Jonathan Rhys Meyers
By Karltaro Greenfeld
Details, Holiday 2007
Having shot from a breakout role as the pretty-boy coach in Bend It Like Beckham to top billing as a sexed-up young Henry VIII in The Tudors, the steely-eyed Irish actor is ready to be known as a lean, mean testosterone machine—even if he’s not much of an alpha male when staring down the barrel of a gun in real life.
“PUSSY!” Jonathan Rhys Meyers bellows. “I want pussy!”
We are on a crowded street next to St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin, Ireland, dodging French and Italian tourists who might not understand what Rhys Meyers is shouting, but can surely sense the carnal tone. And certainly those of his countrymen also out strolling on this lovely autumn afternoon can comprehend exactly what he’s saying. The Irish actor is performing, of course. He’s doing his impersonation of a man trying to have a conversation in a crowded nightclub.
“I said, ‘Pussy! Pussy!'” he shouts. “P-u-s-s-y.”
Rhys Meyers himself no longer goes to those sorts of mobbed, cacophonous venues. A notorious partier, he’s recently sworn off alcohol. “I didn’t drink until I was 25, and I never drank every day, but when I did, it was bad. It would be a couple of days that just wouldn’t work out for me, waking up with a hangover. Drink doesn’t fit into the groove of where my life is going.”
Rhys Meyers, now 30, has been in rehab twice.
“I want to do really good things with my life,” he says. “And drinking is not synonymous with that. The [Richard] Burton days, the [Peter] O’Toole days, they are gone.”
By now we’re seated at a wooden table that’s resting unevenly on the cobblestone sidewalk outside a touristy café. Rhys Meyers orders a Coke and lights a Camel.
A foul odor envelops us.
“It’s me,” he says. “I’m burning the fake hair off the sleeves of this jacket.” He has been stealthily flicking a white plastic lighter in his left hand under the table since we sat down. The cuff of his distressed leather jacket used to hang over his wrists, he explains, but he’s been systematically singeing it away for the last few days.
He shrugs and looks down at the lighter, as if it were acting on its own. “Something to do,” he says.
It’s hard to determine exactly why Rhys Meyers is as famous as he is. (Does he have the promise of a pre-Brokeback Jake Gyllenhaal? A pre-Walk the Line Joaquin Phoenix?) Why one of his trips to rehab made the headlines in Us Weekly, why his make-out sessions in bars are covered on “Page Six,” why celebrity bloggers care enough to speculate about his sexuality—at this point these questions are part of his mystery. He’s a TV star, but Showtime’s The Tudors is not really a hit show (the season finale in June drew 465,000 viewers). He’s a movie star, but he’s never been the marquee name on a big one (this month’s mystical epic, August Rush, should change that). Since his breakout role as the heartthrob coach in 2002’s you-go-girl movie Bend It Like Beckham, his career has been a herky-jerky ride through a bewildering list of independent and Hollywood films. Ever seen The Tesseract? The Emperor’s Wife? Octane? Rhys Meyers has also shown up in big-budget action movies like Mission: Impossible III and Alexander. But along the way he’s to turned in enough compelling performances—the effeminate glam rocker in Velvet Goldmine, the homicidal social climber in Woody Allen’s Match Point—to establish himself as a provocatively talented, and potentially massive, star.
“I’m a better actor now than I was when I was 18,” Rhys Meyers says, pulling at the parts of the fake shearling cuff he hasn’t yet burned away. He considers the most difficult aspect of his job having to act like he’s handsome even when he doesn’t think he looks so hot. “Let’s not kid ourselves—this business is about being good-looking. Look, Brad Pitt is an incredible actor, but do you think he’d be a famous movie star if he didn’t look like that? Come on! Some mornings, some days, you just don’t have that physical confidence. That’s a horrible feeling. A lot of my success is because of what I look like. I know that.”
It’s hard to imagine Rhys Meyers having days like that. His face is long and angular, and a goatee and a mustache accentuate his strongly defined chin. His eyes are blue in one light, silver in another, and green when it gets dark. A 20-year-old scar near his lip—from an injury sustained in a hurling accident—gives him a subtle ruggedness. He has a strange habit of looking over my shoulder into the eyes of almost everyone who walks past our table. Eventually, a family of four stop and ask if he is Jonathan Rhys Meyers. He happily confirms and stands up for a snapshot.
