Will Jonny be good?
JONATHAN Rhys Meyers may be a pretty boy of film, but the deep shadows in his seductive gaze reflect a childhood punctuated by adversity.
Will Jonny make good on his sober promise to be a great actor?
The leaves are falling fast on a late autumn day in Rome, the afternoon tinged with cold.
In the distance, the venerable domes and statues of the Eternal City are silhouetted against a setting sun as Jonathan Rhys Meyers saunters along the red carpet for the premiere of his film August Rush.
He’s seemingly intoxicated by all the shrill attention – and his own charisma.
In the flashing lights of hundreds of powerful cameras, his angular male beauty is accentuated and defined; the fine cheekbones, the famously full mouth, the eerie eyes.
The crowds are watching him and he is watching himself, too, reflected back in the transient admiration.
In photographs, he looks spoilt, arrogant and indolent, not unlike an F Scott Fitzgerald Great Gatsby golden boy to whom everything comes easily.
And this is a persona deployed to vigorous effect as a sexed-up Henry VIII in the television series The Tudors, which made him a household name in Europe and the US, and which will premiere in Australia next month.
But later, in a small utilitarian room under the theatre, a very different and far more human story will unfold.
A story, not of the smooth, privileged passage that’s so often conferred upon the beautiful and talented, but one of pain and personal struggle.
There’s no question no one enjoys his looks more than Rhys Meyers – known as Jonny – or that he may be his own biggest fan. “Would I be a narcissistic person?"
"Absolutely,” admits the 30-year-old Irishman. “To get up in front of a camera, of course you have to have vanity. All acting is narcissism in some way. I’ve always been seen as a pretty boy.
"Any actor who tells you they’re not vain is bullsh*tting,” he continues.
"Any actor who believes that their physicality is not an intrinsic part of why they land a role is fooling themselves.”
While he’s making this frank admission, his bitten-down fingernails are thrumming the table and his legs are jiggling.
In fact, his whole long, lean body is vibrating with nervous energy. His light green eyes are bloodshot and there are shadows under them – there’s something slightly dissolute about him.
Rhys Meyers brings an edgy intensity to all his roles and to this interview, and one can soon see that the exquisite facade is a mask for the unquiet, uneasy person beneath it, struggling with demons, albeit with an eloquent Irish accent.
In April 2007, Meyers briefly checked into what his publicist called an “alcohol treatment program”. Then, in November, he not only fell off the wagon, but fell off a chair at Dublin Airport and passed out on the floor.
He was charged with public disorder for drunk and offensive behaviour (the charges were later dropped).
Two days later, his mother, Geri Meyers-O’Keeffe, 50, died in a Dublin hospital after a sudden illness. The next day, Rhys Meyers was pictured drinking a can of extra-strong cider at 10am on a London street.
But during our interview – which happened before the Dublin Airport incident – he speaks at length about sobriety and being a “role model, so you can’t go out and drink two bottles of vodka and get behind the wheel of a Porsche, because you don’t want other people to do that”.
And while admitting he has a “compulsive, addictive personality”, Rhys Meyers says he gave up drinking because he wanted to be a “really successful actor”.
He says acting is his salvation. “I’m usually on location somewhere, so that keeps me safe. Working keeps you entertained and off the streets."
Toni Collette, who had a year-long relationship with him after they both starred in 1998’s Velvet Goldmine, describes him as “probably dangerous”.
She’s not wrong. In January 2005, he and his on-off girlfriend, the 21-year-old cosmetics heir Reena Hammer, were arrested and cautioned for common assault after a fight in their North London apartment, each blaming the other.
(It’s been reported they have since split up, although Hammer accompanied Rhys Meyers to his mother’s funeral.)
Collette has admitted she had panic attacks for eight months after they broke up, and in 2006, she told the UK’s Daily Mail, “It was just one of those relationships you have to have. He’s a very interesting, charming, soulful person.”
For his part, Rhys Meyers admits, “I was only 19 and not mature enough. I’m a selfish boyfriend. I had a lot of rejection in my childhood. And when you’re rejected, you can’t accept love and certainly can’t give it.”
Indeed, running in tandem with the ego and huge ambition is a palpable and undermining insecurity – a dangerous combination of qualities.
“I think all actors suffer from insecurity,” he says when I ask about this. “You’re in a job where people you don’t know will judge your work publicly. That creates insecurity. I don’t think there’s an actor out there who’s not insecure in some way. And if they tell you they’re not, they’re lying.”
But this is a glib answer to what is known to be a chronic problem. He’s a man trying to build a palace on shaky foundations, with a past that constantly reaches out to pull him back.
When Rhys Meyers was two, his father left the family, taking the two youngest of four sons (Rhys Meyers being the eldest).
His late mother moved to a tiny council flat in a rough part of Ireland’s Cork. She, too, had an alcohol affliction, often drinking her dole money away, obliging the young Jonny to steal food to survive. (“I was an exquisite thief,” he once boasted.)
By 14, he was a delinquent, expelled from his Christian Brothers school. “I don’t think I’m rebellious; I think I just didn’t suit school,” he says.
