Across a dimly-lit crypt, in the bowels of Dublin’s Christ Church, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is giving me one of those looks. “No,” the actor intones with received pronunciation. “Now, why would you say, ‘Corporate America’? It’d be Corporate China, Corporate Russia... Corporate London. It’s corporate everything. What it is, is about a small group of very, very cruel men who have decided to take over power. Anywhere in the world, as soon as something of value is found, next thing, rich men bring in guns. “I’ve a friend from Ghana,” he continues. “I said, ‘Wow, Ghana’s so peaceful!’ and he said, ‘Because we have nothing here! If we strike oil here, there’ll be guns here next week.’”
Rhys Meyers, 36, has been talking at length to a table of muted scribes about the subtext of his new TV show, Dracula, in which he plays the titular antihero of the piece.
“Oil became a very big part of it. It was trying to get rid of oil. The only way to attack (Dracula’s nemeses) The Order Of The Dragon... it’s like Sun Tzu: the only way to take away an army is take away the substance of an army. If you can’t feed them, if you can’t pay them, then they won’t be there. And if he removes oil from the equation, then he knows that their money will actually start to dissipate and disappear...”
His head drops but his gaze remains fixed, eyes on no one but your Hot Press correspondent. “They’re like leaves on a tree; I can pluck them easily.”
Which prompts the statement from yours truly (to minor titters from everyone bar Rhys Meyers): “So... it sounds like an attack on Corporate America... on NBC.”
It might read as if he’s on the defensive. Actually he’s just ferociously passionate about his new project. Donning a producer’s cap for the first time, he’s studied the source material and built upon the myth, eager to ground his portrayal in reality.
And here we were thinking the big budget NBC series would be all surface, costumes and sexy Victorian capers. Instead, Rhys Meyers sees it as a meditation on power and revenge. What we can be sure of, is that there is huge weight behind it.
An English-American production dreamt up by the makers of Downton Abbey Carnival Films, it twists a classic horror tale as winter looms large, hitting screens on both sides of the Atlantic via-Sky and NBC. Introducing Dracula (Rhys Meyers) as a faux American vampire in Victorian London, his cold dead heart set on centuries-old revenge, it’s the brainchild of Cole Haddon, with some proven small screen hands on deck. Daniel Knauf (Carnivàle) writes, executive producing alongside Tony Krantz of 24, plus Colin Callender and Gareth Neame (of Downton Abbey). Directed by Steve Shill, who worked with Rhys Meyers on The Tudors, it aims to match the pedigree in its crew’s collective past.
The show arrives at a time when television is very much rubbing shoulders with cinema and noone appreciates this golden age more than Rhys Meyers. “Discovered” as a kid in a pool hall in Cork, he came to attention in 1996 as the youngster with the smoking gun in Michael Collins.
From there, Hollywood beckoned. Fast forwarding a decade though and, despite plenty of screen time with Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible III and a lead role alongside Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen’s divisive Match Point, things weren’t quite igniting.
Television, then, has been a place to excel. Not that it’s a consolation prize in a world where a Breaking Bad finale captures the public imagination more than any summer blockbuster. The miniseries Elvis earned him a Golden Globe in 2005. Four seasons of Showtime’s The Tudors then established him as a household name in America. Dracula raises the stakes.
Each opportunity a 21st Century one: these are the type of projects that would never have been afforded the same backing and confidence on the small screen 15, 20 years ago.
“They wouldn’t have existed,” Jonathan agrees. “Television has become enormous. You go to Los Angeles now, it’s all big TV. You look at shows like Breaking Bad and Game Of Thrones. People can actually enjoy these characters for many, many hours and get into the story.
“Hollywood during the summer is all capes and bangs and whistles. And every so often in winter, you get good movies like Argo that are fantastic pieces of cinema. But you don’t have to go to the theatre to watch a TV show. It becomes part of your life, part of your schedule.”
The “idiot box” tag doesn’t apply anymore if you don’t care for keeping up with the Kardashians or living vicariously through Essex oompa loompas. Rhys Meyers believes television is now churning out art and he wants his part of it. It makes sense that he’s a man possessed in this Dublin crypt as the promotional cogs start turning.
A gentleman and captivating presence, he could however talk about the intricacies of his character all day if unchecked. He’s almost at odds with the promotion around him, playing down the vampire angle, ensuring we’re fully briefed that this is no mere piece of zeitgeist-grabbing raunch.
“People think ‘vampires equals sex’. We thought, ‘vampires equal suffering’. We didn’t particularly make this show for 15 and 16 year old kids, this is not a YA audience. This is for people who’ve been through a divorce. Who’ve had loss. Who’ve had kids. So it’s about very, very human elements. The monster is irrelevant. When they cast him, they left this tiny little piece of human. Now if he was all monster, then that’s bliss, because you’re... a monster. But when you leave that cavity? Well, that’s what brings the suffering. At the start of this production we thought, ‘Let’s do this, and also make it as political as we can’. The one thing we couldn’t do, and I wouldn’t do, is make a costume drama. It has to be fast-paced.”
The former ‘Henry VIII’ pauses, and we all draw a breath.
As for the source material – courtesy of Bram Stoker, late of this parish – don’t expect anything too faithful. The actor has poured over the novel, Polidori’s Vampyre and a book on Vlad Tepes, the real-life inspiration behind it all and Meyers’ go-to. His version of the character is intent on “brutal revenge”, desperate to bring the order who burned his wife and cursed him 400 years previous to its knees.
“I’m not playing Dracula, I’m playing a triptych. My main character is Vlad Tepes. Dracula is the monster that comes at the last instance when he has to feed. And (American persona) Alexander Grayson is the performance within a performance. So it’s a mask. Not Christopher Lee, not the long-haired Gary Oldman romantic. He’s a Howard Hughes. They call it Dracula, but Dracula is just that final, last tiny moment before he murders. Before he feeds on addiction. An addiction that will never end. He’s dead and he’s trying to be alive. So everything within him is a performance.”
Somewhere in there, you suspect, is Rhys Meyers himself. Enthused like never before, the lack of eye contact and uncertainty I’ve read about is absent. Instead its sharp cheekbones, a healthy tan that no vampire has any business boasting, and pure engagement. He’s still buzzed, having only finished work two days previous.
“I was in the ADR editing room, making sure the pace of it was right so people don’t get bored.”
It’s a new level of involvement as a producer, and a new level of commitment for a man who would once lament his work, argue that he hadn’t had a great role as yet, that he’d had to fight for every job because, despite his good looks, casting directors always thought there was something a little “off” about his appearance.
Now he’s happy to re-watch Dracula, frame-by-frame, to be certain everything is in its place.
As we conclude our chat I comment on his new demeanour. Rhys Meyers admits that it’s an age thing.
“It’s different, because I’m not making it for me anymore. When you’re a young actor of course you want to be ‘something’ all the time or you want to like yourself all the time. In this, I allowed myself to sometimes look handsome and sometimes look really, really bad. I’m able to step back from it and say, ‘You know what, I’m an actor. I’m not just a human being who has to feel good about himself the whole time.’”
Maybe the man who’s wrestled his demons with addiction in a very public way and once admitted to Hot Press that he almost “sabotaged my career and my life” has finally wised up. Developed a hinterland of sorts, decided to protect himself by immersing himself in the work.
“It’s a new thing for me,” he says as time escapes us, “Because I’m just standing back from it a little. I’m 36 with a little bit of experience. A little bit of joy, a little bit of pain.”