On my list of man-crushes I’ll admit to, Guy Pearce has ranked pretty high ever since I saw him in L.A. Confidential back in ’97. He followed that up with three more promising roles in Ravenous, Rules of Engagement, and the one that really put him in the spotlight, Memento. In my eyes, he was already one of the greats working and it really seemed like he was on the verge of breaking out and becoming a huge name in the business. His next five years were pretty unimpressive though, starring in a few mediocre Australian movies and some Hollywood dreck like The Time Machine and The Count of Monte Cristo (all of which he was good in – the movies themselves were just poorly written). Then, of course, he got his career back on track with the gritty Australian western, The Proposition, a true masterpiece (not to mention my favorite film of 2006). He followed that up with the decent First Snow and an exceptional performance as eccentric artist Andy Warhol in Factory Girl.
He’s been pretty busy lately too and has a few movies already in the can looking all to be released in 2008! First up, he’ll be portraying Harry Houdini alongside Catherine Zeta-Jones in Death Defying Acts. Then he stars in How to Change in 9 Weeks with Sam Neill and Miranda Otto that follows the story of a fifteen year old girl who went missing and how the family deals with it. He’ll follow that up with The Hurt Locker with Ralph Fiennes and David Morse, an Iraq war drama about an elite Army bomb squad that is in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse. Then there will be the ensemble drama Winged Creatures about a random shooting at a Los Angeles diner and how the group of strangers deal with it, which will co-star Jackie Earle Haley, Forest Whitaker, Kate Beckinsale, and Dakota Fanning. And lastly for the year (and the one I think I may be looking forward to the most) is Traitor, a drama-thriller co-starring Don Cheadle and Jeff Daniels, that follows a straight-arrow FBI agent who goes all over the globe trying to crack a dangerous international conspiracy dodging bullets and betrayal along the way.
This was a long way of getting to my point, which is that I really like Guy Pearce and that I really like to hear what the man has to say, so I was pretty pumped to read a recent interview he had with the Australian website Executive Style. In it, he talks about movies throughout his career from L.A. Confidential to Memento to the train-wreck that was The Time Machine to The Proposition. It’s a pretty fun and interesting read and you can either click the link above or check out the full interview after the jump!
Since his screen debut more than 20 years ago, Guy Pearce has added drag queen, time traveller, uptight cop and, most recently, escape artist to his resume. Here, the actor (and mad-keen Geelong supporter) takes David Astle on a tour of his past lives.
A bloke is dangling upside-down in a Melbourne park. His legs are locked around the monkey bars, his arms folded, his head centimetres from the tanbark. The parents of local kids are concerned. Who exactly is this man? What’s he doing? He’s been hanging there for almost an hour.
Mums, dads – please – relax. The mystery man is Guy Pearce, an actor of good character. In fact, his bat-like hours – spent across early 2006 – were in the name of studying character, something Pearce takes seriously. His latest role is the all-dangling, all-daring escapologist Harry Houdini.
“I like being physical,” Pearce admits when I meet him in a cafe near the scene of his inverted antics, his 40-year-old body chiselled proof.
“Physicality is how I can find the character … more than sitting around talking about it for three days.”
Dangling in suburbia was just one Houdini art Pearce mastered for Death Defying Acts, a delicate love story directed by fellow Australian Gillian Armstrong (released on March 13). Another trick was breathing: “I can hold my breath now for two-and-a-half minutes. There’s this technique I learnt from a deep-sea diver on the set, where you hold your lips tight together…” The actor purses. “You create a vacuum.” He re-purses. “And slowly expel all the carbon dioxide…” The demo expels my notes off the table. “And that increases the oxygen capacity in your lungs, breathing that way before you go underwater.”
The technique worked. When studio staff chained him and tossed him into the pool at Pinewood studios west of London – the scene of many a James Bond stunt – Pearce was primed to survive. Sixty seconds… 70… 80…
Tallying Pearce’s roles – a viperish drag queen and a puritan cop among them – you sense each comes with a restlessness, an observation that sits comfortably with the actor. “I don’t act because I’m some supremely confident being,” he says. “I don’t want to be that guy. There are leading men who tell producers, ‘I do my thing. Do you want me or not in your movie?'” Pearce shakes his head. “I still see acting as getting into character.”