Virtually living on the streets, he was a fixture at the local pool hall. It was there that he met a local farmer, Christopher Crofts, who took him in with his own four sons. “I could see he had terrible insecurities,” Crofts has said.
"He needed structure and stability – and a phone.” Last year, Crofts was jailed for drugging and abusing a homeless 15-year-old boy in Morocco and, although Rhys Meyers emphatically denies there was ever any impropriety between himself and the man he considers an adoptive father, it does show how vulnerable he was.
He has given colourful accounts of his youth in the past, but now is more circumspect.
“Yes, life was difficult. I didn’t have both parents, we didn’t have money and my mother was not a very responsible woman, but that’s not uncommon in this world. I did not grow up in an orphanage, as people have written but, yes, I was discovered in a pool hall.”
His first job was in a Knorr TV commercial. “I was 16, and I made Ј500 (AU$1000) for two hours’ work.
What boy is not going to say, ‘I’ll do this’? I wanted to act because it was soft money.
"But then I went on the set of Michael Collins – which was the second film I shot – and it wasn’t even the acting, it was just the whole atmosphere, the whole buzz about it, the big cameras and, suddenly, it was kind of like, this is a pretty f*cking cool job.”
Still, success didn’t come easily. There was a lot of rejection, a lot of bit parts, a lot of failed auditions.
“For every film I’ve landed, I’ve been turned down for hundreds of others. I’ve been told by every director in the world that I would never make it. People don’t know how hard it was.”
But, slowly and determinedly, he’s built up a diverse body of work; credits such as Gormenghast, The Magnificent Ambersons, Bend it Like Beckham, Alexander, Vanity Fair, Mission: Impossible III and an Elvis TV biopic, for which he won a Golden Globe.
A big breakthrough was the Woody Allen movie Match Point, in which he starred opposite Scarlett Johansson. “Suddenly, I’m in the best Woody Allen movie in 10 years – in a big role. But it was difficult because I was playing somebody who is weak.”
And now, of course, there’s his spectacular portrayal of Henry VIII in The Tudors, a high-quality compulsive romp, in which we see a great deal of his admittedly magnificent torso, honed at the gym, as Henry makes his lascivious way through the ladies at his court.
Rhys Meyers is fantastically good as the spoilt and petulant boy king with an appetite for war and sex, who would go on to become a psychopath and have two of his six wives killed. “It’s a lot of fun being king – that’s where the party is.”
He’s been criticised for being too pretty, even though Henry, more commonly known as an overweight redhead, was said to have been beautiful as a young man (although possibly by people who would have been beheaded if they hadn’t said so).
"People have said Henry VIII didn’t look like me. Fair enough. But no critic can tell me that how I play Henry isn’t right, because I play him a hell of a lot closer to history than people admit. He was an egotistical, spoilt brat, born with the arrogance that everything he had in this world was his by right.”
August Rush is a very different proposition.
It’s the story of a singer in an Irish rock band (Rhys Meyers) and a sheltered cellist (Keri Russell), who have a magical one-night stand.
Their love-child (Freddie Highmore), a musical prodigy who is raised in an orphanage in secret, is determined to reunite them in New York. It’s a gentle, mystical film about the ability of music to connect.
“I get to be a musician and it’s a big commercial film that shows a lighter side to me.
"I learnt the guitar and sang all the songs myself, and I was able to play somebody who was compassionate and who was looking for that first rush.
"There’s always that girl or that guy you didn’t spend enough time with.
"Maybe you’re sitting in a cafe and you see this beautiful girl or this beautiful guy, and you never see them again, but they stay with you. I completely believe in love at first sight.”
Rhys Meyers says he leads a simple life in LA, where he now lives. “I have a house in the hills, I go to the gym, I go to restaurants.
My life hasn’t changed. It’s a job some people deem as glamorous and, I admit, there are certain amounts of glamour in that life, but there’s an awful lot of an actor’s life that isn’t glamorous.
I get up at 5.30am and spend most of my time in caravans in obscure locations, shooting 12 hours a day. It’s much harder than people realise. I don’t see myself as a big moviestar at all.”
Given that he has been talking about percentages, audience share, and his career strategies, this last comment is a bit disingenuous and doesn’t tally with his frequent star turns in the tabloids.
But he has worked so hard and overcome so much to get where he is, he isn’t going to complain.
"You have to take that as part and parcel, so when you’ve done good things in your life, they’re going to promote it and when you’ve done bad, your life is going to (come) under fire.
"There are certain things you can get away with when you’re anonymous that you can’t get away with when you are not. You have to be more cautious.”
Given that the Dublin Airport episode was soon to be flashed around the world, he might have thought about taking his own advice.
But then, he is a complex, contradictory fellow – not your average bland, politically correct moviestar.
You can’t help wondering if his hunger for his work is a way of avoiding pain. Yet, underneath it all, Rhys Meyers is clever, honest, engaging and vulnerable, and you hope his recent success will go some way towards making it all better.