Who else to play a swaggering drunken Henry VIII than the swaggering (but only occasionally) drunken Jonathan Rhys Meyers?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers walks into the Live photo shoot dressed in a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots, jeans, a tight V-necked T-shirt and a deconstructed designer jacket. Heads immediately turn.
Is he drunk? Is he on the rails? How long will he stay? Rhys Meyers has ‘previous’. We’re all fascinated to know how today will turn out.
In April last year, his publicist announced that ‘after a non-stop succession of filming, Jonathan Rhys Meyers has entered an alcohol treatment programme’.
Hopefully, he got his money back: a few months later his girlfriend Reena Hammer declared they were taking a break from each other and that ‘part of the reason is that Jonny is dealing with his problems with alcohol’.
Later in 2007, he was arrested at Dublin airport. Staff had refused to let him stagger on board a flight to London because he was too inebriated. He collapsed to the floor, allegedly swore at an airport worker and was arrested and charged with public drunkenness and breach of the peace.
He sobered up, got a flight the next day and was all over the papers again after being photographed drinking a can of cider in the street at 10am; it emerged that his beloved mother, who he spoke to almost every day, had passed away just hours earlier.
He’s unpredictable, too.
‘Jonny has always been on the brink of going really off the rails,’ said a friend, quoted in one of the innumerable profiles written about him at the time.
‘He was supposed to be heading to New York for a publicity junket, but he left a party with Lindsay Lohan and no one could find him. He vanished for two days. But that’s Jonny for you. He had a difficult childhood and he’s screwed up and wild.’
Will he, I wonder, remember our last, strange meeting?
It was at the wrap party for Woody Allen’s Match Point. Two of the film’s producers had been assigned the job of keeping him on the straight and narrow.
‘It’s been a bloody nightmare, but worth it,’ one of them told me.
Jonathan and I shared a cab to a nearby Mayfair club. When we got there, his eyes darted and his body fidgeted like a caged ferret. After two drinks he was immediately sloshed, and he disappeared.
And today? He’s bang on time. He rapidly introduces himself to everyone in the room: the photographer, the stylist’s assistant, the tea boy and the dog.
‘Hello,’ he says. ‘I’m Jonathan Rhys Meyers. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Right – let’s get on with it. What would you like me to wear? What colour scheme would you like?’
Very much sober and reliable, then.
Later, in the café at the studio, I ask what all that drama was last year. With a flash of his improbably blue-green eyes, he replies in a soft Irish accent, tainted by a slight American intonation.
‘I haven’t even thought about drinking since my mother passed away. Drinking is not the way forward for me at all.
‘I never even drank till I was 25 anyway. I was in Thailand on my own, filming. I was a little bit lonely and I started drinking.
‘Since I was 27 I must have drunk maybe a dozen-and-a-half times – but when I do, I’m like Bambi. I’m all over the place, hopeless, like a 16-year-old kid. People notice.
‘Now drink doesn’t fit into where I want to go. I want to do something useful with my life. Drinking is not synonymous with that. And I don’t put any emphasis on it.
‘To be honest, I just leave it alone and hope people will, too, but I don’t really care. The whole drinking thing with me has been blown out of all proportion anyway.
‘I kind of like people having this idea that I’m this wild, rebellious guy. But the reality is that I’m not, and I’m not quite sure I want to reveal how boring my life is. Of course, as a young Irish actor you’re tarred before you start. It’s the enduring cliché.’
He should know. His idols are Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris and Richard Burton. Like them, he delivers edgy, troubled, enigmatic characters with devastating aplomb, because he is edgy, troubled and enigmatic.
He has presence – he is most definitely more handsome in person than he is on film – and there is something both fragile and explosive about him, and he has used this dichotomy to great effect.
After his breakthrough role alongside Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham, he won a Golden Globe for his dazzling turn as a young and vulnerable Elvis Presley, outshone Tom Cruise as an undercover agent in Mission: Impossible III and excelled opposite Ewan McGregor as a conniving, bisexual glam-rock star in Todd Haynes’s underground cult hit Velvet Goldmine.
I would urge anyone to see him reprise his role as Henry VIII in the second series of The Tudors. Rhys Meyers’s persona of a regal, and perhaps slightly feral, rake makes for a brilliantly paranoid, charismatic and dangerous king of England.
‘I thought I was always going to come over as arrogant and precocious, because young kings were arrogant and precocious,’ he says.
‘Henry wasn’t even expected to wipe his own bottom. There was a man who was known as the Groom of the Stool and he was very honoured to do the job. Anybody that has that privilege from birth is going to be pretentious and arrogant and think he was a living god.
‘When I took on the part, I was concerned I didn’t have any physical resemblance to the character.
‘But Lady Antonia Fraser, who is an authority on Tudor England, thought the only part of my performance that was disappointing was that I didn’t have red hair.
‘To be honest, the reason I didn’t have red hair was because it looked terrible. I look absolutely ridiculous in a red wig.’
Rhys Meyers was born prematurely, in 1977, and was immediately christened because it was presumed he would soon die from a heart defect. He left hospital seven months later.
When the family moved to Cork soon after, his parents’ relationship disintegrated. His younger brothers Jamie and Paul went to live with his father, a musician, while his mother raised him and his brother Alan in a tiny council house. He was expelled from his Catholic school for truancy.
‘I had a disadvantaged youth. But then so do 95 per cent of the people on this planet, so I’m just one of many.
