Urban Cinefile, October 1997
NOT JUST A PRETTY FACE
Guy Pearce seems in the perfect place in his life, recently married and a career that seems set to take off internationally. LA Confidential, Curtis Hanson's richly layered film version of James Ellroy's epic novel of police corruption in 1950s Los Angeles, was the toast of the Toronto Film Festival, and critics are unanimous that it's very much Pearce's film. But sipping chamomile tea at Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel, the pensive actor recalls that prior to this latest film, he saw himself rethinking his place in his harsh profession. "I remember there was a time, recently, when started questioning why I do this. After Priscilla, and what that actually created for ME, it all turned into a really odd emptiness, where I felt like I had to go and maintain what I'd created. The beauty of Priscilla for ME, was that it made me feel more secure in the industry as well as my craft." Before Priscilla came along, Pearce was perceived as little more than a pretty face, a fact which the young actor readily admits. "I was battling with the whole thing of : you're not really an actor, you've got great cheek bones and you look great on the cover of a magazine. If enough people say that to you, you're desperately dealing with the way you're perceived by everybody, as well as being an actor."
But that after The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The accolades came pouring in and it seemed as if the world were at his feet. "Then I kind of wondered: well, what happens now?" What happened, was that Guy continued to do "Man from Snowy River" for far longer than he anticipated. "I found myself in a situation that I didn't want to be in, and ultimately it's a lesson that I needed to have learnt, and hopefully have." It was a hard lesson, for continuing with the TV series Snowy River meant missing out on a Hollywood film earlier - he was poised to star in Head Above Water with Cameron Diaz and Harvey Keitel. Pearce remains philosophical over the way things developed. "I'm okay about it, and if nothing else, 'Snowy River' gave me the opportunity to buy a new house, even though at the time I was still tearing my hair out."
But life has a way of sorting itself out, and the path to those insecurities may well have led him to the fruitful world of LA Confidential, and the role of by-the-book cop Ed Exley, whose dogged honesty causes alienation amongst his fellow cops, including the more intense and violent Bud White, played by Russell Crowe. "Since Priscilla came to LA back in '94, I'd got an agent and ever since then I've been coming back to LA about twice a year for four weeks at a time. My agent gives me a bunch of scripts, I read them, then do about 6 million auditions in that period of time and meet as many people as possible. This was just one of those films, and certainly one of the better ones I'd read, but in my experience, all the better ones had gone to Keanu, Brad, or Johnny." Pearce remembers looking at it "and feeling envious of it." At that stage, Crowe had already been cast, "which in a sense gave me an odd sort of hope."
Yet the casting of two Australian actors in such a quintessential Hollywood drama has caused something of a stir, though Crowe himself arrogantly tires of the comments and questions. "Look, first of all, Guy was born in England and I was born in New Zealand, but choose to live in Australia, so that's all I have to say on the subject." Be that as it may, clearly director Curtis Hanson (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, The River Wild), had very clear ideas as to this unique piece of casting. "As a director, the first thing you do in casting is look for the best actors as possible to play the characters. In making LA Confidential, I also had a secret hope which was that I would find two actors with whom the international audience did not already have a long-standing emotional history. The reason I hoped that, was that I was hoping that the audience would be able to discover the characters of White and Exley as the movie unfolded. I had seen Russell do a picture called Romper Stomper and he knocked me out, and I thought: this is a guy who has the power and force to capture a certain part of Bud White, and then wanted to know whether he could capture the entire character. It was clear from our meeting and test that he could, and the guys who were financing the movie, concurred. A few weeks later, Guy Pearce, who I had never seen before, walked into the office like one of any number of actors who were reading for the part of Exley. He was so good, that I started talking to him, and realised that he'd been in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and that he was Australian. I chose not to see that picture after that, because once I started becoming committed to him as Exley, I didn't want to have my confidence shaken by watching him run around for two hours in a dress, no matter how well he might have done it."
The role of Exley is a complex and fascinating one for an actor to play, and for Pearce, here was someone with whom he could identify. "I could relate to his solitude and his ability to alienate everybody."
Though Pearce and Crowe kind of knew each other, they'd never before worked together, and their methods of working seem different. "When working with an accent, for instance, I work instinctively," says Pearce, "without a coach, because as soon as I have to think about it, I can't seem to do it spontaneously. Russell, on the other hand, needs to have the coach there on set with the headphones on and coming up to him every two seconds and repeating everything continuously. That's all too much for me to deal with." Accents aside, Pearce adds that "there was a certain amount of intimidation as well as adoration between us. We kept on bouncing off each other and we were very much aware of each other the whole time."
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