I first interviewed Guy Pearce, the British-born,
Australian-bred actor, seven years ago in connection with his flashy
turn as a gay muscle boy in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen
of the Desert. At the time, he was on the cusp of film stardom.
He was fiercely intelligent with a flair for self-deprecation and
an underlying distrust of Hollywood and what it might bring. He
also seemed to be openly insecure, despite his chiseled good looks.
The actor has been famous in Australia since he was a teenager,
when his starring role in the series Neighbours propelled
him to heartthrob status. As the newcomer in Priscilla, working
alongside veterans Terence Stamp and Hugo Weaving, Pearce’s deft
comedic timing and scene-stealing antics elicited much interest
from Hollywood. Two years later, the actor achieved bona fide stardom
with his edgy performance as by-the-book cop Ed Exley in L.A.
Following that film, the actor appeared in an eclectic
mix of independent films such as Ravenous (1998) and Till
Human Voices Wake Us (2001). He’s also starred in big-budget
Hollywood films, including William Friedkin’s Rules of Engagement (2000), The Count of Monte Cristo (2001) and The Time
Machine (2002). Undeniably, though, his best work was in Chris
Nolan’s Memento (2000). His brilliant portrayal of Leonard
Shelby, a man who has lost his memory but not his penchant for trouble,
prompted Time Magazine to single out his work as “the best
performance of the year not to be nominated for an Oscar.”
|"When I work on a $100 million movie
I’ll ask, ‘Can we have some rehearsal?’ adn I’m told, ‘We don’t
have the time or money;’ or ‘We don’t want to over-rehearse.’
I don’t know that I believe it. Maybe it’s because [the director]
is TOO scared to do rehearsal of he doesn’t know how to rehearese
In 1997, Pearce married Kate Mestitz, his childhood
sweetheart. They currently live in Melbourne, Australia. Recently,
the 36-year-old actor visited New York to promote The Hard Word,
an independent film from Australia co-starring Rachel Griffiths
about three nefarious brothers who find themselves forced to pull
off one more heist after being released from prison. Pearce delivers
a gritty turn as the eldest brother who acts as the criminal mastermind
of the family. The New York Times lauded his work as “a performance
of back-alley bravura.”
Dressed in an olive green shirt and black trousers,
he lounges casually in a sleek suite at New York’s Bryant Park Hotel.
Time seems to have stood still for the actor. When asked why he
doesn’t look seven years older than when I last encountered him,
he jokes, “Makeup and trick photography. It’s all an illusion.”
James Grant (MM): I just came from a screening
of The Hard Word and had had a rollicking good time. It’s
a very black comedy…
Guy Pearce (GP): Yes, very much so.
It’s fun. And I think it works. Listen, the great thrill of any
film is seeing on screen what I felt when I read the script. For
me, what I find exciting is when I have a perception of something
and that time—that mood—translates and is up there on the screen.
That’s what I find appealing about the whole experience, really.
Of course, it’s always nice for everyone else to like it and for
the critics to like it, too.
MM:What attracted you to the script?
GP: It was the laid-back humor between
the three brothers, particularly in light of the situation they
were in. When I first read it, the first person I thought of to
play my middle brother, Mal, was Damien [Richardson]. He’s a guy
I’d done a play with, Face to Face. As I was reading the
script, I was laughing and thinking of Damien saying these lines
of dialogue because he used to make me laugh so fucking much in
the dressing room.
There’s a quality in the Australian psyche and in
the culture—the ability to laugh in the face of anything—that I
find a relief. That’s very prevalent in the script and it’s such
a familiar quality for me to latch onto, particularly because I
spend so much time overseas. So that was the prime reason I suppose.
Also, I don’t have any brothers so I was interested in the idea
of actually creating a sort of pretend world for myself by bonding
with these two other fellows.
MM: Were you specifically looking
to be the lead in what is essentially an ensemble piece when you
decided to do the film? You turned down some starring roles in bigger
budget movies at the time.
GP: Yes, yes, much to my agent’s dismay.
