In the late 1990s, I was doing a fair bit of work – mostly unpaid – for now-defunct Savannah-based Contents Magazine. It was an extraordinary publication in many respects, with an edgy mix of articles, interviews, fashion, and photos. Tapping into the skills of a variety of artists, writers and talented SCAD student designers, publisher Joseph Alfieris managed to produce a magazine that, at its best, was both slick and substantive in its quest for the new and the beautiful.
Given the magazine’s mission, it seemed a no-brainer to me to run an interview and photo spread with actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers. He wasn’t yet on the radar screen of most American media consumers in 2000, but he seemed destined to be.
When I reached Rhys Meyers’ publicist, she told me that the young Irish actor was in the U.S. at the time, so a phone interview would be easy to set up. But he never called me back, and the publicist – I have long forgotten her name – was obviously irritated when she found out that he had returned to the U.K. without contacting me. At some point, the actor’s friend Christopher Croft joined the conversation, and it became clear that Rhys Meyers just really didn’t want to do a phone interview – but would be willing to talk to me in person.
So I got an early sense of a certain guardedness and fragility – traits that seemed wildly different from JRM’s vigorous, breathtaking on-screen turns. So I proposed to Joseph that I would do the interview in London if I could simply get reimbursed for the flight there and back. Amazingly, the trip worked out, and about a week later – in early December of 2000 – I took an overnight flight to Heathrow and met up with Rhys Meyers late the next morning at The Groucho Club.
But things were a little unpredictable in the Contents office and the magazine was never published on a strict schedule; my interview never ran. We had even had some gorgeous photos taken in London.
Recently, that unpublished interview with Jonathan Rhys Meyers has come up, so I decided to locate the handwritten transcript of our long conversation on that chilly day in London.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers was just 23 when this interview was conducted, but he had already led a remarkable life. After a tough childhood that included a fractured family and permanent expulsion from school, Rhys Meyers had improbably ended up in the movies after being spotted at a pool hall by a casting agent. (There’s more background on his IMDB page.)
At the time of this interview, Rhys Meyers had landed some notable roles, including a small part in A Man of No Importance with Albert Finney, the assassin in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins starring Liam Neeson, an American high school student in Tim Hunter’s The Maker, a passionate and desperate young man in the underrated The Governess with Minnie Driver and Tom Wilkinson, glam rocker Brian Slade alongside Ewan McGregor in Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, a fairly small role as a psychopathic guerilla in Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil, and as Chiron in Julie Taymor’s Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins.
That’s obviously an amazing list of directors and projects for such a young actor, especially one without any formal training.
At the time of this interview, Rhys Meyers had just finished playing Steerpike in the mini-series Gormenghast, but it had not aired in the States yet.
So this interview is long before Bend It Like Beckham, Match Point, and The Tudors. JRM’s full filmography is obviously on IMDB.
I remember the two folks at reception at The Groucho Club being a little taken aback when I told them why I was there. Maybe it was the fact that I wore casual clothes and carried a stuffed over-the-shoulder bag — or maybe that I just looked sketchier than usual after my overnight flight.
As I waited, I figured there was at best half a chance that Rhys Meyers would show, but he breezed in a few minutes later, looking pleasantly disheveled and a little wary, wearing a black jacket over a sleeveless t-shirt. Carrying a bag of his own, he likely looked at least as itinerant as I did.
In my notes, I later wrote: “Totally genuine. Easy to engage, hard to interview.”
I’ve edited this to a degree, but far less than I did back in 2000. It’s a blog post now, after all, not a magazine piece. And it’s long — no reason to edit for space — so I’m breaking it into three pages. As a result, it doesn’t have the same flow that a magazine edit would have.
BD: The first movie I saw you in was The Maker.
JRM: Tim Hunter’s movie. I thought it was a really good script and was going to be a really good movie. I was really glad I did it because I was playing an American kid, and I was given maybe a week to learn an American accent. But it didn’t work unfortunately.
What’s difficult is not doing the American accent but doing the physicality that Americans have – a physicality with the way that they speak, an easiness with their bodies and their lips when they’re speaking that’s not the same with Europeans. Americans are comfortable when they do something.
Actors in the United States have this brilliant talent I can’t quite get my hands on – and not many Europeans can. Like [switching to an American accent] “get me a cup of coffee”. We find this very hard in Europe.
BD: Why do you think that is?
JRM: I don’t know. Americans can find it very difficult to come here and do intense Shakespeare.
BD: I know you’ve been interviewed a lot about your youthful truancy –
JRM: Yes –
BD: Was it simply truancy that got you expelled?
JRM: No. What’s very difficult to understand as a child is sharing and not having. Not having a lot of things, I couldn’t learn, I couldn’t listen. I was so smothered by poverty and at that point there was no hope of being any other way either. I thought that this was what I would do for the rest of my life, so my truancy was fear more than anything else, fear of the future, fear of living. I know people that are given life, but they’re given life with special circumstances.
As a kid, material things make you feel very safe. If you don’t just have these shoes or this toy or that jacket, you feel very deprived – and I think material things have a huge emotional importance at a certain age. For me that emotional importance was seen as truancy.
Listen, if I’d been a rich kid and I was just fucking around, well that’s pure truancy. But truancy when it’s sparked by an emotion – there must be another word for it. I’m not sure what it is. People would like to call it truancy – it looks cool: “He wasn’t in school, he must have been fucking. He was kicked out of school, isn’t he hot?”
BD: What about your peers, your friends?
JRM: I was a loner as a child and I was a particularly ugly child.
BD: I find that hard to believe.
JRM: No, I was a particularly ugly child. I was sort of the ugly duckling. There was something about the way that I looked that was slightly off. It made people not like me as much.
BD: When did that image of yourself begin to change?
JRM: It never has really. Other people can tell you what you look like, but no, I always think I look ugly, but there are other people who see differently and that’s very well and good.
BD: When you look in the mirror, you don’t see someone who’s even moderately attractive?
JRM: Not really. When I was in Velvet Goldmine and everyone was like “wow, such a beautiful boy”, I became self-conscious about it. Now I try to take advantage of it as little as possible. The whole thing about acting is keeping your interest all the time. I find it very difficult. You know, when you’re doing a film for 11 weeks, you’re just waiting, you’re sitting around all the time, and I think that’s the most difficult thing.
I’d like acting to completely cover me so that it’s the only thing that I need. But because of living, because of things that I need in my life as well — I ‘d love to eliminate every other want and desire. It would be very difficult to achieve.
BD: It sounds more like a spiritual quest than a professional one.
JRM: Yeah, well, I suppose it is. I’m trying to live a life that’s extraordinary, that’s unique in a way that no other life has been and to retain the intelligence of it, and the understanding of living, the understanding of humanity. Plus it’s an emotional job. I’m using my emotion most of the time in conjunction with my physicality. It’s coming from in here [touching his chest], so it must be spiritual in some way or another. For some section of actors, it’s a professional job. I’d love be able to think of it as a professional job, I’d love to be able to go into the set and come home in the evening and forget I was ever there. I’d quite like that, I just can’t.
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