ADVANTAGE JONNY; Born in Poverty in Ireland, Lost in Drink on the Set of 'Alexander', Jonathan Rhys-Meyers Has Turned a Corner to Work with Woody Allen and Tom Cruise. It's Time to Clean Up, He Tells Edward Helmore

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With a super-sized plate of scrambled eggs and side order of bacon untouched in front of him, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is holding court on what must be every actor's favourite subject - himself. He is an engaging character, easily charismatic enough to escape the gravitational pull of his own self-importance. Along with Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy, he's one of the current pack of handsome Irish bad-boy actors. But if he was short and fat and not very good-looking, what would he do? 'I dunno,' he says, not missing a beat.

'Become a politician.' Later this month, the 28-year-old Dublin-born actor stars in Woody Allen's Match Point. It's the director's first movie to be shot in Britain, and once again takes up his pet themes of morality and guilt.

Rhys-Meyers plays Chris Wilton, a young tennis coach who finds himself socially adopted by a family of grandees, first by his student Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) and then - romantically - by Hewett's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chloe is sweet and dull and makes a good wife; Tom's girlfriend is a struggling American actress, Nola, played by Scarlett Johansson. Between pitchers of Pimm's and sets of tennis, the two outsiders in this Home Counties situation hook up, and Chris has a choice: a well-appointed life with Chloe or a roller-coaster with the sexy Nola.

For Rhys-Meyers, as for any actor on the way up, working with Woody Allen is an opportunity and a challenge. Allen doesn't rehearse his actors; they're chosen because he sees their qualities in the part.

'That's how Woody works. He's not somebody to discuss a scene for three hours. You have to be prepared to shoot anything at any given moment.' In other words, with Allen directing, you act yourself.

Chris Wilson is a tennis instructor on the make.

So? 'I'm an actor, so of course I'm on the make.

What actor isn't?' he says reasonably enough. 'All the qualities that exist in Chris Wilton exist in Jonny Rhys-Meyers. Woody casts you because he sees the characteristics of the role in you. So you already have 80 per cent of the character before you wake up in the morning and you only have to bring the details to work with you.'

He hasn't always been so in control. Rhys-Meyers - whose real name is Jonathan O'Keefe - was expelled from a religious school at 14. He describes himself as 'poor' and says, 'It was difficult to really concentrate on maths when all I wanted was a sandwich.'

He ran away from home at 15 'because I couldn't have made a life for myself there'.

His mum, he admits, was 'not a very responsible woman'. After hanging out doing odd jobs in pool halls, he was befriended by a man called Christopher Crofts, whose Cork farmhouse he now calls home. Crofts is gay, although he has sons of his own, and took Rhys-Meyers in, in the hope, he has said, of allaying the young man's 'terrible insecurities'. Rhys-Meyers admits that he has had a lot of therapy, but is realising that 'nobody can give you a magic pill that makes you feel better'.

And although many actors - especially the Irish - are strangers to sobriety, Rhys-Meyers has recently become overtly responsible and goal-orientated. 'I don't hell-raise any more,' he claims. 'I don't go out.

I don't go to bars. I don't drink.'

That wasn't the case on the set of Oliver Stone's Alexander where, he says, they all went wild in Morocco. 'It started on the set. I drank for about a year. Then I realised it just didn't work for me. I got terrible hangovers.'

In this new incarnation he likes to speak in terms of fulfilling his potential. While in New York, the actor is early to bed and early to rise, and any spare time is spent working out in the hotel gym. 'Over the last year, I've become a gym freak. I go for two hours a day,' he comments. And he has built a striking physique, narrow at the hips and broad at the shoulders, not unlike that of a young Iggy Pop, the singer whose character the actor played in Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes' cinematic love letter to glam rock that brought the actor his first real public attention. …


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