The first time Jonathan Rhys Meyers and John Travolta met was on the set for their first scene together in “From Paris With Love.” Charlie Wax, a belligerent, shaved-headed, goateed American — a full-tilt Travolta — is being detained by a French customs agent at the airport. He’s trying to bring a bag full of energy drinks into the country, the French customs official is telling him non!, and the exchange is getting ugly.
Enter James Reese — an American-accented Meyers — as a young U.S. embassy attache with ambitions of becoming a CIA spy guy. Reese tries diplomatically to defuse the situation. Wax is no help at all. Finally, the two are allowed to leave — with the beverage cans, one of which, it turns out, is packed with an illegal powdery substance.
From Paris With Love
“It’s funny. I was shooting my last scene as Henry at 7:30 Tuesday evening, and I was on set with Travolta at 8:30 Wednesday morning,” Meyers recalls, referring, of course, to his job as the randy royal King Henry VIII, in the hit Showtime historical soap “The Tudors.”
“There was no time to meet Travolta beforehand, nor, needless to say, to do a read-through,” he says. “I had just time enough for a costume change, and my accent. And away we went. It helped that I was working with John straight away, though, because meeting him like that, not knowing what to expect, mirrored the experience of my character.”
“From Paris With Love,” a mayhem-fueled shoot-‘em-up in the City of Light, comes by way of director Pierre Morel, who turned Liam Neeson into an action hero with 2008’s sleeper hit “Taken.” And now Meyers, better known for his tumescent Tudor, for the criminal-minded social climber he played in Woody Allen’s “Match Point,” for his uncanny impersonation of Elvis Presley in the CBS miniseries “Elvis,” is tearing down flights of stairs, firing automatic weapons this way and that, and caroming around Paris in the company of a kickboxing madman. Travolta’s Charlie Wax is a maverick, to say the least. He is also one of the Agency’s top operatives.
“Of course, it was tiring,” Meyers says. “You’re making a movie, you’re working 12, 14 hours a day, there’s no denying that. But I had so much fun that the adrenaline kept me going.”
Born in Dublin, and an actor since he was expelled from high school, Meyers, now 32, says he and Travolta hit it off from the get-go. And since “From Paris With Love” is a buddy picture, it helps that the buddies have chemistry.
“We’re actors, and what do actors do when they’re hanging around together waiting for the scene to start?” he says. “We talk shop. We compare notes, tell stories. And John has stories to tell. He knew Marlon Brando, possibly the greatest actor of them all. ...
“I wasn’t even alive when John Travolta started his career, and I was 5 when ‘Saturday Night Fever’ came out. And that wasn’t for me at 5, but I still remember watching the way he walked, swinging that paint can down the sidewalk at the beginning of the film. ... That walk is iconic. John Travolta is iconic.”
In “From Paris With Love,” which opens in theaters on Friday, Meyers plays a mild-mannered Danny Glover type to Travolta’s nut-job Mel Gibson. It’s a tried-and-true formula, and one that producer Luc Besson neatly recycles. Like Jean-Pierre Melville 40 years before him, Besson, who also dreamed up “Taken” and “The Transporter,” to name but a few, takes a sturdy American movie genre and gives it an artful Gallic twist.
“Luc is involved, hands-on, in every project that he does,” Meyers reports. “But at the same time, he makes two or three films simultaneously, so he’s a busy guy and he’s always writing. He’ll turn up on his motorcycle unannounced, in a track suit. Luc is that type of guy. He’s beyond relaxed. He’s a super-intelligent guy, a complete workhorse, and you’d see him every so often.
“You knew that you were taken care of, but you were there to shoot a movie. We’re all grown folk, and we take care of ourselves.
“So myself and John, we’re off shooting something. Literally shooting something — or being blown this way or that.”
The villains in “From Paris With Love” include a clan of Chinese drug dealers and a cell of Middle Eastern terrorists, brooding and armed with suicide bombs.
Villains, ethnic stereotyping — that, too, is an old formula.
“When I met Luc and Pierre, I said to them, ‘Look, this has got to be tongue-in-cheek, it’s got to be as much fun as possible.’ The subjects that it touches — you know, a young girl OD-ing on coke, and these terrorists — it’s topics to fuel the action. Yeah, very heavy topics, but you don’t want to get bogged down in those. You’ve got to put your ‘Lethal Weapon’ goggles on for this. ...
“And as for the terrorists — terrorists are stereotyped everywhere, you know what I mean? They’re just the bad guy of the moment.”