The actor: Guy Pearce, who began his career as an actor on the Australian soap opera Neighbours before moving into movies. Pearce became internationally known after appearing in the comedy The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, and he’s gone on to star in a wide variety of films both at home and abroad, including two of this past year’s Academy Award nominees, Animal Kingdom and The King’s Speech. One of Pearce’s most popular films—Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending, non-chronological mystery-thriller Memento—was just released on Blu-ray in a new special edition.
Guy Pearce: The script was beautifully written and very insightful, just on a psychological level. As soon as I finished it, I needed to go back and read it again, but I had no question about wanting to do it, or feeling like I could connect to the tumultuous little cycle that the character had got himself in. You have on one level a very emotional and tragic situation, with his wife having died and him not really remembering when it happened, but the thing he’s fixated on is somehow trying to find justice. And so the notion of loss and grief was there, as well as a mental illness, I guess, if you’re looking at the disorder of compulsion or obsession. As jumbled as it appeared on the page, reading the script was like watching the film. When you watch the film, it takes you a bit, but you get with the rhythm. This is what’s really incredible about the film.
Chris Nolan is obviously a very clever guy and a very creative, highly attuned writer when it comes to film structure and creating an emotional connection, because it would be one thing just to show you that story backward, but the fact is that we’re sort of watching the end of the story go backward while we’re watching the start of the story go forward, and then when we get to the end of the movie, we’re only at the halfway point in the story. He creates this web and weaves this thread of ideas together in a way that seems less complicated than it actually is. He was able to present things in such a way that allowed the audience in on what’s going to happen, what’s going on. That’s what’s very clever about Chris.
I know there’s a version of the film where you can watch the story in chronological order. I’d be curious to know whether it works in order as well as it does in its original order.
The A.V. Club: I’ve seen it, and it doesn’t.
GP: I don’t imagine it would. I remember very early on, before we even started rehearsing, Chris and I were having dinner one night and he said, “I’m going to add a little moment which I realize I’m missing in the film,” which is the moment I drive up to the bar to go in and meet this woman, Carrie-Anne Moss’ character, for the first time. And he said, “If I have you drive up to outside of the bar, and Carrie-Anne is outside putting the trash out, and she leans in the window of the car thinking it’s her boyfriend, and she sees you wearing his clothes and in his car, that scene will act as her last scene onscreen, and will act as a little goodbye to her, which would effectively be her introduction if it were the other way around.” So even with things like that, he was very aware of the audience’s point of view and what they could absorb in the first five minutes, in the 10 minutes after that, etc., so that the film still followed a traditional emotional structure without the audience realizing it, if that makes sense.
AVC: Plus, the film puts the viewer in the protagonist’s shoes, because you don’t really know any more than he does.
GP: Well, that’s right, and that’s what he wanted. He wanted you as the audience to feel what this guy was feeling. I’ve been with Chris a number of times during press conferences or festivals, and people have asked him how he put the film together, and he basically said, “I wrote it from page one. I wrote it the way I wanted an audience to see it.” And I never worked on a film where the finished film has ended up as much like the script as this. It’s basically exactly the script, because there’s no other way to do it. It all had to be organized and arranged beforehand. The only thing that was slightly changed, and I wouldn’t even call it a change, was how much of the previous scene to show before you go into the next one, to remind the audience, to be able to help them connect the dots. So when you get to the end of one and you see the beginning of what was the one before… That, he played with in editing a little bit, where you might just get one line and you go, “Aha, okay, so that was that one line that I saw before, so that’s the scene that comes before that one. Got it.” Little things like that, that he would do more of at the beginning of the film to assist in allowing an audience to get on board with the rhythm of it, and then as the film went on, he lessened that, because that might become a tedious little trick, if you did that all the way through.
Look, he really is a genius. I saw an interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt recently where he was talking about working with Chris and saying that Chris has one eye on the big picture and the wonderful cinematic possibilities, and is getting all those up onscreen, and his other eye on his actors and their performances. And he never ever steps away from either. At any given moment, he can answer a question from the visual-effects guys that are setting up a multi-million-dollar trick, and then he can answer the most specific little questions an actor might have about a performance subtlety, the kind of thing that other directors concentrating on special effects might not even understand or have time for. He just has a great capacity to understand everything he’s doing and to articulate that, and that was the real joy in working with Chris, just feeling inspired by his genius.
