All hail the king

Before his recent appearance at the Phil, Johnathan Rhys Meyers took some time out to talk to Catriona Gray

Before his recent appearance at the Phil, Johnathan Rhys Meyers took some time out to talk to Catriona Gray

The king at his table!

From his first role as the assassin in Michael Collins to playing opposite Scarlett Johansson in Match Point, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is no stranger to the screen. In person, he exudes confidence, talking with a fluency and studied intensity that almost appears to be a continuation of his acting roles.

Perhaps it was spending so much time playing Henry VIII in The Tudors that did it. Indeed, Rhys Meyers has spent quite a significant portion of the past three years filming the television series: “I’m shooting the third one now and there’s one more to go. I’ve been contracted to shoot four seasons, but it’s going to be difficult, because I can’t bring him to death, so whatever happens in the fourth season has to happen within six months to a year of Henry’s life, because physically, I’m not the age. Maybe another actor will come in to take over the part.”

The Tudors has caused quite a bit of controversy as a result of its decision to focus almost exclusively on the sexual politics of Henry VIII’s court, even to the point of quite blatant historical deviations. Rhys Meyers agrees: “When we first decided to do something like The Tudors, it was pointless to try to do it again in that type of historical way – it had already been done. So we had to do something else, because part of the nature of being an actor in those sorts of roles is that you have to interpret it in a different way, otherwise people are going to get very, very bored. Also, the image that people have of Henry VIII is of the Holbein painting. The Holbein painting survived because it’s great art. That doesn’t necessarily define what Henry was all his life.

As an actor you have to interpret things differently. If you don’t interpret things differently then you’re not being brave and if you’re not being brave, then you’re just taking the long road to the middle

“Henry was much more pious than we represent, but piety doesn’t make for good television. So we’re not trying to make it a historical piece as such, we’re just using a historical setting to make what is, in essence, a very modern story. Now, the genetics and genealogy of human beings hasn’t changed that much in five or six hundred years – we still desire the same things and have the same emotions: love, sex, honour, betrayal, jealousy- all of these elements are still very, very prevalent. So even though they dress differently, they’re not that different from humans that exist today.

“If you speak to a lot of English historians, they view Henry as this great politician and this great learned man and founder of the Church of England, but I don’t really see it that way. If he was that good of a politician he would never have got rid of Catherine of Aragon. If he wanted Anne Boleyn, he should have just taken her.

“So it’s not good politics. If he had read Machiavelli’s The Prince, which is a treatise on Italian politics at the time, you basically take what you can take, if you want it, but do not let your personal desires overtake what politically is important for your country. So I think Henry was a dreadful politician, and, as for being the founder of the Church of England, at heart he remained a Catholic his whole life.

Henry’s desire was to bring forward his legacy. He desperately wanted a son to take on the mantle of being king. He did get that perfect son – it just happened to be a daughter, Elizabeth I.”

Rhys Meyers initially had qualms about taking on the role of the Tudor monarch: “When I was first approached to play Henry, I said ‘this is stupid, ridiculous, I look nothing like Henry VIII, it won’t work.’ And they said ‘we’re not going for that, because it’s already been done.’ Now, there is no historian in the world who could tell me what Henry VIII was like, none, because it’s all perception, it’s all hearsay. People wrote what they were allowed to write, what was politically correct to write at the time and also, history belongs to the victors, so they change whatever history was to suit their own palate.

“Nobody can tell me that my portrayal of Henry is not correct… So, I hear historians try to intellectualise it and they get very uptight about the portrayal of something, but we’re not trying to make history. If we wanted to make the story of the Tudor dynasty for real, nobody would watch it. It would bore you to tears. The first four hours of Henry’s morning were spent in ritual, so that could never be covered on television. I think people can be a little bit sneering, but there’s also a lot of envy that goes on.

“As an actor you have to interpret things differently. If you don’t interpret things differently then you’re not being brave and if you’re not being brave, then you’re just taking the long road to the middle. And I’ve never taken the long road to the middle. I’d rather have sand kicked in my face and get roses occasionally, rather than people being indifferent.”