That’s our cue to dig out the photos, to study Pearce via his multiple screen selves…
1986-89 : Mike Young, Neighbours
Pearce’s first previous life, on screen at least, belongs to a mullet-mopped kid called Mike, the hunky young teacher.
Aged 18, Pearce put down his pen after his last year 12 exam and walked onto the Neighbours set the following week. A life in front of the cameras came easily; his fans’ delirium was the greater shock. “At some shopping centre, doing a promotion, I remember a fan grabbing my Midnight Oil T-shirt and the whole thing ripped off. I’m glad those days have died down a bit.”
Despite ranking high on viewers’ spunk-o-meter, the actor is quick to scorn lead billing. “Even when I was supposed to be the guy, I wasn’t really the guy – Jason [Donovan] was the guy and I was one of the other guys,” he says.
The soap stint cautioned Pearce against cheap celebrity. “It didn’t make sense to me,” he says. “Bouncer the dog was just as chased [by fans] as we were. It wasn’t about our work but something else – and that something makes me anxious.
I did my share of hibernating after all that.”
1994 : Felicia Jollygoodfellow, Priscilla, Queen of the desert
Pearce’s father, Stuart, a Kiwi test pilot, was killed when his twin-prop Nomad crashed at Avalon Airport, close to the Pearce home of Geelong, Victoria. That was 1975. Guy was eight. “Just being brought up with Mum [Anne] and a sister [Tracy, who’s intellectually disabled], I didn’t have that male balance, I suppose – and I naturally absorb the people around me.”
Pearce pauses. “I might have been a girlie boy if Dad wasn’t around anyway.” Then in a gruffer voice, “‘Take that dress off, son!'” The laughter
is wicked. Later, I observe aloud how Pearce is prettier than he is handsome and Felicia J’s voice simpers back: “Thank you, darling.”
He says Felicia was amazingly attainable. “I am more geared towards communicating on a female level.” The toxic sylph in bodice and beehive was everything that Mike from Ramsay Street wasn’t.
“It was a great relief to jump clear of Neighbours,” he says. In the process, Pearce jumped from hot teacher to hot property.
1997: Detective Lieutenant Ed Exley, LA Confidential
Curtis Hanson, the director of LA Confidential, cast this promising kid from Geelong on the strength of his auditions and “his willingness to be an uptight hypocrite”. The Proposition’s John Hillcoat cites Pearce “as a control freak trying to break out”. The actor has to agree. This morning he’d arrived early, ensuring he secured the quiet table for our chat. “Even Hugo Weaving called me a control freak, so it must be true.”
But back to the photos. He admits 1997 was “a big year. I turned 30, I got married and LA Confidential came out.” His wife, Kate Mestitz, is the anchor in Pearce’s life. Back in primary school – “for, like, five minutes … we held hands” – Guy and Kate were sweethearts. “We spent more time chatting on the phone.” After high school, and a 10-year gap, the mates met again.
A psychologist, Mestitz spends most of her time in Melbourne completing a Masters. She sends her husband regular bars of Cadbury to ease the homesickness. Child-free, the couple dote over Zelda and Lulu, their Egyptian hunting hounds. “Kate is honest and smart. Sometimes I get her to read stuff. We discuss the script – is this or that clear? What sense do you have? I might read a script, think, ‘Great idea, but tonally I’m not so sure.’ Kate will read it and say, ‘A little corny, don’t you think?’ Yeah, that was my worry…”
2000: Leonard Shelby, Memento
“After Memento, I started to question my own memory. Do I remember my dad physically or is that from a photo or a story Mum would tell?”
Much like Leonard, the film’s amnesiac who relies on Polaroids to map his hazy past, Pearce caught a plane with a photo album. “I went on a pilgrimage to New Zealand a few years ago, making a little doco for myself, interviewing relatives and Dad’s sisters. I wanted to get away from just Mum’s perspective of him.”
