Jonathan Rhys Meyers: ‘Imagine what it takes to suck the entire blood system out of somebody’
The Cork actor prepared for the role of Dracula in full-blooded fashion: by staring at strangers in Budapest ‘until they wanted to call the police, thinking I was a lunatic’
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: ‘[The name Dracula] comes from the Carpathian Mountains where people are very superstitious. Irish people are very superstitious, so I was able to engage in that’
Max Schreck in Nosferatu
Bela Lugosi in Universal’s Dracula films
Christopher Lee in Hammer’s vision
I am sitting in a crypt with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, star of The Tudors, Mission Impossible 3 and the most recent incarnation of Dracula. In an adjoining chamber there is a cabinet containing a mummified cat and mouse discovered in an organ pipe in the 19th century (isn’t there a film called Dracula Meets the Mummy?). Nearby hover the Sky PR team who are, in their way, just as spooky.
Earlier there were round-table discussions with other cast members (“It’s like a fecking seance,” muttered one journalist) and now Rhys Meyers is offering me coffee. He’s friendly, fashionably dressed in a low-cut T-shirt and suit jacket, but looks tired. “You’re caffeinated to the hilt, are you?” he says. He stares intensely at me as he speaks. He makes dramatic hand gestures and his accent shifts geographically over the course of the conversation.
There’s a pattern to this. The more passionate he gets, the more he sounds like he’s from Cork, where he actually grew up. And he is very passionate about Dracula. “Suffering is what drives him – the pain,” he says. “It takes eight minutes to strangle somebody. Imagine what it takes to suck the entire blood system out of somebody. How you have to stick with it. How you have to focus. It’s an extraordinary thing and it’s terrible and wonderful all at the same time.”
Was he method acting? “I didn’t lock myself in a casket or anything, but I chose an apartment [in Budapest where they were shooting] that was very, very Gothic and sometimes I would go out and walk the streets, and look at people and just try to unnerve them. I’d be in Budapest in a cafe and just stare at someone until they wanted to call the police, thinking I was a lunatic.”
He had completed his long stint as Henry VIII in The Tudors, finished a film called Belle de Seigneur and had taken a year off to paint and play music when he was approached to play the role by NBC’s Bob Greenblatt.
“I said, ‘It’s been done’. He said, ‘But not by you’,” says Rhys Meyers. “I’d grown. I’d had pain and loss and joy. I bring that experience. Then I lost my grandfather and I lost my best friend to cancer. I went back for funerals. And seeing all my family and the pain [they] were in, and my own personal pain with my best friend dying of a terrible, terrible illness, I was able to go back and shoot it into the camera as much as possible, to expel it out in a very aggressive way and a very focused way.”
He puts his palms together and shoots them out in front of him to demonstrate this. He talks about a scene shot in a courtyard at 4am where he was “half-naked, having my throat slit and an hour and a half later I’m going to my grandfather’s funeral. It was almost like the world was making me suffer in the same way.”
Once upon a time, he says, he would have struggled with the idea of appearing monstrous. “As a young actor you just want to look good. There’s a certain amount of ego and vanity. But as I get older I’d prefer to be really effective than really attractive. There’s a shot in the last episode where the camera is moving in on me and I look so handsome in it and I turn around and the way they’ve shot me, I look like a monster, so dreadfully pale, like a building whose facade has fallen off.”
This new version of Dracula is, as well as a bloodthirsty vampire, a charismatic entrepreneur battling a secret cabal of rich industrialists. It’s not the story from the book. It places Stoker’s characters in a new context. But why does Rhys Meyers think the idea of Dracula still has power? He considers this for a moment.
“I think there’s something terrifying about the name Drac-ula [he says the word like a pantomime villain]. I think it’s that simple. It’s a Romanian word, dracul, which means ‘dragon monster’, and there’s something about that word which scares the living s**t out of people. It comes from the Carpathian Mountains where people are very superstitious. Irish people are very superstitious, so I was able to engage in that.”
Does he believe in monsters? “Is a monster a monster?” he asks. “Or are they humans who do monstrous things? I believe monsters are humans who do monstrous things – wonderful things but terrible things, and I wanted to engage with that.”
Dracula starts on Sky Living on October 31
The many faces of Dracula: From buck-toothed baldy to violent sex pest and beyond
‘Nearly all versions of Dracula start with a journey in a carriage, a man arriving at the castle, a weird assistant to Dracula who eats flies. Then Dracula comes back to the UK, seduces a couple of women and is staked,” says historian and film archivist Robert JE Simpson. “But none of the films have ever really been entirely faithful to the book.”
He puts this down to the novel’s uncinematically rambling epistolary style. The first celluloid version was Nosferatu, the unsanctioned “bootleg” adaptation from 1922, but this baldy, buck-toothed fiend never captured the public imagination like Bela Lugosi in Universal Pictures’ 1931 film, with his iconic widow’s peak, opera cape and suave eastern European accent. Sequels ran on through to the 1940s. “There was maybe a subconscious fusing of the European threat with monsters invading quasi-American lands,” says Simpson. But Universal’s horror movies eventually collapsed into monster-mash self-parody with wolf-men, mummies and Abbot and Costello.
Hammer relaunched the franchise in 1958 with Christopher Lee’s full-colour, ultraviolent sex pest, a version one critic deemed “for sadists only”. “The marketing campaign was very sex-heavy,” says Simpson. “He’s ‘the terrifying lover who died yet lived’. Christopher Lee is a huge man with an English accent and great presence. He reintroduces the idea that the vampire could be at your doorstep.”
Hammer’s Dracula movies, eight in total, also devolved into silliness, though Simpson likes the last instalment, the kung-fu/vampire mash-up, The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires.
Since the Hammer films, Dracula has been even more explicitly sex-obsessed. There’s been a critically acclaimed BBC version featuring Louis Jourdan; a much-parodied Francis Ford Coppola adaptation with a hirsute Gary Oldman, which added a romantic origin story and “a more graphic, horrific element” (Keanu Reeves’s English accent?); and a 2006 BBC version that linked vampirism to sexual disease. “There’s a modern obsession with reading Stoker’s story as an allegory,” says Simpson.
There have also been, over the years, plenty of tongue-in-cheek incarnations: avian Dracula (Count Duckula), future Dracula (Dracula 3000), African-American Dracula (Blacula) and numerate muppet Dracula (Sesame Street’s The Count). There’s also been a recent vogue for romance-inclined, aspirational teen vampires (The Vampire Diaries, Twilight). “It’s no longer about dressing up and scaring people,” says Simpson. “These vampires largely look like we do, except maybe their hair is better.”
Dracula himself would never be caught undead with such lightweights, so a reinvention is probably due. We like to be scared, says Simpson, “and we’ll always love fantasy stories. All you have to do is walk down a street at night and think about vampires and it’s not so hard to imagine something coming out of the bushes and tearing into you.”