Jonathan Rhys Meyers tells all on playing Joe Strummer in Clash-inspired new film ‘London Town’

The actor describes performing as the punk hero as "fucking exhausting"

Today (December 22) marks the anniversary of The Clash frontman Joe Strummer’s death. Even 14 years after he left us, his legacy as a politically-engaged and galvanising musical force continues to grow and inspire new generations of musicians and music fans. As such, there’s still plenty of interest in his story, as new film London Town shows. Starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Bend It Like Beckham, Velvet Goldmine) as Strummer, the movie follows 14-year-old Shay Baker (Daniel Huddlestone) as he discovers The Clash through his free-spirited mother and encounters the punk hero several times as he struggles through teenage crushes and keeping his family together. Jonathan Rhys Meyers told us about what it was like to play such an icon, The Clash’s relevance and the new band exciting him today.

Were you a fan of The Clash before taking on this role? 
“I was a Clash fan, but I wasn’t so much of a Clash fan that I couldn’t be objective about what I was doing. I didn’t have posters of Joe Strummer on my wall. I was a big Clash fan, but I was more into the music. I was born in ’77 so I missed out on the socio-economic element of The Clash at that time. I understood it a little bit more through Joe’s poetry later on in life, but essentially I knew the music and I liked the music so that made it a hell of a lot easier. I had no interest in glam rock when I did Velvet Goldmine, I didn’t like it. I was a Led Zeppelin guy, so that was a little bit more complicated. I wasn’t an Elvis fan either [he played the star in TV series Elvis], which made me really objective about playing Elvis – I took all the Elvis out of Elvis and just made him a poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi. That made it much more authentic.

“Also with Strummer, this was The Clash before they started making big money. They were still playing small gigs. I wanted to get that element of rock stars before they become real rock stars. They’re local heroes right now. The Clash never became that stadium band – I think they broke up before that big money happened – so they were always the struggling artist”

Did you immerse yourself in The Clash’s music and films and books about them and Joe while preparing for the film? 
“Of course. I didn’t read a book about Joe Strummer. To do research, I don’t think you read books or autobiographies about people because they might not be in your script. If I read a passage in a book about someone and think ‘Oh God, this would be really good in the film’ but it’s not in the script it’s not going to do me any good. Maybe if I was playing Napoleon! But Strummer, it was mainly about watching private interviews, watching the down time. I watched Rude Boy so I could get an element of what it was like on the road for these guys. But mainly it was just interviews and just picking out one or two things and an energy.”

What did you learn about Joe that you maybe weren’t aware of before?
“That he was a really, really hard working guy. I didn’t know that he was middle class, being the working class hero. At the time, people could see the super wealthy were pulling away more and more, and the middle class were getting crushed into the sense of stagnant suburbia. I suppose Joe was very interested in this and what was happening at the time socio-economically. I think Joe understood politicians spend 98 percent of their time covering their own arses and trying to keep their jobs. I think he understood that politicians were basically getting into power simply to have power. So The Clash had definitely that voice of the working class and Joe became the voice of the working class even though I think he’s the son of a diplomat.

“It was kind of strange that he had to play this character in an almost extreme way. He had to play this guy struggling to give a voice to to the voiceless and he did it through rock music because the kids are sponges. They were taking music from different parts of the world. Paul Simonon was such a huge reggae, ska and dub fan that they were able to pull things from people like Isaac Hayes’, Toots and the Maytals and The Wailers and mash it up. It’s incredible how good punk and ska work together. They’re completely different elements on completely different sides of things.”

Do you think The Clash are still relevant to young people today? 
“The Clash are even more relevant now. Since the time the trailer came out for this and now, their music has shot up. ‘Bankrobber’ is one of the greatest songs of the 20th century. We couldn’t use it in the film because I think it’s sampled from something else that they mashed up. There was some complication as to why I couldn’t sing ‘Bankrobber’ and I was like ‘come on, you’ve got to give me this fucking tune!’ Especially the video of Joe in the studio singing it with these big, white late ’70s/early ’80s headphones. I really wanted to do that, but it was the earlier Clash music that Derek was interested in, like ‘Clash City Rockers’, ‘White Riot’, ‘Clampdown’. I would have loved to have done ‘Bankrobber’ and ‘Tommy Gun’.”

Did you have any say in what songs were used in the film? 
“No, bollocks, nothing! I’m just an actor, man. Yeah, I had to play ’em. But then Joe’s a rhythm player – he wasn’t the world’s greatest guitar player. Mick was their virtuoso. The Clash wouldn’t have been The Clash without Joe because he brought that energy and that poetry, but The Clash wouldn’t have been The Clash without Mick or Paul either, or Topper Headon. When Topper left, it was never quite the same.”

Have you ever been in a band yourself? 
“I’ve never been in a band. I started playing guitar in my early ’20s and then put it away for a long time because I was too busy thinking I was going to be fabulous in the movie industry. Then around 2010 I picked it up again. I write music, but I haven’t released anything and I don’t think I ever will.”

What was it like performing as Joe in scenes like the Rock Against Racism gig at Victoria Park? 
“Once action rolls you lose yourself in it. It was fucking exhausting. I was thinking ‘Christ almighty, The Clash must have been wrecked after their gigs!’ You don’t realise – you think these guys are having a good time cos you’re having a good time, but when they get off stage you can see them fucking collapse because it takes so much out of you. I just collapsed onto the stage when I was finished doing ‘White Riot’, like ‘fuck me, how the fuck do you get up?’ and then I had to get up and do ‘Janie Jones’.”

What new bands exciting you at the moment?
“The only new band I’m listening to right now is Unlock The Truth. They’re three kids from Brooklyn, New York. They’re African-American. They play heavy speed-metal. They are so good, they are beyond good. They’re opening for Metallica and they’re 12 years old. There’s a documentary about them called Breaking The Monster. They’re extraordinary kids, but their music… they’ve got more energy than anybody else in music put together apart from maybe Jay Z. I think Jay Z’s amazing, but all the rest of it is just a conglomeration of X Factor whatever.”

How did you find Unlock The Truth?
“I just discovered them online. There was a video of them playing in Times Square and somebody said ‘oh you’ve got to watch them’. They’re magnificent. Breaking The Monster is about them going into the very adult world of the music industry, which is a very hard world right now. People don’t want to go out and put their hearts into making music anymore because everything just gets taken from them. The first few albums from Kings Of Leon were amazing. ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’ was a fantastic album so every now and then you’ll get someone come along who’s making beautiful stuff. Chvrches are also really interesting, but bands like The Clash? They’re just not there. There’s no one like them at the moment and that’s a problem. I’m constantly going back in the past to find something that’s relevant to me now.”