[laughing] I wasn’t actively looking for a leading role in
an ensemble, but I’m always saying to my Australian agent that I
want to know what’s going on in Australia. I think the more time
I spend and work away, my urge to actually express myself through
Australian characters becomes stronger. To be part of the industry
at home and to express myself through it is really important to
MM: How does working in the Australian
film industry differ from Hollywood?
GP: Well, it’s worlds apart in one way
but, at the same time, whether you’re playing a character in this
country or that country, it doesn’t really make any difference.
You just wake up that morning and off you go, wherever you happen
to be. The differences lie in the communication.
I find it so much easier to work at home because
I understand the communication we have between each other. Even
though Americans speak English, we all speak a very different language.
There’s a real difference in the way we relate to each other. I
guess there’s just a bit of shorthand that I slip into when I’m
working in Australia. It’s also more intimate. There are smaller
crews. Basically, we don’t have the money for 300 people on a set.
MM: When you work on an Australian
film do you find that, because you have a smaller budget than a
major Hollywood film, you do fewer takes of any given scene?
GP: Not necessarily. There’s a difference
between shooting something six different ways when, as an actor,
you want to offer up different ways to play the scene and shooting
something six different ways because the director doesn’t know how
the movie ends. Sometimes you hear, “We’d better do it with the
girl dead and then with the girl alive and then with the girl not
even in the scene.”
MM: How do you know how to play the
character if you don’t know such basic aspects of the storyline?
GP: [Throws up his hands] You
don’t! You’re confused and don’t know what the hell movie you’re
in. It’s horrible. As opposed to saying something like, “Okay, in
this take, let’s just lighten the whole thing because once the director
puts the whole movie together, that may be the bit of relief the
audience is looking for at that point in the movie.” The funny thing
is that when I work on a $3.5 million Australian movie, I get two
weeks rehearsal before I start. But when I work on a $100 million
American movie, they say “We don’t have the time or the money to
do any rehearsal.” And I think, ‘Now, I don’t know that I believe
you. Maybe it’s because you’re too scared to do rehearsal and don’t
know how to rehearse people. So therefore, I’m going to be anxious
on the set every day because I’ve never fucking done any of this.
And we’re going to start shooting the day we start talking about
the scene.’ And that’s really scary. I get so anxious about it.
Look, I’m generalizing. On Memento we got
to rehearse and some other films I’ve gotten to rehearse. But I’ve
come across this a number of times. As we’re doing the contract,
I’ll ask, ‘Can we have some rehearsal?’ And I’m told “We don’t want
to over-rehearse. You don’t rehearse in life.” The [studio executives]
make up all these ridiculous excuses. But I like to establish what
it is that we’re doing. I don’t like to over-rehearse; I don’t like
to bore everyone silly. But part of my job is to do something and
make it look like it’s the first time I’ve done it before. Acting.
It’s called acting.
MM: The Hard Word is Scott Roberts’
first movie. Did you have any concerns about working with a first-time
|Pearce with Rachel Griffiths, who plays his
wife, in Scott Roberts’ The Hard Word.
GP: None more than working with anybody
whose work I don’t actually know prior to doing the job. But I made
sure I sat down with Scott and tried to get a sense of what he thought
he knew and what he thought he didn’t know. And he was very honest
about that. So from the outset, I thought, ‘Okay, great. If you
tell me you don’t know how we’re going to get this thing together,
then I’ll help you figure that out.’ Fortunately, he’d written such
a funny script, things were pretty clear, anyway. We all had a pretty
natural grasp of our characters. I was more concerned about who
was going to be cast in the other roles. It’s a very specific kind
of humor that needs people who can really pull it off. Otherwise,
it’s going to seem a bit daft.
MM: You and Rachel Griffiths, who
plays your scheming wife, really heat up the screen…
GP: Well, Rachel is a really powerful
woman. If she looks at you and wants you to think she’s in love
with you, it happens. And you kind of go, ‘But I’m married.’ [laughs]
She’s such an amazing actress. There are times when I have to remind
myself that we’re actually acting and not be too overwhelmed by
the person I’m working with, which has happened a number of times
GP: It’s just that I’m momentarily overwhelmed
by their talent. For a brief moment, I feel like an audience member
who has snuck up onstage and here I am watching. ‘Oh, I’m in the
scene.’ Hugo Weaving [in Priscilla] was the first person
that that really happened with. I think he is one of the greatest
actors in the world. He’s so alive and spontaneous. Everything to
him is fascinating. Consequently, his interest in things translates
on screen in a very intense way.
