“There will be ups and downs, but it’s important to remember you’re on your own beautiful journey and once you’re on it you have to see it through to its conclusion and try to never be afraid to do anything because what is the worse that can happen?”
For an Irishman, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers burst onto the big screen in a very unusual way, playing the nameless assassin who shot down Michael Collins (played by fellow Irishman Liam Neeson) in director Neil Jordan’s 1996 film about the legendary revolutionary leader.
Just ten years later, Meyers was starring alongside Tom Cruise in summer blockbuster movie Mission: Impossible 3 as wisecracking team member Declan Gormley, and there have been other memorable performances along the way.
He beat out at least 200 actors and was nominated for an Emmy and won a Golden Globe portraying one of the most famous men of all time, Elvis Presley, in a TV mini series, and he also received the Chopard Trophy for outstanding newcomer at the Cannes film festival in Woody Allen’s movie Match Point, where he again played something unlikely – a professional Irish tennis player – who turns to murder.
Born Jonathan Michael Francis O’Keefe on July 27, 1977, in Dublin, he was suffering from a heart condition and was baptized quickly, for fear he would not live long. He spent several months in the hospital before being discharged, and his family moved to County Cork before he was a year old.
At the age of 3 his father left the family, leaving his mother to care for him and his three younger brothers. His childhood was rather chaotic, and he spent some time in an orphanage and was expelled from school at age 16, although he was happy to now be spending his time at the local pool hall.
Discovered across the green baize by a casting agent who asked him to audition for an upcoming movie called War of the Buttons (1994), he didn’t get the role however, and was sure that that was the end of any acting ambitions he may have briefly held. Fate had other ideas though, and soon afterwards he received a call to audition for a national advertising campaign for Knorr soup – and got the job.
Although he was embarrassed by all the attention he got from being all over town in the commercial, he soon found himself auditioning for another film, and his movie debut was a very small role in the film A Man of No Importance (1994). He had changed his last name when he took up acting, and took his mother’s maiden name of Meyers – as for that tricky “Rhys”, it’s pronounced “Reese” as in the famous candy pieces.
His first lead was in the movie The Disappearance of Finbar just two years later, and during a six-month break from filming, when a thaw in Lappland meant filming had to be postponed, he returned home to Cork and received a call about the film Michael Collins.
He traveled to Dublin to meet director Jordan, who was so impressed that he gave him the role, later writing: “I have found someone to play Collin’s (sic) killer. Jonathan Rees-Meyers (sic), from County Cork, apparently, who looks like a young Tom Cruise. [He] comes into the casting session with alarming certainty. Obviously gifted.”
Meyers was on his way and the work started pouring in, including Telling Lies in America (1997), The Governess alongside Minnie Driver (1998), B. Monkey (1998), Ride With The Devil, and ambitious Shakespeare adaptation Titus alongside Anthony Hopkins (both 1999).
Critical acclaim soon followed too as he was singled out for Velvet Goldmine (1998) – for which he sung some of the songs – as Steerpike in the British TV mini series “Gormenghast” (2000), as a sympathetic soccer coach in Bend It Like Beckham, the surprise hit of 2002 that launched the Hollywood career of Keira Knightley, and for a memorable turn in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, directed by Mike Hodges and starring Clive Owen.
Success bought the inevitable tabloid and TV gossip, especially after he was listed at #34 in the 100 Most Sexy Men In The World by Cosmopolitan magazine, but he has talked in the past about the dangers of dating within the small world that is Hollywood:
“I wouldn’t date an actress. There’s only room for one actor in my life and I’m it. Too difficult. On the one hand, they understand the job. But on the other hand, it’s very competitive within the relationship. Two actors, say one becomes a mega-star and the other doesn’t. Happens all the time. So one is getting so much attention, and the other person feels jealous.”
Today, he still has a home in Cork and maintains a passion for Irish music:
“I think it is important to stay close to your roots and be true to yourself, be honest. I don’t want to play games in Hollywood and pretend to be someone else. I don’t have many friends that are actors. It’s a very faux environment. I don’t call people up after films.”
The reputation of Irish actors for being hell raisers is also one that he has to deal with, and whilst Colin Farrell still seems to hit the headlines for his exploits, he feels that it’s not as easy to raise the roof now as older actors used to do:
“At some point in your career as an actor you’re going to have to get on a Stairmaster. The days of Harris and O’Toole are gone. If you want to be at the top of your game, you can’t be out partying with your friends, or having six pints a night down the pub.”
The future looks incredibly bright for the Corkman, with another huge role (literally) as legendary divorce them/cut off their heads/set up the Church of England, King Henry VIII in The Tudors – currently filming in Ireland, working with director Nicholas Roeg (Don’t Look Now) in Adina, a philosophical horror film that explores love, sex and death across the universe, and steeping back into classic period as Branwell in Bronte alongside Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) who is playing Charlotte Bronte.
All this, and he apparently does a superb impression of Woody Allen:
“Being an actor is the easiest job. Just say the lines.”