L.A. Confidential (1997)—“Edmund J. Exley”
GP: It was probably stranger for me because it was my first American film, while Russell [Crowe] had experience working in the States prior to that. For me, it was all sort of new, and I was just trying to understand this new culture that I was submerged in. But it pretty quickly becomes about the internal stuff that’s going on with these characters for an actor, and that’s what you focus on. Fortunately for us, we had many, many weeks of marked rehearsal while they were still casting other people, so there were a few weeks there where it was only Curtis Hanson, Brian Helgeland—the scriptwriter—Russell, and I in a room together. Then Kim Basinger came along when she was cast, and then Danny DeVito would come along when he was cast. So they had a slow-building process going on outside that room, and we had a process of familiarization in that room, which really was great for me. It wasn’t like I stepped off a plane and stepped on set and suddenly had to understand what I was doing.
Obviously, having James Ellroy’s book was the quintessential piece of research material, as well as everything else that Curtis and the team pulled together. Because even though our film only covered that Christmas period and the few months after in 1953, the book covers a nine-year period, so there’s so much detail there about the nuances and minutiae of these various characters. There was a great wealth of material to work with. And you forget once you’re in it that you’re playing a character as iconic as an American cop. You get caught up in the emotional stuff. So that again was a great delight. Curtis Hanson is like Chris Nolan… and they’re rare creatures, not all directors are like this. [Laughs.] He has a great handle on the technical and visual aspects of filmmaking as well as the importance of performance. We all felt pretty good about what we managed to do.
AVC: A lot of Australian and New Zealand actors come over here to work in movies and TV and do near-flawless American accents. Is there something about the Australian or New Zealand accent that allows you to shade easily into an American voice?
GP: I don’t know. I’m not sure if it’s that we’re brought up with so much American TV and culture, or whether we’ve just got a good ear. I think it’s hard to do an Australian accent, and I think there are probably a couple of reasons for that. One, it’s a little more relaxed in the mouth than the American accent, and I think it’s easier to learn to make an “r” sound than it is for someone who naturally makes the “r” sound to lose the “r” sound. That’s my very lame view of it. But I do think we’re so inundated with American TV as kids growing up that it’s just completely second nature. Look, I’m not always successful doing an American accent, and other actors can fall off the perch as well at times, so I’m not saying it’s easy, but I think it’s generally a bit more familiar to us.
The Proposition (2005)—“Charlie Burns”
GP: That is by far my favorite of all the films that I’ve done. I’ve fortunately been involved in some really great films, like Memento and L.A. Confidential, but the personal aspect of The Proposition… Look, I think The Proposition is a really exquisite piece of work by John Hillcoat, but the experience we had with that, being out in that location, being out in the wilderness—when you live in Australia, you can’t help but be highly aware of the Aboriginal people and their history, so being out in that country where you see more people than you would here in Melbourne, for example, there is a vibe or a spirit or whatever you want to call it to that land, that culture, that is unbelievably powerful. I don’t even know how to explain it, but it’s awesome and overwhelming.
I had a strange experience on that movie, because in the middle of the film, I had to go to Adelaide to do this conference, so in the schedule, they gave me almost two weeks off, primarily when they were filming the scenes between Ray Winstone and Emily Watson in the house. There were lots of scenes that we weren’t in, so I took that opportunity to go to Adelaide and do the conference, and I thought, “Well, I’ll come back to Melbourne on the way and catch up with things in Melbourne for a week before I go back to Queensland and carry on with the movie.” And it was a really terrible thing to do. It was so odd and jarring that I really wished I hadn’t done it. It didn’t affect the film, but I was in such a zone up there that I regretted I did it, because breaking from that was really strange, and getting back into it was strange. I had underestimated what it would be like to do that.
So I would say the experience of spending time with Aboriginal people and having their presence be quite prominent in that film was quite extraordinary. After we finished the film, I stayed up there for a few days, and some of the local people took me to some very remote places. We looked at cave paintings from many thousands of years ago, and places people wouldn’t normally get to go. The whole experience, like I say, was so extraordinary. And I ended up driving home after that film, which took me five days. I sort of took my time doing it, but driving from the desert back south to Melbourne is probably the equivalent distance-wise of one side of America to the other, or something like that, going through complete changes of landscape. So that was a nicer way to actually come back to Melbourne than suddenly going bang in the middle of the film. [Laughs.] When I wasn’t in the desert, I felt like I sat in the corner of the house and didn’t want to absorb anything at all, and just wanted to get on the plane and go back out there.
Really extraordinary piece of work to be involved in, and obviously John Hillcoat and Nick Cave together make a great team. In fact, I’m about to go and do their next film.
