Settling into a couch in a house close to his home in Malibu, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is chatting about John Hurt, the co-star of his latest movie, Damascus Cover. It was to be the last movie Hurt made before his death in 2017 from pancreatic cancer, and Rhys Meyers poignantly recalls meeting Hurt when he was 16 after being cast in the 1996 film Michael Collins. Did Hurt give him any advice on coping with the industry? ‘Yeah,’ laughs Rhys Meyers. ‘He said, “Give up drinking.”’
We’re just minutes into our interview and Rhys Meyers has immediately let it be known that he won’t be shying away from a difficult conversation. We meet just a few days after he made headlines for being detained by police at Los Angeles’s LAX airport for using an e-cigarette on a flight. Moreover, onlookers also saw the actor, who has had well-publicised issues in the past with alcohol, getting into a drunken altercation with his wife, Mara.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers speaks candidly to Event about his personal struggles and his battles with booze
Many celebrities in his position would have had a phalanx of publicists at our interview to bat away awkward questions, or simply not shown up, yet Rhys Meyers is sitting here, on his own, trying to explain what happened.
‘Last week on a plane back from Peru, after eight months of sobriety, I decided to have a few drinks,’ he says. ‘My wife was upset at me, and I learned my lesson. I got off the aeroplane, went straight back to my meetings and got sober immediately.’
He is clearly sorry for what happened. ‘And you know, I can speak all the words, but my actions tell the difference. So my action was to go home, apologise to my wife, call who I needed to call and explain to them exactly what had happened. My responsibility is not to take the first drink… and I failed, but I realised that I failed and I got back up.’
Rhys Meyers, known for his electrifying performance as Henry VIII in The Tudors and for films including Bend It Like Beckham and Woody Allen’s Match Point, has had a very public struggle with alcohol. In 2007, just before his mother’s death, he was arrested at Dublin Airport for drunkenness, and in 2011 he received a suspended sentence and was fined £860 for a similar meltdown at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport. Most worryingly, three years ago he was photographed drinking vodka on the street in London looking, by his own admission, ‘quite dreadful after a three-day relapse’.
Rhys Meyers is held at Los Angeles Airport earlier this month. Rhys Meyers has had a very public struggle with alcohol
This latest incident follows a trip to South America, where, ironically, he had been receiving therapy for his issues. He explains that while giving up alcohol is the first stage in recovery, ‘you’ve got to work on the reasons why you did it in the first place. Sometimes when you go through therapy, it opens up emotions that you haven’t felt for a few years and you leave yourself vulnerable.’
He adds: ‘People who go through this, they look for things in their life that trigger them. And airports are a trigger for me, because they make you sit there for three hours, you can’t smoke and you’re surrounded by alcohol. That is not an excuse however… There’s never an excuse for me to drink. But sometimes there are triggers that make you more vulnerable. I’ve relearnt that vulnerability and it’s now fresh in my mind again.’
It’s the first time that Rhys Meyers has been this candid about his alcohol problem, and it’s clear that he’s decided to open up as never before. ‘I’ve let myself down by relapsing, and it’s my responsibility. Nobody else is to blame.’
It’s the first time that Rhys Meyers has been this candid about his alcohol problem, and it’s clear that he’s decided to open up as never before
Despite his recent travails, today Rhys Meyers is looking healthy and younger than his 41 years. His wife Mara Lane, a co-producer on his latest film, is nearby, along with their 19-month-old son, Wolf – no doubt one of the factors in Rhys Meyers’ decision to assume responsibility for his actions (‘I’m a father and so when I fall down, I immediately get back up. I’m a man. That’s what men do’). Far from being guarded, he is engaged and attentive, fixing me with those penetrating blue-green eyes and speaking in a soft Irish accent, his words precise and considered.
‘I’ve been to a lot of rehab centres in my life… I went to three in one year and I talked to my therapist,’ he says. ‘I would be known as somebody who relapses with problem drinking, not alcoholism. I don’t suffer from alcoholism – I suffer from an allergy to alcohol every time I drink it. But once I stop, I never think about it again.
‘That doesn’t mean that the problem is any less, it just means I have a different version of it. But when I drink, the consequences are so devastating that it is a problem. But I never need a drink. It’s not something that I crave.’
Rhys Meyers says he didn’t start drinking until the age of 26, ‘then I stopped at 27 till [I was] 30, and then it’s just been a few day relapses from then on. But I’ve never continuously drunk for any long period of time – I actually don’t like the taste of alcohol.’
Rhys Meyers with Olivia Thirlby in new film Damascus Cover. Rhys Meyers admits that filming ‘brought up certain things’
So why does he do it? To fill a void? ‘No. It never filled an emptiness. It was more about… I’m not quite sure what it was about. First of all, I’ve never liked drugs, so alcohol was legal. You could go to a bar and have a drink, the same as everybody does.’
Was it a confidence-booster?
‘No, it puts you to sleep. You just have a drink and you go to sleep. You can forget about whatever was bothering you.’
