By Justin Monroe
Complex, October 2007
Years removed from his pretty-boy days, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is ready to assume the throne.
Contrary to what Medieval Times employees might tell you (before the jousting, and after the appetizers), kings aren’t born, they’re made—and Jonathan Rhys Meyers is no stranger to the coronation, having already been anointed twice. As the King of (Stolen) Rock ‘n’ Roll in 2005’s TV movie Elvis and as England’s Henry VIII on Showtime’s hit The Tudors, Meyers learned that rulers grow into power, expectations, and even their own skin. In fact, the 30-year-old Ireland native1 has done all three since splashing off in the 1996 biopic Michael Collins.
Labeled “pretty” as a youth2, Meyers spent his teens and much of his twenties portraying weak, physically androgynous, and sexually ambiguous characters that ranged from bisexual rocker3 to tortured male rape victim to Alexander the Great’s bitchy lover.
In 2004, Meyers began bulking up to nab more commanding roles. After stepping into Elvis’s blue suede shoes-and winning a 2006 Golden Globe for it—he lived out your fantasies by catching Scarlett (Johansson) fever in Woody Allen’s Match Point. Then, this past January, he manned up his damn self by going into rehab for alcoholism…and then doing it again in April. (Urn, isn’t that called being Irish? We kid, we kid. Cheers!) Clear-headed, Meyers is now preparing for the November premieres of The Tudors’ second season and the romantic drama August Rush. Complex got down with the king to talk about sobriety, the difference between celebrity and real royalty, and keeping it in your pants…at least on-set4.
August Rush isn’t the first film you’ve sung in. What do you think when you hear yourself sing?
Oh, it’s dreadful. We don’t even have to continue with the question. I’m absolutely horrified and stunned that I could shame myself so much.
I don’t like listening to myself speak.
At this point in my career I don’t mind watching myself on camera; I’ve come to terms with my flaws. When I first started watching myself on camera I wasn’t happy, and yes, I’m still not happy, but it’s not with how I am physically but more with performance things. But I still don’t like listening to my own voice-it’s never quite convincing.
How did having an absent musician father inform your August Rush role-a musician separated from his son at infancy?
I’m sure, in retrospect, it had some effect because my father wasn’t there, but I don’t think I searched into that to play the character.
Did the parallels make it an emotionally taxing role?
Oh, no, no. It was emotionally taxing because films are.
The Tudors got an Emmy nomination for outstanding casting, but none of the cast was recognized. Do you wish you could have the nominations committee beheaded?
You’ve got to be realistic about awards because if you think you’re so deserving of them, then you’re probably not. Maybe it wasn’t my turn. I haven’t done enough yet; James Gandolfini, Kiefer Sutherland, Denis Leary, and James Spader, these are guys who have put in big time.
Is it true Snoop Dogg is a fan of The Tudors?
I was told that. I’m a fan of his, so that’s really cool. I can just imagine Snoop being into this because it’s about the rise to power, about being a king. Paying the cost to be the boss.
[Laughs.] Sharp reference. Do you feel a kinship with Henry VIII?
Well, we don’t really have much in common. That’s one of the hardest parts of playing Henry VIII. Being born into royalty, you have an energy. You didn’t have to achieve power, it was given by birth. That’s something extraordinary. Unless you know what that’s like, you don’t know what that’s like. Everything that I’ve earned in my life I’ve had to earn because I wasn’t born a king. So to get into the mentality that every good thing that happens to you, every bit of wealth, every palace, every horse that you own, every woman you bed, you deserve, just by your birth, that’s quite an extraordinary thing.
How similar is that royal power to the power of celebrity and wealth today?
Celebrity and wealth can be taken away. Being royalty can’t. These people were living gods. I mean, you can be celebrated, yes, but you had to earn it.
It’s not given from birth, unless you’re a famous person’s kid, but there is a similar awe of celebrities, no? Once you’re a celebrity, it’s like you’re not human anymore.
Of course that exists. Listen, I couldn’t possibly imagine Michael Jackson going to the toilet until I was like ten years old. Because he was just, like, from another planet. But it doesn’t take that much to be famous today. If someone goes to a nightclub, or wears a dress, or drives a car, or dates somebody, or puts their life 24 hours a day on television in a reality show, they’re celebrated and people are in awe of them. It’s kind of weird, don’t you agree?
But I don’t mind being in awe of the Beatles because they were great. Being in awe of great men, there’s no shame in that. Or great women.
Are you comfortable being viewed differently because you’re a celebrity?
I don’t even think about it, I can’t think about it. You end up fucking your own head.
What are you like when walking around set in character as Henry VIII?
I’m quite predatory.
In what sense?
In every way. You’re living in a world of political intrigue; you’re constantly in a state of red alert. It’s like being at DEFCON 4 or whatever they call it. Constantly.
Will the second season be as lusty as the first?
