The veteran Irish actor talks about working with Todd Haynes and how Brad Renfro accidentally helped him get a role.
In Early Works, we talk to artists young and old about the jobs and life experiences that led them to their current moment. Today, it's actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who stars in the home invasion thriller Black Butterfly out this Friday in theaters and on VOD.
I had a friend, Gordon, who was a really cool guy who worked at a pool hall. A casting agency came in looking for kids, and I was playing pool and they said, "Can you audition?" I auditioned on a little camcorder—it was really embarrassing, but within half an hour I was in the back of a car on my way down to do my first screen test. When I was doing the screen test, I thought, "This is something I could perhaps pursue. But I was just a kid, so I thought, "Eh, this sounds like a lot of fun."
It was a real surprise to me that I got the role in Michael Collins. People hadn't been to a film in Ireland in 50 years until that movie. It was very close to the Irish and a very important film to the country. I was the bad guy who shot the boss, so for the rest of my life, in certain parts of Ireland, I hear "Michael Collins!" which I found humorous as a young man. The one thing that upset me was that the character didn't have a name. He couldn't have a name, because nobody knew who killed the boss.
I almost missed the film's production, though. I went backpacking through Vietnam and Thailand and found out that there was a mistake made on my ticket, so I was stuck in Bangkok with no cash and no ticket. I got home on a Monday evening and got a phone call from this dude who said, "Hey, I'm the second AP on Michael Collins. Do you know your pickup time for the morning?" I just arrived back to county Cork—way down the countryside—and they were picking me up at 6 AM from this fancy hotel in Dublin. So I had a bullshit lie and said, "Yeah, cool, just give me the pickup time." I immediately got a bag together, got on the train, and got to Dublin.
I haven't really thought about Velvet Goldmine too much lately—I haven't seen it in 20 years—although it was an epic experience. I came to America at 18 to make a small independent movie, went back to Ireland, did B. Monkey with Michael Brandon, and then Todd Haynes asked me if I would do Velvet Goldmine. I was very nervous, because I was still young, and these guys I was working with were very brilliant, and I was a 19 year old kid, so I was really unsure of myself more than anything else.
There's a very famous picture of Mick Jagger and Bob Marley sitting together, and Mick Jagger is so stoned that he's got this huge smile on his face. That image reminds me of Todd. He always had an incredible, childlike smile on his face, and he really loved making Velvet Goldmine. Todd is incredibly special. He's a genius making movies that are not only artistic, but the actual industry itself respects. It's rare when you get the respect of the elite and the industry at the same time. There's very few people who don't see a Todd Haynes film and go, "Wow. That is really fucking good."
How I got the role of Chiron in Titus was a funny story. I was in Los Angeles staying with my agent, and my friend Brad Renfro—an incredibly talented actor who passed away—called me up and said, "You're from England. Will you spend a couple of hours with me?" So he came over the house, and we just started reading the script like two stupid fucking kids trying to do this audition. He says, "Would you come in tomorrow and do the audition with me? It'll be good if you're there." I say, "Sure thing." So we went in and did the audition. I played the part of Demetrius, and he played the part of Chiron. I got back to my agent's house, and they'd offered me the part of Chiron. I ring Brad up, and he said, "Take it, fuck it, it's Anthony Hopkins. Who wouldn't want to work around Anthony Hopkins?"
How do you think about your career as an actor? I've tried to get the best jobs that I can. Some I've gotten, some I haven't. You try to work with the best directors that you can. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I didn't sit in a chair with some Machiavellian vision of where I wanted to be as an actor. You hope that you improve and that a good director will find you.
I can tell you that good directors are everything—a good film doesn't happen without a good director, so if you're an actor you want to work with the best directors you could possibly work with. But how can you say who's the best? They're all interesting in one way or another. I loved working with Ang Lee, and Woody Allen, obviously. I loved working with JJ Abrams. I liked working with Mike Figgis, although I think we could have shot at each other as well—but I always like that. I liked working with Mira Nair. Everybody has their own gifts and different personalities. There's no "best." One minute you can make a fucking masterpiece, and ten minutes later you go, "What the fuck?" with the next movie. There's no one as prolific as Picasso.
When you become a father, everything changes. It's a stupid statement, but that's just how it is. It's instant, and it's jarring. I love being a father. One of the greatest loves of my life is my son. But it takes time to get used to how those changes will manifest in your life. You don't feel the same way about life and yourself as you did before your child was born. As soon as your child is born, the world is a very different and a much better place to be. You start to fear and think about things that you never even thought about before. Instead of worrying about what you can get for yourself, you start to worry about how your son is. It's actually therapeutic.
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