Hes a chameleon thats for sure - how else can you explain Jonathan Rhys Meyers eclectic range of roles? From a David Bowie inspired glam-rock star in Velvet Goldmine, to a dedicated football coach in Bend it Like Beckham, to his startling performance as Elvis, a 4-hour mini-series that earned him an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe win. But hes also played everything from King Henry VIII in the award winning Tudors to a tennis instructor who is not quite what he seems in Woody Allens Match Point. Its hard to imagine that its the same man in each and every one of those roles. His latest film is no less challenging. In August Rush, the New York set fable about a musical prodigy (Freddie Highmore) searching for his parents (Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers) he had to play guitar and sing his own songs. Gaynor Flynn caught up with the Irish actor at the recent Rome International Film Festival.
How difficult was it to play and sing in the film?
Not that difficult really. I would play as much aspossible in my free time and Id hang out with thereal musicians as much as I could and play music withthem. But the goal was never to become as masterguitar player. Louis, my character is asinger-songwriter.
I understand youre real brother is in the film andthat you sing your own songs. Is that true?
Yeah it is. When we were about to make the film, wehad a drummer who was meant to play the Irish drummerwho backed out of the movie so at the last minute theywere like we cant get somebody, so I paid for mybrother to fly in to be in the movie. Then the guitarI didnt play the guitar very well so I had to learnthat and I sing my own songs.
What did your brother say about it?
He was just like yeah, yeah, yeah. I get to go to NewYork, you pay ha, ha.
Was it his first movie?
You started his career then.
Yeah sure and I remember being on set and JimSheridan, Kerstins father came on set and Jim lovedmy brother, he thought he was extraordinary and Jim islooking at the monitor at a scene that weve done onstage and Im sitting there and Jims like, oh yourbrothers fantastic, and Im like what about me? Immeant to be fantastic but no he was great and a lot offun and I wanted the Irish person to be an Irishperson. Alex OLoughlin plays my brother in the filmand hes an Aussie but I wanted to get an actuallyauthentic Irish person in to play the drummer becausetheres an energy there that doesnt exist if it wasan American playing an Irish person, it would beslightly different, the energy would be differentyoud be able to spot an American anywhere you know. Theyre a little bit too ruddy, their teeth are alittle bit too white.
Did you have a bit of input then?
The input of my character, but not in how theproduction went. Certainly in the music because I hadto record my own songs before we even started theproduction so I definitely had a hand in that. And inhow we record them and how we would arrange them buteverything else was up to the production team.
What is your taste in music?
My taste in music is different to the taste of LewisConnolly, because hes playing a singer/songwriter.Hes not Eric Clapton hes never going to be. Hesvery much an average singer/songwriter in New York.
Whats your favourite band?
They change but I like Broken Social Scene, Kings ofLeon, Black Rabble Motorcycle Club.
Would you agree Match Point changed everything foryou?
Yeah it certainly changed. When Match Point came outeverybody sort of thought that Woodys best films hadgone and then we made match Point and suddenly hemakes this great movie and I get to be the lead rolein it. It was a difficult part to play because Implaying somebody whos weak. Its very hard to watchsomebodys whos playing weak, hes not strong acharacter, hes never meant to be strong, he was nevermeant to be a psychopath. Instead of psycho hes morepathetic and Woody kept saying this because I couldhave made him much stronger and much darker but Woodydidnt want this. Hes not a bad person, he justdoes bad things, so hes a weak person and then MatchPoint came out and it was so much more financiallysuccessful and critically successful than people hadimagined it would be but then when Match Point was outI also won a Golden Globe two weeks later for playingElvis Presley and that suddenly went, suddenly I havethe lead in the best Woody Allen film in maybe tenyears and Im also playing an American icon which Igot a Golden Globe for, so that changed things.
Does it change the way you approach life as well? Doyou get more recognised on the streets?
You do, but my life hasnt change. Like I just work,thats what I do. I dont see myself as this big moviestar at all, Im just an actor getting work.
I saw the Tudors. Its very good.
Yes its very sexy isnt it.
I never thought his horrendous king would be like you.
Hes not. But they didnt want to have an overweightageing actor play the role. It wouldnt have beensexy.
You have played a really diverse range of men over theyears. Has it been difficult to convince people thatyou can pull some of these roles off?
