“Being an audience member is where I learn the most,” says Geoffrey Rush, a masterful actor and lifelong student of the craft. Known for depicting unique and unusual characters like David Helfgott in Shine,” Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean, Sir Francis Walsingham in Elizabeth and a wide assortment of misfits and madmen, Rush has steadily become one of the most preeminent actors of our time.
Balancing commercial works like Finding Nemo with independents like Swimming Upstream, Rush is undoubtedly at the top of his game. In the upcoming, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Rush returns to familiar waters, reprising his role from the critically acclaimed Elizabeth as court confidante and master of espionage, Sir Francis Walsingham. Says Rush on his return, it’s an opportunity “to see what happens when a man of such an assured belief system has to confront betrayal from within his own family or self doubt in his own mind.” Luckily, for audiences everywhere, it’s another opportunity to see a master at work.
Mark Sells (MM): Elizabeth was a critically acclaimed and successful film in 1998. Now, nine years later, we have a sequel with many of the same cast and crew. Why do you feel it was important to make this film?
Geoffrey Rush (GR): I unashamedly now am calling it a “sequel.” I tried to find ways of saying it’s not a sequel, i.e. It’s another chapter in the life of this extraordinary woman. Mainly because somehow “sequels” gets connected with “franchises,” which get connected in people’s minds with licenses to print money or whatever.
Having just come off the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, I know that people will automatically make the connection. But the audience that this is targeted at, the time of year that it’s being released, the good will that people seem to have toward the first film this far down the track [makes it different].
MM: The film was shot on location at many historic landmarks like Westminster Cathedral, St. Bartholomew’s, The Royal Barge, Winchester Cathedral, Cambridge, etc. Why was it important to shoot on location amidst such history? What did it add to the film?
GR: We were shooting in parts of Cambridge, which still has a kind of very authentic Whitehall sense of exteriors. On the first film, a lot of critics took the film to task because Whitehall was a wooden palace. But the kind of mythical level of storytelling that Shekhar was striving toward, he wanted large stone environments, which he found in these giant cathedrals. Which to be honest, are more ecclesiastical than any political space. He liked the sense that the stone is the permanent thing, it’s the people who move in and around these corridors of power, eventually coming and going and having to confront their own mortality. Those dimensions of the story also appealed to him enormously.
MM: What are the most important themes in The Golden Age? What would you like audiences take away from the film?
GR: When I first spoke to some of the people at Universal, I had not as of yet seen the film. And I asked, ‘How are the cuts looking?’ I think they had done a test screening maybe three or four months ago with one of the earlier cuts and they said “It’s just had the most phenomenal kind of response.” It’s one of those films you kind of experience, but you don’t actually feel as though you are watching historical pageantry or plot-bound narrative. You enter this sort of operatic mythological world of this film and journey with the characters.
So I suppose what I’d like the audience to take away is how the trail is telling them one thing that, yes, this is about the better known aspects of her life, involving the tumultuous events and plots, the attempted assignations, Walter Raleigh’s return from the new world, the religious conflict with Catholic Spain and Protestant England and the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. In and around all of that, the camera slowly moves deeply into the inner world of Elizabeth and all the other key players. That people come away with a sense of this deep humanity inside the film that is caught up in a very layered, almost corporate kind of existence that we seem to think is the structure in which we should lead our lives.
MM: One of the most obvious and exciting aspects of The Golden Age is the cinematography and the vision– the emphasis on movement and aesthetic. How different was this style of moviemaking from the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean? How different was it from the last time around?
GR: I think there are some recognizable hallmarks to Shekhar’s bravery with a camera that exists in the first film and I believe so in The Golden Age. It’s a kind of end result that he arrives at without prescription. He says, “I like to work in a state of chaos. If I go on the set knowing how to do the scene, I’m denying other people–from the people who’ve lit the scene to the actors who will play within it. I’m not allowing for any curve balls that they’re gonna throw.” So he explores the film and allows the film to almost make itself, because he knows that inevitably, it will be pushed and pulled in so many different directions.
MM: Many of my favorite films that you’ve done have been the smaller Australian films like Swimming Upstream, A Little Bit of Soul and Lantana. How different is Australian moviemaking from Hollywood? What makes it unique?
GR: Well, it’s quite different. The finance is raised more and more through government subsidy to create the film. Often, distribution of the film might be picked up internationally by a Fox Searchlight or a THINKFilm. The kinds of budgets, like on Swimming Upstream, would be made for $5 or $6 million, which is probably comparable to the lower end of independent filmmaking here in America.
As you know, even the smallest studio film–which we sort of are with the The Golden Age, even though it’s a very handsome and very expensive looking production–is in the $40 or $50 million mark. Knowing the American dollar is not worth as much as it used to be, we are probably spending the equivalent of the much cheaper version of the first film. That is still a low amount of money, I think, a relatively low amount of money for the high-end, summer release kind of films.
MM: You’ve won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Golden Globe and numerous other awards. What else do you hope to accomplish as an actor? And what inspires you today?
GR: I’ve just been doing some theater for the first time in five years in Sydney and Melbourne. I did a lesser-known Eugene Ionesco play called “Exit the King” with a company and a director that I’ve spent a lot of time with over the last 25 years. He and I have probably done 15 or more significant productions within our own careers, and I’m hoping that this piece will travel further abroad over the next 18 months. That’s always been a desire to do more theatre internationally. I performed very briefly in Scotland and in Russia. And I’d like to get this play out.
Seeing very strong idiosyncratic unpredictable virtuosic performances in other people’s films inspires me. Because we seem to live in an era where the actors have become celebrities and they’ve become brand names and I think a lot of the work is less adventurous than it could be.
It’s great to see, for example, [a film like] Eastern Promises. Viggo Mortensen delivers a really extraordinary powerful screen performance. It’s a beautifully calibrated piece of work. At the same time, I went and saw a film called Once the other day, which was probably made for about to bits. (laughs) The film stock is grainy and a bit substandard, but the heart of the film and the two central performances are absolutely memorable and astonishing.
So you know never know where it’s gonna come from, but that’s what keeps me inspired. Being an audience member is where I think I learn the most.