The Irish Vampires

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Dracula

By Patricia Danaher, Contributor
October / November 2013

The 1897 Gothic horror novel by Irish author Bram Stoker, famous for introducing the character of vampire Count Dracula, is reborn as a new series on NBC. Patricia Danaher visits the set in Budapest.

Although vampires seem to be everywhere these days in popular culture, there’s never been one quite like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He’s been the subject of multiple movies going back almost a century, and the novel never goes out of print. On October 25, television viewers will be in for a treat, when the new series Dracula, airs on NBC.

Two of the principal leads are played by Irish actors: Jonathan Rhys Meyers is the count himself and Victoria Smurfit plays Lady Jayne Wetherby, a vampire hunter and leading London socialite. Katie McGrath, who’s been in The Tudors, plays Lucy Westenra.

I visited the set of the show in Budapest recently to get a sense of its take on the story and to sit down with the stellar Irish cast. The lavish ten-part drama is a co-production between NBC and Sky Living.

Dracula arrives in London posing as American entrepreneur Alexander Grayson, who claims he has come to bring modern science to Victorian London. But he’s really there to wreak revenge on those who ruined his life several centuries earlier.

When I see Jonathan Rhys Meyers at work on Dracula, my first thought is that Dubliner Bram Stoker could have been channeling the actor when he sat down to write his novel. Everyone working on the set says he was born to play the part – that the whiff of danger that Rhys Meyers throws off makes him the perfect seductive vampire. Even he’s inclined to agree.

“I have to make him diabolical and erotic at the same time and let it pass between these two things, so that it’s a balance between ‘oh my god, I’m really repulsed by this, but I can’t stop watching,’”  Rhys Meyers tells me.

“There’s something about me physically which makes me look a little dangerous. I have too much of the serpent in me. I don’t get offered that many sweet parts because directors have this idea that I always want to be incredibly serious and that’s not necessarily the case. Parts [in movies] like August Rush and Bend It Like Beckham are sadly few and far between.

“I wouldn’t exactly call myself Twilight material! I’m 36, a bit older than most people think I am,” he laughs.

It’s difficult to believe how much Rhys Meyers has packed into his 36 years. He’s made more than 30 movies and counting. He won a Golden Globe for playing Elvis a 2005 miniseries of the same name and was nominated for a Globe for his unforgettable portrayal of King Henry XIII on The Tudors.

This is the first television show he’s done since he spent five years working on The Tudors, which was all filmed in Wicklow. He likes moving between film and television, likes being in Europe, and is very happy to be working with two Irish actresses, one of whom, Katie McGrath, he is rumored to have dated.

“Speaking of tough Irish women! Katie is an angel who I’ve known for a long time and I’m incredibly fond of her. She’s very grounded and very well educated. Victoria has this incredible elegance that’s very different to Katie and she’s very, very powerful. It’s a pleasure to work with women like that. They keep me in line!”

Jonathan was in a turbulent long-term relationship with heiress Reena Hammer for over eight years, but they parted ways last year. He has since been involved with the Australian model Victoria Keon-Cohen, and they moved in together in London earlier this year. He reportedly has not had a drink in a few years, after a series of very public and embarrassing incidents. Everyone talks of how calm and focused he is on Dracula and how much he brings to the part.

“I don’t get much time to go out really. I try to go home to London once a month, but I live very quietly here in Budapest. Some trips to restaurants with people are always nice. Hungarian is a very difficult language and mine is non-existent. There’s a charm in trying to communicate with people by not using a language. You have to search a little bit harder.”

Given how many interpretations of Dracula there have been on-screen, from Bela Lugosi to Gary Oldman, I wonder how terrifying it was to undertake such an iconic role?

“Gary Oldman was pretty spectacular, because he brought romance as well as horror and he balanced the pain with the monster.  I am not afraid of not being as good as somebody else, and I am not afraid of being better than somebody else. I think I’m old enough now not to be intimidated by those who have come before me. Success has very little to do with me, beyond my performance and paying attention to what is happening on set. Success will be decided by the people who view it. We are working very hard to make it as erotic, as entertaining and as provocative as we possibly can, so that people can enjoy it.

“I’ve taken part of my interpretation of Dracula from the book, part of it from the history of Vlad Tepes himself, and partly from my own personal experiences, both the good and the bad. These will all come out.”

