The first time I meet Jonathan Rhys Meyers he has been filming all day in 40-degree heat with ice packs strapped underneath his three-piece suit to stay cool. Playing the lead in a new version of Dracula, an ambitious co-production between the US network NBC and the UK’s Sky Living, has meant nearly seven months’ solid work, and he is understandably not overwhelmed about filling in his time before flying to London for a short break with interviews.
That’s not to say he isn’t polite and informative – he is. But there’s an unavoidable sense that he’d rather be anywhere but here, no matter how detailed his answers.
Flash forward three months, and the 36-year-old Irishman seems as rejuvenated as Count Dracula after a long drink of blood. “It was very gruelling, but that’s the job,” he says before acknowledging that he might not have been the easiest of company during filming. “I didn’t break character for seven months. So I would work in the day and then I’d go home and read a little, meditate and go to sleep and then wake up the next day and do the same thing all over again.”
It didn’t help that this version of Dracula requires Rhys Meyers to play not just the vampire but also Vlad Tepes, the man Dracula once was, and Alexander Grayson, the charming US industrialist he is now pretending to be. “It was quite isolating, because of the nature of the character,” he admits. “But then good things are never easy, and I like this, it’s a good thing.”
Whether you agree with this assessment will depend on how high your tolerance is for sumptuous dramas featuring evil aristocrats, naïve young gels and tormented monsters seeking vengeance. Mine is pretty high and I thoroughly enjoyed Dracula‘s opening episode, which pays homage both to Bram Stoker’s gothic source material and to the adaptor Cole Haddon’s comic book roots, with a bold colour-filled vision. Its world is one in which barbs are traded with a smile, and female huntresses practise their sword skills in front of caged vampires, and it probably owes more to the Hughes brothers’ unfairly maligned 2001 Jack the Ripper drama From Hell than Francis Ford Coppola’s sedate, stylised 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
“I didn’t want it to be staid,” says Rhys Meyers. “I wanted to play someone vicious and vengeful and sometimes kind … because the tiny bit of him that’s human – that’s the story, not the monster.”
There is something raw and a bit vulnerable about Rhys Meyers, a sense that he feels everything strongly. Asked whether he worries about the comparisons to Draculas past, who include Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman and Willem Dafoe, he admits that he had doubts: “I did think: ‘Am I’m really going to be able to do this?’ Because I’m only going to get compared to every actor before me…”
He believes that the key to his Dracula is that “he’d like to die … we all fear death because it’s the unknown. But if you had to live for that length of time, you really would wish for death; for peace. I think that the length of human life is what makes it so exciting, that fact that it’s going to end.”
Similarly, Dracula/Vlad/Grayson’s appeal is that “He’s the hero, but the hero must die otherwise he’s not the hero. Heroes don’t get to go home and have the prom queen. Heroes die on the beach.”
That might seem a somewhat fatalistic outlook, but death is very much on Rhys Meyers’ mind: both his best friend and grandfather died while he was filming in Budapest. “I went back and put them to rest, and then I took all that pain and emotion and shot it out into the cameras as much as possible. The thing is, sometimes life just is that conflicted and that painful. And that’s OK because I’ve had lots of joy and lots of luck in my life. Yes, I’ve had a little bit of pain, but I’ve also had lovely people around me, good friends and family.”
Certainly, Rhys Meyers is aware more than most of fame’s vagaries. For there was a time when he was the next big thing; the boy most likely. An eye-catching turn in Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine in 1998 bought him to Hollywood’s attention, and roles in Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil and Julie Taymor’s Titus followed. Yet A-list recognition never quite arrived, and his highest-profile role remains the unlikely but hugely charismatic Henry VIII in the US cable television show The Tudors.
There’s no doubting his talent – he was heart-breaking as the troubled brother of Clive Owen’s gangster in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, compelling as a social climber in Woody Allen’s uneven Match Point, and perfectly cast as the hip-shaking king of rock ‘n’ roll in the 2005 television movie Elvis – yet his unearthly looks can be a curse as well as a blessing. Certainly, it’s easier to believe in him as an otherworldly emissary than as the boy next door. As Dracula’s producer, Christopher Hall, joking remarked: “Jonny has something of the night about him.”
Rhys Meyers doesn’t appear too affronted. “Yes, I’m cast as a vampire because I look like one…” He laughs and then adds: “No, I can convey conflict because I’m a guy who lives in conflict a lot of the time. It’s not something I have to search for. That sense of looking for some sort of peace, some sort of balance, is evident regardless of what I do.”
At this point it’s hard not to be reminded of Rhys Meyers’ own demons. His problems with drink have been well documented, his most recent stint in rehab came in 2011, and when he says of Dracula, “I see him as somebody affected with a terrible illness that has no cure … I absolutely believe it’s a metaphor for addiction”, it is with a sense of self-knowledge hard won.
He recently finished work on the thriller, Panda Eyes (also known as Another Me), and plans to take the rest of the year off: “I just want to go out in the world, because you can’t go from film to film to film without going out and living your life. So I’m going to paint and write music and just …”
“Relax?” I suggest with a hint of disbelief. He smiles. “Correct. I’m just going to relax for a little while.”