If he had played his cards differently, Guy Pearce could have been an Australian Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp. He's personable enough, keeps his honed physique in trim with yoga, swimming and stretching, yet he's grounded enough not to seek a quick star fix.
Pearce, 33, has never made his choices on the basis of personal exposure or as part of a planned career arc. Rather he has sought out quirky and interesting work that brings personal satisfaction instead of kudos with the industry power players.
After The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, in which he became a gay icon alongside Hugo Weaving and Terence Stamp, he had the studios beating a path to his door in Melbourne where his family settled after emigrating from England. The result was the Oscar-winning James Ellroy adaptation L.A. Confidential for Curtis Hanson with Kevin Spacey and Kim Basinger in which his tightly controlled performance as the rookie cop had the critics applauding while his agent dealt with the flood of offers.
While the roller coaster effect has continued to an extent Pearce has become decidedly picky. Nothing personifies his attitude more than his rigorous commitment to Memento (2000), a psychological thriller from British director Christopher Nolan, who made the low budget but well-regarded Following (1998).
Pearce had no problems about committing to a second-time director. "Every now and then you get a script that is delightfully different and inspirational, and then you'll look at the other work the director has done. Sometimes it turns out that they're not films you are in the least bit interested. So you're in this postiion where you've got a great script yet you don't quite trust the hands it's to be placed in. But in this case I was practically jumping up and down in my seat."
The script plays around with memory and the accuracy of recall which caused Pearce to reflect on the inner workings of his own mind. "I have a real paranoia about my memory. I don't know if it is because my mother keeps telling me that my father had a really good photographic memory. Perhaps I am angst-ridden that I should live up to that. In a crowd I go into anxiety mode because I have a really bad recall for names.
"I'd like to say that I can remember things from 20 years ago but since I have done the film I have begun to question my memory a lot more, particularly about my father who passed away when I was just eight years old. I don't even know if I have true memories of my father, or whether they're just coloured images that I have created from photographs and what my mum has told me."
For his role in Memento (2000), Pearce reinvented himself as a tanned blonde. "It was what I imagined the character to be when I read it. I picked up on the heat and the fact he would he sweaty, messy and scruffy. Ironically it all suited the colour palette of the film. I even sensed he was going to be wearing a crushed cream suit."
Pearce, for our encounter, appears to be sporting noticeably long false nails. He clocks the curious gaze, laughs, then offers an explanation. "They're for my part in The Count of Monte Cristo (2001) which we're shooting in Ireland with Jim Caviezel from The Thin Red Line in the title role, and Richard Harris also is in it. At the start of the film I'm in my twenties and boyish; by the end I've become a pompous, pretentious aristocratic type, all coiffed and dandified. The nails are partly to go with that look, and also, because I play the guitar in the film, the ones on my left hand are a bit shorter. They're still too long, and I don't play very well at the best of times."
Pearce's wife Kate only occasionally comes along on a shoot to keep him company. She visited him in Ireland during the time he was there for The Count of Monte Cristo (2001). "She enjoys seeing new cities, and she loved Dublin. But when I'm working she feels a bit like the proverbial shag on a rock. Let's face it, it's not that exciting on a film set. When I was in LA for Memento (2000) I was alone because it was all so intensely focussed."
They met first when they attended the same school, and they married three years ago. Even when he was at school where he was into competitive body-building, he hankered after an acting career. "I did a lot of theatre when I was growing up. I was at a very posh private school where people normally went into such professions as law or medicine. I was considered a bit of an oddball because while everyone else was deciding what to do at university I was taking days off school and driving to nearby Melbourne to do auditions. But I have no idea where it all came from."
There is no temptation for the couple to up and live in Los Angeles although for convenience they have a small flat in West Hollywood as well as their base in Melbourne and a rural property nearby. She works as an alternative therapist, and they're both into healthy lifestyles. They lead a relatively quiet social life. "We've a dog, two cats, and our close circle of friends basically are mostly outside the industry. I don't feel the urge to live all the time in LA. I don't have the strength to deal with all that. Los Angeles is a machine that is going at a million miles an hour. Everyone has an agenda; everyone is struggling to get to the top. Living in Australia means I can step on and step off it," he says.