Certainly, there have been events in Rhys Meyers’ life where one can understand his need to blot out painful thoughts, not least last September, when his wife miscarried their baby daughter and he suffered a relapse. It’s also an episode that has eerily similar echoes in his new film, Damascus Cover, in which his character, Ari, talks about losing his young son. Watching the film, it feels incredibly close to the bone, and Rhys Meyers admits that filming ‘brought up certain things’. But he adds: ‘As an actor you have to take all the experiences you have from life and then transform those experiences into something wonderful, something that people can understand.’
The film is an old-school spy thriller by Israeli writer-director Daniel Zelik Berk. Rhys Meyers stars as Ari Ben-Sion, an undercover Israeli spy living under a fake German identity in Eighties Berlin, who fails in his mission to bring a double agent back alive. Keen to make amends, he is given the dangerous assignment of smuggling a chemical-weapons scientist and his family out of Syria by his Mossad boss Miki (John Hurt). While in Damascus, he meets an American photo-journalist (Olivia Thirlby) with whom he shares an immediate chemistry. But, as the mission starts to go wrong, it dawns on Ari that he is a pawn in a much larger game.
The film has already won several awards, including one for Rhys Meyers at last year’s Boston Film Festival. It’s especially moving seeing Hurt in his final on-screen role, and although Rhys Meyers was aware that Hurt was suffering from cancer at the time, ‘if you had sat and talked to him, he’d have said: “Oh, I’ll get over it.” He was incredibly strong.’
Rhys Meyers won plaudits for his portrayal of the shifty, murderous Chris Wilton opposite Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen’s Match Point
Rhys Meyers dazzled in the 1998 movie Velvet Goldmine as bisexual glam rock star Brian Slade
Hurt had his demons too, and while his advice to his friend to stop drinking was sound, Rhys Meyers’s upbringing was ragged enough to partially explain his subsequent problems. His father, folk musician John O’Keeffe, walked out when Jonathan was three, taking his two youngest sons, Jamie and Paul, and leaving their mother Geraldine to raise Jonathan and his brother Alan in a council house in Cork, Ireland. She, too, had issues with alcohol, and Rhys Meyers has previously said that she would spend her dole money on drink, leaving him at times with no option but to steal food to survive. When asked if he could attribute his drinking problems to hereditary reasons, Rhys Meyers is adamant: ‘I don’t believe that. I’ve got three brothers and they have no problems, so it’s not hereditary.’
After being expelled from his Catholic school for truancy, he spent most of his time in the local pool hall, where he was spotted by agents casting for the David Puttnam film War Of The Buttons. Though he didn’t get the role, he ended up in a Knorr soup commercial and since then has barely stopped working.
He dazzled in the 1998 movie Velvet Goldmine as bisexual glam rock star Brian Slade, starred opposite Keira Knightley in the 2002 smash Bend It Like Beckham and in 2006 out-swaggered Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible III. But it was his lead role in TV drama The Tudors, as the criminally charismatic Henry VIII, that made everyone take note, even though Rhys Meyers initially had his doubts about playing the monarch.
‘When they first asked me to do it, I said, “You must be insane!” And they said, “We have to make this part of English history palpable to a modern-day audience – and no one’s going to watch a 300lb guy run around the screen having sex.”’ Watching Rhys Meyers run around the screen having sex was a different story entirely, however.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII with Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors
He won plaudits too for his portrayal of the shifty, murderous Chris Wilton opposite Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen’s Match Point (Allen was so taken with his performance that he gave him a first-edition copy of Byron’s Poetical Works as a gift). Yet unlike other actors such as Colin Firth and Rebecca Hall, who have rushed to distance themselves from Allen after allegations that he sexually abused his daughter, Rhys Meyers says: ‘I have no opinion, because I was very proud to work with him. But at the same time, I think people should be proud of people like Ronan Farrow [the journalist who broke the Harvey Weinstein scandal and, coincidentally, Allen’s son] for bringing up all the things that he did and [taking] those risks, because people should never be abused in that way.’
Given that Rhys Meyers started in the industry as a teenager, did he ever encounter abuse?
‘I was a bit tougher than that,’ he says. ‘You get moments where you’ll be at a party or an audition and somebody would put their hands in certain places.’
And that happened to him?
‘Of course, because you’re a young actor. But it depends on how tough you are, and from the moment you look at somebody, they know who they think they can do it to and who they can’t. If anybody had put their hands on me, I’d have knocked them out.’
Rhys Meyers with his wife Mara Lane in 2016. Rhys Meyers’s upbringing was ragged enough to partially explain his problems
On today’s evidence Rhys Meyers has nothing if not a fighting spirit. It can’t have been easy to discuss the issues he’s faced with alcohol, but he does so without complaint. ‘Sometimes you have to stand there and take it, and if you can’t, you shouldn’t have joined the sport.
‘I’ve been at meetings with politicians, high-court judges, one of the richest men in the world and a homeless man. They are all very different in their walks of life, except for one thing that makes them all the same – they have to deal with whatever they have to deal with.’
He knows many who haven’t survived – ‘I’ve been to a lot of funerals’ – but says he never thought it could happen to him. ‘No. I will not let it be me.’
And is he confident that he will succeed?
‘I am confident. I will always get through. The one thing I’ll never do is give up.’
‘Damascus Cover’ is out on Friday