The Guardian, 7 October 2000
by Sally Vincent

What's a guy to do?

Guy Pearce has been acting since he was 11. It's the perfect job, he says, because it means that he doesn't have to be himself. He doesn't much like being a big star, you see; it makes him anxious. As for Hollywood, he'd rather have as little to do with the place as possible. All of which may help explain why the boy from Neighbours is suddenly in such demand.

I don't know how long he'd been standing there. Some actors can do that, make themselves into a hole in the air just by turning themselves off. Most of them do the opposite, come on full-pelt with all their well-rehearsed little sensibilities and idiosyncrasies, so that you think it must be your birthday until you discover that every journalist in the western world has been privy to an identical performance. It seems to be a question of who they're in the habit of being, professionally; themselves or someone else. Given that these days the big movie-selling proposition, the trick that inflates box-office takings, is personality recognition, you don't often find yourself in a room with a star coming on like a hologram.

Guy Pearce (I told him, babbling somewhat) reminds me of an actor I used to know who had this amazing knack of becoming invisible when he didn't want to be looked at. It was as though he could do something to his skin, at will, that made your eyes slide off him. "Was he a good actor?" asked the man-shaped thing, beginning to substantiate. "Absolutely," I said, "on stage you couldn't take your eyes off him." A faint expression of something like gratification flushed a lean jowl. "Yeah," he said, as in, "Thank God for that", and permitted further out-fleshing: handsome, yes, blue-eyed, blue-jeaned, hair like the rats have gnawed it, huge muddy hiking boots and silver rings on at least two fingers.

He offers a yard-wide grin and the small intimacy of the sure and certain fact that if I hadn't asked the publicity crew to vacate, he would have done. It was bad enough for him to meet a stranger without having the ghost of a character to wrap himself up in, without getting a bloody audience into the bargain. Circumstances such as these, he says, bring on the big anxiety rush, make his heart pound. He thumps himself somewhere below his left shoulder by way of illustration. And the voice in his head, always the same, goes "keep it together keep it together keep it together keep it together", and he's buggered if he knows why, except that he can't tolerate people forming an opinion of him, being the victim of their conclusions while they think he's weird or boring or miserable or whatever.

Years ago, he had to go to a conference for young Australian actors hoping to make the big move to Hollywood and some know-all was instructing them they'd have to employ a publicist because publicists publicise your personality. He was puzzling that one out when Sam Neill piped up how he could do without one of those on account of the fact that he doesn't have a personality to publicise. Which is how he feels to this day. He means, Jeez, what's he supposed to do? Roar about going, Way-hey, hup-zing, look at my personality? "Nah." He doesn't have that kind of confidence, which is another thing to be anxious about.

Take yesterday. He'd been supposed to spend the morning with photographers and publicists in charge of making the posters for The Count Of Monte Cristo. Fair enough. He turned up on time, got into period costume and did what he was told, then they wanted him to take his cossie off and "be himself". Why? What has himself to do with the film?

They told him they reckoned that The Count Of Monte Cristo meant zilch to "the young", whereas they'd recognise Guy Pearce because he'd been in Neighbours. So he got out of his cossie and sloped off home, like, you know, fuck that . He worries about these things. A mate tried to calm him once, saying, look, it's showbusiness, pronouncing it "pissiness", then making it sound even more obscene, "Show Business ", as in, where's the art in that? It makes you anxious. Particularly when you're a miserable, sarky sod like himself, always seeing the negative side.

He's a synapse, he says suddenly, and, no, he doesn't know how you bloody spell it, he just knows what it is. A bunch of raw nerves. He feels like one of those sea anemones, waving their tendrils about until something swims by and they immediately close up like a fist. Unless it is a clown fish. They don't seem to mind clown fish. So that's him, really. Barring the odd encounter with a clown fish, he's just this bundle of nerves who keeps himself to himself until he gets up to do his shtick, which is the whole attraction of being an actor in the first place.

Except he does worry a lot that he's not really an actor, that he's just acting being an actor and that deep down he's a fraud, deluding himself. You can't help thinking like that when you've just made a film such as Memento, which this particular publicity-fest is supposed to be in aid of. Responses so far have been "interesting", in the sense that people he'd have marked up as intellectual and educated don't seem to understand what the hell it was about, while other, less ostentatiously brainy types get it in one. So what did I think?

