When Jonathan Rhys Meyers got the call to play Dracula, his heart sank. “I thought, ‘Oh please, let it be a generic cop show where I wear jeans and T-shirts.”
But of course Rhys Meyers isn’t famous for generic jeans – he’s famous for doublets, smouldering glances and steamy bedroom scenes in The Tudors, the period romp that turned Henry VIII into a hunk and the man who played him into a household name.
“I signed on for The Tudors thinking it was only going to be one season,” he says, his Irish lilt all but ironed out. “I didn’t want it to be four seasons. I was slightly horrified. By season three or four, I wasn’t happy doing it. Psychologically, I had to be 6ft 3in and I’m only 5ft 10in – and Henry’s size was a huge element of him.”
Since The Tudors, the 36-year-old actor has steered clear of TV. “Doing a series is like making four movies at once: you have many more opportunities to fall on your backside. There are days when going into work in the same studio with the same people, uttering your lines in the same costume...” His words fade out into a grimace.
It’s possible that TV has also steered clear of Rhys Meyers. Once he was touted as the next big thing – a surefire Hollywood star – but then headlines began to chronicle alcohol-fuelled lows rather than career highs: stints in rehab; two airport arrests for drunkenness; a lifetime ban from United Airlines; and he was hospitalised after overdosing on alcohol in 2011.
The second time he was arrested – in Paris in 2011 for kicking a barman who refused to serve him – his lawyer described him as “a fragile person who suffered from personal demons”.
These, too, have been documented. He was born in Dublin then raised in Cork by his mother after his parents separated when he was three. In the past he’s talked about how he stole food for his three younger brothers when his mother drank her dole money away. Expelled from school, at 16, he was spotted in a pool hall by a casting director.
The producer of Dracula confides that Rhys Meyers makes a great vampire because there’s “something of the night” about him. A double- edged compliment the actor accepts. “I’m cast as bad guys because I look like one. 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.”
Today he’s sober and has something of the sulky schoolboy about him. He strops in and squirms in his seat, only reluctantly removing his sunglasses. Outside, the streets of Budapest – where Dracula is being filmed – shimmer and sweat in 40 ̊C June heat. Inside, the temperature has plummeted.
Dracula has all the hallmarks of another Tudor-esque romp: drop-dead gorgeous cast, low-cut frocks, a generous helping of artistic licence. Bram Stoker’s 1897 horror story has been transplanted to Victorian London, his fanged anti-hero revamped into a sharp-suited charmer who goes by the pseudonym Alexander Grayson.
Still, Rhys Meyers takes his responsibilities seriously. He’s at pains to point out that he’s actually playing Vlad the Impaler: the infamous, real-life 15th-century Romanian warlord. “Dracula doesn’t exist. There’s only one character in this and that’s Vlad. Grayson is the face that he puts on for high society. Dracula is the inner rage.”
He decided his vampire would be partial to a whisky or two, he says, warming to his theme.
“Anybody who’s been through that amount of trauma tends to anaesthetise in some way,” he says, sounding like a man talking from experience. “And I didn’t have him drinking out of a glass: I had him drinking out of a bottle. He’s trying to self-medicate the whole time because his feelings are so extreme.”
Similarly, he chose not to cover up on screen the tattoos that dot and circle his left arm. “I wanted something almost tribal, something to remind of his 15th-century kingdom. I wanted the tattoos almost to be like battle marks.”
As he relaxes, the sulky schoolboy vanishes. Just like his three-in-one Dracula, Rhys Meyers has metamorphosed. These days he likes a quiet life, he says, painting himself as a Renaissance man: he reads, he paints, he plays the flute and guitar, he writes music and “really bad poetry”. He spends his money on his family or his collection of 16th- and 17th-century Japanese art.
Perhaps this is why he enjoys playing an “incredibly focused” Vlad rather than his alter egos Grayson or Dracula. “Vlad is the closest to who I am. I’m not Alexander Grayson. I’m not that sort of...”
“I’m not a charmer! I can be a charmer but it’s inauthentic.” The Cork lilt suddenly thickens. “Sometimes I can be charming if I really want to be charming. I’m a much sweeter person than I come across on camera.”
Dracula starts tonight, 9:00pm on Sky Living