To a younger Pearce, charged with being the family’s male and protector, a distant hero for a father was a far greater burden. “I didn’t really get the choice to be responsible,” he recalls of his evaporating childhood. “I was just told that I was.” He was a dutiful son in an absent father’s shadow. “If you have somebody on a pedestal, you try to live up to that. If you can’t, you become insecure.”
The pilgrimage yielded a fuller picture of his dad.
“I wanted to hear if Dad was ever a prick. Or if he lied or broke something.” The questions provoked fond and human answers among the Pearce clan. “My overall impression was that Dad was a guy’s guy.”
2002: Alexander Hartdegen, The Time Machine
Much to his agent’s horror, Pearce has knocked back several “comic-book roles”, in such movies as X-Men, Daredevil and The Matrix, which the actor calls “rubber-suit shit”.
The Time Machine “was tricky. It went on for so long…” says Pearce.
One director, Simon Wells, withdrew due to stress. Panned on release, the flick struggled to recoup its $80 million outlay. “Me and Dave, the camera operator, would make jokes during the shoot, guessing the age of the audience. After one ridiculous scene [fighting an “uber-Morlock” 800,000 years in the future], I’d look across and Dave would say, ‘Nine’ and a few weeks later, ‘Seven.'”
As matters grew messier, Pearce succumbed to stress, what he calls “head noise”. When shooting ended, the Aussie headed for home. “The whole thing felt like overload. Around that time, I smoked more marijuana than the entire country put together.
I went by myself to Cape Leveque [in the Kimberley] to sort myself out.”
He lugged around 30 books on Buddhism and his guitar. The guitar was soon ditched (“this wasn’t about being creative”) in favour of meditation. “I needed to stabilise myself. To learn to concentrate, to breathe.”
So, if concentration is new, what was Pearce doing before? “I would act like I was concentrating. Even at school, I’d do great concentration. Teachers thought I was smart but I was just acting.”
2005: Charlie Burns, The Proposition
If Priscilla provided the movie breakthrough, then Charlie, the outback outlaw, a Christ figure armed with a six-shooter, was the break-back role.
Shooting in Winton, in far-north Queensland, performing in 40-plus heat, the cast felt compelled to live (and sweat) in their characters’ skins. “The heat was the major factor … and the enormous sky. But for me the spirit of the place – the aboriginality – was overwhelming on a daily basis.”
Off-screen, Pearce loves his music. Did he glean any insight from the film’s script- and songwriter, Nick Cave? “He talked about maintaining a sense of humour. We all know his music can be dark but there’s a lightness or a clarity in his perspective that lets listeners take on his work over and over.” Any jamming with Cave? “I might leave it for next time.”
2006: Andy Warhol, Factory Girl
Shock-wigged and blotch-faced, Pearce plays a sublime Warhol. His authentic Pittsburgh vowels alone are the upshot of listening to umpteen hours of the artist in conversation. But the accent almost faltered on set, thanks to Pearce’s sponge-like nature. “We were filming in Louisiana, pretending it was New York City. And I found my soft Pennsylvanian accent was getting lost. I’d started soaking up all the voices of the crew. The only way to escape was listening to Andy on my iPod.”
2008: Harry Houdini, Death Defying Acts
Which leads us to the Great Escape Artist. To match Houdini’s heft, Pearce gained 20 kilos before the shoot – “good kilos” as they say in sport, a muscle load he’s since pared back, ready for the next onslaught. His gentle return to a gym routine “certainly keeps up the appetite”.
His co-star, Catherine Zeta-Jones, is as Hollywood as Pearce is low-key.
“One day, she comes on set saying she’s tired – she was out playing golf with Michael [Douglas, her husband] and [Bill] Clinton. And I’m thinking, ‘This is another world. I’d spent the night watching Geelong go round on Friday Night Footy on pay TV.”
The quiet table is getting noisy. Pearce watches the photos disappear. “My desire is to be different from film to film.” And here he differs from so many A-list brands. “I love the idea of someone seeing a performance and saying, ‘Who’s that guy?”.
Jonathan is a writer and teacher constantly in pursuit of his fortune and glory. In the meantime, he graciously volunteers his genius to the internet, providing his insight on cinema and showering lessons of life upon all of those who stumble into the third row.