Art house is what I thought. Noir as Newgate's knocker. Low budget. I thought it was a metaphor for the human condition, and the human condition is so disgusting I don't want to look at it. I thought we are all, all of us, a load of self-serving, self-pitying, manipulative, murderous, greedy, spiteful, vengeful, frighened, confused, pointless shits who keep reminding ourselves to keep up the good work of being a load of self-serving, self-pitying, etcetera and so forth, and I loved the film. "Yeah," he said, "that's why I loved making it."

He's not supposed to say what it cost to make. He's not supposed to say that they made the whole film in 25 days flat or that it didn't cost more than $4 million or $5 million. Bad for business, you understand. In the US, they've worked it all out, like, hey, man, it's going to be a $60 million movie, then we get Tom Cruise, which makes it an $80 million movie, then we employ 70 or 80 blokes to stand around on the set scratching themselves and wondering what they can throw more money at. Then they work out the stats of the first week's box-office takings and publish them, so the punters can be assured that the film is already into profit even though the serious reviews say that it's crap. And it works. People go to see the movie and come away saying, well, yes, it was absolute rubbish, but it had lots of huge explosions and it cost $150 million. It has all been something of a culture shock for a simple Aussie actor who is used to making films where actual pride is taken on not pissing money up the wall. So, no, he's not moving to Los Angeles. So far as he's concerned, a job's a job and he's lucky to get one anywhere, but when it's over he lets America trundle on in the way it trundles on and Mr Pearce gets on a plane and goes home to Oz.

He used to think he was just a cynical bastard, but now he's not so sure. Maybe he's just another pragmatic Aussie who can't help seeing things the way they are, which is not very nice. He would, for instance, say that he had a wonderful childhood, blessed with a wonderful mother and a wonderful sister and wonderful friends, and that would be nothing but the truth.

Only then he made Memento and believed in it and began to wonder about himself. About his own memories. The explicit theme of the film is about a man who loses his short-term memory and has to remind himself, by writing notes to himself and tattooing his emotional status quo all over his body, that he has a score to settle. In other words, he is both a victim and a predator, and has no means of knowing which unlovely side of his character is uppermost at any given moment. Once you start thinking about the implications of that little lot, you have to question the entire contents of your brain. You can't be too careful.

Only so much is assured. Guy was born in England, somewhere south of Cambridge, with a New Zealander father and a British mother - he was a test pilot employed by the Royal Air Force, she a schoolteacher specialising in needlework and home economics. His sister's name is Tracy. The family moved to Bristol and then, when he was three, to Australia.

So far, so good. He can't be expected to remember England, even though he's always known he can drop into an English accent whenever he needs to. Come to that, he can drop into just about any accent he fancies, just when he feels like it. Anyway, he grew up in Geelong, which is an hour's drive south of Melbourne in the state of Victoria, where, unlike the rest of Australia, it gets very cold in winter and very hot in summer. Geelong was great. It still is. He went to school and had lots of mates and once, by way of a hobby, his mum ran a deer farm there. It wasn't a thriving business, exactly, they just had the deer wandering about, and once a year they'd strip their antlers and sell them to somebody who made a Chinese remedy out of them. He doesn't know what it was a remedy for.

He's not entirely sure he remembers this, but he knows, like he knows what a synapse is, that it happened on August 6, 1976, and it was a Friday. It had been Tim's mum's turn to pick them up from school, and the two boys sat in the back of the car on the way home, arranging to meet later. Tim's mum said, no, she didn't think so, which was odd, so they mouthed their own silent intent at each other and Guy went in for his tea. He could tell at once that something special was up, because they seemed to have been visited by all their Kiwi relatives at once and his mum took him up to his room and sat on the end of his bed. He remembers her telling him that his dad had been killed at work and then he remembers seeing her standing in a doorframe bawling her eyes out. He does not remember thinking or feeling anything much more than a small frisson of surprise that his mother was out of control for the first - and, as it happens, the last - time in his life.

Guy and his sister didn't go to their father's funeral. Mum went, they stayed at home. And afterwards life went on in the same way as before, except that dad wasn't around any more. He's not sure he has any true, independent memory of his father at all. Of course, he idolised him. He knew, because everybody told him so, that his father was as heroic as it gets. That he was profoundly decent and witty and wonderful. A man without a flaw.