“Part of being a narcissist is being terribly insecure,” he says, sitting back down. “If I wasn’t so insecure about myself I wouldn’t work as hard as I do. I am constantly seeking approval.”
Rhys Meyers grew up Jonathan Michael Francis O’Keefe in Cork, in the south of Ireland, in a four-room flat he shared with his mother, Geraldine Meyers, a charity worker, and his younger brother Alan. When he was 3 years old, his father, John O’Keefe, left his wife, taking Rhys Meyers’ two other brothers to live with him at their grandmother’s house. Rhys Meyers and his dad wouldn’t become close until he was in his early twenties. He is dismissive of this biographical detail at first. “I’ve talked about all that,” he says. “Not interested in going into it again.” But then he admits that his marked insecurity is in part fed by the sense of failure he had as a boy: “I was just a kid and I didn’t have a dad. That’s hard, because when you’re a kid, you blame yourself for everything. And I blamed myself for him not being around, for my parents not being together.”
Unable to sit still for even an hour, Rhys Meyers took to slipping out of class as a teenager. “I wanted to do anything but be in school, anything that [wasn’t] fuckin’ science, fuckin’ math, fuckin’ history.” At 15, he was asked to leave school. “My mother had a go at me for that one,” he recalls. “She was livid. We didn’t have any money, and she really believed education was important.”
The next day, watching his friends walk to school, he says he thought to himself, “‘Now what do I do? I can’t just sit around the house and watch TV.’ My mom wouldn’t have it. So I had to go and look for a job.”
Or at least get out of the house. He started hanging out at a local pool hall, where he eventually met a gentleman farmer, Christopher Croft, who offered to take him on as a hired hand at his 650-acre farm in Buttevant, County Cork. Rather than commute, Rhys Meyers, then 16, moved in with Croft and his three children. (Croft, who has said publicly in the past that he is gay, was arrested last July in Morocco for sexual abuse of a child. He and Rhys Meyers have both said since that their relationship was strictly father-son. And while he acknowledges that he was once very close to Croft, Rhys Meyers says he hasn’t spoken to him in three years.)
“As a kid, I never thought I wanted to be an actor,” Rhys Meyers says. “But I do remember sitting around and watching Johnny Depp on 21 Jump Street—my favorite show—and thinking, ‘How cool is that?'” Having been encouraged by a Dublin casting agent who came through the pool hall where he used to hang out, Rhys Meyers began going up to the city from Croft’s farm for auditions, landing his first major role, as an assassin in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, when he was 19. Since then, he has lived the peripatetic life of the working actor. He laments what that’s cost his personal life—or, more to the point, his romantic life. “Not many relationships can survive,” he says, pulling his singed jacket around him. “A woman has got to have a lot of trust when you’re on a film set with a beautiful actress. There is a lot of jealousy.”
The tabloids reported that Rhys Meyers and his girlfriend, cosmetics heir Reena Hammer, broke up last spring after three years together. According to him, it’s more like “taking a serious break.” He lights another cigarette and pauses, reaching out to rest a hand on my shoulder. “It’s like, I’m 30. My life is a lot of hotel rooms, a lot of travel and being on the road, a lot of time alone. Someday I’ll have kids and all that. But right now I’m focused on [my] career.”
If Rhys Meyers could trade places with any of his peers, it would be Leonardo DiCaprio—not, he makes a point of noting, because of his acting chops, but because of his status as a force in the industry. “Power is very seductive,” he says. “He was successful very young, was a party boy, took two years off, and then became this major Hollywood player. Right now I can get a $5 million film green-lit, not a $100 million film.” Rhys Meyers lives in a modest home in Nichols Canyon, Los Angeles, and owns a house in County Cork and an apartment in Spain, near Valencia. “I don’t care about the money. I’m not a money person. I’m not a car person.” His Red Monkey watch, he points out, cost only $100. “I want to have enough to help my mom and my brothers, if they need it… But I do want to have the power to get movies made. I’m not going to sit here and say I want anonymity or that I don’t want to be famous. I do.”