Yes certainly. Match Point did what it did and Bend itLike Beckham did what it did from the commercial pointof view, being in Mission Impossible 3 was very good,winning the Golden Globe was very good and then I didthe Tudors which was a big hit in America and its abig hit in Europe now as well and that sort ofmasculated me away from sort of Velvet Goldmine whichwas very ambiguous and very androgenous and I was only19, Suddenly Im 30 and Im playing this incrediblysexual very masculine sort of alpha male, and so nowdirectors are looking at me for completely differentreasons again.
Well now theyre looking at me not just as an actorbut as a leading man point of view because thatdefines it, because first of all if you want to becomesuccessful youve got to get, like Velvet Goldmine,youve got to get men interested, so you get sort ofthe gay audience interested in you right. But then youhave to get the female audience, and thats youraudience because if you look at the shows that aresuccessful on television, 70% of the audience is afemale audience. The Tudors which get about 180,000to 200,000 viewers a week in Ireland, 150,000 of themare women, only 20% of the audience is male which iskind of extraordinary but it seems a female audiencewill follow a series more than a male audience. A maleaudience might follow it for one or two weeks but thenchampion league football will be on. Like three weeksago our lowest rating for the Tudors in Ireland wasthree weeks ago because the Champion League Footballwas on the same evening.
You live in LA right?
Right but I was brought up in Ireland.
Would they give you a hard time if you went back toIreland?
Well the Irish always give their successful people ahard time anyway. Its a very Irish thing and itsnice to keep people on the ground. They give me a hardtime and they give Colin Farrell a hard time, theygive both of us a hard time.
It keeps you grounded right?
I think Irish people like to keep you level buttheyre actually very, very proud of myself and Colinand Cillian Murphy because what weve done the threeof us because what weve done as young actors is thatweve opened up a whole industry to actors that wasntavailable. I mean until myself, Colin Farrell andCillian Murphy began making movies over the last eightyears, successful movies and sort of became big namesin Hollywood what happens is directors, producers andstudios are now looking at Ireland for talent whereasthey werent looking at Ireland ten years ago. Theywerent looking England either or Australia for thatmatter. If you look at a lot of the top actors inHollywood, youve got Cate Blanchette, Naomi Watts,Eric Bana, Heath Ledger, Alex OLoughlin, David WenhamI mean these are a lot of the guys who are making bigfilms in Hollywood. Then youve got the Englishcontingent, youve got Daniel Craig, Clive Owen, JudeLaw, Rhys Ilffans, Charlie Cox, Ewan McGregor I meanyoure taking up a vast portion of Hollywoods leadingmen are not Americans now. Theyre Europeans andAustralians.
How do you account for that?
I think you account for that with the globalisation ofthe universe or the globalisation of our world.
They must bring something to the industry thatAmericans dont, do you agree?
I dont think its so much that Americans arentbringing something because there are still a lot ofAmerican movie stars and there will always be a lot ofAmerican movie stars, I just think that a lot of thebig films that are happening these days are not beingshot in America. Theyre being shot around the world,so if you look at films like Babel, Sryiana,Rendition, Notes on a Scandal, Elizabeth, Atonement,Silk, Match Point, first time Woody Allen everventured outside of New York, thats because ofglobalisaton. Its not longer America and Europe, itsjust the world and for an actor to be successful inthe industry, doesnt have to do the traditionalroute of living in Hollywood, he doesnt have to.
Were you ever worried about being the face of HugoBoss, in the sense that it could harm your reputationas a character actor?
No because I dont think they ever saw me as acharacter actor. When I first made films they saw meas the opposite, a pretty boy. When I did VelvetGoldmine, Velvet Goldmine isnt a character, hes aphysicality. I dont think Ive ever gone out and madejust a character role, that was just a pure character.Ive never done a film where they purposely uglied meup a role, whereas you find someone like Jude Law, whowill actually hunt for a role that makes him uglybecause he has to try to fight to get away from beingwhat he is which is a matinee idol.
Youve always been a proud Irish person. Is that animportant part of who you are would you say?
Yes well Ill never lose my identity, because Illalways be Irish but I dont want that to overshadowwho I am as a person. But I dont think being Irishdefines who I am. I dont want an identity to defineme because Ive only played three Irish characters inmy whole life. I dont usually get cast as thatbecause I dont look like a typical Irishman. So inthe film industry its very simple, any actor whobelieves their physicality is not an intrinsic part ofwhy they get the role is fooling themselves. You watchfilm so your physicality definitely it defines theroles that you play. The reason Angelina Jolie playsthe roles she does is because she looks that way. Thereason Julia Roberts plays the roles she does isbecause she looks that way or Matt Damon.