Yeah, of course; people didn’t just sleep with each other. There’s a lust for power, and sex is power. People didn’t have TV.
[Laughs.] With all that power play, what’s it like doing the sex scenes?
When you’re having sex with somebody you’re totally in that person at that time. It’s strange when there are tons of people looking at you, but I don’t get ashamed and I don’t get embarrassed. I go to the gym, so I’m comfortable with my body. This is the job that I do and if I want to be comfortable doing the job that I do, I have to take care of myself.
What’s the most uncomfortable sex scene you’ve shot?
The rape scene [in I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2003)]. There’s just something about masculine rape that is very degrading. All rape is degrading. That was quite harrowing. I didn’t expect to feel quite as uncomfortable after that as I did. I thought I’d just ride it out. There was something deeply uncomfortable about that.
I take it the romps with Scarlett were much less scarring.
There wasn’t anything uncomfortable about the sex scenes in Match Point, except Woody [Allen] is really uncomfortable shooting sex scenes. I think he likes talking about it in his films rather than showing it. Woody said, “You guys do what you do.” Scarlett and I are both grown people and we have been in bed with someone before. They were very lustful, but they didn’t seem lustful while we were shooting them.
You’ve been linked to several beautiful co-stars. Three months on a set with private trailers seems tailor-made for affairs. How difficult is it to not have on-set romance?
Not difficult at all. If you’re playing a part where two people are lovers, once you have sex the chemistry is gone. That energy, the anticipation, the desire, the want, it disappears. So don’t have sex with your co-star. If you do, wait until you finish your film.
I’ve read everywhere that you grew up in poverty. What did poverty look like in County Cork, Ireland in the ’80s?
In Ireland in the ’80s, nobody had money. So when I said I grew up without money, [the media] wrote “grew up in poverty.” They try to paint the most Dostoyevskian picture possible-grew up in abject poverty, scraped himself up out of the gutter, dragging himself… It’s all fantasy. I never stood in a line for bread.
You mentioned the importance of your body as an actor. It’s your tool. In some sense it belongs to the people who pay you money to sell movie tickets and cable subscriptions. I was wondering how that dynamic might affect your drinking problems-
Don’t dance around the question. Just ask it.
Is abusing alcohol or drugs a way to reclaim control over your own body?
Certainly, absolutely 100 percent. And once people stop things like drinking they start focusing on something else. You have to fill the void. Why not fill the void with bettering yourself? Because you’re not going to the pub, and you’re not drinking with your mates, you’re going to the gym. It’s my way of “drinking”.
How difficult is it to stick to sobriety?
I’m 30 years old and Irish and I’m shooting in Dublin. Not drinking is difficult. But it’s difficult anywhere. If you’re in the middle of the Gobi Desert, if you want a drink you’ll find one. It’s just a life choice.
Does being in the entertainment industry make it even more difficult?
It’s a human thing, not an industry thing. Of course, when you have a lot more money and your ego is pumped, you sometimes can think that you’re invincible. Maybe there’s that element in the entertainment industry.
How conscious was the decision to bulk up and distance yourself from the frail androgynous typecasting?
Yeah, I wanted to change as an actor. There is a time for being a pretty, thin, 19-year-old boy. It’s about how you get parts at that time. It’s very difficult to cast 19 to 24, because you’re not quite a kid and you’re not really a man yet. You haven’t had life’s experiences.
Does it help in the quest to become a big Hollywood leading man?
Of course. There’s very few big Hollywood leading men who don’t go to the gym. And for now, I want to know what it’s like to be the leading man. It’s good fun. I like the responsibility.
Do you actually enjoy working out?
I’m one of those terrible people who actually really enjoys it. It allows for your mind to switch off as well and you’re just concentrating on your body. Also, vanity has a lot to do with it as well, because it’s a vain thing.
You’re not the standard obese Henry VIII. What do you feel being a young, fit king has brought to this classic role?
It opened him up to different generations who might start getting interested in characters of that time. But once they flip through the history pages they’ll see what he actually looked like. I mean, as a young man he was very thin, because if you did that much hunting and fucking, you’d be fit too. He didn’t cut as trim a figure by the time he died. He was probably 300 lbs. of pure fat and ulcerated leg.
Young women looking through textbooks expecting to see a young hot guy are going to be very disappointed.
1 BUBBLIN’ IN DUBLIN
Rhys Meyers was born in the capital but raised in County Cork, home to the town of Carraig na bhFear-which is pronounced “Springfield.”
2 PRETTY WOMAN
Slender frame? Check. High cheekbones? Check. Nipples? Check. With these looks, we’re surprised he didn’t follow Elvis with The Jackson Browne Story.
3 GLAM SANDWICH
The title of 1998’s Velvet Goldmine comes from a David Bowie B-side about making out with another man. Just like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape!
4 BODICE RIPPER
Rumors of offscreen dalliances have dogged him, though he demurs. If you were around all those queenly bosoms, what would you do?