MM: You surprised me by saying Hugo
Weaving. I thought you’d say Kim Basinger.
GP: Well, I was definitely floored by
Kim. I was also floored by Kevin Spacey when we started to work
together. I enjoy being an audience member as well and have to make
sure I don’t fall into that trap when I’m working.
MM: After the enormous success of
L.A. Confidential, you received a lot of offers to star in big-budget
Hollywood films. Yet you chose to do Ravenous over them. Why?
GP: It’s funny, because I look back
at that time now and think, ‘Well, what else would I have done next?’
I did the things I wanted to do—the things I found interesting.
I certainly got offered all sorts of big studio movies, but I found
most of them pretty stupid and predictable. I kept thinking, ‘I
can’t do something interesting with this. This is not really interesting
on the page.’ I’m sure there are actors out there who can turn something
dull into something really interesting, but I can’t do that.
MM: I’m sure you could if you had
GP: No. I can’t do it. I’ve tried and
I end up pulling tricks out of a box of tricks that are just lame.
I feel like I need great inspirational directors and great inspirational
scripts in order for me to say, ‘Okay I will surf this wave with
you.’ Don’t expect me to invent anything. I can’t invent stuff.
I have to latch onto the character that you’ve presented me with.
And once I understand it, I’ll do it…
I have very little self-confidence, anyway. I’m not
one of those people who can go, ‘Yeah, I’m going to take the film
and I’m going to turn it into this and that.’ If there’s nothing
there, all I’m going to show you is that there’s nothing there.
And that’s going to be bad for all of us. I just felt like I couldn’t
do anything with those big films. Of course, I’m quite fascinated
by a lot of those roles that require the actor to be the hero. But
I so don’t feel like a heroic leading man. I just don’t have the
confidence to do them. I’m getting better, don’t get me wrong. I’m
not as insecure as I was when I was 24. But that stuff is what led
me to do the things that I did.
MM: Since The Hard Word, you
worked with director Jean-Jacques Annaud in Two Brothers. How
was that experience?
|Pearce with Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential (1997); his star-making turn in Priscilla,
Queen of the Desert (1994); and the indie hit Memento (2000).
GP: Well, I literally just finished it
on Wednesday. It’s hard for me to talk about because I don’t really
have any perspective on it yet. It’s the first film I’ve ever done
where I never watched any of the rushes, so I have no concept of
it. It’s kind of strange.
MM: It’s certainly an interesting
premise. It’s set in the 1920s, there are two tigers, you’re an
GP: I play a writer and hunter who has
grown up in Africa. He decides to trek off to Southeast Asia and
pinch some statues and sell them. He ends up getting arrested. This
is just the backdrop to these two baby tigers whose father has been
killed and they’ve been left on their own. One ends up going to
the king and one ends up going to a circus. They’re the real focus
of the story; I’m just the fool in the background who affects their
MM: How did you like working with
GP: I can’t answer any questions about
working with him at this stage. I’m still trying to understand what
the whole process was like.
MM: After working back to back in Memento, Rules of Engagement, Till Human Voices Wake Us, The Count
of Monte Cristo and The Time Machine, you planned to take
a year off. Did you?
GP: [Laughing] No. I took about six
months off. But then Jean-Jacques’ film came up and I was quite
attracted to the idea of it. And because my character is not really
carrying the movie, I thought it could be a nice way to segue back
MM: What keeps you passionate about
GP: Making sure that I’ve had time off
in between things. I really need to regenerate and rejuvenate my
batteries, and learn from the experience I’ve had when I get back
to being me at home. I like experiencing how different I feel, which
I think inspires a desire to go off and work again. It’s the shift
back and forth between being somebody else, then coming home and
being myself. MM