Mr. Showbiz, 2001
Guy Pearce has joined Russell Crowe in the vanguard of Aussie actors that seems to be taking over Hollywood these days. But while he — like Crowe — achieved blockbuster success four years ago with L.A. Confidential, Pearce has chosen to play it low-key with a steady stream of indie pictures. The latest such film is Memento, an inventive and complex psychological thriller that's actually played out in reverse. The movie opens with the outcome and then winds itself backward in order to put the pieces together.
The hook is that Pearce's character, Leonard Shelby, a frustrated man hunting down his wife's murderer, has lost his short-term memory. He can't remember where he is or where he's going for more than a few minutes at a time, so he snaps Polaroids to remind himself of the people he meets and tattoos himself with integral information about his search. It's an absorbing exploration of identity that puts the audience in the same storm of confusion as the film's main character, who's constantly finding and losing pieces of himself.
Mr. Showbiz sat down with Pearce and Memento writer-director Christopher Nolan at the Sundance Film Festival. Totally at ease, Pearce had a thick beard and was dressed down in a tan V-neck sweater and faded jeans that were patched and written on with silver marker. Later, co-star Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix) pulled up a chair and joined in as the trio talked about Memento and indies, and had a laugh over Guy's grumpiness.
Were there any major difficulties in making such a complex film?
Guy Pearce: None, really. I had such a great time making this film. It was a complete case of inspiration, as far as I was concerned, which is the best way to work. You don't have to think, then.
Was it difficult to create Leonard, a character with no memory and, as such, [one who] almost has no personality?
GP: There was no need to sort of have to invent a person. Quite often on films you think, "OK, here's the situation, but who is this person?" So we'll do this and do that and come up with whatever ways to sort of invent somebody, whereas this was very much about the inside of this person's head. In a sense, Leonard is the one doing all the work. He's the one who's doing the acting, or the inventing. Guy kind of just wasn't really there. It's weird; I can't really explain it very well, to be quite honest.
Christopher Nolan: Well, you're almost more of a process than a personality.
Did it make you change the way you approach a role?
GP: As far as I'm concerned, the way I like to act is not to have to build a character, it's to find a character that exists, and you just immerse yourself in that. I don't find myself a very inventive person. Chris wrote the character, I didn't write the character.
You don't really think that you're not inventive, do you?
GP: [Pauses, chuckles] Sometimes.
CN: He thinks he's not inventive and he thinks he has a bad memory, as well. He has an incredible memory. He knows exactly what he's done in every take and what's different take to take. In a way that no one else did; none of us were able to keep track of things in the same way.
GP: Working on set is the opportunity for me to have a good memory. Because I do find continuity things, I can tune in. I push the continuity person aside a bit and take over.
It's ironic, then, that you're playing someone who has no memory.
GP: I just allowed myself to be swept up by the whole thing. Leonard operates almost like a synapse really, just a nerve ending that's responding to everything around him and trying to maintain some sort of control. At a certain point, I found an incredible freedom about the whole thing. I was able to actually just live in a narrow-minded little bubble and let these guys do the stuff around me. I really don't know how to explain it better than that. I do it because I want to do it, not because I know how to explain how to do it, if that makes any sense.
Why was this so liberating?
GP: Certain other things I've done [have been] more challenging because you have to really look inside the emotional continuity of the character, you have to really structure something, you have to remember specific things about the character. Whereas this, I kind of got to let all that go.
Do independent films offer better roles?
GP: I guess so. I mean, there are so many films out there, if you can't find stuff that's interesting, then there's got to be something wrong with you. There's a certain sort of aim that certain actors have, which is to get yourself in a No. 1 position where they think they'll get offered everything, you know? I'm just happy to flit around in the background and find stuff that interests me. It's not necessarily about a career choice, it's finding stuff I'm interested in.
GP: I think the reason why I'm an actor is there is no Guy Pearce persona. I'm trying to find it. [Laughs] I don't know. I get bored watching actors do the same thing all the time, and it must be boring for the audience to see. I hear people say, "There was a link between this and something you did four years ago. How do you feel about that?" And I'm immediately embarrassed by it. I think, "Oh God, everything should be completely different," you know? Because all the characters I'm playing have nothing to do with Guy Pearce, you know?
[Joe Pantoliano enters the suite, says hello, and pulls up a chair.]
The shoot was 26 days. Do you like working fast?
GP: I like working fast if you're well sorted. It's tricky as well, because you often want another take. In this case, we all felt we were a really strong team. The crew were so involved in the script often you'll find crew members who haven't necessarily read the script, you know.
Joe Pantoliano: I was the only one in the movie that hadn't read the script. [Laughs] It's always better for the acting. From where I'm sitting, you stay focused. You break for lunch, have a big lunch, it's hard to negotiate the work.
Did you find faults in the logic?
CN: Guy represented for me a very effective logic filter. Because I don't think Guy is comfortable doing something he doesn't understand as an actor. He's not going to follow it if it doesn't make any sense.
Does the film's budget affect your performance?
JP: It's all about the process for me. No matter if you have 100 million or 5 million, you're always hoping that the story is going to be told the way it was conceived.
GP: The thing is, when you have less money, people are forced to think harder and be more creative rather than just chucking more money at it.
What was the budget?
CN: Seventy-five million.
JP: But after Guy got paid, there was only 3 million to make the movie. [Laughs]
CN: I'm not supposed to say. Most people who see the film tend to think it cost more than it did.
When you wrote it, did you lay it out in chronological order, then reverse it?
CN: No, I very specifically sat down and wrote what I wanted to see on-screen as I wanted to see it. So I started at the first page of the script and finished at the last page, [and] then had to do a lot of rewriting to iron it out and make sure it was tight. But I was very concerned to have a fairly conventional rhythm to the piece underneath the complex superstructure.
Were you guys concerned about working with a novice director?
GP: He's the guy that wrote the script. It wasn't like someone had written a fantastic script and given it to some loser.
JP: He had also had a film, Following, that everybody loved. Although I didn't see it. [Laughs]
Guy, you're about to start work on The Time Machine, a really big movie for you. What life lessons can you apply to it?
GP: Just to try and stay positive and not allow myself to get grumpy if things don't quite go the way I want them to go. [Laughs]
You get grumpy a lot?
GP: [Bashfully] Yeah, sometimes.
When did you get grumpy in Memento?
JP: When he stuck the muzzle of a .38 in my mouth.
GP: I guess it's your own insecurities that come out when things aren't going the way you want them to.
What's up with the Australian flowering in Hollywood?
JP: Well, I deflowered Guy in this movie.
GP: I've no idea. No idea why [Australian actors are finding success in America].
Are you bummed that you have to hide your accent?
GP: I don't look at it as hiding my accent, I look at it as putting on another accent.
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