When Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers was asked to play Elvis Presley, his first instinct was to reject the role.
“In my head I was saying: ‘No, no, no’, because I wasn’t quite sure, first, about playing rock’n’roll stars and second, somebody who’s so well known to everybody,” Rhys Meyers said.
“Then I thought to myself: ‘Really, how often do you get to be a king? Wouldn’t it be just a little bit of fun to be the king of rock’n’roll for eight weeks?’.”
The result: Elvis – a four-hour movie airing over two nights in the US on CBS on Sunday and Wednesday, May 11.
The cast includes Camryn Manheim as Presley’s mother; Randy Quaid as his manager “Colonel” Tom Parker and Rose McGowan as actress Ann-Margret.
In a mini-Elvis festival timed to the May ratings sweep, CBS also is showing Elvis By The Presleys on Friday, May 13, a special including interviews with Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley and others.
The marketing bonanza doesn’t stop there: a two-CD set and a book, both also called Elvis By The Presleys, is out this month.
Rhys Meyers, 27, is not the first offshore actor to nab the part of a famous American. Other recent TV examples include Kenneth Branagh as Franklin D Roosevelt in a new HBO film and Jeremy Northam as Dean Martin in a 2002 made-for-TV movie.
In this case, Rhys Meyers notes, there are certain parallels between his own life and Presley’s.
“I was brought up a poor boy from Ireland. He was brought up a poor boy from the south of America,” he said. “There’s not that much of a difference in being poor.
“You can relate to that, and having dreams. Having dreams and being successful at what you do and the pressures of that, the loneliness of it.”
He gained insight into Presley’s style and personality from studying his music and movies and talking to those who knew him. He sought to evoke, but not mimic him.
“I didn’t try to do an Elvis impersonation because there are so many better ones than me. … People making a living out of being Elvis Presley.”
Rhys Meyers also shares with Presley the sort of dramatic good looks - including a full, pout-ready mouth – that make him a convincing young Elvis. The movie follows the singer’s life from age 18 to 33.
Then there’s the actor’s bad-boy screen quality – useful when he’s playing a man who shook the innocence out of pop music with his sexually-charged stage performances.
Although Rhys Meyers softened his image with the soccer romance Bend It Like Beckham, he’s played an assortment of dark and difficult characters in films including Vanity Fair” and TV’s The Magnificent Ambersons.
“People’s perception of me was that I was quite a feral character and there was something quite dangerous about me,” the actor said. “Then I did ‘Beckham’ and people said, ‘Oh, he’s actually a sweet boy, too’.”
Presley is a hybrid, Rhys Meyers suggests, “slightly dangerous and a little bit overtly sexual but still a very pleasant Southern boy who says, ‘Yes, ma’am, no, ma’am’.”
The film depicts Presley’s rise, his personal and professional relationships and the start of a pill addiction that some have linked to his 1977 death at 42 (heart disease was the coroner’s official finding).