For Jonathan Rhys Meyers, it’s time to grow up
By William Georgiades
Los Angeles Times, November 18, 2007

Setting his sights on more mature roles, the actor says he’s tired of just playing pretty boy.

NEW YORK — “YOU can only do so many skinny pretty-boy roles,” declares Jonathan Rhys Meyers in a downtown New York cafe. He’s just come from a taping of “Live With Regis and Kelly,” where he was interviewed by guest host Vince Vaughn. “I decided I had to become more masculine and move away from all those young man roles. I’m 30 now. And the very best roles for actors come between the ages of 30 and 50. And I want to be ready for them all.”

Nobody is more aware of how Jonathan Rhys Meyers is perceived than Jonathan Rhys Meyers. If the name is distant, then that long, lean face with the piercing eyes and the pillow lips has probably made an impression over the last 12 years, from his second film, as the Irish assassin in Neil Jordan’s “Michael Collins,” to those “brooding pretty-boy” turns in films such as “Titus,” “Ride With the Devil” and “Velvet Goldmine.”

Lately, a new version of Rhys Meyers has emerged — gym-sculpted, sober and professionally focused. Last year he won a Golden Globe for his lead role in the CBS miniseries “Elvis,” and he’s just wrapped the second season of Showtime’s “The Tudors,” in which he plays King Henry VIII like, well, a rock star.

His latest film, “August Rush,” is another departure for Rhys Meyers: He isn’t the lead, and the film is a fable, a sweet-natured tale about the redemptive power of music and family. In tone, you have to go back to his role as the young coach in “Bend It Like Beckham” to get the same sense of innocence in one of his films. “Hence why I took the role,” he says. “You can’t be bombarded all the time with these hard-hitting films; it’s nice to go to the cinema and see a beautiful film that touches on creative, positive energy.”

In “August Rush,” Rhys Meyers plays an Irish singer-songwriter who unknowingly fathers a musical prodigy with a cellist played by Keri Russell. Years pass, and the child, played by Freddy Highmore in the titular role, sets out to find his parents while discovering his musical talents. Rhys Meyers’ character is part of an ensemble that includes Terrence Howard as a social worker and Robin Williams as a Fagin-like street performer.

“Everything about the film is sort of sincere, even if it’s not cool, it’s so openhearted and that’s refreshing,” says Russell, who has previously shared the screen with Rhys Meyers (in a brief scene in “Mission: Impossible III”). “And Jonathan, more than anyone I’ve ever worked with, is really a performer. He’s so bold and larger than life.”

Director Kirsten Sheridan says she cast Rhys Meyers as a musician not because of his performance in the ’70s glam rock- inspired “Velvet Goldmine” but because of a scene in the “Elvis” miniseries. “He had to explode at Col. Tom Parker, and in the middle of this scene you could see Johnny himself very clearly, and I knew I had to work with him. That moment and the fact that he’s a great, primal actor who can also dance and sing.”

Part of the allure of “August Rush” was the opportunity to sing and play guitar in a band, something Rhys Meyers pulls off admirably, although being a virtuoso was hardly a requisite for the role. “The guy is not a genius, he’s not a Jeff Buckley, he’s just a regular singer-songwriter,” Rhys Meyers says of his character. “I could have made him this dark, troubled genius, but that would be stupid and it wouldn’t serve the script, which is about two mediocre musicians who create this real genius of a son.”

In the movie, Highmore’s character picks up a guitar and is immediately brilliant. Rhys Meyers himself, if you believe media reports, had a similarly blessed beginning to his career. He grew up in County Cork, Ireland, was expelled from school at 16 and was cast in his first film after being spotted in a pool hall.

“That sounds good,” he allows, “but there were a lot of auditions. I mean a lot of auditions. But that’s really boring stuff. I spent a year going up and down to Dublin on a train for auditions for films I didn’t get. Then I got one movie and from that Neil Jordan cast me in ‘Michael Collins.’ But even then I’ve auditioned for lots of films I never got.” He rattles off a list of projects that suggest he was very quickly being considered for the biggest of movies, such as “Minority Report” and “Spider-Man.” “Overnight success takes about 10 years,” he says.

A healthier outlook

EARLIER this year, he entered rehab for alcohol problems, but he doesn’t have much to say on the subject; indeed, quitting drinking sounds like more of a career plan, part of his fitness regimen, than anything else. “I hear people’s fantasies of my wild-child days and I wish they were as wild as that, but the reality was not so wild. In the same way that my success was not overnight. I mean, I’m all for the exaggerated version of everything, but the truth was it was boring and getting in the way of work, so I stopped.”

It was while filming Woody Allen’s “Match Point” that Rhys Meyers decided to transform himself into a more mature actor. “I had this conversation with Woody, who believes luck has everything to do with his career,” he recalls. “But I think that lucky people aren’t people for whom great things happen but people who realize that something good is happening at the time and take that and run with it.”

Next year he stars in “The Children of Huang Shi,” playing a British journalist saving orphans in China in 1937. He also added 14 pounds of muscle to his physique, bringing new depth to Season 2 of “The Tudors,” set to air in January. He’s just left the Ireland set and is particularly excited about the show. “It’s so much better, this season, it’s kind of the grown-up version. A lot of characters you saw in Season 1, dreadful, dreadful things happen to them. There’s blood on the walls. It’s just harrowing.”

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