With roles in thirty films and five television series to date, you’d be forgiven for thinking Rhys Meyers has earned the chance to relax a bit. However, he denies this passionately: “It’s getting more competitive. The more successful I become, the more competitive it gets… As a young actor, you go up for parts against other actors who really aren’t known. Now I’m going up for parts against people like Joaquin Phoenix, Jude Law and all of these actors who are already very well-established. The air gets very thin at the top of the mountain.”

Despite this competitive environment, Rhys Meyers seems to be thriving: “I’ve just finished a film called Shelter with Julianne Moore and that will come out later in the year. I’ve a film called The Children of Huang Shi, which is set in China in 1937, due to come out here at some point and I’m about to do a very commercial action film with John Travolta, set in Paris. Rhys Meyers seems to be relishing the prospect of having a break from the court of Henry VIII: “There’ll be no tights, there’ll be no boots, there’ll be no doublets or swords. I play a CIA agent whose cover is working as the assistant to an ambassador. It’s guns and fast cars. Think more Mission Impossible than The Tudors. I’m looking forward to something different, something more contemporary and dialogue that I don’t have to take a long time to get around.”

Like most actors, Rhys Meyers seems to be wholly immersed in the characters that he plays, mentioning that he finds it harder to get out of characters than he does getting into them. He is also extremely aware of the extent to which external factors can shape the performance of a screen actor and the relatively large amount of control that a theatre actor enjoys compared to that of the film and television actor: “On stage, it’s pretty much yours. Once the director goes through the whole rehearsal period, then there’s nothing he can do once the curtain goes up – it’s all yours. You either have the audience in your hand or you don’t have the audience in your hand. As a film actor, it’s as much a technical job as it is artistic. It’s artistic because you have to be able to deliver the lines and emotions. It’s a lot about your physicality – you’re cinematic or you’re not cinematic. It’s not something you can achieve – you either are or you’re not. But you are at the mercy of an editor, of the studio or the film company that’s making it, and of the temperature of the audience at the time.

I’d rather have sand kicked in my face and get roses occasionally than people being indifferent

“Whatever performance you give, it’s up to the director and how the director perceives your performance to be. Sometimes actors give completely different performances to the performance you see when it comes out on screen. And of course then you have to face whatever critical backlash you get. But usually, it’s from critics who have never made a film and cannot act. Nobody gets into writing to be a critic – you get into writing to be Dostoyevsky. And if you’re in writing and you end up a critic, then you really haven’t got where you need to go. And of course, there’ll be a little bit of bitterness and a little bit of envy, so you have to take that into consideration as well. Unless you’re a war correspondent for the Irish Times or the Sunday Times, but if you’re the TV critic for the Herald or something, then you know you really haven’t got there.” Ouch. When asked if he had always wanted to be an actor, Rhys Meyers’s answer is surprising: “No. I only became an actor because it financially paid better than doing anything else. I wanted a job and I found that I could do this job and I had a physicality that suited the cinema, so why not embrace that? I was kicked out of school when I was very, very young, I wasn’t a very good student, so I didn’t have the opportunity nor did my family have the financial opportunity to send me to such a wonderful place as Trinity. So education was really not the way I was going to go, so I had to go down an artistic path.

“You’ll find, if you look through the biographies of a lot of artists, that they usually come from a similar background to the one I’ve come from. Education wasn’t really that available to them, so they either had to act their way out, sing their way out, dance their way out, box their way out or kick a football to get out, but they got out.

“You know, Muhammad Ali said something very, very poignant; he said that champions are not made in gyms, they’re made from something deep down inside them, and you must have speed, you must have strength and you must have skill but in the end your will must be stronger than anything else. Your will must outdo your skill and that’s what makes a champion.”

Unfortunately, at this point, we are told that our time has run out, so there’s no opportunity to ask Rhys Meyers, now that he’s a multi-millionaire with a formidable will whether he wants to use some of his hard-earned cash to enrol in Trinity as a mature student and perhaps reconsider whether or not critical thinking has a valid role in society. Alas, more pressing matters prevail, as, instead, Meyers poses for photographs with all the professionalism of a Hugo Boss model, before striding into the Phil’s chamber to tell Dave Fanning exactly what he told me.