As King Henry VIII in Showtime’s “The Tudors,” Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers took on an English king with a taste for fancy dress, pretty women, power, and lopping the heads off unfaithful wives and indiscreet or uncooperative courtiers.
Friday, on NBC, Rhys Meyers tackles another iconic character, an Eastern European king-turned-vampire with a taste for understated dress, pretty women (with and without bloodletting), power, and taking down rivals as rich and powerful as himself.
From the producers of PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” “Dracula” returns Irish author Bram Stoker’s creation — adapted in ways ranging from the sexy to the comic and from the past to present day — to his native 19th century. Having been revived from a desiccated imprisonment by a fresh infusion of blood — from a surprising source, for those who know the original story — the former Vlad the Impaler assumes the guise of American entrepreneur Alexander Grayson.
He makes a grand appearance in London with the goal of bringing an abundant, wireless source of energy to the world, upsetting the nascent Industrial Revolution and the energy interests fueling it. At the same time, he seeks revenge against an ancient order that wronged him, killed the woman he loved and cursed him with undead immortality.
But when he puts his plan in motion, the sudden appearance of a woman who is, ahem, a dead ringer for his late wife, throws, as the British would say, a spanner in the works.
Daniel Knauf (“Carnival”) is the writer and one of the producers, along with Tony Krantz, Colin Callender and Gareth Neame. Also starring are Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Jonathan Harker, Jessica De Gouw as Mina Murray/Ilona, Thomas Kretschmann as Abraham Van Helsing, Nonso Anozie as R.M. Renfield, Katie McGrath as Lucy Westenra, Victoria Smurfit as Lady Jayne Wetherby, Ben Miles as Mr. Browning and Robert Bathurst as Lord Thomas Davenport.
“I play him as a dead man pretending to be alive,” says Rhys Meyers of Dracula. “That’s pretty much how I approached it, that he’s dead. There’s no spirit; there’s no blood pumping through his veins. So every emotion is a pretend emotion, but when you see him sometimes, I wanted that image that he’s completely dead inside.”
Rhys Meyers also keeps in mind that, while Stoker’s epistolary novel (told in letters, journal entries, ship’s log entries, news clippings, etc.) is now considered literature, that wasn’t always the case.
“Bram Stoker’s book was extraordinarily successful pulp fiction,” he says. “So, I don’t view Dracula the novel as great literature. I feel it as the Dan Brown of its day. It’s very exciting, and that’s what people liked. Like Dracula, a penny dreadful, they loved reading these gory stories.
“So the thing is, what makes him interesting, when they change him into a monster, they make him immortal. There’s one small part of him that’s human — because all monster would be bliss. But he’s not all monster; there’s one small, tiny part of him that’s still human, and that’s the thorn, that’s what causes the pain.
“It’s the spark of human that brings a conflict in a vampire. If it were all monster, it would be bliss, because it would be all of something. There’s a duality there. There’s a small, tiny desire for life and death.”
As to whether that inherent tragedy makes the vampire such a compelling figure, Rhys Meyers says, “I think it probably is, and they’ve made vampires an attractive thing. But I’m not sure how attractive sleeping with somebody who’s been dead for 400 years would be.”
Nevertheless, there is an erotic edge to “Dracula.”
“Of course,” Rhys Meyers says, “there’s sex involved. Vampires are associated with such things. But the one thing I didn’t want is this quite pretty-looking vampire. So I made certain choices. I went for lighting quite harshly in parts. I had my hair slicked back, and it gave me a more severe look.
“There’s variety. I didn’t want everybody walking around as pretty vampires. That gets boring very quickly. So I wanted him to sometimes appear a bit attractive, charming, and sometimes to appear quite monstrous and afflicted.”
Although Rhys Meyers did 10 episodes in all but one season of “The Tudors” (Season 3 was eight), and he’s doing 10 episodes of “Dracula,” he noticed a big difference going from a pay-cable series with a large cast to a broadcast network one where he’s playing the title character.
“It was, all in all,” he says, “a long time to stay at that level of intensity. So that was a little bit difficult.”
One might say Rhys Meyers graduated from college football to the NFL.
“Yeah,” he says, “it is the f ... NFL, I’m telling you. And I feel like a bruised and busted-up halfback right now. By next year, I’ll be a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.”