Do you have to have a certain amount of vanity to bean actor?
To get up in front of a camera of course you have tohave a certain amount of vanity. All acting isnarcissism in some way. Would I be a narcissisticperson? Absolutely. Am I vain? Absolutely.
Its brave to admit that.
Its not brave its reality, and any actor who sitsdown in front of you and tells you theyre not vainits bullshit. Im sure a lot of actors are like ohno, Im not vain I just look fabulous everyday. Nowtheyd like to believe that themselves. Its all verycarefully manipulated, and Ive met and worked withsome of the most beautiful actors in the world andthen you see them on a cover of a magazine they dontlook like that, any of them, they just dont.
At the same time whats interesting, why did you wantto act?
I wanted to act because it was soft money.
Youve said youve never taken an acting lesson andyou never would.
I just think Im too far down the road to start takingacting lessons and the reality is you cant take anacting lesson for film, you really cant you eitherhave it or you dont. You cant learn it, you cantachieve it and nobody can give it to you. I can go toa million acting classes but that doesnt necessarilymean Ill be good on film, you either are or yourenot.
How did you get your first lot of soft money?
Well the first thing I ever did was a commercial and Iwas 15 years old and I got 500 pounds to do thatcommercial for two hours work. Then the next film Iwas on it was my first lead role and it was a smalllow budget film and I got 20,000 pounds for hangingout on a film set and acting. I was 17. What boy isnot going to go Ill do this?
When did you realise that you really liked it?
I think when I went on to the set of Michael Collinswhich was the second film that I shot. And it wasnteven the acting it was that whole atmosphere andsuddenly I was on a film set with Liam Neeson and AlanRickman and Neil Jordan and it was the whole buzzabout it and the big cameras and suddenly it was kindof like this is a pretty fucking cool job.
You left school at 16, and I read that you quiterebellious is that true?
I dont think I was rebellious. I think I just didntsuit school. I never went out to be rebellious, whenI was younger and when I was doing interviews when Iwas younger I think I made a mistake because I wasyoung. I talked a lot about my younger life and thenpeople make up this fantasy that I lived indegradation and that I had to crawl my crawl my way upfrom the gutter. This is people being poetic withtheir pens, it wasnt exactly like that, thats theimage they want to promote, here he was a youngrebellious Irish rogue now weve tamed him to be anactor. Thats not the reality of the situation,thats just the fantasy people have in their heads.
You bring a certain intensity to every character youplay, is this difficult to achieve time and again?
Well yeah you certainly have to give an awful lot ofintensity. I think its easier for an actor to betense and dramatic than it is to be light and comedic. For me its easier to be dramatic. Even in that filmMy Favourite Year Peter OToole turns around and saysdying is easy, comedy is difficult. Because comedyis the most difficult thing to do, I find comediansextraordinary and I was talking to Robin Williamsabout it and its like doing two actors do a very funnyscene in film its great. But theyve done that scene20 times in front of a crew thats not laughing. Comedy is more serious than drama and Im not sure Idbe able to do that to be able to play a joke whereeverybody is standing around and theyre not laughing,but the audience will laugh and youve got to get thatin your head and forget about the crew because theyveheard it 20 times you have to think about the audiencewho will hear it for the first time.
What attracted you to this film?
In August Rush I was able to play somebody who wascompassionate and who was looking for that first love.You know theres always that girl or that guy who youjust didnt spend enough time with or maybe youresitting in a café and you see this beautiful girl orthis beautiful guy and you never see them again butthey stay with you.
What do you think about love at first sight?
I completely believe in love at first sight and ithappens to Lewis in August Rush.
Did it happen to you personally?
Yeah once, I fell in love at first sight.
Is that one of the main reasons to make this film?
Theres that and I get to shoot in New York and I getto work with Kirsten Sheridan who I really wanted towork with and Terrence Howard who I really wanted towork with and Freddie Highmore who I really wanted towork with. And I get to be a musician and its a bigcommercial film that shows a lighter side to acharacter and allows me in the future to get rolesthat are different to Match Point. When somebodylooks at the body of work that Ive done and they putBend It like Beckham, Match Point, August Rush, TheTudors and Elvis next to each other they can see verymany different layers of what I can do as an actor. Sofor a director to sit down and go well I need a bit ofthat and a bit of that well hes our man. Thats why Ido different roles so people can see your range.