His current roles, as Henry VIII in The Tudors and as a man on a mission to find his lost true love—a woman with whom he had a one-night affair that produced a son he didn’t know he had—in August Rush, are the latest steps in a calculated journey. In January, Rhys Meyers begins filming Mandrake, a Chuck Russell—directed action movie about an escape artist who, working with the United States Treasury Service, uses his powers of illusion to fight crime. “[It’s] something I’ve been looking for,” Rhys Meyers says. “Playing Henry [VIII] was about having people see me as a lean, mean, testosterone machine, as an alpha male. [Mandrake] is a real, muscular, testosterone, up-on-a-wire action hero.”

Rhys Meyers had an alpha-male moment of his own when he was 18. It was a mid-December evening, and he’d just finished mucking out the barn and was relaxing on a sofa in Christopher Croft’s ruby-red-walled living room. He was watching Young Guns and thinking about his upcoming turn—his first leading role—in The Maker when he heard the violent groan of buckling wood and metal and then saw a shotgun barrel poke through the front door. Six thieves in balaclavas burst into the room and demanded that Rhys Meyers hand over all his money—“I didn’t have any,” he says—and that he open the house safe. “They were there for about an hour, tearing the place apart, looking for money and valuables.” Did he consider keeping the combination of the safe secret? “Not for an instant. I opened it and they made off with a couple of thousand.”

At the café, light breaks through the clouds, bathing the sidewalk and putting Rhys Meyers half in shadow, half in sun. He puts out a cigarette and begins burning his jacket again. There’s a zit on his right cheek, partially obscured by makeup from a photo shoot earlier in the day. That, his boyish eyes, and his slight build come together to make him look, for an instant, like an adolescent boy.

“You know why I stay out of the limelight?” he says. “I always think there will be that time that people will find out that I’m crap at what I do. I think they will figure out I’m crap. Doesn’t everybody have that feeling?”