By Michael Gray
Young Irish actors who want to make it on the big screen usually spend years paying their dues in Irish theater and TV. By the time they’ve caught the attention of Hollywood producers, they’re usually in their adult prime, with all the brashness of youth long behind them. But Cork City native Jonathan Rhys-Myers beat the system, and at the under-ripe age of 22 has already racked up parts in 11 films.
Cast initially for his pop star looks, he has parlayed his pretty-boy starting point into an impressive array of elusive, enigmatic and downright nasty characters in films for directors as diverse as Neil Jordan, Ang Lee and Julie Taymor. He got his start at the age of 16, when he was spotted by talent scouts idling away the afternoon at a pool hall in his native city after he was expelled from school following a difference of opinion with his teachers. His first screen appearance was, appropriately, as an extra in a pool hall scene in the Albert Finney vehicle "A Man of No Importance." Soon after he landed his first starring role in Sue Clayton’s "The Disappearance of Finbar," a quirky indie film now showing at The Screening Room in Manhattan.
"I was kicked out of school for nothing in particular, just a clash of personalities really, and I was looking for something to do, so I thought I’d give acting a try," Rhys-Myers said. "I actually auditioned for the lead part in ‘Finbar’ before I was in ‘A Man of No Importance,’ but it took them a long time to find the right actor for the Danny character, so by the time we started shooting I’d been auditioning for a year against 500 other boys, and I knew that part inside out."
Rhys-Myers compensates for his lack of formal education by traveling extensively, and has done more than his fair share of globetrotting between films. His work takes him to out of the way places as well, and "The Disappearance of Finbar" brought him as far north as the Arctic Circle.
"When Finbar disappears, his journey takes him to the area where Finland, Norway and Sweden meet," Rhys-Myers said. "We spent weeks and weeks in Lapland, while I tried to figure out how I portray someone who disappears. I played it by ear and learned as I went along. It was the first time I was away from home, but it looks more difficult looking back on it than it did at the time."
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Since then, more lavish productions have taken him to Missouri, for Lee’s Civil War drama "Ride With the Devil," in which he plays raving paranoiac Pitt Mackeson, and to Morocco, for Mike Figgis’s "Loss of Sexual Innocence" last year. The Oscar-nominated "Titus" starring Anthony Hopkins, gave Rhys-Myers his first stab at the classics, and took him to Italy for an extended period to prepare for his first Shakespearean role.
"I’m good friends with the actor Brad Renfro, and he got me interested in the film," Rhys-Myers said. "I auditioned for the part of Demetrius, the elder of Jessica Lange’s two Goth sons, but got the call two days later to play Chiron, the younger one. So I went to live in Rome to learn more about the place. And I loved the play ‘Titus Andronicus’ — it’s like it’s written by a teenage rebel Shakespeare, writing impetuously and pushing things too far. It’s his ‘Pulp Fiction,’ and was one of the most successful plays he put on. All the blood and guts, the public loved it. Some things haven’t changed much."
Rhys-Myers remains sympathetic to his character’s motivation for one of the most horrific scenes in "Titus," which leaves Titus Andronicus’s beloved daughter severely mutilated by the savage Goth siblings, Demetrius and Chiron.
"I never thought of my character as being ugly at all," Rhys-Myers said. "Looking at it as Chiron, I try to imagine the slaughter that went on in my country before being brought as a prisoner to Rome. The Goths were still pure rage; the Romans had more cloaked emotions, but were just as capable of savagery."
More recent work keeps him closer to home, and he had a major role in one of the most ambitious BBC TV productions for many years, the four-part series "Gormenghast," adapted from the books by Mervyn Peake.
"We spent 22 weeks filming to make four hours of TV," Rhys-Myers said. "The final result is visually very impressive and really deserves to be seen on a big screen. The series charts the rise of Fascism and the fall of the monarchy, and I play this character Steerpike — he’s very manipulative behind the scenes, and he’s very elusive. A lot of people turned it on but couldn’t get into it in the first half hour and changed channels."
The pattern recurs for Rhys-Myers: playing pretty boys with a nasty edge, and always hard to pin down. His first starring role on this side of the Atlantic was in Todd Haynes’s bizarre, uneven feature "Velvet Goldmine," playing a Bowiesque glam rock singer named Brian Slade who disappears mysteriously at the peak of his career in the mid-1970s.
Rhys-Myers, born in 1977 after the glam scene had peaked, admits that he was unfamiliar with Bowie’s early music, an issue that became moot shortly before shooting started.
"I didn’t know Bowie’s music, but when he refused to let Todd use his songs for the film — he wanted to do his own thing with his own story — I just put aside all the Bowie mags and videos and came up with my own Brian Slade," Rhys-Myers said. "He’s a manufactured pop star, a one-man boy band. And you don’t need to know the glam rock era to do it.
"Todd Haynes is American, and his is very much an outside view of the scene. Even at the time, only about 3 percent of people knew what it was like to be that glam, borrowing things off your mother to put together an outfit, just to go down the pub."
Rhys-Myers has appeared in one other Irish film besides "A Man of No Importance" and "Finbar," in a tiny but crucial role in Jordan’s "Michael Collins." He played that much-discussed mystery man of Irish history, the sniper who shot Collins. The young actor was impressed by Jordan and relishes the opportunity to work with him again.
"He’s a complete artist. And he’s got the box office credibility to get the money together to have his films made, without compromising his art," Rhys-Myers said. "He met me only once when I was 18, and cast me straight away in ‘Michael Collins.’ I haven’t yet done a performance I’m really satisfied with, and I know I can only reach that by working with really talented people like Neil. You can only do brilliant work with brilliant people, and so far I’ve only had minor roles with the major directors."
The young actor is mercifully free of star conceit and self-importance despite his increasing international renown, and he’s quite sanguine about the effects of fame on his life.
"I may be known a bit in London, New York and L.A., but I live on a farm in Buttevant, Co. Cork, and down the pub near home I’m just Johnny," Rhys-Myers said. "I’m not much of a farmer — I’m too lazy, and you have to be born to it, seed and breed, to be any good at it. Also, I’ve never been in a film that’s been commercially successful. It hasn’t gone to my head, because I don’t feel I’ve anything to get a big head about — I haven’t done a film that paid me hundreds of thousands of pounds."
His swaggering self-confidence on screen belies this refreshing modesty, and the hay will just have to harvest itself down on the farm in Buttevant when the right part comes along to propel Rhys-Myers into the DeCaprio wage bracket. Catch this star in embryo at The Screening Room, and later this spring on TV in "Gormenghast," courtesy of BBC-USA.