Actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers went from being kicked out of school to working with such directors as Woody Allen, Neil Jordan and Oliver Stone – and he’s the star of a raunchy historical TV drama The Tudors. So what’s the secret of his success? He tells Chris Sullivan.
Your first big film was Michael Collins. What was that like?
I loved that film. I didn’t even have a character name but I was the man who shot Michael Collins. No one actually knows who shot him. Some have said it was an IRA man who was once in the British Army called Sonny O’Neil – but no one knows for sure.
Was it daunting working with so many big names when you’re a kid?
Yeah it was nerve-wracking shooting with Liam Neeson and being directed by Neil Jordan but Alan Rickman helped my immensely. I was lucky to work with an actor of such quality and with such a great temperament. He really helped me along.
Not bad for a kid from Cork who was kicked out of school…
Yes I was expelled for truancy but it’s not something I’m proud of. The Christian Brothers did what they did but they weren’t as trained to be teachers. Teachers today are trained to be social and emotional teachers as well as academics. They do an exceptional job and they should get more praise.
You grew up in difficult circumstances. Do you think you were trying to escape?
People have made up this fantasy rags to riches story about me: I did have a disadvantaged youth but so do 95% of people. I just happen to have been lucky that my life turned out this way. I was kicked out of school at 15 and went on to become a successful actor – so one half of my life has been very different from the other: when I look back to that person growing up on a council estate in Cork, I’m not sure I even recognise him.
How did you get from being that lad to where you are now – especially without any training?
With great difficulty. I’ve managed to achieve some things that are unique but in others I’ve failed entirely. I think the difficulty of learning on the job is you make all your mistakes in public.
Were you ever tempted to quit acting?
If I hadn’t have been an actor I don’t know what I would have done. When I was 18 years old if someone had offered me a job at Burger King or McDonalds, and I hadn’t been acting, I would have taken it. Work is work. I grew up in Ireland in the 80s when there was a lot of unemployment – so I respect people who work. And my work ethic was installed in me early by not having any money.
Which explains how you followed Michael Collins with several films in quick succession. Tell us about Velvet Goldmine.
Velvet Goldmine was difficult. People expected this very commercial film but Todd Haynes’s films are so existential: he’s a philosopher with a camera. He’s one of the few directors with the guts to bring his vision to the screen at the expense of box office success.
Your performance (as fictional Glam Rock star Brian Slade) was spot-on. Did it feel like you were getting it right on set?
Not at all. I felt wooden and restricted. It was a very tiring shoot. I had one moment where it all got too much. I was doing a scene with Ewan McGregor and he looked really cool in his leather suit and I saw this ridiculous polka dot suit and lost my bottle. I said: “I’m going to look like a Christmas tree and he looks like a rock God.’ It was stupid actor insecurity and I should have just bitten the bullet. I’m sure Sandy Powell, who is the best costume designer in the world, is still livid with me.
That film also featured your first on-screen kiss…
I know a huge amount of women might think that snogging Ewan McGregor is the best thing that could ever happen, but it was not the most pleasant I have ever had.
Is it important to you to pick edgy projects, rather than play it safe?
Yes, I’ve been brave as an actor and sometimes it’s succeeded and other times it’s failed but I think you have to do that. There has to be a certain dark and a certain light for you to be interesting.
I’ve read you’re a fan of Brendan Behan (the Irish writer and family friend of Michael Collins).
I think he was an extraordinary artist with an extraordinary intellect. He never realised his own potential and I think that was because he never wanted to. You might say that someone like Brendan Behan might not have gone further if he didn’t spend so much time in the pub but I think that the pub was where he found a lot of his inspiration.
You’ve enjoyed a similar reputation yourself…
I was one of these kids in school that trouble followed – that’s why I was expelled and I didn’t expect my early adult life to be any different to be honest. I never drank till I was 25. Since I was 27 I must have drunk maybe a dozen and a half times. But when you’re a young actor you’re tarred before you start. Anyway I kind of like people having this idea that I’m this rebellious wild guy even if the reality is that I am not. I shoot 12 hours a day so the last thing I want to do is go out running around parties and clubs.
What was it like playing the lead in a Woody Allen film?
Woody is the most extraordinary director, so getting the chance to play the lead in one of his films was extraordinary. It was a difficult part for me: I could have easily played him as a scheming, psychotic guy but Woody didn’t want that. He wanted him to be this pathetic character who does a terrible thing. And the reason he gets away with it is because Woody believes that, 90 per cent of the time, the bad guy does get away with it.
Woody Allen says Match Point is one his favourites (of his own films) but it wasn’t well received?
The film had a hard time, especially in the UK, because of the way he viewed London: partly because the language he used was quite archaic and partly because London likes to see itself as a vibrant, multicultural society – but that element of Englishness will always be there.
And you’re now playing the very English Henry VIII in the hit historical drama The Tudors. What’s your approach to the character?
I don’t see him as this jolly bloke eating a leg of mutton. That’s how Charles Laughton played him. Henry didn’t even wipe his own bottom – anybody that has that privilege from birth is going to think he’s a living God and Henry did. He was arrogant and egotistical.
I heard you’re a big fan of history, so this must be a dream come true…
I am but you can’t deliver a history lesson when you’re making entertainment. If we wanted to stick to historical facts, we’d be talking about 60 hours of television and everybody would get very bored. To make it interesting we had to take his story and cut years out of it. The situation with Anne Boleyn took 10 years: seven to get special dispensation to get rid of the first wife, Catherine of Aragon, then Henry married Anne and within three years she was executed. It’s like some man who marries, makes millions, gets rid of his wife, buys a Ferrari and starts dating a 22-year-old model.
There’s a lot of sex in The Tudors.
Well in England the sun goes down at 4.30 and there’s only so much folderol you can do of an evening and only so many legs of lamb you can eat. Sex was the highlight of the evening.
And finally, is there anything you miss from home when you’re in LA?
I take Barry’s Tea to Los Angeles. I love a good cup of tea.
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