There were photographs of his father in the house, and adults who had known him would point out how, looked at in profile, Guy was beginning to resemble him. But mostly there were pictures of him in cockpits and wide-angle shots of jet aircraft so that, being only seven years old, Guy thought that perhaps a Lockhead Lightning was his dad. He had a lot to live up to. He never thought as a child that he was different from other kids because he didn't have a father. It was more that his family as a unit was more controlled, more circumspect, than other families. It felt to him as though they had some great secret to protect. He'd see other families screaming and shouting at each other, letting it all hang out, and he'd think, we're not like that.

He supposes that he began to be a bit of a loner at that point. He perceived himself as a well-behaved, responsible boy. His mother told him so, and he believed her. Sometimes, when he was by himself having a bit of a think or trying to work out how something worked, his mum would say to him, "Get that miserable look off your face", and he'd immediately go into idiot-happy-boy mode: Oh, right, I'm not miserable, I'm fine, ha-ha-ha. Which he's rather afraid he still does. In fact, he's getting sick of himself expending all his energy cracking on that he's feeling what he imagines other people want him to feel.

Ah, but he's not blaming his mum. She coped as best she could. He ran away from school when he was nine. A whole gang of them took off into the wide blue yonder until the cops caught them and sent for their mothers. He remembers watching the other mums claiming their lads. "Are you all right?" "Thank God you're safe!" All that sort of thing. And then his mum came and said to him grimly, "If your dad was alive, he'd send you to the technical school for this." Which was tantamount to threatening him with reform school.

He used to envy other boys their insouciance, their natural ability to tell their mothers to fuck off. He could never do that, because she was always there saying, "You are such a responsible boy", while he turned himself inside out to justify her faith in him. Sometimes, he thinks he's spent his entire life waiting for someone to come along and tell him who he is, because he's buggered if he knows. He even wonders if being good at finding a character to be and then being it means he's not even a real actor. Just a kid with a deep, dark, hidden quality that he seems to draw on but doesn't necessarily understand.

It was his mum who first took him to the theatre. They'd go to the Geelong Society of Operatic and Dramatic Art, called Gesoda for short, and he knew right away that he wanted to have the affect on people that the actors on the stage were having on him. This had nothing to do with a hidden extrovert quality lurking beneath his guarded exterior. Far from it. He knew from an early age that he could impersonate linguistically. He loved the music of different accents, the whole different language of them and the energy behind them. But he was never the class clown. If he took someone off, he'd make it short; wait for the gasp and the recognition and then stop. He was more likely to use a funny voice to deflect attention from himself than to court the amusement of his peers.

He lived in dread of Tuesday mornings when some luckless schoolboy would be obliged to stand up in front of assembly and read aloud the news and sports reports. The idea of presenting himself as himself gave him crippling stage fright. Yet being in a play didn't count. He remembers, or thinks he remembers, the occasion of his first stage role. He must have been nine years old when the school put on a musical version of something called Smith, culled from an English television series. They gave him the title role, and he made a job of this Oliver Twist sort of kid who talked wiv a cockney accent an kep gettin inter trouble.

When the first show was over, the cast stood in a line across the stage and the audience applauded and then he had to step forward on his own while everyone clapped and cheered. He remembers he got a buzz, but it wasn't the buzz that mattered; it was what came into his head. The words, "It works." He says he's not very articulate and, of course, he might have made it up after the event and it might not be a true memory at all. But he can still hear it; that clear, triumphal, almost grim little voice. "It works."

So he joined Gesoda-for-short, and effectively began his career at the age of 11. Acting and singing were what he did with his time. He had some idea of being a rock singer, but then so did most boys. He is, he says, very narrow-minded. To illustrate his point, he does something with his hands, something meticulous, as though he's mending a particularly delicate wristwatch. He concentrates on what he's doing for as long as it takes and that's all there is to it. He has no sense of ambition, never thought that one day he'd go to Hollywood and be a Hollywood star. It just happened. Local theatre, audition for TV show, TV show, film script, film, play, film script, film, film script, film, Hollywood. That's the chronology, but it was never a career, a progression with a beginning, a middle and an end, a linear journey towards the big bucks.

So far as he is concerned, each part he plays is separate from the one before, of the same intrinsic value, but different. What gives him a thrill is the idea that, if he goes on working for the next 60 years, someone would look back at what he's done and say, wow, what a diverse range of stuff.