This is the first big part that Victoria Smurfit (40) has played on U.S. television since she moved to Los Angeles three years ago.

“It’s a gift of a part. Lady Jayne is a sexy, sassy woman who takes no prisoners and she’s really grounded. She’s the Daphne Guinness of her day,” she told me. “She kicks a lot of ass, but she’s not Lara Croft, she’s very much a woman out of her time. She understands the minutiae of the social life of London in the 1840’s, but she also lives outside of society.”

Smurfit has played many sexy, no nonsense characters on British television over the years and admits that she loves playing action roles.

“I consider myself part stunt girl and I relish parts where you are physically challenged. I adore it when I get on set and they do your hair and your costume and then I get to do loads of fighting. I’ve trained in a few different martial arts and when I was at theatre school, they put you through a lot of combat and I was the only one who regularly partnered with a six-foot-one guy for fights.”

She has nothing but praise for Jonathan Rhys Meyers, with whom she had never previously worked.

“When you walk into a room with Johnny, it’s like walking into a scene with a stallion. You don’t know what he’s going to do. He’s very exciting to work with. And he’s great craic. Himself, Katie and myself have a kind of Irish shorthand and we’re often roaring laughing at things that no one else understands,” said Victoria.

Late last year Victoria sold a television show she wrote to the other American TV giant, ABC. She has written and is developing two other series ideas and gradually making her way in Hollywood as a writer and actress.

The element of danger and Rhys Meyers also stand out for Katie McGrath.

“Dracula and Johnny have a lot in common. They walk into a room and you don’t know what they are going to do. You think you know what he’s going to do, but he surprises you every time and then you have to respond,” said Katie.

“Dracula is someone everyone knows and loves. I’ve always loved Dracula. I read it years ago and I was always surprised at how readable it is. It’s a bloody good yarn,” she says, with gusto.

Katie (29) is not your typical actress by any standards. Educated at Trinity College Dublin, she has a degree in history, but has no formal training as an actress. Born and brought up in Ashford, County Wicklow, Katie was always interested in fashion, thanks to her mother’s work with designer Lainey Keogh. Katie herself briefly wrote about fashion for Image magazine and for a time she also worked as a wardrobe assistant with the Oscar-winning designer Joan Bergin on The Tudors, after being introduced by a friend of Katie’s mother. It was there that she managed to switch professions entirely. By virtue of being in the right place on a day they were short of actors, Katie found herself getting cast in a regular role on The Tudors.

Her memorable scenes with Jonathan and her natural beauty, which the camera easily beheld, launched her career unexpectedly and spectacularly.

“I was dramatic growing up, but not especially interested in acting,” she admits frankly. “I didn’t think that acting was a real job until I got to work on the set of The Tudors and I saw how people work every day. When you have an office job, you don’t know that acting can be a viable thing. I came home one day and I told my mum ‘I’m quitting work and I’m becoming an actor! I found an agent and I got a job!’ I could see her face going through a range of emotions, but by the end of it she was okay,” laughs Katie. “Rather than saying, ‘you’re giving up work after getting your good education’ my parents were cautious about me becoming an actor. But now they’re very proud of me.”

Over the past six years, Katie has worked consistently, mostly in television. She played the evil Morgana for five years on the BBC drama Merlin, which she really enjoyed. Her character developed a somewhat obsessive fan following and two years ago, the face of her character was on a stamp in the U.K.

She’s been living in London for the past several years, which she loves and where she feels very much at home.

“When you’re an actor, you have to divorce yourself from where you live. You end up going wherever the work is. You learn to make your home where you are at the time,” she says, more than a little wistfully. “I go home to London quite a bit from Budapest and I go home to Ireland whenever I can. All my family are in Ashford. They’re the most perfect family. I wish I could live there. I wish I could work there.

“Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula, was a typical Irish man – he loved language and he had a great way with words. He didn’t think he was writing War and Peace. I think he just wanted to tell a bloody good story. The cast has really bonded, and of course it’s great to have so many Irish here. I love being back working with Johnny again. Victoria is like the glue that holds us all together. We’re like family on the set. There aren’t many jobs where you’re excited about going to work every day, but I genuinely am. There’s a richness about costume drama that everybody loves.”

Dracula will premiere on Friday, October 25th  on NBC at 10/9pm central.

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