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Interview with a vampire

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Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Alexander Grayson

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Alexander Grayson

Jonathon Hession/NBC

Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Victoria Smurfit

Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Victoria Smurfit

Jonathon Hession/NBC

Jonathan Rhys Meyers

It may be one of the most-performed characters in cinema and television history, but Jonathan Rhys Meyers couldn't wait to sink his teeth into Dracula. And, for the seven months of shooting in Budapest last year, he stayed in character as much as he could. "I used to unnerve people by staring at them on the street," he says. "There wasn't a moment, even on my days off, where I didn't think I was what I was."

He certainly makes for an intense presence here in the crypt of Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin – the suitably spooky venue Sky has chosen to promote Rhys Meyers's new 10-part drama series, the beautifully shot, opulent Dracula, which begins next week.

Pulling his chair up close to mine, he locks eyes and holds them for what feels like an eternity as he talks about his vision for the character.

"Some people think vampires and sex," he says. "I think vampires and suffering. This is a man who is an an enormous amount of pain, but what makes the character so interesting is the little spark of human that's left inside him, and it's this that gives him the conflict. Memories of what it was like to love, to lie next to your wife, destroy him and make him vengeful. Because they cursed him with an addiction to blood, it's an addiction that can never be solved."

Rhys Meyers first encountered Bram Stoker's celebrated book when he was a 14-year-old in Cork. "I had to read it for school," he says, with a grin. "It had a big impact on me, but didn't give me nightmares the way Tim Pat Coogan's books [on Irish politics and history] do."

But when the opportunity arose for him to take on the famous part and produce the series, he didn't hesitate, and set about finding new ways to tell an old story. "I had creative licence. Gary Oldman did the long-haired, Romantic Romanian version of him. Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski did other versions. But I wanted to extrapolate on the character, take Stoker's character and do something entirely different, but yet remain true to the original creation."

Rhys Meyers talks about three essential parts to this new character – a tryptic comprising a cursed 15th-century character called Vlad, a wealthy 19th-century businessman Alexander Grayson and, as the actor puts it, "the Dracule, which only manifests itself in the last, dying moment before he feeds."

As a producer – a first for him – he had a lot of say in how the series should look and feel. "I said to them: 'There will be no bats in this production.'" He bangs the table next to us for effect: "There will be no garlic, absolutely none of the clichés or the supernaturality that's so often associated with the part. So, my Dracula doesn't fly and he doesn't walk through walls.

"And when I would see scenes back on the monitor, I would have an input there too and I remember saying to the director on the last episode that a certain shot was a nothing shot. I wasn't having a fucking shit-fit; I very gently said to him that there was something wrong with it and he turned to me and he said: 'You're dead right – it's the wrong lens.'"

As he talks about the part – and the elements that he "begged, borrowed and stole" from Jack Nicholson's performance in Chinatown, Brad Davis's in Midnight Express and Al Pacino's in the Godfather films – you can't help but be caught up in his enthusiasm and it's easy to see why he has long been considered one of Ireland's most charismatic actors.

He's looking good today, as well he might considering he has long been in demand for the odd high-profile modelling job. His hair is cropped close to his skull, the cheekbones are almost comically defined and the fullness of his lips reminds me of the catty comments that greeted his role in Woody Allen's London-set movie, Match Point: Who is the greater pouter, Rhys Meyers or his co-star, the equally lip-tastic Scarlett Johansson?

He's wearing a V-neck T-shirt that plunges lower even than the type sported by that bloke from Pineapple Dance Studios. His chest looks freshly waxed, for those keen to know such things. And he looks super-healthy, a far cry from the tabloid fixture of almost a decade ago when he had his problems with alcohol.

And yet, he says he was keen to be seen to play ugly in the new series. "I've grown older. I'm 36 years-old now and so, as an actor, I don't need to be narcissistic or vain any more. There are some parts of Dracula where I look handsome and there are some parts where I look dreadful and it's the latter that I have come to enjoy most."

He laughs heartily as he warms to his theme: "When you're starting out, as a young actor, it's all, 'Oh Jesus – I just want to look good, maybe have a nice bird in the background.' Now, it's all about the work."

He has shown an exceptional knack for choosing plum TV roles, from his turn in the cult series Gormenghast in 2000, to his performance in the acclaimed Elvis series in 2005, and on to his more recent work as Henry VIII in The Tudors.

"I've been very lucky with the iconic parts I've been offered," he says. "Nobody imagined that Henry would work because people only think of him as this big, fat king. They don't remember that he was just 17 years-old when he took over from his brother, and that he was an impetuous and spoiled boy. It was that that excited me about the part."

He won a Golden Globe for his performance as Elvis and, in side profile, he looks very like The King, thanks to the nose and the curves of the aforementioned lips.

"Much as I love TV, there are lots of films that I'd like to do," he says. "I'm meeting for a film next week which is shooting next year and I'd love to do it. It's a James Ivory film on Richard II and it's got a beautiful script from Chris Terrio who did Argo. Fingers crossed."

But, now that he has tasted the business of being a producer, he has ambitions to direct drama too. "I'd love to be a director," he says. "I'd be an absolute fucking tyrant! But I would have to find something that I really wanted to do and it would have to be intimate and small.

"If someone turned around to me and said, 'Hey Jonny, we want you to direct something and we're going to give you $50m', I'd say I wasn't interested. But if someone said, 'We've got this script and want to give you a million dollars to make it', I'd be much more interested. I would be very, very careful about what I'd do and then I'd concentrate fiercely on it.

"Baby steps, and all that, but I'd love to be sitting with you in a few years telling you about a film I've directed."

Dracula begins at 9pm on Thursday, October 31, on Sky Living HD

Irish Independent