‘I just happen to have been lucky that my life has turned out this way.
‘The way I see it, I’ve had two separate lives. I was kicked out of school when I was 15 and I’m about to be 31, so half my life I’ve been different from that boy.
‘When I look back at the person who grew up in Cork, I’m not sure I even recognise him. Basically, I spent a lot of time playing pool when I should have been in school. And eventually I was expelled. Not because I was a bad boy; I just didn’t want to go.
‘But I’d rather it hadn’t happened, because it’s not good for a kid to read an article and think it’s OK to be expelled – it’s not something to be proud of. The Christian Brothers did what they did – they weren’t as well-trained as teachers today. I was just one of those kids who trouble followed.’
His career began when casting agents spotted him at a Cork pool hall and encouraged him to audition for a movie. He didn’t get the part, but ended up in a Knorr soup commercial.
His first proper roles were as Liam Neeson’s assassin in Michael Collins and a rogue in Stephen Poliakoff’s The Tribe.
‘We had to do this three-way sex thing – me, Jeremy Northam and Anna Friel. I’d never done a three-way sex scene with a man and a woman, but I knew that Jeremy was very uptight about it, so I tried my best to make him even more uncomfortable by grabbing his backside. We Celts love the wind-up. It’s what we do best.’
Bizarrely, he then had to kiss Ewan McGregor in Velvet Goldmine.
‘Even though a huge amount of the female population might think that snogging Ewan McGregor is the best thing that might ever happen, for me it was not the most pleasant on-screen snog I’ve ever had. But at least I was his first.’
After playing creepy Steerpike in the BBC series Gormenghast, he bought his mother a house.
‘It was nice to be able to do it,’ he says, his intense eyes suddenly welling up.
‘It was one of those things that sons have to do. It wasn’t anything special and I wasn’t looking for brownie points. I just felt that it was a way for me to invest my money into somebody that I loved very, very much.’
He’s probably bigger in the States than he is in the UK now, thanks to his lead role in the US TV series Elvis.
‘The thing about that was that I never saw Elvis as this massive superstar.
‘I saw him as a kid who used whatever he could to get out of the situation he was in, but the problem was that he brought that situation with him and it suffocated him.
‘He was filming King Creole in New Orleans and really wanted to eat at this very famous restaurant called Antoine’s. All the guys were getting suited and booted ready to go out to this restaurant, then Colonel Parker came in and said, “Elvis, you can’t go to Antoine’s – your fame is so big you just can’t go. You can’t leave this room.”
‘He was 23 and that was the first time he realised the size of his fame, and that he thrived on it. Because believe me, all actors and performers, including myself, thrive on attention; otherwise we wouldn’t do what we do.
‘I read a lot of little snippets about people saying, (he puts on a luvvie accent) “I just want my private life”.
‘But they can’t have it! It’s that simple. You’ve got the money and the fame, but you’ve had to give up that one thing – so accept that, as that’s how your life is going to be. If you don’t like it, find something else to do.’
He isn’t easily impressed with the Hollywood machine.
‘The business is full of young lads from Cork and Ridley Scott from Tyneside and Russell Crowe from Down Under and Ewan from Perth and Jude from London and Colin from Dublin, all of whom grew up in really ordinary situations but have this really extraordinary job.
‘They may wear fancier clothes and have prettier girlfriends, but if you look back, there’s that pudding-headed haircut and the school uniform on somebody’s mantelpiece.
‘I don’t get invited to all those glamorous parties anyway. And if I did I’m not sure I’d want to go.
‘I’m not quite sure I have the bravado that these 23-year-old young bucks out there have, thinking it’s so exciting and so fabulous. But very soon they’ll become jaded, and I’ll be 45 with a beer gut and a Ferrari checking out the young chicks.’
He brings us back to Henry.
‘That’s what he was like. He only left Catherine of Aragon because he wanted a new young wife.
‘It’s like when you get some man who has married his wife and makes millions, and when he reaches 45 he starts dating a 22-year-old model.
‘But it wasn’t so easy for Henry. For him everything was a matter of state. But I have a lot of admiration for him. He built England’s navy. He decided to give England jurisdiction over their religion and how their spirituality was viewed.
‘And yes, he did have six wives, but six marriages won’t make a man happy, so anybody who’s had six wives isn’t going to be walking around jollified.
‘I actually think he was less of a lad than people believe. He had a lot of very hard, very frightening experiences as a young boy living in that court.
‘His father put down a rebellion when he was a child and he and his mother were locked in the Tower Of London for seven days and didn’t know whether they were going to be executed or not.
‘People died all around him, his brother included.
‘And in those days war was very personal. You stood there with this big sword and heard the tear of the flesh as you killed your man, personally, yourself. It took a lot of bravery for a man to stand opposite another man in a field and have it out mano a mano.’
And the endless sex scenes?
‘Yes, there’s a lot of sex in The Tudors. But in England the sun goes down at 4:30 in the afternoon and there are only so many legs of lamb you can eat of an evening.
‘Sex was the highlight of the evening. And it helped warm the bed.’
With those intriguing remarks, we end our conversation.
‘People have this perception of me, and they always will,’ he told me earlier.
‘But I do the best I can with what I have. I think you have to have a certain dark and a certain light within you to be interesting.’
Relieved to have spent several sober hours with Rhys Meyers, I now know exactly what he means.