-approved.
“I was exhausted,” he says, with no trace of emotion. And that is that.
So is he back on track for more work, in the never-ending quest into leading man territory?
He doesn’t miss a beat: “Always.”
With that, he bids you a crisp “bye, love”, and moves on to the next conveyer-belt interview — turning up the warmth and exuding icy allure for his next audience.