In "The Tudors," the Irish actor made King Henry VIII an attractive despot who dispatched wives and enemies while strutting, sulking and seducing his way through 16th-century England.
Rhys Meyers is back in NBC's new series "Dracula," playing the world's most famous vampire as a sleekly alluring bloodsucker. Still, he says he hesitated when the part was offered to him, hoping for something a little more, well, normal.
"I was hoping I was going to get to play a generic cop or something, who's got his lawyer fiancee who's an uptown D.A.," Rhys Meyers said.
It's easy to see why "Dracula" producers cast the 36-year-old as a brooding vampire. Even dressed in jeans, leather jacket and Doc Marten boots, he's a striking presence with chiseled cheekbones and piercing eyes.
Modern-day vampires, he acknowledges over a salt beef sandwich near his north London home, are an irresistible combination of the repulsive and the attractive.
"If all vampires in all films had been made to look like Klaus Kinski in 'Nosferatu,' nobody would be interested in vampires," he said. (Kinski's bald, sepulchral predator in Werner Herzog's film is the stuff of nightmares.)
"As soon as they made vampires kind of good looking - well, there you go," he said.
In "Dracula," the undead Romanian count disguises himself as Alexander Grayson, a brash young American industrialist. He turns up in 1895 in London's high society, seeking revenge on a secret vampire-hating cabal called the Order of the Dragon.
Dracula's carefully prepared plan is threatened when he meets Mina, a medical student who bears an uncanny resemblance to the wife he lost centuries earlier.
Despite his early reservations, Rhys Meyers is enthusiastic about the show, on which he is a producer. He says he was determined that his Dracula would be free from bats, Gothic cobwebs and mock-Transylvanian accents.
"I wanted him to appear more like a Howard Hughes or a Citizen Kane than I wanted him to be 'Drrac-ula,'" he said, rolling the "r'' with Bela Lugosi-style menace. "I said to them, 'There's no way I'm going to do 'Drrac-ula.' I'll sound like a really bad Bond villain.'"
Horror fans, never fear, there is still plenty of blood. Dracula feeds lustily - though he only bites women. Men are dispatched with a sword.
"I didn't want too many scenes of him biting people's necks," Rhys Meyers said. "That gets very boring."
"No bats, no garlic. I was even a bit (hesitant) about the crucifixes," he added.
Instead of emphasizing the supernatural, the show conjures a highly material world of oil barons, social inequality and fast-changing technology. Its vision of late-Victorian London - filmed in Budapest - has an industrial, steam-punk edge.
"We wanted to do something different, something that brought into that time a little bit of the modern struggles that we struggle with now: politics, money, oil," said Rhys Meyers. "I didn't want to go and make a period drama that was stale. Because Victorian England at that time wasn't stale. It was a very keen, very eager time. "
Rhys Meyers knows something about fast times. A teenage truant who started acting after getting kicked out of school at 15, he became a pinup through early roles such as his charismatic rock star in the 1998 film "Velvet Goldmine."
He has had big roles - he was nominated for an Emmy for the 2005 miniseries "Elvis" - but has also struggled with alcohol, spent time in rehab and ended up in the headlines after airport altercations.
"The Tudors" won him millions of fans, but he's candid about the show's soapy, superficial side - not least the growing divide between the svelte actor and the famously portly monarch.
"Season one and two, I didn't mind," he said. "Season three and four got more difficult, because I couldn't put on the physical size even if I ate 150 million bowls of pasta every week.
"I was 32 when I played him at 54. So it was a little bit difficult. ... I would have happily given up my character and let an older man come in."
He says, though, that making "The Tudors" was a generally happy experience.
In his latest series, Dracula's enemies are the ruthless capitalist overlords of the British empire. Viewers could be forgiven for wondering whether Dracula, the outsider who comes to avenge ancient wrongs, is the true hero.
He's not, Rhys Meyers says. He's a monster - one with a "pinhole of humanity," but doomed all the same.
"He must lose. That's the thing I like about it," the actor said. "He's a monster in the worst possible place - in a world of humans. And we know what humans are capable of."