Animal Kingdom (2010)—“Leckie”
The King’s Speech (2010)—“King Edward VIII”
AVC: You took small roles in both those films. Was there a reason for that choice?
GP: Choosing work is an interesting thing. It’s a balance between what’s available and what you’ve always got in the back of your mind—that awful, strange thing that seems to have to exist in this industry, of what will give you “exposure.” But mostly it’s about responding to a script, and if it moves you, then you go with it. I don’t want to make a habit of just playing small roles, because I really enjoy the process of being part of a film and staying on it for the length of time that everybody else is as well. But there are also things that come along that you think, “Oh, this is too good to pass up, doesn’t matter the size of the role.” If it’s a great role or a great film, then you’re happy to be a part of it.
Which really was the case with both of those films. I’d seen David Michod’s short film Crossbow before agreeing to do Animal Kingdom, and it was a bit like seeing Chris Nolan’s first film, Following, and there being no question of whether I was gonna say yes to Memento. And obviously with The King’s Speech, I was aware that Geoffrey [Rush] was doing the film, and Colin [Firth] was, and I had seen Tom Hooper’s work, and the part of David—King Edward—was so delicious. [Laughs.] It jumped out at me, and I thought, “Oh yes, I can relate to this in a particular kind of way.” Obviously I don’t have a royal bone in my body, but I could still relate to it, and felt really excited about the chance to do that. I think I shot for seven or eight days altogether. It was quite brief, but I certainly had a great time working with Colin.
AVC: What are your rooting interests at the Oscars, given that you were in both movies? [Note: This interview was conducted three days before the Academy Award ceremony.]
GP: Well, I’d love The King’s Speech to win, and I’d really love Jacki Weaver to win. Based on the various awards that had gone before, I imagine Christian Bale and Melissa Leo will pick up the supporting actor awards. But I’ve been a fan of Jacki’s since I was about 5 years old, watching her on different things in Australia, and it’s so exciting that she’s getting this accolade. And I think she’s just exquisite in the film. It’s such a perfect coming-together of the performance and the tone of the film. She’s just absolutely chilling. And obviously Helena [Bonham Carter] in The King’s Speech is extraordinary as well. I worked with her in 2001 in Australia and became good pals with her then, so it would be great for her to win too. It’s a tricky one. You’ve got friends up against each other. Personally, I’m really hoping for Colin. If nothing else wins, I really hope Colin wins, because he’s such a delight and such a talent and it would be fantastic for him. He’s had such a great run these last few years.
GP: It was a really harrowing experience making Ravenous, because there was a whole lot of shit that went down that was awful to have to deal with. The first director was fired, then they brought in another director who we felt was highly inappropriate, so we had a mutiny, and they gave in and said, “Who do you want to direct this movie?” And this went on for a couple of weeks, and then thankfully Antonia Bird—who was in partnership with Robert Carlyle, and an old friend of his as well—had read the script and was able to step in and take over. But even then, the studio really was trying to gear the film in a particular direction, which was not at all the direction that I understood it to be in the beginning, so it was a very tense time, which kind of spoiled—well, maybe it added to it, I don’t know. [Laughs.] Maybe it added to the experience. But had it been a normal circumstance, then generally playing characters like this, who are in an extreme situation, is exciting and unusual, and I find it very appealing.
But not all the time. I really enjoy doing things too that are more subtle and close to home—and literally close to home, where we’re shooting in Australia, and I’m not having to worry about an accent, and where I feel I’m more able to actually achieve some subtlety. I can dance around the subtler, transparent aspects of psychology and personality with ease, because it’s in my own voice rather than a voice I have to cultivate. So I really enjoy a variety of different work, and what I’ve just done may sometimes determine what I choose to do next.
I chose to do an Adam Sandler film at the beginning of 2008 and probably the year before I wouldn’t have even looked at it, but because of the year that I had had in 2007 and the dark material I delved into in 2007, it was a real relief when Adam Shankman called me and said, “We’re going to do this big, daft, fun Adam Sandler comedy. We don’t have the script yet, but I’ll explain the character to you,” which he did, on the phone, “And I’d love you to come and do it. It’s going to be very silly.” And I said, “Great, I’d love to.” And it was so weird that I said yes to that. But I had a fantastic and lovely time, and Sandler himself was brilliant and great to be around, and it was a great relief. I think as an actor, or any artist, you move with your moods and you express what’s going on for you, and you answer to that voice within that’s calling for particular things. Sometimes it’s Ravenous, and sometimes it’s Bedtime Stories.