He'd like to be an actor of the Gary Oldman quality. He believes him, always, whatever he does. As opposed to, say, Tom Cruise or George Clooney, who are, well, Tom Cruise and George Clooney. He means, good on 'em and all that, they've got a niche and they're probably great guys when you meet them, but he's not interested. If you know what he means.

The price of fame, apparently, is not all that exorbitant for the kind of actor he has become. He finds it particularly gratifying at this juncture to realise that he can wander freely through the streets of Dublin without being besieged by teenaged girls waving autograph books and grabbing his bits. He was a little nervous when he arrived because Neighbours is huge in Ireland, so they tell him. But everyone seems to have grown up now, or forgotten who he used to be. Which is nothing if not respectful of them. He did four years on Ramsay Street playing Mike, the damaged lad, bad childhood, bashed and abandoned by his parents, adopted into Jason and Kylie's world. Daggy. Very daggy. And everywhere he went between the ages of 18 and 22 there were girls screaming, "Guy Pearce, Guy Pearce", and following him about. Not that it turned his head. Why would it, when they'd do exactly the same to Bouncer the dog? Something similar happens now, if he's not careful.

Going home to Australia from Hollywood, suddenly he's the big star who's kicked American butt and that makes it hard to go back to the theatre to resume what he's good at. He tried it last year, and the bloody fools oversold him and unbalanced the relationship between himself and the other actors. And again, his hands explore the complicated mechanism of the imaginary timepiece.

He seems to find something slightly absurd about his chosen profession, something a touch pathetic about being a man who "shape-shifts" for a living. At the same time, he hopes that, if he does enough of it and people recognise the value of his talent to metamorphose, he'll calm down as a man and find the confidence to be himself, or, as he puts it, "be a boring git when I feel like it". When I tell him that, in my inexpert opinion, his film roles to date might be categorised as giving good mean-streak, he takes it as a rose to pin in his buttonhole.

He is not villain material, he merely has a rare and subtle ability to flash the dark, hidden side of a personality without either tearing the arse out of it or persuading you to dislike him. His pious young cop in LA Confidential, Hollywood-drawn rather corny Clark Kentish figure, on the side of law and order, brave as a lion when it comes to the crunch, might have been predictably dull, except that somehow, fleetingly, he managed to convey that he actually enjoys shopping his erring colleagues. The drag queen in The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert might have been a spiteful tart who takes pleasure in calling a transsexual "Ralph", but for the tender, womanly split-second of his feelings towards a child.

His prosecuting attorney in Rules Of Engagement might have been another soulless jobsworth, except he also indicates the sad vulnerability of a man trapped in a testosterone-oriented environment. Wherever he's going, as a shape-shifter, he's well on his way.

He thinks one day soon he's going to go looking for the reality of his father; talk to his father's sisters and brothers-in-laws in New Zealand to find out what else he was, besides a paragon of heroism. He thinks it will make him feel better about himself. As it is, he feels as though he's 100 years old, the most practical, responsible, adult person in the history of the world, while running alongside an eight-year-old kid who can only imagine a personality and play it out, the whole caboodle held together by an anxiety neurosis without which he'd be so lost he'd trip over himself and fall down a hole.

He is also grievously homesick. He can't believe he's saying this, but he's a married man. Three years ago, he met Kate, and they got married. She's the kind of woman, he says, that when you're at a party you know that you can catch her eye across a crowded room and exchange the wonderful, silent intimacy of acknowledging that everyone in the place is a dickhead.

They haven't had any children because they have this thing about over-population and, besides, they like animals. Animals, you understand, being emotionally upfront and honest, unlike human beings. They've got four fish, two cats and a dog called Zelda. She's an African hunting dog, a basenji. He is of the enchantingly Darwinian opinion that, once upon a time, cats and dogs were the same animal and then, for some reason of biological interference, they split into two distinct animals. In this regard, Zelda is a cuspal creature, two legs dog, two legs cat. For one thing, she does not bark, barking being a purely man-made function caused by the stresses put upon dogs by their colonists. No, Zelda yodels and yowls. She also washes herself and climbs trees.

Jeez, but he misses Zelda. He wants to go home and dig his garden and bum around and smoke huge amounts of pot and think about what he's going to do next. I think maybe we'd better leave out the bit about the pot, in case they won't let him back into America. He thinks about it for a moment. His hands do their watch-mending thing, then he says, upfront and honest, "I don't give a shit."

guy edward pearce