March 13th-19th 2006
Guy Pearce used to be an outgoing bodybuilding TV star; fast-forward 20 years and he’s an introspective waif with an impressive CV of edgy, nuanced film roles. Now starring in The Proposition, written by Nick Cave, the actor reveals how his instincts have seen him through – but only just. By Leigh Singer
By Guy Pearce’s own admission, his reaction to meeting strangers in public can be a mite unpredictable. Despite – or perhaps because of - some twenty years in the public eye, from his early TV stardom on Aussie soap Neighbours, to acclaimed starring roles in Oscar-winning noir L.A Confidential and amnesia thriller Memento, scheduled interviews or random encounters with fans don’t always go how they, or the thirty-eight-year old actor, would want.
“There are days when I can’t cope with it, and other days when I feel quite chatty and perhaps need a bit of attention,” he says candidly. “I’ve gotten more comfortable with it and I get it – you’ve drawn it upon yourself by being an actor. But old habits are hard to squash. What happens is your radar for certain people goes on high alert. You and I are chatting and it feels very easy, whereas someone might walk in who is terribly intellectual and snobby and you might feel like a kid sitting at the back of the classroom…. If I get nervous I just clam up.”
That Pearce is so animated as he acknowledges his highly visible profession’s foibles and his own insecurities is encouraging - and only highlights his apparent contradictions. A former teenage bodybuilder, today Pearce is whippet-thin under his casual shirt and jeans. His matinee idol looks (he once played Errol Flynn in a mini-series) have a lupine, vaguely feminine cast – presumably a boon for his first hit movie, drag queen comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert - a trait exaggerated by the black varnish he sports on the little fingernail of his left hand.
As for any reticence over the Neighbours tag he still can’t shake off in the U.K – “it feels as if people think you’re still on the show and it was twenty years ago” – it’s Pearce who first mentions the ‘N-word’, happily discussing his invitation to the show’s recent 20th anniversary celebrations. “I said to my agent it could be kind of funny,” he grins. “She said don’t even think about it! But the funny thing is back home they kept using my face on the promo thing anyway so people kept saying, ‘Oh, you’ve gone back for the 20-year anniversary, good on ya.’”
Perhaps one reason Pearce is so voluble is the success of his new film The Proposition. Written by cult musician Nick Cave, it’s being marketed as an “Australian Western”, set in the feral Outback of the 1880s. Pearce plays Charlie Burns, the middle of three outlaw brothers, captured with his younger sibling Mikey by Ray Winstone’s transplanted British lawman. The eponymous deal offered Charlie: hunt down and kill his older brother, renegade psycho Arthur (Danny Huston), to save young Mikey from the noose.
Anyone familiar with Cave’s brand of poetic songwriting will recognise the stark juxtaposition of fragile beauty and bestial violence in director John Hillcoat’s film, shot in searing 50-degree Queensland heat that lends the images a near-hallucinogenic power. Reviews have been spectacular across the board, particularly praising the film’s stark revelation of Aborigine massacres, often whitewashed from official Australian history books. The lead role in such a project, then, might appear a no-brainer. But things are rarely so easy for Pearce.
For starters there’s the “Western” tag: “That feels a bit obtuse because it’s an American thing to me, really. I kept seeing it as a Bushranger story, which we have a whole tradition of in Australia.” Then there was the timing of the offer – Cave’s script arriving when Pearce “really needed to take care of myself for twelve months.”
“I remember thinking, wow, Nick Cave, isn’t he a beautiful writer, I’ll put it on the pile with everything else and go and take that year off that I need to. Then a year later he called me in person. That night after the call – because I didn’t take the call, I let the answer machine get it – I looked through the pile and read it again and panicked, thinking, Christ this might have got away.”
It’s the kind of (lack of) strategy that has driven Pearce’s career. “My choices come from a really intuitive place,” he reasons, before confessing that, as with interviews and public appearances, his own anxieties can waylay him. “If there’s any sort of weakness along the way, my paranoia tends to amplify it and think, ‘Oh no, I can see how bad it’s going to be’,” he winces. “I tend to pass on a lot of stuff that ends up being OK – maybe not great but certainly not as bad as I imagined. But to sit and watch Memento or this…” The contentment in the last sentence makes it clear Pearce won’t be abandoning his instincts anytime soon.
It also helps explain why he continues to live in Melbourne with his wife Kate and has resisted big Hollywood blockbusters to date. “I just don’t really like that stuff,” he shrugs. “There are certainly leading men actors who I think are just extraordinary but to kind of be themselves in everything they do, I think you’ve got to have a certain level of confidence or something that drives you to do that. I don’t want people to know me from one job to the last because that might affect how they see the new work.”
So any truth that he turned down Batman Begins with his Memento director Chris Nolan? “If Chris wanted me to do Batman I would’ve thought seriously about it, “ he considers, “knowing that his desire to do it would be very close to mine - to do something very different with it.” Apparently the role was never offered, though despite Pearce’s introspection and professed diffidence, don’t rule him out for anything. He casually mentions that the previous night he’d agreed to be the last-minute stand-in for a film festival onstage interview. “I only flew in yesterday and was really nervous but it went OK,” he confides. “I think I replaced Pierce Brosnan.”
The Proposition is out on March 10th.