Jonathan Rhys Meyers takes a bite out of classic ‘Dracula’ role
By Robert Rorke
NY Post, October 19, 2013
With all the supernatural creatures populating the fall TV landscape, it was just a matter of time before Dracula made his entrance. The granddaddy of vampires is back and inhabited by the compact frame and penetrating blue eyes of Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers. With his talent for playing playing monsters — Henry VIII on “The Tudors” comes to mind — Rhys Meyers says he’s more than willing to follow in the footsteps of a galaxy of actors — Gary Oldman, Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi, among them — who’ve portrayed the Vlad the Impaler in the movies.
“I play the bad guy because I look like one,” he says. “I suppose there’s a kind of feral element in me. It’s just part of those energies that encompass me.”
Still, Rhys Meyers admits he was daunted by the prospect of playing another sinister historical figure. “I have to say there was a weight on my shoulder. I really loved Gary Oldman’s version and ‘Nosferatu.’ But I knew it was going to be a network show, and I was going to find a way to make it fascinating within those parameters.”
It’s not like NBC is skimping on the blood to keep advertisers happy. This “Dracula” sheds enough hemoglobin for a 100 transfusions, though the sepia lighting and persistent fog may soften the graphic nature of the show. And it can’t be easy to find a new wrinkle in this very old story, but creator Cole Haddon has tried, primarily by turning Dracula from a villain into a hero.
“Dracula can’t be the antagonist,” says showrunner Daniel Knauf. “He has to be the one driving the story, but you don’t want to denude him. Cole created a bigger antagonist — the Order of the Dragon.
The Order of the Dragon was a chivalric order for selected nobility, founded in 1408 by Hungary’s King Sigmund. The order, which has its own vampire huntress (Victoria Smurfit), saw as its mission to fight enemies of Christianity. While its function has been modified for the series, this Dracula holds the group responsible for the death of his wife.
“There’s an element of Dan Brown to it,” Rhys Meyers says. “Could be Opus Dei. The papacy in Rome owned the Western world at that point. and Vlad defied Rome. His wife is dragged out of bed and burned. Vlad is cursed with living eternally.”
Of course, Dracula looks fabulous for such an old coot, receiving mysterious injections that will help withstand daylight and hiding behind drapes and inside his horsedrawn carriage. Dracula trolls the foggy streets of London at night looking for fresh meat, but he has his heart set on a woman who is a dead ringer for his wife, Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw), a medical student who finds herself oddly drawn to the American stranger.
Murray is not the only character on the show who was in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. Solicitor Jonathan Harker is now a journalist, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen. Mina’s best friend Lucy Westenra (Katie McGrath) shows up. Renfield (Nonso Anozie), a lawyer Dracula turns mad in the novel, is his manservant here. “A pasty, spider-eating nut-bag is not going to cut it as a confidant,” says Knauf of the change in his role.
Most controversial, Abraham Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann) has been dramatically changed — from vampire hunter to medical-school professor and Dracula’s ally.
“The idea of taking these characters and putting them on the same side so that they both have a common enemy, those kinds of stories are kind of fun,” Knauf says.
What’s different about Dracula himself is that he’s masquerading as Alexander Grayson, an American industrialist. He’s arrived in London with plans to bring electric light to high society. In the pilot, he holds a ballroom reception and hands out light bulbs to his finely dressed guests.
“Victorian is the old world; America is the new world,” says Rhys Meyers. “Someone can go to the US, and if they have work hard, they can be welcomed in any society. They can sit at the head of the table. For a British person, it’s about who your father is, if you want to sit at the head of the table. For a young brash American to come over with a new form of clean energy, he’s trying to destroy petroleum energy, because the Order of the Dragon has invested in it.”
Rhys Meyers can identify with being the underdog, as he was discovered in an Irish pool hall and started getting cast in films as diverse as the indie “Velvet Goldmine,” about the British glam rock era, and a TV movie about Elvis Presley, in which he perfected a Southern accent. His magnetism is undeniable and Knauf says his coming on board got “Dracula” bumped up from pilot to series order.
“We know [Rhys Meyers] is going to bring a certain intensity to the role. It’s so far inside his wheelhouse,” Knauf says. “When he commits, he gives 110 percent.”
For “Dracula,” Rhys Meyers uses a non-regional American accent when appearing in public as Grayson. and his vocabulary is full of vernacular (“You bet on it”) that is not necessarily specific to the times.
“Vlad has an British accent. Regular, firm and clipped. I see him as a Howard Hughes-y character and I tried to infuse him with as much charm as I could,” Rhys Meyers says. “But of course he’s moody. He’s been dead for 400 years. He’s in an enormous amount of pain. It would be great to be immortal if you were your current age and in the peak of condition.”
The actor, who is 36 and lives in London, says he has his put his boozing days behind him, after a stint in rehab. He spends time with his girlfriend and generally avoids the company of other actors, even though so many of his “Tudors” co-stars — Gabrielle Anwar, Henry Cavill and Natalie Dormer, among them — have gone on to fame and fortune.
“I’m not somebody who has many actor friends. After four years you’ve had enough of people and they’ve had enough of me,” Rhys Meyers says. “I remember working with Anthony Hopkins when I was 22, and he said, ‘I love saying hello to people at the beginning of a production and I love saying goodbye to them at the end. I like my co-stars being successful. They were worth the time, the energy and they are very nice people.”