At one point when "Neighbours" (a soap opera - he played hunky Mike Young) was at the height of its popularity both in the UK and Australia Pearce was always being accosted in public by teenage fans, and was unable to even nip down unmolested to the local supermarket. He's grateful it's all died down. "I couldn't go anywhere without people pointing and screaming. It was really silly," he says. He's lost touch with such compatriots as Kylie Monogue and Jason Donovan but still counts Fiona Cork (who played Gayle in the series) as a close friend as well as Annie Jones (Jane)."
He was born near Cambridge but the family moved around a lot, including a period in Bristol. He still has relatives in the UK including an uncle in Newcastle. His parents - his father was a New Zealander and worked as a test pilot and his mother continues her career as a domestic science teacher - moved Down Under when he was three. He has an older sister Tracy. He claims to possess certain English sensibility although he once categorised the home country as "a land of repression." He says: "I was brought up watching a lot of English comedies, and you know that stems from the repressed side of one's psyche. Anything from It Ain't Half Hot Mum, to The Benny Hill Show, 'Allo 'Allo and Hi-de-Hi, you name it and I've seen it."
Coincidentally, repression forms a strong theme in another film he has completed recently for Australian writer-director Michael Petroni, and also featuring Helena Bonham Carter. "The character I play loses a close friend in childhood - and he never quite deals with it emotionally. Then we seem him as an adult - a quite repressed character until this mystical woman comes into his life and acts as a catalyst." Pearce enjoyed one of the rare occasions when he was able to live at home and go to work nearby. He hadn't filmed in Australia since 1995 although he was in a play on the Melbourne stage at the beginning of the year.
Some of the heat may have died down since he and fellow Australian Russell Crowe were police partners in L.A. Confidential and he donned stilettos and much more in Priscilla but he's doing very nicely, thank you. Every so often and for circumstances outside his control things can go horribly wrong. When he started work on the horror concoction about cannabilism, Ravenous as a 19th century US army officer exiled to a remote fort in the Sierra Nevada mountains, it was directed by Macedonian Milcho Manchevski. He was sacked and replaced by Raja Gosnell, best known for directing Home Alone 3 and Never Been Kissed. He only lasted a few days before Robert Carlyle, who was also in the cast as a psychopath, lobbied for his friend Antonia Bird to come on board. "I think the problem was that the studio was hoping for something that was a bit more ironic with a satirical twist but I thought if it was too humourous it wouldn't be taken seriously. Eventually with Antonia at the helm it worked as best as it could under the circumstances."
The company he has been keeping recently certainly carries a stamp of class and clout. He acquited himself with honours alongside such stellar heavyweights as Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson in this year's Rules of Engagement playing the ambitious prosecuting attorney. He has no interest in blockbuster territory, though; rather chopping, changing and variety energise him. He appreciates and admires the idea of someone like Billy Bob Thornton, whose wide diversity of roles means "that you can never recognise him from one thing to the next."
Pearce has an enviable reputation. Ravenous producer David Heyman rates him highly as "a collaborative team player. He is a delight to work with, and displayed a range and complexity beyond our dreams." Curtis Hanson, who made L.A.Confidential says: "Guy was just so close to the visual image of the cop. I was sufficiently serious about him that I didn't see Priscilla. I avoided it, in fact. I wanted to indulge the image of whathe could be, and not have it polluted by him running around in drag." Pearce recalls that he was surprised by Hanson's choice. "At the time I really thought the role would go to Johnny Depp or maybe Brad Pitt or Keanu Reeves."
After a run of serious parts, Pearce himself feels a certain nostalgia for the light-hearted atmosphere that surrounded the making of Priscilla. "I like the idea of a comedy, which I consider that Priscilla was. I do love a laugh and being silly," he says, finally revealing a surprisingly lighter side to his persona.
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