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Jonathan Rhys Meyers... History man: from Henry to Padraig


Jonathan Rhys Meyers: I'm a guy who lives in conflict a lot of the time

Jonathan Rhys Meyers: I'm a guy who lives in conflict a lot of the time

Complex: Revolutionary Padraig Pearse

Complex: Revolutionary Padraig Pearse


Jonathan Rhys Meyers: I'm a guy who lives in conflict a lot of the time

When history is regurgitated through the prism of Hollywood, a bit of creative licence is expected.

Still, when Corkman Jonathan Rhys Meyers squeezed himself into the britches of the tyrannical Henry VIII in The Tudors, more than a few eyebrows were raised.

This week, it was revealed that the actor is set to step back in time yet again; this time, he will take on the role of Padraig Pearse in The Rising. In the run up to the centenary of the 1916 Rising, all eyes will be trained on Rhys Meyers as he takes on one of the most enigmatic and enduring figures in the nation's history.

The actor is in safe hands, and among glittering company: Colin Morgan (Merlin) will play Seán Mac Diarmada, while Liam's son Michael Neeson has, somewhat serendipitously, bagged the role of Michael Collins. Fiona Shaw will bring Countess Markievicz to life, while Kevin McCann is in the co-writer/producer seat.

All quite intriguing, but it's JRM's casting in particular that appears to have garnered the most attention. The actor has the sort of fine-boned, louche physicality that brought a whole new dimension to the irascible British monarch… but what of Padraig Pearse?

Pearse has gone down in history as a martyr who freed the people of Ireland: a charming, sensitive and poetic visionary. His role in Irish history is pivotal, if still divisive. His life away from the political sphere has proved to be of intrigue to historians; in a 2003 biography entitled Robert Emmet: the Making of a Legend, Professor Marianne Elliot said that Pearse had harboured a rather unhealthy obsession with Emmet, and biographies of Pearse himself have challenged traditional accounts of the 1916 hero, with many arguing that he was homosexual.

But Pearse's admirers are adamant that the ongoing interest in his alleged sexual activities are a form of character assassination.

It's easy to see why any actor would chomp at the bit to assume the role. There's plenty to get one's teeth into, but it takes an actor of skill and sensitivity to fully inhabit the character.

And so the question looms large: is Jonathan Rhys Meyers the man for the job? At first glance, it doesn't seem so. Rhys Meyers' casting in The Tudors was denounced in some quarters as an 'historical atrocity'. For some, he was lusty in all the wrong ways.

Defending the casting choice in 2008, The Tudors' executive producer Morgan O'Sullivan said: "We still want him to be appealing.

"We don't want to destroy his good looks. An exact portrayal of Henry is not a factor that we think is important.

"We are not in the business of making Johnny look like Henry VIII. We have accepted that from day one.

"We have been criticised for not casting someone with red hair. But you either cast him exactly like Henry VIII, or you choose to deal with it differently."

Rhys Meyers' casting as Dracula in 2013 prompted reviewers to describe it as having 'the hallmarks of another Tudor-esque romp: drop-dead gorgeous cast, low-cut frocks, a generous helping of artistic licence'. The sharp-suited charmer wasn't being let off the proverbial hook.

Perhaps if one scratches the surface, the actor is even more of a fitting casting choice for Pearse than meets the eye.

Still, the producer of Dracula confided to the Radio Times that Rhys Meyers made a great vampire because there's "something of the night" about him.

"I'm cast as bad guys because I look like one," surmised Rhys Meyers at the time, not inaccurately. "I can convey that sense of conflict, I suppose, 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 or balance - it's evident in me regardless of what I do."

And there's little doubting that Rhys Meyers is a complex man himself. Much like Pearse (albeit in wholly different ways), there appears to be an internal tug-of-war between saint and sinner.

"I suppose there are two Pearses, the sombre and taciturn Pearse and the gay and sunny Pearse," writes historian Brian Crowley.

In May this year, Rhys Meyers, a recovering alcoholic, was spotted staggering down a London street ducking into an off-licence in the early morning to buy two bottles of vodka. In broad daylight, the star, stained of T-shirt and bedheaded of demeanour - swigged from the bottle. For a man who went to rehab for alcohol abuse three times between 2005 and 2009, it was an alarming sight.

Only a month previously, Rhys Meyers and his fiancée Mara Lane shared their happiness on Instagram: the couple posted a pic of themselves, windswept and happy on a Cork beach.

The actor's relapse was made all the more upsetting given that his mother, Geraldine, died from a stroke eight years ago. Geraldine had battled alcoholism down the years to such a degree that, by Rhys Meyers' own admission, when he was a boy she would spend all her dole money on drink, leaving him with no option but to steal food to survive.

Rhys Meyers' complex life has more than a few intriguing footnotes. Among them are his career trajectory, aided and abetted by a wealthy, middle-aged dairy farmer Christopher Crofts.

Crofts met the young actor in an amusement arcade and, once Rhys Meyers had moved into his family farmhouse in Cork, Crofts became his de facto agent and a star was born.

For now, Rhys Meyers is hale and hearty; working consistently, personally fulfilled and looking back on that fateful Sunday morning in May as a mere 'blip' in his recovery.

As he readies himself to inhabit the curious and complex world of Pearse, Rhys Meyers has put two other promising roles in the can: not only will he play Clash frontman Joe Strummer in new film London Town, he has also completed work on Roland Emmerich's new drama Stonewall, based on the true story of New York's Stonewall Inn and the 1969 riots between the bar's gay clientèle and police.

Both projects promise to bring plenty of acclaim and attention to Rhys Meyers, but what the future holds for him beyond it all, it's hard to say.

Speaking in 2013, he admitted that when he got the call to play Dracula, he was craving a modicum of normalcy, even in his on-camera life. "I thought, 'Oh please, let it be a generic cop show where I wear jeans and T-shirts," he says. With any luck, normal will be on the cards - both off-screen and on - for him soon.

Indo Review