In Roots – the second episode of which premieres on HISTORY (DStv 186) on Wednesday, June 22 at 8.30pm – Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Tom Lea, poor farmer of Irish descent from the impoverished Carolina hills country. Craven, aspiring, though at times great fun, always suspicious and can’t rise above a deep rooted jealousy of his betters, Lea buys Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose) as a 15 year old and rapes her, resulting in the birth of their son George whom he takes under his wing and teaches about cock fighting. He has a deep struggle that torments him in owning a slave that is in fact his son.
Here, Rhys Meyers answers some questions about his role in the mini-series remake:
Q: You play the Tom Lea one of the most challenging characters in Roots. How would you describe him?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Tom Lea is a representation of what happens when greed and ignorance get the better of a complete people. He is a manifestation of everything that was wrong about the 19th century. He is the physical embodiment of the sociopathic sort of plantation owner. He’s a ne’er-do-well, he’s a drunk, a gambler. He is brutal to his wife, he is brutal to his slaves, and then something happens which changes his world completely. Through a very nasty, terrible experience, he forces on Kizzy, a child is born and this gives Lea enormous conflict, because, of course, when a child is yours, you have to love it, but the child is also his property, so it’s love, property, love, property. There’s a duality there the whole time. You know, I could feel heartbroken, I suppose, in many ways, for a character like Tom Lea, falling prey to the foulest practices of his time.
Q: Tell us about some of your experiences shooting the series
JRM: I had never planned to do Roots. I got a phone call to do it and found myself ten days later in Louisiana. We didn’t shoot this on sets. We went to the plantations, we built the cabins. It was hot, it was muddy, there were mosquitoes, it smelt, so the whole experience was like the most intense historical re-enactment you could possibly imagine, because we lived it.
Q: How difficult was it to play such an evil man?
JRM: It was not the easiest part to play. I have to tell you that the things I had to do and the brutality which I had to show were not very easy to go home and sleep on in the evening. I didn’t sleep very much during the making of Roots, but that was okay, because that’s what I had to be. It’s actually the only production I’ve ever been in, and this is a testament to everybody who was involved in it by the way, but it was, like, six weeks that it was completely suspended from every other experience in my life. What would I say about my character? Tom Lea is not a hero, he is a villain, but if you don’t play the villain for the true brutality of what it is, then it’s a disservice to the story. I am very proud of my role and performance in Roots. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder.