There is something about Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Aside from the strikingly obvious something that has led him to front campaigns for the likes of Versace and Hugo Boss; what Rhys Meyers is first and foremost is a storyteller, and a compelling one at that. Encouraged to follow an acting career nearly twenty years ago by casting agents, his early performances in films such as “The Disappearance of Finbar” and “Velvet Goldmine” were met with critical praise and he was soon established as an exciting young actor to watch.
From nascent talent to Golden Globe winner (for his portrayal of Elvis Presley in “Elvis”), Rhys Meyers seems to wholeheartedly embrace the challenge in taking on supremely iconic roles; Elvis, Henry VIII and now, Dracula, in the new series which premieres on Sky Living this Halloween, (that’s 31st October, for non-believers). In this re-imagining of Bram Stoker’s chef d’oeuvre, Dracula/Vlad Tepes moonlights as Anglo-American businessman Alexander Grayson, and while the usual suspects are present; Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra, this is clearly Dracula for a new generation, with more that a hint of Steampunk to it.
So how does an actor begin to approach such a venerated role, especially after having worked with Sir Christopher Lee, arguably the most beloved and revered Dracula in film? ‘This is a role that has been played by so many people, there’s a challenge in that, how do I make the role my own? I wanted to make a Dracula/Howard Hughes mixture. Dracula is the monster, Vlad is the character and Grayson is the performance in which he hides himself, so really it’s three characters in one, and what actor isn’t going to be interested in playing that?’ In preparation for the role Rhys Meyers immersed himself in the history and mythology of the real Vlad Tepes (the main inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s creation), rooting his character deeply in what he found, ‘He was a soldier, but he was also the ultimate 15th century propagandist. So when I am playing Dracula, or Vlad Tepes or Alexander Grayson, I am playing the propagandist.’ Rhys Meyers insists that the audience need to love to hate this infernal character, ‘what he does is hateful, he is cruel, but that cruelty is borne of suffering. What makes it interesting and complex is that there is a small part of him that is human. People have empathy with suffering, especially long-term suffering. He will never die, he will never find love, and he will end up destroying himself.’
Being a far cry from the glittery skinned, ‘vegetarian’ vampires-with-souls, that for a while seemed to have cornered the supernatural market, Rhys Meyers’ Dracula, visceral and bloodthirsty, does not shy away from the always implied, sometimes pronounced eroticism that comes with the territory, ‘my original idea was that he was never going to bite the neck of a man, he keeps his teeth for women. There’s something quite sexual about biting someone’s neck, you can’t get away from that. I wanted him to keep that quite separate.’ However, make no mistake about it, this isn’t love or romance, it’s feral and ruthless, something that Dracula needs to do to feel vital, ‘when he’s feeding he’s destroying himself, how can you bring yourself to that place? When he bites a neck, he sprays himself so he can completely feel what he needs to feel, which is alive, but he is not. Everything he does is a performance of a dead man trying to be alive.’ While this re-working of Dracula may divide opinion amongst hardcore fans of the novel, Rhys Meyers has so clearly committed to the fundamentals of the eponymous anti-hero/villain that enthusiasts need not worry, Dracula himself is in safe, clawed hands.
Musical legends, infamous kings and now the Prince of Darkness, Jonathan Rhys Meyers has never shied away from taking on difficult or risky roles, with ostensibly seamless transitions. While his physicality lends itself well to the intense, it is what he gives to his characters, iconic or everyman, in the spirit of reality and naturalism, that holds the audience. He is indeed a fascinating storyteller; so let the great stories continue to fall to those who can tell them. Sara Gallego